Saturday, 17 September 2016

Main Range 103. The Girl Who Never Was by Alan Barnes (December 2007)

It is as old as the hills to compare stories to journeys. The relationship between geographical progression and narrative progression makes a fundamental harmonious sense, and allows us to couch the way we describe one in the language and metaphors of the other. Archetypal literary criticism may not be as in vogue as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, in the heyday of Northrop Frye, but it is not yet seen as complete folly to resurrect Carl Gustav Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, and of archetypes which lie deep within all of us. One of them, of course, is the journey motif. According to archetypal criticism, journeys are always either linear or circular - our hero either progresses from their original home to a new one, or returns to their old home at the end of their adventure (the latter also maps onto Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”, where the hero returns home transformed by their adventure). Broadly speaking, the ongoing adventures of Doctor Who - both series and character - are linear, ironically enough for a time traveller with such a complex life: he left Gallifrey long ago and travels onwards, however much he may have individual circular adventures along the way. Generally speaking, he does not return “home” and, when he does, he never stays there. Some companions, too, go on “linear” journeys: Nyssa, for instance, who finds a better life on Terminus than “most orphaned person in the universe”, and a better use for her considerable gifts. But other companions may go on circular journeys: that is to say, they return to where they began, but as someone changed by their experiences (see Martha, or Ian & Barbara). By far the most interesting and unique thing about The Girl Who Never Was, and by extension our farewell to the Eighth Doctor/Charlotte Pollard combination, is that scriptwriter and Charley’s creator-in-chief Alan Barnes gives her both kinds of journey: linear and circular.

Let’s talk about Charley Pollard, then: her life, her journey, her story. Born on the day the Titanic sank, meant to have died in the crash of the R101, travelling in the TARDIS from one universe to another and back again, and now parting from the Doctor in a story predominantly set on the SS Batavia but also various other vessels… conceiving of herself as an “adventuress”, she has always been associated with journeying in a very literal, physical sense. More than that, she has long had looming over her the spectre of journey’s end (and, rather appropriately, the TV story of the same name is prefigured here): the ships which she boards crash and burn or sink into salty waters: starting on one ship, voyaging in another, and (seemingly) dying on board yet another. This spectre loomed most prominently, and indeed most movingly, in Barnes’ previous audio Neverland, where Charley was confronted with the clerical error that was her very existence, the fact that her journey should have ended but had instead continued; Barnes returned to Storm Warning there, pivoting the plot around her surviving the R101 crash. This her farewell story is in many ways an echo and reversal of her debut - it begins at the Singapore Hilton, her original destination, her end point; there’s another iteration of Barnes’ recurring Mary Shelley gag, which he initially set in motion mere seconds into the Eighth Doctor’s first story; we even get an obscure dolphin joke; and, of course, Madeleine Fairweather is the story’s most obvious “callback”, paralleling the Charley Pollard we first met, a stowaway dressed as a boy (that she disguises herself as Simons even calls to mind Simon Murchford, the young steward whose uniform Charley stole to hide on the R101 in the first place, as revealed in The Next Life). Not to mention the little nods to Neverland, too - as there, the Doctor and Charley plan to go to the Jovian Fold, where the thousand-year carnival, the Millennium Mardi Gras, is in full swing. Even for a listener who did not know this was Charley’s last story, the Jovian Fold should set alarm bells ringing: somehow, like Darillium for River Song, it is a memento mori: it tells us that Charley’s number is up.

For all intents and purposes, then, Alan Barnes blends the Charley Pollard we know now after her travels with the Doctor through time and space (2007), with an echo of the Charley Pollard we first met (2001). He returns her to her roots, and yet she moves past them. He also gives us the red herring of a glimpse of a Charley Pollard many decades down the line (though I must admit I did call it that Madeleine would grow up to become the “older Miss Pollard” in 2008: it just felt like it was the clear course the story was going to follow). It’s a dizzying construct - anticipating TV stories like The Girl Who Waited or The Angels Take Manhattan - and rather elegantly done; this cocktail of Charleys (I think she’d approve of that collective noun; it suits her) gives the story a strong, continuous thread, and fashions it into the definitive Charley story, or at least one of them. India Fisher’s performance is terrific, perhaps her best ever - back to her old magic, but not just the old magic. Here she’s the plucky young thing who first stowed away with the Doctor, she’s the seasoned traveller who’s seen radar-jamming devices on Quaxan IV, and she’s the post-break-up woman of the world who just wants to disappear and walk the Earth alone.

What is particularly good (from a thematic point of view) about pairing Charley with the Eighth Doctor - he of the aristocratic velvet who fits her own Edwardiana so well - is that he is a Doctor who is particularly associated with, ahem, the chimes of midnight: the passing over the threshold from one day to the next, and on the grander scale from the end of one year to the beginning of the next: the end of one journey, the beginning of another. He is a Doctor whose era itself has been liminal, whose era exists in both the linear time of consecutive stories and the circular time of individual releases in a rotating schedule. We’ve seen this to varying degrees in The TV Movie (and note the explicit connection here: beryllium chips in the clocks), The Chimes of Midnight, Seasons of Fear, NeverlandThe Next Life (these latter two acting, perhaps, as “fake-out” endings, dry runs for this story) and here in The Girl Who Never Was… so it is perfect that Charley, too, is a midnight being, her stories given over to birth and death and rebirth, making her a lynchpin of circular time, of twelve that is twenty-four that is zero. I know earlier companions got slotted in before Storm Warning, and I know it tends to be fan theory that (most of) the EDA novels happen before (most of) the BF audios, but there is something irresistible to me about the Storm Warning-The Girl Who Never Was period being very “early” Eighth Doctor, not long after his beginning in San Francisco - it is, after all, a phase dominated by clocks and time and the liminal space between one time and the next. At its best, it has a coherent feel to it, a coherent narrative timbre, rather than just being an anthology series of stories that have Paul McGann in: interested in thresholds, paradoxical spaces, liminal worlds and journeys which somehow both end and yet continue.

And then there are the Cybermen. For a while I was puzzled by their inclusion: they didn’t seem to add much, McGann/Cybermen had produced a dud in Sword of Orion, and they even seemed at odds with the more emotional side of the drama. Oh, to be sure, I was enjoying what Barnes was doing with them: rusting, decayed Cybermen with almost rotting brains conjure up a great visual in the mind’s eye, and there’s some terrific voice work from Briggs. These Cybermen look to be Invasion-era (Briggs says so on the extras), but these more rusted, dilapidated models have an element of sing-song in their vocal patterns that’s halfway towards those of The Tenth Planet/Spare Parts. I also approve of the way they finish one another’s sentences: not that they’re exactly a collective like the Borg (I never particularly like the idea that you can zap them all at once, as in The Age of Steel) but that the way they think and respond is so uniform that they are capable of predicting with pinpoint accuracy exactly what another Cyber-unit is about to say (though having said that, if a Cyberman started saying “You will be made…” I’m pretty sure I could finish it off: “…like us”). As usual, their plan seems terribly, needlessly complicated, and though they’re probably the weakest elements of the story, they do get some cracking moments and come across as a genuine, potent threat (half-converted Cybermen emerging out of seawater is distinctly creepy). I’m always more into those Cybermen stories where they’re wily and scheming, desperate and at the end of their tether, like here: an entire battalion of rusting Cybermen with no clue what to do because their Cyber-Planner is out of action. Which is why they work, really, as a good monster for Charley’s farewell story, and why I’d guess Barnes included them: because the Cybermen are designed as the ultimate end point for human beings, the telos. Because through ‘translation’ they show us the solar-flare-ravaged hellhole Earth will be in the year 500,002, all boiling seas and a bright orange sky: the heat death that awaits. Because when they first appeared, they sent even the Doctor over the edge and caused his first end, his first death. Because even when rusting, clanking and dilapidated, they are a potential linear end to a journey, a particularly gruesome destination.

The Girl Who Never Was is a complex story, in its location-jumping, millennia-spanning narrative mechanics (at one point, I tried writing out the story’s events in chronological order), but also in its thematic ambitions. Yet it’s simultaneously a rip-roaring yarn with escapades, jeopardy, and high stakes aplenty - more so, really, than Neverland, which was a beautiful story but often very abstract; it’s also the shorter and pacier of the two. Both Fisher and McGann feel more engaged with the material here than they have done for an age (Fisher says on the extras that knowing Barnes was doing the script meant she knew she was in safe hands), and Barnaby Edwards’ direction is taut, keeping things relatively easy to follow despite the knotty sequence of events. I said of Neverland that it had all the hallmarks of “Last Doctor Who Story Ever” - and then we meet the magical moment where Barnes declares “there is no alternative”, yet asserts that there is. So too here: Charley’s circular journey is over, she is brought crashing down to the world, the milieu, she left behind; as far as the Eighth Doctor is concerned, she returned to Singapore, her original destination, but that was it. Her time was up. And yet she gets to move on: her voyage continues without ending here, she bests the death metaphor which the Cybermen represent, and she journeys on… into the stars… with a new Doctor. She dies and yet she lives. She is victorious over Jung and Campbell, shatters them like the glass tube in Scherzo. She transcends the tyranny of narrative which her existence had always threatened. She ascends a higher plane to become that Master of Two Worlds, shielded from death and reborn like the phoenix, living in circular and linear time. Just like the Doctor.

Other things:
A quick shout out to Danny Webb, who excels as the lascivious Byron (and a great name choice, given how much it’s been hinted this Doctor knew the real Mary Shelley and the real Byron). And Anna Massey’s elderly “Miss Pollard” is a particular delight - there’s a tiny hint of Anneke Wills’ Lady Pollard about her, but she’s very much her own creation (“Oh, the decline of English manhood”). Amanda Root is good, though I completely disagree with Edwards that her voice is all that convincing as a man.
The music is particularly beautiful - there’s a haunting choral piece as a Cyberman stalks Curly, and the orchestral work is fantastic.
“Are we there?”/“Journey’s end, as requested.”
“There’ll be no airship left, not any more. She burned up in moments - just blackened struts on a hillside, like the ribcage of a whale that’s dropped from the sky.”
“I’m not going home, if that’s what you’re thinking. So your Web of Time is safe. I’ll find someone else to be. Don’t worry… I’ll just sit and watch, picking grapes or something. Picking grapes won’t change a thing… I’ll move around from town to town, just watching, looking in.”/“Like a ghost?”/“Like a tramp.”/“Like a Time Lord.”
“The harbour’s hardly changed since the East India Company set up shop: steamers up from Jakarta bringing spices and teak. Junk boats defying the South China Seas.  Smells of coffee and cuttlefish over the water. And firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, making dragons’ tails in the air!” Very Empire of the Sun.
“You don’t want to know doctor who?”/“The Doctor has a permanent suite on floor six.”/“I’m not sure that’s him.”/“They say he’s had it since 1872.”/“That’s him.”
“You look lost, Miss Pollard.”/“More in need of direction than directions.” (I might steal that line as a melancholy reply, it’s great).
“One last lap of glory for the team.”
“In the absence of a cleverer idea… leg it!”
“At my age, dear, one can’t spare the breath for pleasantries.”
“Pull yourself together, that man. That kind of behaviour’s outright continental.”
I found the prisoners’ rendition of Botany Bay actually rather moving (those old songs get to me, for some reason). Great that the Cyber-Planner sings it later, too.
“Sorry to bother you - is this 1942 by any chance?”
Some fantastic cliff-hangers here, even if the presence of the Cybermen is signposted by the (admittedly beautiful) album cover. “You will become like me” is a corker, though.
“Tell me, was there a storm out here last night?”/“I like to listen to Wagner of an evening, not the shipping report.”
“Oh, please, it’s like the Australasian branch of the Borgias.”
“I think she must have dropped you on your head as a baby.”/“Like she was ever around long enough.”
Terrific gag: “Something five foot four, with a wrinkled hide and a vicious tongue…your mother!”
“Dialogue with organics has no value.”/“What are they, health freaks?”/“The ultimate health freaks! Everything replaced, everything inefficient or unwholesome stripped out, cut away…beginning with feelings. They’re hollowed-out nothings, their only imperative to survive.”
“There ain’t no women here!”/“Cybermen do not discriminate by gender!”/“Oh, lord.”
Byron, mystified by TARDIS dematerialisation: “How did you do that?”/“Too many long words, sorry.”
“Organ replacement time, is it? I warn you, Cyberman, I’ll be twice the work!”
“Sorry, that’s not a face. I won’t talk to anything without a face.”
“Me, I owned a rubber plantation. Like the rest of these brave British chaps, we ran away when the Japanese advanced, took all our worldly goods with us: books, paintings, cars, jewellery, everything we could manage. But d’you know what’s not aboard this boat? Our servants! Our faithful Malays: housekeepers and houseboys and plantation workers. We left them all to the mercy of the Japs.” One of the things I like about Barnes scripts are the little details even the minor characters get.
Barnes doesn’t ignore the tangible, material history of the age, but the moment earlier in the story there was reference to a hoard on the ship I could see the use of the gold coming.
“My ankles are swelling up.”/“Cybernetic conversion will alleviate difficulty.”/“And no waiting list! You can see to my hip while you’re at it.”/“Careful - they’re made of iron but they don’t do irony.”
“There’s so many more places to see, Charley. I’m just sorry we missed out on those 66 years! Oh, Charley, it’s such a big universe, and now I get to show it to you all over again.”
“Won’t somebody save us, please?”/“Cyber-conversion is your salvation.”
Great Doctor entrance: “Hope is a corruption of probable outcome. It has no value.”/“Are you sure about that?”
“Charlotte Pollard fell through the Web of Time. Charlotte Pollard died and still lived. The future can be changed.”
Minimal mention of C’rizz: I do understand not wanting him to overshadow Charley’s departure, but that does seem a touch odd if it was important enough for Charley to be the very reason she wanted to go back to 1931. Having said that, mentioning him would just remind us all of how terrible Absolution was compared to this, so maybe it’s for the best.
“Some things are too good to be forgotten.”
“Have you seen a girl? About so high.”/“Hair? Eyes?”/“Yes, she’s got those.”
“Dear Doctor, it’s been such a long journey for both of us. I never, ever wanted it to end. But end it has: we both know that. A long time ago, I said you were the oddest man I’d ever met. You’re that still. You’re the best man I’ve ever met too. But we’ve chanced our luck once too often, I think. So I’m bailing out. Escape strategy number five. I’m going to disappear. There’s no freedom like being dead. I can go anywhere. Be anyone I want. Just like a Time Lord, really. Don’t look for me. Please. But remember me. I’ll remember you - always. With love, the Girl Who Never Was.”
Wonderful exchange: “Are you leaving?”/“You work in a hotel. You should know: everybody leaves.”
Charley prefigures new series companions aplenty, but particularly the fates of Donna and Clara, as the Doctor tries the memory wipe on her.
“Spitsbergen…Zanzibar…New Zealand…other places with the letter Z”: a nod to Dalek?
“I…I was expecting someone else.”

Next: Bonus Release VI - Return to the Web Planet by Daniel O’Mahony.

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