Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Main Range 101. Absolution by Scott Alan Woodard (October 2007)

I’ve realised - a little late, perhaps, but better late than never - what I think the problem with C’rizz is. At least, the problem apart from Conrad Westmaas’ fine but bemusingly RP performance, which means he ends up sounding (as one reviewer put it) like someone who went to school with Turlough: OK, but surely a bit distracting for a chameleonic exoskeletal alien from another universe. But no, the main problem is that none of the writers feel sure what to do with him alongside the Doctor and Charley. It’s not so much that C’rizz lacks interesting quirks or development - rather the opposite, as anyone who’s heard Faith Stealer, The Last, bits of The Next Life, Terror Firma, and Other Lives will know. If anything, each of those stories takes our Eutermesan friend in slightly new directions from the one before them. But none of his stories that I can recall feature much meaningful interaction with other meaningful characters; he is sidelined with traumas, with hearing voices, with subplots about suffering in Victorian England freakshows. All of those things are done rather well, but they occur to C’rizz alone, or within a closed setting or with a character he’d never see again. He badly needed a story that brought his personality as set against the Doctor and Charley to the fore; something that would change him. He needed a story to do for him what The Settling did for Hex. Compare Hex and Erimem, who both settle into well-established and well-functioning dynamics. I think there were some flaws to how Erimem was written over the years, but for the most part you knew where you stood with her and what Peri and the Doctor thought of her and how the group dynamics worked. But C’rizz, the Doctor and Charley… I’ve got nothing. I couldn’t tell you how they behave around one another. Sometimes Charley teases C’rizz a bit, sometimes she’s scared of him, but I don’t recall a significant conversation they shared (until the start of this audio). And I think this rather damages her actually, as she’s lost most of the focus she had from Storm Warning through to Scherzo, that Edwardian adventuress magic (note that the Doctor, in-story, seems to suggest the same thing, and even the actors suggest in the extras that they probably should have left a bit earlier!). This means the TARDIS doesn’t feel like it has 3 coherent inhabitants at the moment; they risk becoming stock and nebulous sci-fi characters rather than feeling real. Putting these damaging aspects together means that, and I’ve said it before I know, this chunk of the Eighth Doctor stories - despite containing a few quite good ones - does feel like it’s treading water until his era gets properly “relaunched” with Lucie Miller.

In this regard, it is welcome that Scott Alan Woodard’s Absolution makes some effort to put C’rizz centre stage - and it’s hard to deny that that seems to be the intent behind this entire audio. Woodard does this not just in the big obvious ways (more on that in a second), but in tiny details about his home-world, his dreams, objects he owns; his brief conversation with Charley in Part One, for instance, feels authentic and is nicely performed. Unfortunately, the plot mechanics damage C’rizz more than they improve him; his eventual fate is obvious from the moment in Part One that Cacothis refers to a pilgrim committing self-sacrifice, which means the story slowly ticks down to a thumpingly obvious climax. C’rizz spends the first half of the story in the fairly familiar role of “peril monkey” anyway, so even bringing him to the central position in the story doesn’t give him anything remotely interesting to do… apart from sort of turning him into the bad guy, a kind of evil Luke Skywalker undergoing Dark Side training from Aboresh (who is, more or less, Palpatine). But as I’ve hinted before, we’ve been through the “C’rizz’s dark past” element plenty of times before, in different ways, and this whole new way of doing it just feels insipid - particularly his final moments, in which he changes character for no reason whatsoever (from Living Reliquary Plot Device to self-sacrificial nice guy). What a copout.

It’s a shame that in this his farewell story, C’rizz is one of the aspects that work least well, because the Doctor and Charley actually have rather a fun chemistry here together and both of them give great performances - maybe illustrating further the ways in which C’rizz was a third wheel. This in turn leads to one of the few good things about Absolution: the marvellous final scene after C’rizz’s (otherwise banal) death, in which the Doctor and Charley have an intensity of emotional interaction they haven’t had since… well, it pains me to say it, but since Scherzo. Just before C’rizz joined the TARDIS. McGann and Fisher perform their different reactions to their friend’s death very well, with the Doctor’s more restrained approach playing off nicely against Charley’s misery like Baker and Stables in Project: Lazarus (although if the Doctor never liked C’rizz that much, why does he salute him with the goblet in The Night of the Doctor? Hmm). It’s a *little* bit out of the blue to have Charley so suddenly want to leave, but I suppose The Girl Who Never Was needed some kind of setting up and although it could’ve done with a bit more development, this aspect of the story isn’t too bad (perhaps Charley has found the post-DU run as directionless as I have, again while stressing the fact that some of the individual stories were quite good). I can only hope Charley gets the send-off she deserves, because at the moment Big Finish’s clearing of the decks for whatever innovations they are going to bring in next feels very lacking.

In tone, subject matter, execution (and flaws), Absolution closely resembles another Eighth Doctor release: Minuet in Hell. Both feel to some extent like American 1990s ideas of what the Eighth Doctor’s TV series might have been like: that same Buffy/Angel-ish preoccupation with character angst alongside galaxy-spanning dimensions of hell and ridiculously silly names (the Absolver, the Forsaker, the Emancipator) permeates them both. And both feel, frankly, like rather poor echoes of Doctor Who. I should add that this isn’t to disparage America, of course (and more than one American author has written some great Who in the past), but I can’t escape the weirdly atonal, discordant way that this is done. There’s even a discordant tritone at one point, just so someone can reference the old “diabolus in musica” chestnut. Top tip: constantly referencing the Devil and Hell because it sounds cool … really isn’t. Absolution’s interest in religious themes and icons (absolution, for one thing, but also souls, devils, hell, salvation, monks and high priests, crypts, Black Angels…) is fine up to a point; I’m never averse to Milton-style mythological stylings, and have been trying to work out how I’d write a Doctor Who/Paradise Lost story for a while now. It wouldn’t be like this. Woodard’s cod-biblical phrasings quickly get very tiring; add in lots of jargon-y technobabble as well (“some sort of psychic interference” is as old as the hills, and the genetic assimilator whatsit is utter bobbins), and this attempt to make a “sci-fi epic” could hardly be any duller. It doesn’t work as a satire of religion; Faith Stealer did that and was much funnier at the same time. It doesn’t work as some awe-inspiring goosebumps-inducing mythical take on religious transcendence either, because, well, it’s just too shallow and hokey. Perhaps I’m at fault here as a non-ideal listener in that I used to be religious once so I’m reasonably familiar with concepts like absolution at least, but to me just citing Catholic cosmology (“I think we’re in Limbo… Purgatory… trapped halfway between heaven and hell”) or repeating “Hades” and “Tartarus” and hoping these things will give your story an epic feel doesn’t cut the mustard. Religion is complex and fascinating, whether you believe in it or not, and it ought to be dealt with properly; I like Dante’s Inferno and William Blake’s illustrations of it too, but that doesn’t mean that a story that just references the “Wood of Suicides” is going to be any good. It’s hard to tell, of course, but I think we’re supposed to take this very seriously… which in my view is its worst crime, because it has nothing serious whatsoever to say.

What’s even worse is how bad Absolution sounds: it displays some of the most clunky action scenes ever recorded on audio, with some truly dire “describing-what-we’re-seeing” dialogue; the wailing and gnashing of teeth noises which the Black Angels make are really, really hard on the eardrums too (as is the chanting, oh God the chanting, "Dies Irae, Dies Faustus", it's so silly); and the irritating score just sinks this still further. There’s an excellent cast (Robert Glenister! Christopher Villiers!), but in a mess of high priests, chosen ones, devilish angels and mythical beasts, the actors all sound a bit confused and can’t get this material to work. On a final note - Diabolus in Musica, it should be noted, is also a thrash metal album by Slayer. And (with the exception of a marvellous scene toward the end) Absolution feels a bit like that: a lot of noise and heaven-and-hell operatics (the TARDIS console exploding in a shower of blood then being overrun with gremlins??!), loud and painful to listen to, and so disappointingly lacking in substance of any kind that you desperately want to turn it off halfway through. At least Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell is funny at the same time as being puerile. Christ, this was shit.

Other things:
Not sure that the old “repeat a word creepily to start the story” thing feels fresh anymore: they did it in Creatures of Beauty and Red already.
One of this story’s plus points: its four parts are roughly the right length, nowhere near as overlong as Minuet in Hell.
“More beast than man.”/“I suppose that makes us more man than beast, then.”
A brilliant line that belonged in a better story: “Nonsense is to sense as shade is to light: it heightens effect.”
“What I propose … is an extensive period of prayer.” This reminds me of Rimmer’s “major - and I mean major - leaflet campaign” in Polymorph.
“Hellions”? Really? Are good guys called Heavenites?
Utebaddon-Tarria must be the most stupid planet name not invented as a piss-take by Gareth Roberts.
The “quinary console room”. Ha! Nice.
“I’ll have you know I do some of my best thinking whilst skulking.”
“I’m not wearing any shoes.”/“And your toes look very pretty too.”
“Did you get a high school certificate in advanced breaking and entering?”/“Top of the class.”
C’rizz is the Doctor’s “very own deus ex machina”.
I admit, Cacothis chaining his own wife for two thousand years because he fears technology is a great plot twist but bear in mind this is a story where 99% of it is utter tosh so it’s hard to summon up much enthusiasm about even a tiny plus point.
“I need to communicate with him.”/“How do you propose to do that?”/“Ancient Gallifreyan technique: go outside and shout.”
I think “the pain - it’s like daggers in my mind!” should rank up there with “Not the mind probe!” for astounding clunkers, really.

Next: 102 The Mind’s Eye/Mission of the Viyrans by Colin Brake/Nicholas Briggs.

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