03 January 2014

AFT: Apocalypse Dawns

What is the AFT? AFT stands for Action Figure Theatre, a website run and maintained by Philip Lawrence. On the 23rd of each month, a new Doctor Who story (brought to life with the help of action figures, in comic format) is uploaded to the site. Every now and then stories from other people are posted, but since 2001 Phil has written, directed, edited and formatted 100 stories, in addition to designing sets in painstaking detail before no doubt spending hours assembling them. A remarkable achievement, and if you've not experienced the AFT before, I think this is a good place to start, which is why I chose it. I should mention that Phil doesn't just post Doctor Who stories; Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Sapphire and Steel and Marvel characters have also received the AFT treatment, to name just a few. For more information, please visit either the site itself, its Facebook page or Phil's Twitter feed. You can also visit the AFT Downloads site, where you can download sets from AFT and TV serials - worth a look if you're interested in making your own stories!

Chaplin-esque: As you'd expect from the story kicking off the anniversary season on the AFT, most of the Second Doctor's quirks and cliches are here; he plays the recorder, there's a few double entendres but Lawrence refrains from completing the set with an 'Oh My Giddy Aunt'. The Doctor's quite whimsical in this story, but sadly there's not much time (due to the format) for the character moments Troughton was afforded on television. If this story had been broadcast in the sixties, you can tell he would have struck up a good friendship with the Dubolians, who he seems to have encountered at some point in the past. From dialogue alone, it seems that this must have been before he met Jamie, as he has to explain to him who they are, and long-term AFT readers will know that they previously appeared in the 2010 Fourth Doctor story The Space Mutant. Some of the dialogue doesn't quite feel like things the Second Doctor would say, but overall it's an above-average stab at this difficult-to-nail incarnation. Lawrence does capture the spirit of adventure and fun this Doctor embodied so well though, shown best in the first episode when he decides to reverse towards the ship that seems to have caused the TARDIS' engines to stop. Whilst it's hard to feel a connection between two plastic action figures, the spoken interaction between the Time Lord and Jamie sits well with that of the era. Given the relatively limited time available I felt the writer gave the Doctor a good story, with plenty to do. Lawrence's Troughton is usually faithful, an achievement given his preference of most other Doctors.

Great Scot: Yes, Jamie's back! "But Underground Toys haven't produced a plastic version of the Doctor's most faithful friend", you might say. And you'd be right. To get around this, Phil has made his own version using parts from various other figures, but mainly a Series 1 Captain Jack if you're interested. This creation can be seen to the right in all his finery. Jamie is well served by this story, but again he suffers from the compacted nature of the story. I understand that it takes a lot of time and resources to try and produce one of these stories (having attempted myself a few times) but it feels like whilst the plot fits well with the length, the characterisation suffers. The opening scenes with just the Doctor and Jamie first in the TARDIS and then exploring the Dubolian spacecraft are great, and completely evoke the era from which this story is supposed to herald. Fact fans will note that this is between Fury from the Deep and The Wheel in Space. Jamie gets a fair amount to do, and his actions are incidental to the plot. Again, some of his lines miss the mark a tad (would Jamie really say "thingy", for example?), but on the whole the character we're presented with here is entirely reminiscent of the Highlander we got onscreen - even down to (necessarily) being a question-asking device at the top of the second episode. The brash despair, affection for the Doctor, and strong moral compass are all served enjoyably in Apocalypse Dawns.

Great Lines: Vandredd: "We could jam transmissions, stop it calling for reinforcements." / Jamie: "How?" / The Doctor: "A simple jamming signal sent from the communications room?" / Jamie: "Oh aye, one of those."

Dalek: "You have been analysed and identified. An inefficient fusing of organic and machine."

The Plot: The Cybermen have been taking over the galaxy, and the Dubolians want to try and protect themselves from the metal maniacs by giving them a supposedly-dormant Dalek which they captured. The Cybermen want to know more about the creatures that have been attacking their fleet for so long, and so are naturally very pleased by this gift (as far as you can be when you're a Cyberman) before it awakens and begins shooting everything in sight. It is quickly ejected from the ship, and so the Mondasians turn to the Doctor for information on the Daleks as an alternative. But naturally they want to upgrade him first, along with Jamie and Vandredd. The Doctor manages to free them whilst the Cybermen are off stomping around their newly-aquired vessel and the Dalek arrives back on the ship. The trio jam all communications, so a Cyberman decides to record events to internal memory instead. They decide to self-destruct the ship, shortly before Vandredd is shot by both a Dalek and a Cyberman simultaneously - surely a very rare occurrence? Just as the Doctor and Jamie have set the craft to detonate and are cornered by the Dalek, the TARDIS makes a timely appearance and the pair are transported into it, to safety, but leaving the Daleks and Cybermen to be blown up in the concluding explosion.

Plastic Fantastic: Fair play to Phil. It's hard to tell an original, interesting story given a certain cast of characters. When the 'classic' series action figure range first came about, a variety of interesting and unexpected villains such as Magnus Greel, Mr Sin, the Robots of Death, Sharaz Jek, Sil and a Drashig were all immortalised in 5". But, inevitably, the biggest sellers are the Daleks and Cybermen - myself included. Now we have episode-specific Cybermen from The Tenth Planet, The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Invasion, Revenge of the Cybermen, Earthshock, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis; and Daleks from The Daleks, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Chase, The Daleks' Masterplan, Evil of the Daleks, Day of the Daleks, Planet of the Daleks, Death to the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks, Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks.. So, there is only a select number of stories you can tell, particularly in a monthly medium such as the AFT before you get around to the Doctor's two most famous adversaries. Phil's chosen to use era-specific models for each instalment in this year-long arc, which whilst extremely damaging to his wallet is great for us nostalgia-heads who enjoy seeing each Doctor face up to his foes in their appropriate liveries once more. There's some great shots and angles used here, and the variety of fonts and speech bubble shapes really help to make the comic visually appealing. This is all very professionally done, with only extremely minor niggles for this OCD reader.

Verdict: A very strong introduction to the 2013 Daleks v Cybermen arc, this is a brief but enjoyable story reminding us of the scale of the havoc it's possible for a select band of each species to wreak. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that it is a single Dalek against multiple Cybermen, and not the other way round as it feels like a bit of a repeated trope that one Skarosian (as no-one calls them) is at least a match for a group of Cybermen. It is still played well, with some nice integration of the typical 60s Who stages. It's a difficult line to tread, recreating bygone eras. On the one side you want to play out a traditional story from that era, with the hallmarks and stages (possibly the reason why the UT Second Doctor hasn't yet had an AFT story without the Cybermen); but on the flipside you want to create something innovative and unpredictable from those nostalgia-inducing ingredients. Unfortunately, I think the two-episode format restricts Phil somewhat in his desire to fulfil the latter of these two. It is a good story, don't get me wrong. It has a strong cliffhanger too, and mixes in elements from later in the series effectively.

My main issue with this story is the corner-cutting, and I don't mean that nastily, they had to be made. The first of these is the TARDIS just dematerialising, with no explanation given. This could be mentioned in a future episode, particularly given the nature of the finale, but so far it's not even mentioned that it disappeared after the event, without even a mention of the era-related HADS. At the climax, when the Doctor and Jamie are somehow transported inside it, it's not entirely clear what's happened. I have a similar issue with the Dalek. When it is expelled from the ship, there is a visual indication that something's occurring, but once again I couldn't really tell what. And when the polycarbide nasty re-enters the vessel, does it blast a hole, teleport or just magic in? There's an explosion, indicating the first, but then the ship seems to be intact and there's no loss of pressure or air or anything. I'm sure it's clear in the script, it just didn't translate all that well.

However, there is an awful lot to love here. I liked how the Doctor managed to unpick the locks from the conversion chambers by using his recorder to hit the right pitch. This feels particularly reminiscent of Season 5, just after the inception of the Sonic Screwdriver. Its a role the Sonic could fill, so it's refreshing to have an alternative solution. There's also a nice amount of foreshadowing of the rest of the arc presented, giving the spark of the Daleks/Cybermen war an expansive quality. You get a sense of scale from the opening panels depicting the war at its height, and it's interesting to go back and see how this conflict (apparently) came about. Another strength of Lawrence's is his creativity. Quite obviously, UT aren't in the habit of producing figures of characters that aren't featured in some kind of official medium. Lawrence created the alien race of the Dubolians from Laszlo that were in such famous abundance when they were first released, being the original 'pegwarmer'. Sadly, the base figure is still obvious, but history aside it's a convincing alien race that he has created - a kind of red-skinned pig-human combo. This doesn't detract from the story however, and is in no way the fault of Phil. It has to be said though, these creatures would never have been dreamt up during the Troughton era, and as such they feel a little out of place. Their natural home feels like the more colourful and daring times of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, but again, they fulfil a purpose within the narrative, and Phil has done well under strained conditions.

It is typical of Phil to turn a problem to his advantage, and in Apocalypse Dawns he has formed a story that works not only as a precursor to the most explosive events yet to come in the Daleks v Cybermen saga, but as a standalone story in its own right. This is a straightforward story, with solid characterisations of our regulars and some interesting progression for all the returning races. As such, the reader is left a little underwhelmed by the lack of really new content, but it's made up for by the glorious sets, direction, editing and effects. Marred by dialogue, a couple of typos and the avoidable Dalek-Cyberman bitch-off this is a story with nothing particularly massive to complain of. The flames of war have been lit, to be continued in The Seige of Skaro with Jon Pertwee's Doctor.

In a Nutshell: Nothing to whinge or rave about, this is a solid opening that's still worth your time.

You can read Apocalypse Dawns on the Action Figure Theatre site here

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