Friday, 2 September 2016

Main Range 100. 100 by Jacqueline Rayner, Robert Shearman, Joseph Lidster and Paul Cornell (September 2007)

Consisting of 100 BC by Jacqueline Rayner, My Own Private Wolfgang by Robert Shearman, Bedtime Story by Joseph Lidster and The 100 Days of the Doctor by Paul Cornell

100a. 100 BC by Jacqueline Rayner
The production is polished, the fora/forums of ancient Rome coming to life particularly nicely in a hubbub of market traders; this story whetted my appetite a little for the Ancient World, though I’m now keen for a full-length release set there along the lines of The Fires of Vulcan. Doctor Who has never really done a Julius Caesar story - to the best of my knowledge - so it’d be good to see a proper one featuring the man himself, rather than this side-step. Still, delving into his parentage is interesting enough, particularly in his mother Aurelia Cotta’s case; Rayner obviously found the high esteem in which Aurelia was held in Rome an enticing prospect, and indeed she’s done her homework, as Tacitus called her an ideal Roman matron and Plutarch says she was “strict and respectable”. And the notion of the Doctor and Evelyn blundering into the night when Julius Caesar was supposed to be conceived is, admittedly, very funny.

Unfortunately, this interesting idea is squandered on a story that hinges on our main characters behaving like complete idiots. Most unforgivable is the treatment of Evelyn, and it’s particularly galling in Rayner’s hands, since she did such perfect work creating the character in The Marian Conspiracy and writing one of her defining stories in Doctor Who and the Pirates. I just can’t quite fathom how Rayner slipped up here: suddenly writing Evelyn as gung-ho to meddle in history at will. There’s a moving, hilarious and clever feminist story to be written about reinstating women’s roles in a particularly male-dominated part of history, but unfortunately Nev Fountain has already written it. Here, the compressed 30-minute runtime means everybody has to misunderstand everything else and ignore obvious signposts beyond what is remotely plausible so as to engineer the outcome. I can’t get too angry at the idea of “history might’ve been better if women had been in charge” - I do think inequality in the workplace is to blame for a lot of things - but it could have been so much better explored, and stating that there’d be “no wars [and] no poverty” is a ludicrous extreme (Cleopatra? Boudicca? The Empress Dowager Cixi? Catherine the Great?).

And for a story in which the Doctor berates Evelyn for her astounding ignorance regarding the Roman calendar, it’s a bit rich that he a) didn’t know Julius had a sister, nor thought to look this up at any point, b) is stupid enough to let Evelyn try out her scheme, c) bumbles around cutting himself on surgery knives and/or trying to get Julius and Aurelia to sleep together, and d) seems to have forgotten how AD and BC work! This last in particular must be one of the programme’s all-time stupidest twists. I suppose this is all meant to be fun and games but it just makes the Doctor and Evelyn look like dangerous, muddling incompetents, which isn’t at all fair or accurate. It’s neither joyfully celebratory, nor is it representative of this Doctor or this companion, so it sadly achieves very little. A great disappointment; The Romans is a lot better.

Other things:
“The heady scent of culture!”/“The heady scent of fish, more like!”
“None of whom was Roman!” - should be “None of whom were Roman”, no? I mean, Evelyn *is* a professor…
Thinking that Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes and Euclid lived between 100 and 300 years later than they actually did? The Doctor can be a fool sometimes but I wouldn’t have thought he’d make such an elementary mistake.
“Cicero, then - we can chat about politics and philosophy.”/“The politics of the playground and the philosophy of early bedtime, perhaps. He’d be about five.”
To give 100 BC its due, the turning point moment in which Evelyn exclaims “Julius Caesar!” in a Roman marketplace and Gaius Julius Caesar (the Elder) pops up and says “Yes?” is a good one (it reminds me of that Red Dwarf Series X episode, Lemons, where the Dwarfers run into Jesus).
“I’m all for being present while history’s being made, but I think this is a bit too close.”
“From the Tiber to the TARDIS.”/“From the sublime to the ridiculous.”
“I never had children, you see. I never will have children. My family tree stops here. Nothing of me going into the future. I suppose it wasn’t my destiny to have children.” This is all lovely stuff, but then it’s ruined by Evelyn’s silly schemes and they don’t half drag on far too long.
How is the Doctor playing Greensleeves, anyway?

100b. My Own Private Wolfgang by Robert Shearman
My Own Private Wolfgang shares with The Maltese Penguin a light playfulness of touch and absurdist humour which, while present in Robert Shearman's full-length works, are there more often skilfully juxtaposed alongside horror, sadism and death. Here, though, he's in full-on farce mode, which, because he’s Rob Shearman and you don’t get to be Alan Ayckbourn’s protégé for nothing, means that My Own Private Wolfgang is - you guessed it - very, very funny. Unsurprisingly, it has a nightmarish tinge to it, spiralling out of control to reckless, giddy proportions in one of Rob’s favourite tropes: a recursive loop in which things are only getting worse and worse until it is practically eating itself. Also unsurprisingly, despite being extremely funny, it’s also smart, moving and thematically ambitious.

Shearman has created some wonderful new characters in his BF work, and he’s been remarkably lucky with the marvellous actors who play them: Sam Kelly, Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, and of course the coup de grace, Sir Derek Jacobi. But here the bar was perhaps even higher, with some poor sod being asked to play not only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in various iterations at various ages: that is to say, every single speaking part save the Doctor and Evelyn. Fortunately, said poor sod is the marvellous John Sessions, who acquits himself marvellously, and acts his socks off slipping from one different German-accented voice to another; it’s quite extraordinary how he does it.

My Own Private Wolfgang unfolds in a world askance from the one we know, in which rather than dying young, Mozart lived long enough to become a hack, for his great early pieces to become diluted by the pedestrian work of his later years. This gleefully combines Shearman’s most audacious “what-if” (Jubilee: what if there was still an English Empire in 2003, and America was subservient to it) with Scherzo’s focus on music and the thematic basis of Deadline: a creative figure lives long enough for the spark to leave them and sour more or less everything they’ve produced up to that point (I’m sure, for instance, that “I have nothing to say anymore!” or something to that effect gets said in Deadline too). Like Martin Bannister, Mozart is a tragicomic, lonely figure who has lost all zest he once had.

Here, however, his torture does not stem from confusing his tragic life with old TV scripts, but from a positively Faustian bargain he struck as a dying young genius which has led to him needing to turn out hack symphonies year in, year out. Future clone Mozarts multiply apace and Shearman adeptly spins things out of control, first one character then another being unmasked as the same Wolfgang Amadeus, whilst “Mozart models” get reduced to consumerist crap just like the Daleks were in Jubilee, kicked out on the streets by dissatisfied owners. The image of several thousand mask-wearing Mozarts listening to their original predecessor - the ultimate isolating echo chamber? - is one that lingers in the mind as both tragic and hilarious, and hits home one of Shearman’s key themes, the sort of thing you find Thomas Mann particularly preoccupied with: the sheer loneliness, indeed almost the madness, of making art. In the end, all is set to rights, but this piece - short, yet dense with meaning - carries a weight some four-part stories never manage: genius as being better off cut off short rather than over-lived.

My Own Private Wolfgang calls to mind that first giddy sensation of hearing Shearman’s other Big Finish pieces and I wish he were still around in the company’s roster to produce more literate, intelligent stuff of this calibre. It’s even better on second listen, as you notice all the “being-cut-short” aspects afresh (Mozart’s first harpsichord piece at the opening, for one thing), and the final line doesn’t get any less funny.

Other things:
I visited the house in which Mozart was born in Salzburg just the other week. Huh. Cool timing.
Andy Hardwick must’ve had a hoot composing Mozart’s, ahem, less well-received pieces, and assembling the classical soundtrack in general.
“I especially like the ‘diddly dum’ bit in the middle.”/“It’s not The Magic Flute though, is it?”
“Save sentiment for music, sir. It’s less embarrassing there.”
“Oh, great. My nose is itching and I’m going to have to listen to Mozart… the last thing I heard of his was that soundtrack for that remake of The Italian Job.”/“I admit that by your time his stuff had started to go off the boil somewhat. For me nothing was ever the same once he started using electronic drum-kits. Once you’ve heard one ambient concept album, you’ve heard them all.”
“Are you my friends? It’s hard to tell beneath those masks. A man must consider himself fortunate indeed to have so many - especially when I was pretty sure I had no friends whatsoever.”
“I used to be asked, “Mozart, what makes great art?” And I never really knew. I used to say some guff about a gift from God, but deep down I was just relieved I could do it. No one asks me now, of course, which is a shame because I now have the answer - great art is just a matter of knowing when to stop. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I have some music to play you; it’s not very good. Oh, the notes are all right, nothing’s discordant, but it has no point to it. No soul. I have nothing to say anymore; it’s just pretty noise. I’ve had nothing to say for years. And I look back and I wish I’d died young…before I realised I was just another mediocrity!”
“What a failure I am. I can’t even kill myself properly.”
“Well, I’m sure you all want to thank Mr Mozart for his new avant-garde composition, which he calls ‘Concerto with Firearm’.”
“I don’t need a doctor! I need the exact opposite of a doctor!”
“If you have a genius for something, it’s very hard to put up with being just ‘alright’ at something else.”
“If I hadn’t signed the contract, I’d be dead - but I’d be a dead somebody.”
“No contract is binding if either party does business behind a mysterious mask.”
“If, as a butler, I wasn’t so adept at reining in my feelings, I’d be gawping.”
“I’ve heard about artists being self-obsessed, but surely employing yourself as your butler is taking things a bit far.”
“Mozart was once considered the greatest composer who ever lived.”/“I’ve heard his Eurovision entries. I find that a little hard to believe.”
“Is there anyone in this house who isn’t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?”
“So a man who’s me is telling me that I mustn’t trust another man… who’s me?”
“My future music… will it be like this pastry?”/“Oh, even worse once you discover hip-hop.”
“There’ll always be fans, and fans never know when enough’s enough.”
“No one likes things that just come to an abrupt e-”

100c. Bedtime Story by Joseph Lidster
The third story on this list is a Sleeping Beauty-inspired modern fairytale from the pen of Joseph Lidster, yet it’s also more down-to-earth and heartfelt than the others. Almost an echo of Love & Monsters (complete with a mother almost as loquacious as Jackie Tyler), it’s a sort of extended family album of a piece, taking in funerals, tensions between relatives and unexpected visitors from Time Lords; that sort of thing. Lidster does realistic scenarios terribly well, and Bedtime Story is no exception. It must have been around this time Lidster was starting his first TV work for Russell T Davies - his Torchwood Series 2 script and his first Sarah Jane Adventures story - and all his work from that time has a lovely emotional truth to it which is equally present here.

Intercut with a framing device akin to The Princess Bride, the bedtime story Jacob is telling his son unfolds in flashback - and soon we reach the story’s unnerving hook: that Jacob’s father died on the day his son became a father, and that this has been the case throughout their family history. There’s a lovely poetry to this, with both Freudian undertones - as the son crosses the threshold into fatherhood, so the father is redundant and must be killed - and a distorted echo of the Biblical tale of Simeon, who can only die once he sees the infant Christ. Where Shearman blends horror and farce, Lidster’s specialism is introducing the haunting into the everyday: and I’m rather partial to both.

Not all of the story’s twists are guessable - a shape-shifter pretending to be Evelyn Smythe is slightly signposted, in that she doesn’t recognise Jacob immediately and as a history lecturer doesn’t show any interest in the family genealogy which seems more than a bit odd, but the truth of Paul’s parentage was something more of a surprise. Getting Maggie Stables to play the villain is self-evidently a cracking idea, and Stables rises to the occasion wonderfully, really allowing the alien creature’s bitterness and vindictiveness to shine through. It’s a surprisingly dark storyline, really, and ends on something of a haunting, downbeat note: this is good stuff in the twisted horror vein of Master, and the second story worth its salt in this little collection.

Other things:
“So you’re friends?”/“Not like that dear. He’s far too old for me.”/“Old?!”
“Why do they insist on putting cress in?”
“Her time hasn’t come to an end… it’s just been paused.”
The only bum note is Jacob’s rather hasty and contrived suicide.
“I can show them the universe for a hundred years. Give them sweet dreams.”
“The Doctor’s not here… so there’s no happy ending…”

100d. The 100 Days of the Doctor by Paul Cornell
The final piece of the collection is another “fan-service” little short from Paul Cornell, using the backdrop of a race-against-time to save the Doctor from being assassinated by an intelligent virus as an excuse to romp through Doctor Who - and specifically Big Finish - continuity. It’s easily the most commemorative and back-slapping story of this release (praising how much better Peri is once Erimem arrives feels a tad too far for me), an approach which has its ups and downs: it makes for a bit of an odd beast, all in all, with a slightly erratic structure. It’s a sort of budget Sirens of Time in that we see various Doctors and companions without any of the actors needing to be in the studio - which sadly ends up feeling both a bit overstuffed and a bit lacking at the same time.

The 100 Days of the Doctor has got a number of good lines, and takes us from jungle planets to the American Frontier in the 1870s, but never coheres particularly well and ends up more middling than marvellous; the focus to Winter isn’t quite the same here, even if some of the emotional beats are not dissimilar. Both stories focus on the Doctor’s awareness of his mortality, and the different ways in which he responds to that after: the Fifth Doctor is drawn to a quiet life as a mortal man, whilst (understandably given the tumult of his era) the Sixth just wants to know he had a good innings and was comfortable in his own skin.

Cornell hasn’t written for the Sixth Doctor - not a personal favourite of his - before now (I think), and does a reasonable job, giving Colin Baker a Winter of his very own; perhaps Baker is a little more acerbic here than in some of the other stories, but he’s more flawed than outright unlikeable, and his anecdote of getting opera tickets at the Tharsis Acumen, getting thrown into jail, then starring in the lead role in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children as a prison play for the governors is an absolute hoot; I’d pay to see said play in real life! And Stables is a joy as ever, stubbornly insisting that the Doctor will be saved and it can all be managed even in the face of his gloom.

I have to be honest: I do find commemoration releases and anniversary stories a little tiresome. Doctor Who has done a lot of them now (The Three Doctors, The Key to Time, The Five Doctors, Silver Nemesis, Dimensions in Time, The Infinity Doctors, Zagreus, Journey’s End, Day of the Doctor) and although there’s a few good stories on that list (Day is a favourite), as often as not I find myself wishing for a slightly less nostalgic and celebratory story in favour of one that’s slightly more …well, good. Same here. The 100 Days of the Doctor is a sweet and charming piece, but it’s never going to be particularly high up my list of favourite things Cornell has done for Doctor Who.

Other things:
“I think if I have one defining characteristic, it’s exactly that. I’m different from everyone. I’m even different from every other me, and who else can say that?”/“This is broadly speaking the sort of thing I wish you were different from.”
“We have control over [the Doctor’s] speech centres and mouth - that was a particularly difficult battle…”
“We now return control of the Doctor’s body - and we will set off towards his kidneys. Good day to you!”
“I have one hundred days to live… or rather, they’ve made the mistake of giving me one hundred days to save myself.”
6 on 5: “I don’t want to speak ill of him. He’s interested in sport, of all things. Terrible dress sense…being him was like a holiday. A very wonderful holiday.” (Then later Evelyn says “he seems lovely. Everyone likes him.”)
“When one regenerates, one takes those same life lessons and sees them from a different angle.”/“So it’s like joining the Brownies?”/“The ultimate mystery of the Time Lords is like signing on with a girls’ junior scout troop? That’s one of the most spectacular similes I have ever heard attempting.”
A nod to JNT’s Davison-era no-hanky-panky maxim: “You’ve got your arm round one of the pretty girls now.”/“Entirely platonically.”
“Being liked is not the be-all and end-all of what I’m about. I’m about being many different things at once. Continuing in all sorts of different ways, including, especially, the unpopular ways. You know as well as I do that being right is usually the exact opposite of what the majority thinks it is.”
6 on 7: “Look at him. So sure of himself. Always a step ahead. Always prepared to do things I’d never do. It looks as though he’d made another family for himself; that’s always when I’m happiest.”
Not opposed to “there are people listening to us” on principle, but it’s quite clunkily done.
Shouldn’t Evelyn recognise the Seventh Doctor in Thicker than Water, then, if she sees him here? I suppose it was only a glimpse.
“Why is it never your first four selves we run into?”/“Sheer coincidence.”
“So how do we tell which one is you, in a room where every man’s wearing a frock coat?”/“I’m the one not carrying a gun.”
“Most of us live a long time. There was a time when I thought this incarnation was going to be short and sweet, but then I thought I’d been given the gift of getting older graceful. It’s good to have mellowed. To have had the chance to explore. To be me.” Lovely, wistful stuff straight from Colin’s heart.
“I’ve never had a non-humanoid companion travel with me before” - eh? Frobisher? Kamelion? K9?
Irving Braxiatel as well? He’s from the Gallifrey series, isn’t he? And Benny Summerfield and the David Warner Unbound Doctor…quite the continuity mashup!
Evelyn on Benny: “Had some very good gin, but no tonic. Relationship issues, which she said she wouldn’t talk about, but then did, having had a few. She’s really lived, that girl. She’s had adventures for such a long time.”
“They’ll all keep on going: UNIT, Sarah Jane, all those continuing stories. They don’t need me.”
“One of my favourite days. And something bad had to happen on it…”
“There's nothing more boring than a touch of the sniffles with ideas above its station.”
“Doctor, every now and then you astonish me. You really should join the Brownies.”
“I hope at the very least, young lady, that you are no longer tired of me being simply me.”/“I despair, young man, of you being capable of anything else.”
Lovely music suite in this one; Andy Hardwick has done a great job on all four stories actually.

It's lovely to hear Colin on the extras so happy to be playing his Doctor & particularly about doing the anniversary release - though I suspect for me he'll always have to tie with McGann as *the* Big Finish Doctor, as Nick Briggs so definitively identifies him. Other highlights include Rob Shearman memorably describing My Own Private Wolfgang as “too stupid” to do over 4 episodes (and you can see his point - it works beautifully as a farcical half-hour but doesn't need extending), his confession that “every time I write a Big Finish I try and do a comedy, and they always run out of jokes, and then they become really horrible and limbs start falling off”,  Briggs defending the choice not to do a multi-Doctor story on the basis they often disappoint, and a charming description of Paul Cornell as the “Doctor Who equivalent of Agatha Christie”... simply because, as Christie's name always fills a theatre, you can rely on an excited response among Who fans if Cornell's name is on the product.

Next: 101 Absolution by Scott Alan Woodard.

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