Sunday, 18 June 2017

Gallifrey 1.1: Weapon of Choice by Alan Barnes (March 2004)

Another spin-off for me to waffle unrestrainedly about: this time it's Gallifrey, centring on political struggles among the higher echelons of Time Lords. That risks sounding dry almost immediately as I type it, so of course it's a move of typical maximum common sense - and typical maximum marketability - to foreground characters we already know and care about. Leading the cast in this instance is Lalla Ward's second incarnation of Romana (last seen in Warriors' Gate, though she's also popped up in The Apocalypse ElementShada, Neverland and Zagreus), and Louise Jameson's Leela, who of course is also on Gallifrey as of the endings of The Invasion of Time and Zagreus. The ending of that 40th anniversary extravaganza, in fact, went some way towards setting up this spin-off series, in leaving Gallifrey and Time Lord society in the capable hands of Romana, Leela, and - who else?! - K9 (strictly speaking, K9s). What followed only a few months later, in March 2004, is a set of stories exploring what happened next, with Neverland and Zagreus writer Alan Barnes sensibly tapped to write the launching point, Weapon of Choice

Even when we hear the TARDIS materialisation noise and know it probably isn't the Doctor's, it's hard not to picture a blue police box - whereas the TARDIS that lands at the start of this story of course resembles nothing of the sort. A small thing, but it does illustrate how inevitably Doctor-centric our picture of Time Lord society is; even the three leads we follow here are, naturally enough, former friends of his. But Barnes goes out of his way to decentralise the primacy of the Time Lords: the story isn't just about them. Instead, he picks up the cue of an alliance of "Temporal Powers" from The Apocalypse Element, comprising the Monan Host, the Nekkistani, and the Warpsmiths of Phaidon. The first two are relatively generic SF alien races so far (though I do like the High Monan's overuse of "one"), but there's something a bit odder and more sinister about the incorporeal Warpsmiths and their possession of individuals' bodies, particularly given this pops up once or twice in this instalment. Their homeworld Phaidon and the names Sardonopolous and Nepenthe ("forgetfulness") hint at Greek mythology, whilst Torvald of the CIA is named for the deeply unsympathetic husband in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and Ba'aruk and the Nekkistani have - via the Hebrew baruch and the Urdu/Persian suffix -stan - certain Orientalist undertones. Such a coalition of chaos - ahem - thrown into the blender together instantly places us in the realm of The Daleks' Master Plan, The Curse of Peladon, and many other stories of negotiation and political wrangling, which could be potentially interesting.

The Time Lords are, as we surely all agree, an intrinsically conservative society, their very name a declaration of metaphysical aristocracy, their many appearances seeing them function as satires of the House of Lords and an Oxbridge elite. Their goal is to preserve order (read: the status quo) and prevent the coming of chaos, the Elizabethan Age's nightmare. But pair them with other Temporal Powers and give us a story-line about their policing the unlicensed use of time-travel experiments which threaten their precious monopoly, and you make them even more obviously greedy and tyrannical (even our old friend Romana says things like, "for us Gallifreyans, time travel is a privilege. Others might wish to use it for more undesirable ends, and so access to the space-time vortex must be regulated". Hmmmm). My instinctive response to hearing about the 'terrorist' organisation Free Time, which seems to want time-travel to be open to all, is "sounds fair enough to me". Indeed, Nepenthe's speech about time "not being the preserve of an aristocracy" is rousing stuff with which I was more or less fully on board. In setting up a conflict between Free Time and the Time Lord coalition, Weapon of Choice doesn't do much to persuade me that I should be viewing the antagonists as the real bad guys here (which perhaps accords with my feelings on, say, the Iraq War, which I'm going to guess is the real-world political context to which Barnes is alluding when he wrote a story in which a powerful imperial force debates whether or not to take action against enemies who have a weapon that may or may not exist).

If I'm being charitable, perhaps the murky morality of Gallifrey is the point, though: just because Romana is President of Gallifrey, that surely won't mean that logically we are to view the Time Lords' society as a right and just one. Is this series going to be a critique of Gallifrey and the Time Lords? It's as class-ridden as our own, if not more so: this audio drama alone takes place in the President's chamber and out in the wilds of Outer Gallifrey where the Outsiders eke out a hungry existence. Naturally enough, Romana is at home in the Presidential palace and Leela in the wastelands, giving us a familiar figure as a way in to both locations; regrettably, the former is where we spend the majority of our time, which doesn't bode all that well in giving us a real look at the cross-section of Gallifreyan society. If, however, the series blossoms into presenting some interesting class conflict, then I could be in for something special. Gallifrey certainly deserves plaudits for being a fully-blown female-led Doctor Who spin-off; especially given the grand, elitist exclusivity and pomp of its setting, which (sadly) could have made a mostly male cast the self-evident but uninspired choice.

What gives me further hope is the role of Leela, looked down upon by Time Lords as "a savage" but, as we know, so much more. Louise Jameson gives a spirited performance that's practically unchanged from her days on telly, albeit now shot through with a certain melancholia due to her recent loss of Andred, but Leela's role in this story is mostly fascinating because of the way President Romana and the others use her to do their dirty work - namely, to infiltrate the Free Time organisation on Gryben (and the story starts to pick up once their mission is underway). That in itself is an indictment of, and comment on, the way Time Lords like to operate: never getting their hands dirty and always preferring others to press the buttons, but still pulling all the strings in the distance. The beat where Leela is called upon to explain her "hatred of the Time Lords" is dissembling, sure, but it also has a ring of truth to it ("they despise the unalike. They soothe with promises and flattery, but they promise only to deceive. They use too many words, but even the gentlest-sounding may have a double meaning. They think other people are crude animals to be penned up in their place"), and, promisingly, it appears that conservative Time Lords are being set up as the villains ("traditionalists in the Chapters, in the older houses... such men would have a world destroyed, would see innocents perish, just to keep habits and ritual intact").

Furthermore, Leela being sent on a mission for the Time Lords gives us the great gag of seeing a member of the Celestial Intervention Agency reduced to a "human slave" of K9, the "toy automaton"; in fact, everything about K9 getting to be in charge for once is riotously good fun ("mistress - er, slave!"), and a lovely way of puncturing everyone else's seriousness. K9 in general is well-used here, appropriately undermining Time Lord pomp, speaking through a muzzle, and interacting with charming drunken rogues like Mephistopheles Arkadian (what a name: a link to an ancient Greek past via Faust), who also enlivens proceedings. In fact, it's the eccentric characters who are much more interesting than Time Lord shenanigans and who I want to know more about (I know Braxiatel is supposed to be the Doctor's older brother or something, but he's dull here, as are Narvin and Torvald): the outlaws, former savages, and rag-tag wheeler-dealers who are simply getting by in this strange, arcane world presided over by people in silly hats. Show me more of them (I do hope the sweet-talking and amoral Arkadian will be back, as he's lots of fun). Weapon of Choice doesn't entirely work as drama - the pacing is a bit odd, the action not as clear or gripping as it could be - but there's lots to enjoy, and definitely promise of better things here.

Other things:
I don't like the theme at all, which is far too self-consciously "edgy" (it feels like an audition piece for the Torchwood theme a few years early). Similarly, it feels weird hearing Romana say things like "You are not the boss!". Shouldn't Gallifrey feel a bit more magisterial, arcane, awe-inspiring? More organ music please!
"They wear the bodies of their slaves."/"Our bondspeople, Time Lord. The creature has assigned us her frame of her own volition. After three score years the agreement expires."/"After three score years, so does the human."
"Timonic"? Time-onic? Not feeling it.
"Her mood?"/"Above apoplexy but below incandescence."
"Mozart?"/"It purports to be."
Leela's monologue about Andred is surprisingly affecting: "There was a man. They said he was my tamer, but it was not like that. We were both of us lions, happy mated in our cage. Then came the day that he did not return. As two lions we were proud to walk the city, but one lion alone does not make a pride."
"Sentries for the sentries! I do like that."
"Some questions may never be answered, no matter how many times we ask them."
"K9's a vicious robot criminal from the Fifth Galaxy. Aren't you, K9?"/"Affirmative."/"You need to be more assertive than that."
"She drove me to drink. I'll be forever in her debt."
"My name is K9. I'm a criminal genius from the Fifth Galaxy. Do not underestimate me, Mr Arkadian."
"A most dogmatic dog."
"I beg you: as a fellow biped, show pity!"
"Madame, my business is dirty enough; damned if I'll stoop to politics."
"Lapdog of Rassilon!" is a new one.
Lovely to see the late, great Lynda Bellingham return as the Inquisitor from The Trial of a Time Lord - not a much-loved story, but she's a great character and actor, so a strong addition to the set-up, even if she really only shows up as a trailer for (presumably) a later story called The Inquiry.
"What are you doing here?"/"Devilment, deceit, dilettantism. The usual!"

Next: Gallifrey 1.2: Square One by Stephen Cole.

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