Thursday, 29 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 2.2: Snow Blind by David Bishop (February 2006)

Antarctica - those huge frozen wastes populated only by penguins and David Attenborough, “the last truly unspoiled place on Earth” - is both the ideal location for a Doctor Who story*, yielding claustrophobic bases and agoraphobic expanses, extreme weather and extreme beauty, and yet a terribly difficult one to achieve, mostly because, um, filming in Antarctica isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world. No surprise then, really, that it’s only been attempted a couple of times as an in-studio job - once in The Tenth Planet, once in The Seeds of Doom (and briefly in the SJA story The Gift) - but you’d think it’s the ideal place to set an audio story, where one can rely on the visuals of the imagination for the full effect. Of those I’ve heard, I can only think of Frozen Time that is set there (although The Land of the Dead and Winter for the Adept have a similar feel to them, even if they’re set in marginally less inhospitable winter wonderlands) so I’m glad that David Bishop chose to set the second story of this second season in an Antarctic base, once more contributing to the range’s globe-trotting feel.

“No guns or weapons allowed. An entire continent devoted to peaceful activities for the benefit of all mankind.” Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? But paradises can be bleak, too, as the nervy tension of this story attests. Just as the snow might be a brilliant gleaming white but can potentially blind a person, so too is the stark beauty of the Antarctic landscape a source of paranoia and madness, as Will’s recounting of other “breakdowns on the ice” would suggest. As in Buried Secrets, Bishop has done his research and makes the world feel vivid and real; I wouldn’t have guessed that the only thing more dangerous than the weather in Antarctica would be fire, but it makes sense that fires aren’t easy to put out in a climate where water freezes, and once your shelter’s gone that’s more or less the end of you. There’s some good use of ominous signs and music to build the tension, such as the lack of penguins in the colony and the encroachment of a snowstorm, and Sarah’s snow-blindness is appropriately unnerving. In fact, another plaudit or two for John Ainsworth and Steve Foxon, because the production side of things here is very good, particularly the use of muffling some characters’ voices as set against others to ensure we can always visualise exactly where we (and they) are.

Snow Blind is one of the shortest instalments yet - a mere 54 minutes long - and suffers from its short cast list; there are so few people at the base that there can’t be that many of them who might be the murderer, and sooner or later logic dictates that it has to be Jack, which rather sucks the enigma out of the whole thing. With a bit longer to flesh everyone out or add another character or two into the mix the mystery of Nikita Base might’ve been a bit more vividly rendered. Still, Tom Chadbon remains a big asset as Will Sullivan, while Nicholas Briggs is good as the slightly unstable base commander Gideon Munro, whose churchy background (that name!!) is fleshed out pretty well; for all that he’s instantly recognisable, Briggs remains a strong voice actor. Jeremy James is back to doing that weird creepy-old-man sound with his voice, this time when he’s asking Jack to tell him more about demi-Siren and heartbreaker Morgane Kaditch because he finds her “interesting”. The “Antarctic virgin”/“making your first time one to remember” dialogue is a bit cringey, too, and the arguing scene between Josh and Will with the suggestion that they’re jealous of each other’s relationship with Sarah doesn’t quite work. I have to concede that actress Julia Righton’s sultry French accent is on point, however.

Not perfect by any means - for one thing, it’s less thematically interesting than the story before it, and the arc elements feel more crowbarred in here, somehow - Snow Blind is nonetheless an enjoyable yarn, and if it suffers in comparison to Buried Secrets it’s only because the bar for this particular range has been raised. It does end on one heck of a cliff-hanger, though, with the revelation that Will Sullivan is out to get Sarah after all…

Other things:
*I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s marvellous anecdote about a team of scientists at the South Pole getting in touch with him after they all huddled around their one TV to watch The Doctor’s Wife, which he particularly liked because he said it sounds like the setup for a Doctor Who episode in itself.
Not entirely convinced of the need for the “previously…” segment, but it does no harm; most people listened to these things as they came out rather than in one week like I’m doing, in fairness.
We have more headlines, here keeping us up-to-date with whatever may develop in Fatal Consequences and Dreamland.
My first question on hearing this was set in “Nikita Base” was “why Nikita? Is this a Khrushchev tribute?” so I’m glad this was addressed.
“Well, well. How ironic. The famous investigative journalist unable to see a thing.”
“There are no coincidences.”/“Exactly. It all leads back to me again.”
“Is it always like this when you two are around?”/“Like what?”/“In the 24 hours since you’ve got here, two of my colleagues have been murdered, the base has been burned to the ground, and you’ve uncovered a conspiracy to smuggle uranium ore out of Antarctica. I mean, what do you two do for an encore?!”/“We win.” It’s a fun nod to dialogue from The Seeds of Doom but also an acceptance that Sarah has taken the Doctor’s position now, with companions of her own.

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 2.3: Fatal Consequences by David Bishop (March 2006)

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