24 January 2014

AFT: An Unfair Advantage

Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian, Caricature: Phil writes for Colin Baker's Doctor most ably of the four we've encountered in this series - and that's saying something. This was cemented with his one-episode story Question Marks for Big Finish's 150th Main Range release (also for Sixie and Peri), but that's a review for another time. On many occasions, Phil's mentioned that this is the era he remembers most fondly, with Baker being 'his' Doctor, and that affection really shines through. The Doctor's dialogue is spot-on for the era, so much so that I began to wonder if Phil had gone back through the episodes noting phrases and speech patterns! But I'm sure the comfortable nature with which Phil's second favourite incarnation of the Time Lord is written is due entirely to his skillful scripting. He meets Ondre - a recording Drone working for the villain of the piece - and quickly befriends him as the lone survivor of a ravaged world. Once the plot all begins to come together in Part Two, it doesn't take the Doctor long to work out what's really going on. He destroys the data disc with all the information on the Dalek-Cyber War, leaving him with the ominous message from the Judoon that he has personally condemned every planet that is lost to the War by preventing them from intervening. I have to say, I'm with the Doctor here, I think the Judoon (and all the other races seen here) would just make matters worse. It does feel a bit odd though that he does just up and leave, rather than looking for a way to stop the fighting and devastation. Maybe he figures that it'll all sort itself out in the end? Or, since the next story is with the Other Baker, we learn something new in that that this older Doctor knows not to mess with..? Overall, a well written turn for the Doctor, besting even Phil's Pertwee (the most successful recreation until this story).

Born in the USA: Like the Doctor, Phil revives Peri with great skill. He mixes all of that mid-'80s bluster and naivety with some of wisdom and maturity she has benefited from during her time with Big Finish. I'm not Peri's biggest fan during Season 22, but she does have her moments where I really like her. This is the epitome of that. Although she's not given a terrible amount to do (scrapes her ankle, waits for the Doctor, gets kidnapped, gets kidnapped by someone else, and rescued by the Doctor) she's presented as much more likable. I did feel for her having that slimy bugger (quite literally) Sil leering over her once more - and it wouldn't be the last time! She also helps instigate the final segment of the story by deactivating Ondre, enabling the Doctor to realise Rendaal (or at least this version) is just a simulation. With some neat dialogue and a faithful relationship between her and the Doctor, it's another TARDIS team Phil's nailed perfectly.

Great Lines: "The planet Rendaal. A simple feudal world of peaceful farming and mining communities and GRAND SWEEPING VISTAS!" This feels ripped straight from '80s Who.

"Reset! We keep going until the Doctor gives us the answers we seek!"

"Those creatures are as deadly as the real things!"

"You have doomed us!" / "No, I have saved you."

The Plot: Always out to make a quick fortune, Sil has constructed a simulation of the planet Rendaal, and somehow ensnared the Doctor and Peri in it. He records the actions of the Doctor as he encounters the series' two eponymous villains by using a recording drone disguised as a native, intending to sell the data on for a massive profit to planets desperate for a way to defeat the Daleks and Cybermen to save their homeworlds. The Doctor destroys the data, trying to discourage these affected races from concerning themselves with the War. 

Plastic Fantastic: The Colin Baker figure is a great sculpt, and it's shown off to its best here. It's amazing how simply lighting it from different angles can totally change its look. Nicola Bryant's Peri from Attack of the Cybermen is shot well in An Unfair Advantage too. They look so authentic together too. It's nice to have a proper companion figure in the series at last too. As impressive as Phil's custom Jamie is, there's no beating the real thing. CO's face sculpt is nearly as accurate as the dialogue Phil delivers it - perfect. The Ondre figure, I learn from the Behind The Scenes section, is some kind of Star Trek figure. I hadn't seen it before, so it makes a very nice change and worked really well. In the bidding scenes, there are various new series figures such as Jabe, the Hath, Kudlak from Sarah Jane Adventures and the Blowfish from Torchwood.  And of course there's a Weevil from the same show as Sil's henchman. These were all well used, and I know that if there was a huge range of figures that hadn't been seen in the TV show, Phil would probably have chosen those instead, but these fitted the bill perfectly in the supporting roles they were given.

Verdict: The fourth story in the Daleks v Cybermen series chooses interestingly not to feature any actual Daleks or Cybermen. The closest we get is seeing  their ships locked in combat near the conclusion. Aside from that, we get first Sil's holograms of both races, and then the Doctor's. An interesting point was to exclude the imperial Daleks from this, and just have the grey 'Skaro' versions. Peri's knowledge of the Daleks puts this after Revelation of the Daleks, meaning that both factions are in existence. Presumably Davros is off breeding some more somewhere. 

While I think it was the right decision to scale back their involvement mid-way through the series, the War did seem to take a bit of a back seat here. The focus was not on the conflict, but on Sil profiting from it - which, by the way, is highly believable. Phil says that his intention was to show the impact of the War on the innocent with this segment, and without meaning to sound negative, I think that perhaps that may have been neglected to a certain degree. While a 'planet-under-seige' story wouldn't have sustained itself for two episodes, and would've needed another dimension, I think the reintroduction of Sil took precedence. There has to be a certain amount of standalone quality in a mid-series story and that's fulfilled amply here. What I'm trying (and failing ineptly) to say is that although the notion of Sil generating the planet on the cheap was great, perhaps just a glimpse of the planet actually being ravaged would have helped sell it? This was still a really enjoyable aspect of the story though.

It was delightful to have the Sixth Doctor and Peri reunited, bickering but amicably and in a much less abrasive (to the viewer / reader) way than they were afforded during Series 22 - or indeed parts of Series 23. They were my highlight of the story, frankly, and it's a bit of a shame they didn't have more time together. Hopefully they will in future stories, and I'm absolutely confident Phil will do this to the benefit of any tale, not to its detriment. After two stories without a trusted ally, it feels good for the Doctor to bounce off again, and it's great to see them both just enjoying their time travelling in the TARDIS - such a rare event under John Nathan-Turner.

The overall shooting and editing of this story was again very slick and assured. The effects are definitely worth it - they enhance the story by such a great amount in such a visual medium. Of particular note is Rendaal and Sil's building in its protective dome. These both look superb, and a world is built up very successfully in a short few frames. I feel sorry for Phil having to re-letter one page, but I'm grateful he did. The sets, especially Sil's monitor room look brilliant and especially suitable for the era. I totally bought into the henchman and Sil running operations from this little room. There's a faithful lack of TARDIS scenes here too, also contributing the overall pacing of the story.

In summary then, an expertly crafted story with delightfully sketched characters and settings. It's a joy to have the Doctor, Peri and Sil all together again, even if there was a lack of Sil's laugh. Each character served their purpose well, and An Unfair Advantage really helped to advance and broaden the arc. This is exactly what the series needed. With previous stories being set on a spaceship, Skaro and Mondas, there was a danger that it would feel too insular and exogenous to the rest of the universe. This story firmly brushes that away. All the races that were willing to buy the information build up the required cultures and devastation. There can surely be little doubt left in any reader's mind that Lawrence is not only an expert writer but a professional series producer too. A triumph, and I can't wait to see where it goes next in The Coming of the Comet with the Fourth Doctor and Leela.

In a Nutshell: A faithful mid-'80s addition to the ongoing arc that adds scale and depth.

You can read An Unfair Advantage on the Action Figure Theatre site here

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