Monday, 19 June 2017

Gallifrey 1.4: A Blind Eye by Alan Barnes (May 2004)

A story set entirely on Earth - on the Vienna-Calais train, to be precise, on 3 September 1939, the eve of World War II - is not exactly what one would expect from the finale to a series about political intrigue among the upper echelons of a vastly sophisticated race who act as custodians of time travel. That the story sees India Fisher return, this time to play Cecilia 'Sissy' Pollard - sister of the more famous Charlotte Pollard - is merely the icing on the proverbial cake when it comes to serving up the unexpected. Hugo Myatt makes an extremely welcome return, too, as the Glitz-like "trans-temporal crook" Mephistopheles Arkadian, meddling in interesting temporal distortions far and wide as he does, but being damn likeable at the same time. I commented in reviewing Weapon of Choice that the more earthy vagabond characters are often of greater interest than the uptight bureaucrats we find on Gallifrey itself, and so it's definitely a step in the right direction to bring Arkadian back. It makes for an eccentric cocktail, and not one I could've predicted after the relatively 'straight' developments of the previous three stories; this one feels much more like a Doctor Whoish mash-up of disparate elements, and frankly it's all the better for it.

It's no secret that Fisher is one of Big Finish's longest-serving and best-loved performers (naysayers: be quiet), and it's always a pleasure to see her pop up; I can quite understand why they got her to continue appearing opposite the Sixth Doctor in the Main Range and then eventually give her her own series. Sissy Pollard, in this story at least, is almost as enmeshed in confused timelines as her sister, destined to die in the Englischer Garten in Munich but now on her way from Vienna to Calais. In obvious ways, then, she's an inversion of Charley, a dark mirror, but Barnes takes it about as far as it's possible to go: Sissy is snobbish, patronising, racist, xenophobic, oh, and she's a fascist sympathiser and admirer of Adolf Hitler and Oswald Moseley as well. 

Is this too much? I suppose it's all a bit unlikely. But I'm not sure drama should always focus on the prosaically "likely", especially not when we're working in this particular genre. As Sissy, "the fairest fascist of them all", waxes lyrical - "I'm lucky even to have set eyes on [Hitler], let alone to have sat and talked to him. When one sits beside him, it's like sitting beside the sun. He gives out rays or something; he is the greatest man of all time" - the phrase 'a blind eye' (admittedly repeated far too often in the story) becomes ever more apt: the 1930s, that 'low dishonest decade' of which Auden wrote, were after all several long years of people turning a blind eye to warning signs (and how distressingly relevant it all feels, I might add). There's plenty of appropriately unpleasant undercurrents here, not just in Sissy's abhorrent beliefs but also in the misogynistic bite to some of Erich Kepler's remarks towards her (one well-observed highlight: Kepler is unmasked as a Time Lord and spits with disgust that he'd never lower himself to the level of sleeping with someone like Sissy, thus unwittingly displaying the same kind of racialist beliefs she propagates herself; Time Lords are not above most things of which humans are capable). There's a sense that we're meeting the real deal when it comes to horrible villains, and that goes some way to raising the threat - even as this actually feels like the most low-key of the Gallifrey stories so far, seeing as most of it takes place on a steam train, but the two aspects complement each other well.

The historical backdrop works marvellously; it helps that I'm a sucker for all things German, but even the few choice lines that comprise Arkadian's account of Sissy walking the streets of Munich by night (which I highly recommend as an activity, minus the suicidal thoughts and imminent six-year-long conflict), or that last dark coda as she kills herself and the timeline unfolds just as it must... there's a melancholia to it all that fits the Sturm und Drang movement to which Arkadian briefly nods (I'm thinking of Goethe's 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in particular, with its resulting wave of young male suicides) and this melancholia really works for me. I find that of lots of Barnes' writing. Some reviewers - including one or two particularly high-profile ones - don't have much time for him, but I like most of his work that I've heard: Storm Warning, Neverland and The Girl Who Never Was are all overlong, but engaging, rich, colourful and full of emotional conviction. That he has a tendency towards overtly visual, lyrical flourishes has never bothered me - I like that kind of thing, though I concede others don't find it works for them on audio - and he comes up with another of those here in the form of two identical trains from parallel timelines destined for collision. It's a tantalising, entrancing bit of imagery: the different choices made laid out as different stages on a railway track, and a well-suited thematic parallel to the dark mirror of Charley Pollard, herself a creature of paradox. But there is no Doctor to save her sister at the story's close, for Gallifrey is, like I, Davros and the other spin-offs, a Doctorless chronotope: a narrative space in which he does not intrude.

A Blind Eye has, in one respect, an advantage over even Barnes' best work, which is that it's never long enough to become ponderous or bloated. It's pacey, exciting, full of lovely twists and turns, terrifically acted by Ward, Jameson, Fisher and Myatt, and bursting with mad ideas like a shapeshifting antique dealer who sells Nazi memorabilia to tyrants on colony worlds or two trains representing different timelines. More or less the main point against it is quite how often the script feels the need to repeat the phrase "a blind eye" to ensure that we grasp the thematic unity of it all, which does feel a tad patronising and inelegant. On the other hand, the extent to which Barnes is willing to lay into those who are happy to overlook the illegal, inhuman activities of Nazis and Time Lords alike as being almost as bad as the criminals themselves gives the story more teeth in comparison to the rather anaemic political subtext we've had so far - let's hope this gets developed still further (I want more of a take-down of "the isolationist agenda written by neoconservatives", more about how "continuity [and Time Lord emphasis on non-interventionism and order] is a circle of misery").

In short, this is the best Gallifrey story of the first series, in part because it's pretty atypical of the series tone in general. On the one hand, that's rather damning with faint praise; on the other, if they can experiment like this from time to time, then Gallifrey will be all the richer for it. Like the other non-Dalek Empire spin-offs (Sarah Jane Smith, UNIT, Cyberman), I feel it takes that first series to find your feet, but fingers crossed that, like the first of those three, Gallifrey will go on to better things.

Other things:
I've ragged on him a fair bit throughout discussing these Gallifrey audios, but David Darlington's work here is improved - perhaps it's the change of milieu to one of Earth's historical past which proves much more up his street? Either way, strong stuff.
In a cast this small, did anyone really expect Miss Joy and "Erich Kepler" to be exactly what they seem?
I love the way Lalla Ward hesitates before saying "gentleman" in describing Arkadian.
"For one thing, it was I who sent the telegram."/"You sent the telegram?"/"I heard myself correctly."
"No parallel world can possibly be built with the Nazis conquering the world or some such, I don't deal in those sorts of cliches." (A fun nod to Colditz)
"She is one of Charley's clan? ... I see the resemblance now - but she does not carry the dignity that Charley had."
"Careless Talk Costs Lives". Hah.
"Romana, you said? So she is the Romany Queen!"
"You do not have a ticket?"/"I was in the most terrible rush."/"It is alright. I have no ticket either."
"Oh, you have a conscience, Arkadian?"/"The drink keeps it at bay, but I've not had so much as a snifter for - ooh, half an hour at least."
The story's best line, Leela speaking calmly and pragmatically as a creature approaches: "See! It is always a monster!"
"You played me like a violin!"/"I am but a humble fiddler. Narvin is the real virtuoso here."
The Keller of Bianca's nightclub! A Wormery reference! Hurray!
"We'll have you gassed by midnight, just before the taxidermist starts his work."/"Taxidermist?"/"Of course dear. Look at your situation: you're stuffed already..."
"Pause, K9."/"I have no paws."
"I can tell you are lying. It is when your lips move."
"Cascade of the heavens. I do love a touch of the old Sturm und Drang."
Leela's last scene with Andred (formerly 'Torvald') in the rain is heartbreaking: "I see my enemy in my enemy's clothes, and my heart runs cold. Because I see too that the man I loved is dead. I need no comfort. My husband is dead. I have done my grieving."
Leela having the opportunity, in September 1939, to kill Torvald before he kills her husband is a neat, era-appropriate twist on the old "let's kill Hitler" idea (they'll do a Doctor Who episode about that one day, you mark my words).

Next: Gallifrey 2.1: Lies by Gary Russell (April 2005)

No comments:

Post a Comment