Thursday, 6 July 2017

Gallifrey 2.4: Insurgency by Steve Lyons (July 2005)

In the BF stable at least, Steve Lyons is ahead of the pack when it comes to non-linear narratives and experimenting with how time, well, works. He's thus a logical fit for the frequently time-twisting Gallifrey II - it's no great surprise that they got him in eventually, and here he is contributing its fourth chapter, Insurgency. I was imagining something full of temporal twists, non-linearity, and high concepts (i.e. Pandora); what Lyons does instead is not what I anticipated at all - he's the first writer for this series of audio dramas to direct the spotlight away from the political heavyweights and onto a different group of people, namely, students at the Time Lord Academy. Yes, students at a prestigious institution have a cushy number compared to some, and they're hardly the oppressed Shabogans (I do long for their story to be told, almost more than anything), but what instantly comes to mind here - to my mind, certainly - is that there's some really interesting class-based stuff you can tap into about not feeling at home in an august, much-revered academic elite; about feeling out of place because of one's ethnic background or what kind of household you grew up in (I'm only being half-autobiographical here; for a whole raft of reasons, I was not as out of place at Oxford as many people in different situations, both known and unknown to me, but such an alienation is not a completely alien feeling either, let's put it that way - and pardon the pun).

The canny thing about doing a story about alien immigrants on Gallifrey - what their place in this society is, how they are treated, how they feel - is how fascinatingly it sits alongside Leela's presence on the Time Lord planet, which I've already praised as one of the series' highlights (if not the highlight). Leela has been the outsider throughout these stories, our single major non-Time Lord figure. This status - together with the familiarity that comes from her being a TV companion from one of the show's most popular eras - makes her the easy way in, the "audience identification figure" if you like (though I don't much like that phrase). Lyons' bunch of students, the cream of the crop, are a different prospect altogether: one Gallifreyan, one human, one Warpsmith of Phaidon, and a Monan (note that at one point they are referred to as 'tribes' and Darkel refers to them as 'every species that's learned how to rub two sticks together'). Positioning Leela as their Academy tutor, as set up at the end of Pandora, is a smart move and serves as a way of making her part of the Gallifreyan establishment she once regarded as distant and unapproachable, an establishment to which she did not belong, thereby fitting into the slow 'Gallifreyanization' of Leela's character this series has already set in motion.

It might be a bit much to read Leela's arc in this series as that of an ethnic minority individual who has been seduced and betrayed by a white member of the elite who changes once she's fallen for him (Andred), especially given Louise Jameson is white herself, but elements of it are definitely there; uncomfortable though some of the repercussions of the 1970s' "noble savage" ideas are, she more obviously resembles the British establishment's stereotype of a "foreign" tribal woman than a working-class one. Of course, Leela becomes a member of the establishment herself, her principles compromised; we might see this itself as a nod to the elite's willingness to diversify at a glacial pace, allowing little token developments to take place piece by piece. As Jack Graham argues, the rotten establishment is still the rotten establishment, even if it's a bit more inclusive for appearances' sake these days. Is social mobility possible on Gallifrey, which in certain respects is an exaggerated, ultra-elitist version of 2005 Britain? Is successful assimilation and integration possible, without inevitably ending in machinations and deportation? Perhaps, this story suggests (with Leela as a successful example) - but slowly and rarely.

"I've seen [in my dreams] the corridors of the Capitol awash with blood," Romana laments, words echoed later by Pandora, a blatant nod to Enoch Powell's infamous 1968 "rivers of blood" speech. But the parallels are a deliberate inversion: the blame for the bloodshed Romana foresees is laid squarely at the door of Inquisitor Darkel of the House of Jurisprudence, the Enoch Powell / Marine Le Pen / et cetera of this set-up ("her divisive speeches and her archaic attitudes"). In 2005, of course, the word 'insurgency' had an added resonance - the insurgents in Iraq responding to American warmongering, though here the students' internal fights are deliberately manipulated by Darkel herself. Xenophobia now joins the long list of attitudes Darkel is willing to - well, if not exactly espouse herself, at least encourage, in order to weaken Romana's position and challenge her for the Presidency. As with practically anything to do with Lynda Bellingham in Gallifrey, this is compelling stuff.

While Lyons impresses on the thematic resonances front, and the story is overall pacey and engrossing, his characterisation is more lacking. I mention above that Leela and a bunch of students we've never met before are different prospects when it comes to making us care about their alienation: here are five people, none of whom we know anything about or have any attachment to, suddenly elevated to become the focus of a 75-minute drama. If you want to sell that, great characters would help, and Lyons just doesn't provide in my view. Neeloc, leader of the student bunch and a young Time Lord who idealises the Doctor, never transcends the obvious reading implied here - that he's meant to represent a Doctor Who fan, a reading so obvious as to be outright boring, and making him a pale imitation of Whizzkid. As for Taylor, it's not the right kind of wacky to have a bland, nondescript Scotsman training at the Academy, which just seems willfully weird. The others are not much better served, and there's never much actual drama beyond surface level in the students' sudden swerve into conflict, making the audio a chore to listen to. It's not just the students who are off, either: Romana seems curiously naive when it comes to the Pandora entity, failing to heed Narvin's warnings (which all storytelling logic tells us will prove prescient), and the rest of the time simply sees Lalla Ward wandering around shouting until she finally gets something to do at the story's close, whilst Andred's change of heart feels rather abrupt.

Very high marks for what it tries to do conceptually, but fairly middling and superficial on the character front, Insurgency feels of a piece with some of Lyons' other early audios but is some way behind Son of the Dragon. Oh, and I miss Brax.

Other things:
Darlington's music gets better and better - it's very moody here indeed.
"You have the wisdom of experience, Leela. Never undervalue that. It's something that's been denied to most Gallifreyans for generations."
John Leeson does a great job as Pandora-possessing-K9.
"There would be no advantage in discerning the future, were it immutable."
"Microspans" is one of this series' silliest bits of technobabble.
"Suggestion, Mistress: pull yourself together!"/"Suggestion for you, K9: no more empathy, please!"
"You cannot avoid everybody who is not the same as you - if that was the case, why leave your world at all?"
Okay, this bit from Darkel is delicious: "Nobody could have anticipated the death of Taylor Addison..."
For the last few tracks, the story picks up somewhat as we head towards what looks like an explosive confrontation between Darkel and a Romana who is thinking about becoming the Imperiatrix. It's up to Stewart Sheargold to address all this, Pandora's return, and Romana's killing of Andred...

Next: Gallifrey 2.5: Imperiatrix by Stewart Sheargold (August 2005).

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