Radio

The Ghastly Impermanence: Eighth Wonder, Part 1

I make a lousy Whovian.

Despite having seen every extant episode of the TV series, I can’t pass a knowledge test dealing with the trivia of Doctor Who. Worse, I have no desire to. Coming late to the series as an adult, I have no personal stories about how I used to watch it with my friends on KVOS staying up late at night, etc etc. I have no need to resolve the paradox of the UNIT timeline created by Mawdryn Undead. I could hardly care less about petty discussions of what makes something “canon.”

Sentimentality is what makes a fanboy a fanboy. I have zero sentimentality, and just as little patience for it. I simply don’t care. Either a story is rubbish or it isn’t. I’ve formed those opinions without any need to compare my thoughts to the surveys in DWM or anyone else. What I do have in my relationship with Doctor Who is, I think, an advantage: I am a blank slate.

Because of this I have a special affinity for the Eighth Doctor. With only two televised appearances seventeen years apart, he is also a blank slate. His story has never been told on TV. Instead, one has to turn to other media. But this is a good thing. As Paul Scoones, author of The Comics Companion, noted in an interview about the Eighth Doctor’s fine run of comics in Doctor Who Magazine:

The Eighth Doctor strips are very much the pinnacle of what you can do with the Doctor Who strips. They’re so involved, they’re worthy of being regarded as comic strips in their own right, not just a spinoff from the television series…. The fact that Paul McGann only had one television story was a blessing in disguise for the comic strip, because it gave them the freedom to take it in new directions. They weren’t beholden to following some television continuity.

What is true of the comics is equally true of the Big Finish audio dramas. When the BBC handed the license for Doctor Who to the company in March of 1999, Big Finish had the run of the store to produce new adventures featuring all the living actors associated with the series. With the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors, they could and did tell stories that added to the history of the character, but within certain limits. Each of those Doctors (and the Fourth Doctor as well, when he joined Big Finish) had a fairly well-established personality, and a following based on those qualities. Their stories had to fit into so-called continuity.

When Paul McGann joined, however, they had a Doctor who had virtually no history and a barely sketched personality. There was no continuity to violate. Furthermore, they had the current Doctor. This meant no baggage, and a wide open future, with a chance to set the bar for all Doctor Who stories.

Beginning with his January 2001 debut in the audio drama Storm Warning through December 2004’s production The Next Life, Paul McGann’s Doctor and his companion Charley Pollard take the mythos into the future smoothly, with crisp stories and exquisite acting. The first four stories, Storm Warning, Sword of Orion, Stones of Venice, and Minuet in Hell, lay a fairly traditional groundwork, exploring the relationship between the Doctor and his companion on a series of picaresque adventures.

Alan Barnes, the writer of Storm Warning, had also written the first Eighth Doctor comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine in 1996. In that strip, “Endgame,” Mr. Barnes introduced a cool, suave, almost Byronic quality into The Doctor and, furthermore, gave him a perfect companion in Izzy Sinclair. Izzy was, in Mr. Barnes’ own words, “the anti-Ace,” a companion without a trace of the angst or combativeness typical of the Seventh Doctor’s companion Ace, and present in virtually every other companion of The Doctor since the introduction of Tegan Jovanka in 1982.

In her way, Mr. Barnes’ new companion Charley Pollard is another “anti-Ace.” She is a pure adventuress, slightly affected, completely self-assured, and a perfect counterpart for the Eighth Doctor. The interplay between them proves they treat each other as equals in almost every way, exactly the quality missing from the television companions before the new series. For a listener completely unfamiliar with Doctor Who, she offers a strong, sympathetic character. For an old fan, she offers a breath of fresh air.

The next six stories are anything but traditional. Paul McGann has said in numerous interviews that he wanted to explore the melancholic and downbeat side of The Doctor. This hadn’t really happened with the past few Doctors, so it was overdue. A hint of this new direction comes through in the six stories from Invaders From Mars through Neverland. Mark Gatiss’ script for Invaders From Mars seems an odd start to this story arc, with its odd pastiche of old radio genres: part gumshoe tribute, part horror, part sci-fi, and all retro. But it ends with a kind of foreboding that immediately traps the listener in one of the finest audio dramas ever produced by Big Finish: Robert Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight.

On the surface, The Chimes of Midnight appears to be a straight mystery. The Doctor and Charley materialize in an old Edwardian larder and begin spotting mysterious clues. So far, so good: a familiar Doctor Who setup. Then a character announces that there is going to be a murder as the clock strikes — her own. Suddenly, the listener is in the land of Agatha Christie murder mysteries. Then things get strange. No one even remembers there was a murder. Another character is murdered as the next hour chimes. She, too, is forgotten. And so on…and so on…every time the clock chimes the hour, with the clock getting faster each time. But who is murdering the servants and how do the servants know? And that isn’t even the strangest part: all of the murder victims come back to life at midnight. Then they are murdered again.

One of the things that excites me about the script is how the lion’s share of the drama depends not on The Doctor but rather upon Charley. It’s refreshing to hear a companion act like a human being and not simply ask questions on behalf of the audience that clarify the plot. As the story comes to its rather dark, ambiguous conclusion it becomes clear that without Charley’s lust for life none of this would ever have happened, and that she is at the center of something even larger still. Robert Shearman’s script delicately walks between genre, pastiche, parody, and experiment; by turns it is comic, melodramatic, and deadly serious.

The Chimes of Midnight has an excellent script but what really makes the work transcendent is the acting and, even more so, the sound design. Paul McGann is as fabulous as ever, but this go-around India Fisher ups her game immensely and delivers a jewel of a performance. She plays Charley existing simultaneously in two different timelines, each remembering the other, each beginning to merge with the other to create yet another timeline, yet every second of her performance is perfectly clear. It is, however, the supporting cast who truly hold the story together with their fabulous ensemble work. Lennox Greaves and Sue Wallace have an admirable chemistry and an ear for the Edwardian tropes that evoke Upstairs Downstairs perfectly (Sue Wallace’s character is even named after actress Angela Baddeley, who played the cook in Upstairs Downstairs). The younger cast of upstarts featuring Louise Rolfe as the unloved scullery maid, with Robert Curbishley and Juliet Warner as the young lovers, add the necessary rebellious element into the ensemble that makes it all so situationally British.

Complementing this superior ensemble is one of the finest soundscapes ever heard at Big Finish, led by Andy Hardwick. The play occurs in four rooms and each of these rooms has a distinctly different sound: the reverberant, hollow-sounding scullery; the loud, busy kitchen with its layered voices; the clipped, dry pantry that is all midtones; and the airy, fiery sounds of the great hall and its fireplace. Even beyond that there is incredible attention to detail. The ticking of the clock sounds different in each room. Charley’s voice changes the more the house begins to absorb her. Teapot sounds comprise a series of actual murder screams slightly sped up and delayed. Repetition of dialogue creates repetition of whole scenes. It’s all quite unlike anything else, and stands as a high water mark in early Big Finish audio drama.

The next three stories return to straight adventure, with each one becoming just a bit more somber. The excellent Seasons of Fear is followed by the claustrophobic Embrace the Darkness and finally the anarchic Time of the Daleks before the stories all come to a head in Neverland, which is a very dark epic indeed, wherein the body of Charley Pollard is ripped open to form a nexus between two universes through which the dead can and do return.

All of these are solid adventure stories with fine ensemble acting. Taken together they lead inexorably into the sprawling epic that is Zagreus.

Easily the most ambitious Doctor Who story ever attempted in audio, and probably in any medium, Zagreus was writer/producer Gary Russell’s tribute for the 40th anniversary of the TV series. Naturally, to complete the circuit he brought back writer Alan Barnes to help tie up everything they’d started back in Storm Warning. As a result, it is a bit of a smorgasbord.

Fanboys were doubtless tickled that virtually every living actor who played a companion of Doctors 4-8 in either audio or television make their appearance. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy — Doctors 5, 6 and 7 — also appear, but as with most of the other actors in much different roles from the ones for which they are known, and almost invariably cast against type. Even Paul McGann is not even credited as the Eighth Doctor, but only as Zagreus.

There are still other surprises. Instead of a typical two-disc set, Zagreus is three, each bearing a different title connecting them to the previous Neverland: “Wonderland,” “Heartland,” and “Wasteland.” Each time one hears the famous Doctor Who theme, it reappears in a different arrangement. The story’s setting switches back and forth between different past Earths, then past, future and alternate Gallifrey, before traversing the Death Zone on Gallifrey into Rassilon’s foundry. As a final surprise, the Third Doctor appears — seven years after the death of Jon Pertwee — as a hologram in the TARDIS.

Given how much is going on in the play, it’s amazing how well it coheres. Gary Russell’s vision is perfectly clear, and the amount of time he had to think about it shows. It’s a vast story and yet somehow compact. Also, you get an evil Eighth Doctor in the bargain.

While I like the story itself, Zagreus serves even better as a clean break with the past. Listening to it, I became sharply aware that every story since Storm Warning had been leading inexorably to this, that this story was a door closing. The door that opens after this begins with the next Eighth Doctor story, Robert Shearman’s Scherzo.

Scherzo remains one of the most remarkable Big Finish productions. It’s possibly the most acoustically experimental piece ever associated with Doctor Who, and I’m naturally inclined to appreciate such experiments. Narratively it starts simply enough, with The Doctor reciting a fairy tale about a king who bends everything in his kingdom to his will — people, animals, waves, clouds. After the intro theme music The Doctor and Charley find themselves inside the immobile TARDIS, in another universe, watching its walls being dissolved by shadows and oblivion. Feeling that it will devour them along with the ship, Charley grabs The Doctor and they leave into the nothingness outside.

Then it gets just a little more strange. Outside there is only blinding light (perfect for radio) and a piercing, yet subtle high pitched tone. Charley and The Doctor provide some dialogue that bounces back and forth between emotional, philosophical and downright brutal. With each bit of heightened dialogue, the piercing sound in the background changes ever so slightly, so that the sounds begin to work on two levels: The Doctor and Charley’s metaverbal tones crossover from the dialogue into the sound design and then begin to feedback, until slowly it starts to echo words. Then sentences. Then it no longer echoes at all but forms new words on its own.

What is happening is that they are actually facing a creature comprised solely of sound who begins to steal their sounds so that it can live. Both The Doctor and Charley are actually in a kind of circular glass tube going around and around with each circuit rewinding time and living it over and over until they are, so to speak, ripe for plunder. It’s extremely creepy, extremely effective, and extremely fabulous. Mr. Shearman has always had a gift for psychological horror. It’s present in The Chimes of Midnight and his later short story collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, but where those stories neatly balance the horror with a dose of absurdist humor, Scherzo goes instead for the grotesque.

The Eighth Doctor has never been this dark and unpleasant. It’s a harsh introduction to the “Divergent Universe” stories. Other stories in the series continue the harshness and the experimental approach, particularly The Natural History of Fear, an excellent study of circular evolution from Jim Mortimore. At the end of the arc stands yet another grand closer from Alan Barnes and Gary Russell, The Next Life, which wraps up the loose ends of the Zagreus and “Divergent Universe” storylines tidily and returns The Doctor and Charley back to their own universe, right into the laps of the Daleks.

By this time in their history, Big Finish knew two things. Doctor Who was coming back to television, courtesy of Russell T. Davies, and their licensing agreement with BBC was expiring. Momentarily this meant an uncertain future for the audio dramas. How would they continue? Would they continue at all?

However, Russell T. Davies positively loved the Big Finish audio dramas. Not only did he write the foreword to the 2003 book celebrating the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas, he also hired people from Big Finish to work on the new television series, notably Robert Shearman who adapted his audio drama Jubilee for the new television series. Consequently, the BBC renewed the Big Finish licensing agreement through the end of 2007.

By the next time Paul McGann would appear as the Eighth Doctor, though, there would be a Ninth Doctor who would then be the new standard bearer for the series. And, being on television, that universe would exist quite independently of the Big Finish stories — or at least it would seem to. This put the character into the same situation as the other Doctors. Every story would become, if you will, past tense, rather than present.

The effect of this however was the opposite of what one might suspect. It didn’t dull the Eighth Doctor stories, nor even slow them down. It brought the Eighth Doctor into his true maturity and his finest period.

More on that next time.


Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net