Friday, 30 September 2016

Main Range 104. The Bride of Peladon by Barnaby Edwards (January 2008)

Peladon holds a curious fascination in Doctor Who: an alien environment that gets the luxury of being explored in more than a cursory fashion, on more than one occasion, most notably in The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, two of Pertwee’s few off-world stories; Gary Russell’s no-doubt-continuity-obsessed New Adventure Legacy; then both Barnaby Edwards’ Main Range audio for 2008, The Bride of Peladon, and a Companion Chronicle, The Prisoner of Peladon*. Putting aside whether or not this has much to do with us enjoying the fannishly nostalgic way “The [Noun] of Peladon” sounds in the mouth, why does Peladon get visited so often? It’s not as though the Doctor has ever gone back to Manussa, despite Snakedance featuring some of the best world-building the series has known. Only Earth, Gallifrey, Skaro and (potentially) Mars and Karn get more visits than Peladon. Why? Perhaps it is the richness of its Gothic history which appeals - allowing Peladon to be a reflection of Britain’s own ancient monarchy makes repeated visits and repeated meetings with different rulers less banal than returning to war-devastated wastelands. Or perhaps it’s the effort made to give it a political reality, albeit one so rooted in 1970s Britain. When we visit Peladon, each time learning a little more about it, one has the feeling of a real place with a real history, a real religion, a real society, rather than something hastily sketched together for that particular story. It functions like Gormenghast: a fully-fledged world of eccentric, mad individuals each with their own agendas and plans. It’s Doctor Who in that “Shakespearean” tone it sometimes does (see also Crusade, The & Traken, The Keeper Of, plus plenty of Shakespeare references in this story). And, like Gormenghast, like Shakespearean fantasies (The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and like many of the best science-fiction planets, it feels like a heightened, exaggerated version of our world, holding the mirror up to reality and then distorting it a little (right down to the name “Peladon”, which sounds so very nearly like a Greek/Latin portmanteau; as it is, it doesn’t actually mean anything, though comes close - it’d be something to do with teeth driving/pushing forward; progress by violence, perhaps? Or progress by sheer hard labour?). Let’s not forget that the first monarch we met, David Troughton’s King Peladon, is, ahem, half-human on his mother’s side and Brian Hayles even has the Doctor state the obvious in the first Peladon story: “Peladon is very like Earth”. We can relate to it just enough for it to have a comfortably familiar tinge to it, yet it is disarmingly weird enough to thrill us.

Barnaby Edwards (already one of Big Finish’s best directors) takes this tantalising ‘uncanny quality’ of the Peladonian environment - like our own history and mythology, yet not like - and has enormous fun with it, as both writer and director. Take King Pelleas: it sounds like a Greek name (a la ‘Aeneas’) but comes from an Arthurian Knight of the Round Table, and/or more recently from an 1893 French Symbolist play which became a Debussy opera and which also likely gave George RR Martin the name “Melisandre”. Take Elspera, the lost Queen, her name echoing the Latin for ‘hope’. Take Paladin, thieved from the chansons de geste about Charlemagne’s court. Take Beldonia, which doesn’t just sound like Peladon but also the Italian “belladonna”, both the literal surface level of ‘beautiful lady’ and the more sinister meaning of a poisonous plant, conveying both her charm and scheming (plus foreshadowing the mandrake root plot resolution). Take stock Earth phrases like “the witching hour” actors can utter with relish. Take the clearly Hamlet-like opening: a sentry on the castle battlements at midnight waits to be relieved by the changing of the guard, but is stopped in his tracks by a supernatural occurrence, an apparition of a murdered royal which then speaks to its son. And then there’s the way the story toys with both Greek and Egyptian mythology, mingling Pandora and Sekhmet together with abandon.

Like all good sequels, The Bride of Peladon strikes just the right balance between old favourites and new creations. There are classic enemies, yes, with the Ice Warriors often putting in an appearance, but they aren’t big guns enough that it feels like too much of a big-event story, as a return to Skaro might - and besides, they often aren’t played as out-and-out villains. Part of what keeps them interesting is the way they walk the line between ally and enemy in many of their post-Curse appearances: even the murderous Skaldak in Cold War has honourable compassion in the end, and though they’ve mostly been villains in Big Finish so far (almost uniformly so in Frozen Time, though they have nobility about them in Red Dawn) I genuinely didn’t know if they’d be goodies or baddies in this story, an enjoyably ambiguous feeling I wouldn’t have had if it were the Daleks or Cybermen coming back. Zixlyr is a good creation, and well-voiced as ever by Briggs; the scene with Peri where he is at pains not to cause offence for calling her “girl” and both of them explain what their names mean is particularly good (Zixlyr apparently translates as “twin of the ice”, whilst Perpugilliam means “she who lives in the hills”, though not in any language I know of). His background is given interesting development - the quest for his missing sister Alyxlyr, former Ambassador to Peladon - meaning that although he’s a dangerous force to be reckoned with, and nearly kills Peri, he’s not evil as such, and in fact proves a good ally who attains true nobility in the end.

The Bride of Peladon is interesting, then, in that it fits into an unusual niche - slotting into the category of “Peladon story” rather than “Ice Warrior monster story”. Where other BF releases tend to do their own thing with the classic monsters, there is a real sense in which Bride is not just a sequel to the earlier Peladon stories but a direct continuation of the ongoing Peladonian history, another of the series’ peeks into how this other planet’s timeline is developing (a coherent history that, say, Vortis does not have). There’s a monarch, but also guards and miners galore, because it sells the scale to have as broad a social canvas as possible. There’s a Martian ambassador. There’s an interspecies, interplanetary arranged marriage. There’s Alpha Centauri, because Peladon without Alpha Centauri is unthinkable. There are the howls of Aggedor echoing in the distance, and a Venusian lullaby as a response. There’s Grok, an obvious echo of Grun from Curse. And there’s a chap from Vega Nexos and an Arcturan, which are the only aspects that feel a little bit like fannish Easter Eggs rather than particularly important details of the plot, but Elkin and Arktos add fun background colour if nothing else. The only thing missing is the 1970s Pertwee-era politics, which Edwards wisely avoids trying to emulate, even if a political framework in terms of the shaky alliance between Earth and Peladon still stands.

On the more inventive side of things, the decision to put an Osiran in the mix - in this instance Sekhmet, played by Jenny Agutter - and to make this an unexpected Pyramids of Mars sequel as well turns out to be inspired, not just because Agutter’s great, but also because the Egyptian mythology seems a perfect fit for Peladon’s cavernous throne rooms and echoey catacombs. It’s a brilliant cliff-hanger to Part Three when Sekhmet is unveiled - and a very wise decision to pick her rather than returning Sutekh, as it fleshes out their race without making this a simple rematch. And then, of course, there’s the tantalising background of a connection between the Osirans and the Ice Warriors, explored elsewhere by writers like Craig Hinton (though here the latter do not worship the former). It’s also much more pacey and exciting than, frankly, either of Pertwee’s Peladon stories, at times playing out like a proper action movie (the opening on a crashing Ice Warrior spaceship is especially dramatic in this regard) in ways the originals couldn’t afford; the chance to explore Peladon’s forests and mountains as well as just the castle and the mines is also rather delicious.

In all this, we should probably mention the Doctor, Peri and Erimem; Peri is particularly astute and smart here, making a number of particularly convincing deductions. But The Bride of Peladon is, of course, Erimem’s last adventure, and while there are a few awkward moments here with regard to her characterisation - she prays to Osiris, despite generally professing not to believe in the Egyptian gods anymore, though I suppose it could be a reflex as much as anything else, and it does at least fit the Osiran angle here quite nicely; and the general ‘happy ending’ she gets means that the “heartbreak” referred to in Mission of the Viyrans seems a bit odd in retrospect - this is generally a strong showing for Caroline Morris. Just like the Osirans, Erimem fits the world of Peladon very well (all “noble features…and an aristocratic mien”), and so, although there are plenty of examples of female companions leaving to get married off that don’t work at all, that doesn’t mean it never works, as Erimem’s staying behind on Peladon to marry Pelleas seems like exactly what she’d want. Pandora is an interesting reflection of Erimem, as the latter herself notices, and so her (relatively last-minute, but emotionally affecting enough) decision to marry Pelleas works pretty neatly from both a thematic but also a character-driven point of view; it’s a neat echo of her fantasy of ruling a medieval space kingdom in The Mind’s Eye. Farewell, Erimem - I’ll miss you.

I can’t be the only one to notice that this story has a bit of a shopping list - not just serving as a sequel to two Pertwee stories, including plenty of continuity from both, but also as a “side-step” sequel to Pyramids of Mars, as well as writing out a companion at the same time. No wonder, then, that it feels quite full, but the majority of the subplots are well served and it’s actually a marvel it works as well as it does (the only bit that seemed a touch implausible is a sequence in the mines in Part Three where everybody seems to bump into everybody else in the space of about 2 minutes). Overall, The Bride of Peladon is nostalgic but enormous fun, enlivened by some great writing, terrific performances and atmospheric direction, all combining to put a big smile on my face. It’s also got some elegant contributions to mythology and continuity, and convincingly weaves together the Sekhmet mythology with what we’ve seen of Peladon so far whilst positioning Erimem inbetween both. Very satisfying and highly recommended.

Other things:
*Though I don’t know about Prisoner, it’s curious that from Peladon’s point of view the Doctor always seems to visit at 50-year-intervals: Curse takes place in 3885, Monster in 3935, Legacy in 3985 and Bride in 4035. Oddly good timing for him!
One of Big Finish’s best casts: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Phyllida Law, Jenny Agutter, Jane Goddard, Yasmin Bannerman, Richard Earl, Christian Coulson…
“Midnight: the time to commune with spirits and shades. The witching hour is when the Ancients of Peladon are said to have pledged their souls to the Dark Beast.”
“Fight spirits with spirits, I say!”
“If ever you loved me, then avenge my murder…” (or, in the original: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love/Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”), and similarly “they say, do they not, that I died hunting in the forest, that I was unseated and fell to my death. This is a lie, a lie which shames the whole of Peladon” echoes “’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard/A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark/is by a forged process of my death/Rankly abused”.
Phyllida Law is just superb as Beldonia: “She may be from a modern elected dynasty, but we should still afford the poor girl a modicum of formality, don’t you think?”
“Did [Queen Mother Beldonia] bring anything back [from the hunt]? If she’s had a successful morning she’ll be in a good mood.”/“My mother’s the same - but with shopping.”
“I was brought up amongst sandstone and marble. I find it comforting. It gives me a sense of proportion: even the highest among us occasionally need reminding that we are ultimately nothing - a breath in the wind, a flash in the furnace of eternity.”/“But we can make changes that last. We can alter history.”/“Can we? My travels with the Doctor have taught me otherwise. History is like a great tree. We may snap a twig here, cut off a branch there, but the tree keeps growing. From a distance, it is still the same tree, despite all our best efforts.”
Alpha Centauri having “crow’s feet” made me chuckle.
“Death. Destruction. Tragedy. Everywhere we go in the universe. Why do we never see the good things, Doctor?”/“We do, Peri. You just don’t notice them.”
“My breath created the desert and over it I set Sutekh to rule. I am Sekhmet the Avenger, the Eye of Ra, and Queen of the Osirans! I will bathe in your blood and be reborn!”
“Killing people and drinking their blood doesn’t sound terribly noble to me.”/“Yes, well every family has their wayward members.”
“As far as I can tell, the Osirans fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and - forgive me - the ugly.”
I like the isomorphic control joke - it worked on Sutekh but Sekhmet sees right through it.
“My life is not yours to spare, Sekhmet. Let us embrace death together!”
The only iffy plot decision is the Deus Ex Doctor thing at the end - though on the other hand it works fittingly in the context of a story that’s all about blood (royalty, Sekhmet’s sacrifice, etc).
Alpha Centauri, feeling tearful: “I must return to my ship. I think I have something in my eye…”
“I miss them all, Peri. Everybody leaves.”
“When I leave you, Doctor, I can promise you this: it won’t be because I’m marrying some alien king!”
Lovely bit in the extras about Rob Shearman finding the right place in The Curse of Peladon for Jane Goddard to learn how to do Alpha Centauri's giggle!

Next: I’ll be taking a break for a variety of reasons, but I expect the next thing I’ll cover will either be I, Davros or Sarah Jane Smith Series 1.

Retrospective: Stories 76-104

The period from November 2005 to January 2008 is a longish, sprawling run that we can divide up into pre-"handover" and post-"handover". The former is a late blossoming of Gary Russell's time at the helm of Big Finish, in which we can see a whole range and variety of fascinating, inventive stories doing some often quite experimental things (particularly in 2006, which is a corker of a year in my view). Occasionally it's hampered by visible strains in the swift sweeping under the rug of the Divergent Universe, which means we get stories like "Time Works", which are enjoyable but feel like they belong in the DU rather than our universe. And it does have the double-misfire early on of "Night Thoughts" and "Pier Pressure", which I think might be the single two weakest stories next to one another since at least "Nekromanteia" and "The Dark Flame" (though I haven't gone through the release schedule to check this properly). But when it's good - "Other Lives", "The Kingmaker", "The Settling", "Red", "Memory Lane", "No Man's Land", "Year of the Pig" and "Circular Time" - this is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. A particular improvement on the historicals front, too, which I felt were rather lacking in the (admittedly DU-heavy) previous "quarter" of the first 100 releases. Some of my favourite stories I've looked at recently have been historicals, in fact, as one can see from the list above.

The latter, Briggs-led chunk is a lot more rickety, certainly, and 2007 feels like a weaker year in comparison to 2006, but things do slowly start to pick up towards the end, and I'm optimistic that this will continue in the next set of releases. Putting to one side the utter trainwreck that is "Absolution" (because utter trainwrecks can happen in any era), what we get post-"Circular Time" is a number of fairly reliable writers delivering scripts that seem to flounder a bit: Magrs, Platt, Sutton, Rayner, Robson, etc., all seem to deliver work that is weaker than their earlier output. This is a great shame, and it's hard to know exactly if it's coincidence or indicative of a general directionlessness or behind-the-scenes difficulty going on at the time. On the plus side, however, Steve Lyons writes probably his best story yet in the form of "Son of the Dragon", Colin Brake's second effort outstrips his first, Alan Barnes gives Charley a cracking send-off, and "The Bride of Peladon" is a rip-roaring good fun debut from Barnaby Edwards. All this and we get half an hour of Rob Shearman doing Mozart jokes, so it's not all bad.

Of course the 2005-2008 period is also dominated by the TV series being back on our screens, which was starting to loom over the releases in the early part of 2005 but ultimately hadn't made its presence felt yet. From the Ninth Doctor appearing in the background of "The Kingmaker" to a more companion-centric approach in "The Gathering" and "The Reaping" (though Lidster insists he had written those scripts before seeing stories like "Aliens of London"), you can start to detect, maybe, the feel of the '05 run bleeding into some of these stories. While one companion departure falls completely flat ("Absolution") and another feels like a homage to classic series companion departures, albeit better managed ("The Bride of Peladon") it seems to me that "The Girl Who Never Was" takes something of a cue from stories like "Doomsday" (it was recorded about a year later than "Doomsday"'s broadcast). By and large, I think, these minimal nods to the 21st century run of the programme are for the better, giving the impression of a homogeneous whole, and as we all know they will only become stronger and more daring over the following 8 years. I've also been quite pleased, incidentally, that this era hasn't just seen rotations of old returning villains every month, which must have been quite tempting to continue to market the BF releases at classic series fans tired of the new TV show. In fact, I think it might feature the fewest returning villains of any of these four "quarters" I've reviewed so far - just the old staples of the Daleks, Cybermen and Ice Warriors, with Osirans as the outsiders making a surprise comeback (and Zarbi in the bonus release, I suppose).

On the whole, it seems that the dominance of Colin Baker getting all the best audio stories (or most of the best) is slightly coming to an end, not just because he was lumbered with the execrable "Pier Pressure" and some other stories that were merely middling but a noticeable rise in strong writing for Sylvester McCoy and Peter Davison, the two-punch of "The Kingmaker" and "The Settling" being particularly fantastic in this regard. McCoy in particular has gotten a great variety of good stories that span different times of his tenure, from "Red" being the definitive Season 24 BF story along with "Fires of Vulcan" (though darker than both "Fires" and any of that season's TV stories) to his continuing Ace and Hex adventures (with highlights like "The Settling") to some reasonably solid solo stories that obviously slot in just before his regeneration ("Valhalla", "Frozen Time"). Meanwhile, the ongoing adventures of 5, Peri and Erimem have been much stronger than they have been at previous points too, whether that's the aforementioned "Kingmaker", "Son of the Dragon", "The Mind's Eye" or "The Bride of Peladon", while "Circular Time" is one of the definitive looks at that incarnation. McGann's Doctor, meanwhile, has had something of a mixed bag; though his good stories have been great, some of the weaker ones have been truly dire. I'm particularly excited to see him "relaunched" for BBC Radio 7 with Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller.

Keep 'em coming.

Stats – 

Future Sci-fi: 19
Historicals/pseudo-historicals: 13
Present Day (ish): 7

Best authors: Nev Fountain, Matthew Sweet, Robert Shearman
Most disappointing authors: Edward Young, Scott Alan Woodard, Robert Ross

Best individual audio plays: The Kingmaker, Year of the Pig, My Own Private Wolfgang
Worst individual audio plays: Night Thoughts, Absolution, Pier Pressure

Returning villains: Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Osirans (& Zarbi in the bonus release)

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