29 December 2013

BF: Urgent Calls

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Official Synopsis: Earth, 1974. An innocent phone call. Okay, it was a wrong number, but there can't be any harm in that. Can there? 

Preconceptions: To be honest, I had no idea what this about. I listened to it initially because I knew it was only one episode, which is convenient around Christmas - the time of devoting all your time to help others waste theirs. I didn't even read the synopsis included above. It was really enjoyable and refreshing to dive into a story not knowing what might happen in the next half-hour, it's definitely encouraged me to try and do it more often!

Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian, Caricature: The Doctor goes on a bit of a personal journey in this one-episode story. He's travelling alone, and starts off with the bold, possibly egocentric personality we saw in his televised adventures - until Terror of the Vervoids anyway. His conversations with Lauren soften him considerably; the turning point comes when she basically has a go at him for not caring about anyone but himself. He tells her that he has "rather too much" intrigue in his life sometimes, and as a result of their first phone call, he saves hers. He says picking up ringing phones is a compulsion of his, and that if he kept in touch with everyone he saved he'd never get anything done. Lauren rhetorically asks him what the odds are of them getting in contact a second time, and he starts working it out before she stops him. The Doctor becomes gentler and more friendly as he and Lauren become more familiar, and by their final call he's even asking how she is. He says a change of scene regularly helps him, and he always seems to be doing it. Despite my aversion to the Sixth Doctor onscreen (I think Colin Baker's a great actor and ambassador for the show, it's his Doctor I'm not keen on, and that's no fault of his), I usually rather enjoy him in Big Finish's hands, and it's no different here; in half an hour he's afforded almost as much development as he got in two TV series. Of course, he's getting up to his usual mischief - principally getting locked up for a "misunderstanding". I really enjoyed Old Sixie in this one.

Wrong Numbers: Kate Brown takes on the role of Lauren Hudson for this episode, and performs her really well. She's written and performed wonderfully plainly - in the best possible way. So often in science fiction (particularly Who), "real" people are anything but, and it's quite refreshing in the conversational and relaxed manner she takes. Her style of narration and her questioning of the Doctor are much more natural than most of what you'll find in any '80s story. She's a telephone operator who has a metal worm wrapped around her spine. Luckily, the Doctor picks up a phone ringing in a phone box as he passes by, and can diagnose her from her symptoms, and tells her to get straight to hospital, saving her life.  The Doctor quotes  Thomas Jefferson to her ("I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."), and the next call she makes is to a radio station running a competition to win a holiday - and you can guess the question. She's so appreciative to the Doctor she pays for a solicitor to get him out of jail! Lauren sees things in different ways since having talked to him, and learned about aliens. In a great, believable touch, Robson tells us she finds herself bored a lot more now, knowing what's out there. 

Great Lines: "What else do you do then?" / "Whatever I think is right."

The Plot:  A virus dropped out of a passing spaceship and fell to Earth. Now it's adapted to human technology and latched onto the phone network. Its natural home would of course be the telephone exchange, where all calls are processed. The Doctor says it was designed as a weapon, but it only brings Lauren luck here. First, her lift is saved, then she wins a holiday, then discovers a sale at her favourite shop, then meets up with an old friend. However, these 'coincidences' (which aren't isolated to the Doctor and Ms Hudson) are part of the virus - a network so that agents can communicate with each other. It puts you in contact with whoever can help you most. In this way, you could assassinate someone just by calling them. A frightening prospect in our technology-wealthy age.

Sounds Good: Steve Foxon does a great job of creating atmospheres and settings from very little dialogue description that really helps to sell the tale to you. Some of the sounds he musters up for us are a ringing phone (pretty obviously), traffic, the hubub of the telephone exchange in action, a party at Connie's house, a radio station and the interior of a cell. John Ainsworth's direction really gives this story a big shove in the right direction as well, keeping the listener interested and the performers energetic. It's hard to describe the influence that a director can have on a cast simply by who they are, and they way they act. There may not be much actual direction needed; the atmosphere makes a huge difference. The story really benefits when the actors are enjoying themselves, and you can tell they are in Urgent Calls.

Verdict: A brilliant little story, much better than some that have been given much more attention and column inches. It never stops for breath, but keeps a relaxed feel thanks to Ainsworth and Foxon. The worm incident isn't even the main plot of Robson's half hour adventure, conveying both the scale and the intimacy of this piece. It's highly effective having it all told from Lauren's point of view (the Doctor is at 'the other end' of the phone throughout), a great directorial choice from John Ainsworth, and seeing both how her attitude to life develops and how the Doctor changes. That's a really neat feature of this tale; both the Doctor and Lauren are changed significantly by their chance conversations. The Doctor mellows considerably (possibly the beginning of the 'Softer Six') and Lauren's eyes are opened to a whole universe of possibilities. We can only hope that one day the Doctor bumps into her again for a trip or two. On the basis of this story, they'd be brilliant. I was initially dubious about the one-part format of this story, but Messrs Robson, Ainsworth, Foxon, Baker and Brown have blown away any doubts at all. A nice innovation for the range, and I hope the quality of these was kept up. I don't know when I'll next listen to a one-parter, but off the back of this I look forward to it.

In a Nutshell: Listen to it now!

You can buy it from Big Finish with release #94 ID here, or listen to it for free on the BF Soundcloud page here. I downloaded it free with the offer in DWM 467, but it's well worth paying for.

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