27 April 2014

BF: Afterlife

Before I begin, I just want to say that what's presented below is the third draft of this review. I have listened to this story twice, and read its script once. After first listen, I was so not keen on Afterlife that I was unkeen. I disliked it. However, I think I must have just been caught in a bad mood or something. On subsequent experiences, I have enjoyed this far more. Some of my criticisms in terms of plot remain from the first draft, but I do appreciate this far more now. Sorry for the delay...

This is probably my most anticipated release of 2013. The Veiled Leopard was my first encounter with Big Finish. It was a free CD with Doctor Who Magazine a staggering eight years ago, and  featured Peri, Erimem (another original Big Finish companion), Ace and of course Hex. Instantly I took a liking to him. His general manner, and the way Philip Olivier performed the part with such warmth and innocence was perfect. My first actual purchase from the audio masters was The Angel of Scutari, the third in the 2009 trilogy featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace and "Mr" Hex. Since then, I've adored this team. It's undoubtedly my favourite in the whole of their range, even outranking the Eighth Doctor and Lucie. 

The events being played out in Afterlife began in Scutari, five years ago. At the close of that play, Hex was shot and so was taken back to the hospital where the Doctor and "McShane" first met him (where he worked) whilst investigating an invasion of the Cybermen. There followed a number of revelations about secrets the Doctor had been keeping from him, regarding his mother in particular, and I don't think Hex's trust in the Doctor was ever fully restored. It was at this point that the Doctor began the final stage in his plan to bring down the Elder Gods. He ran two TARDISes simultaneously, one carrying Hex and Ace, and one a pair of trained soldiers named Private Sally Morgan and Captain Lysandra Aristedes. This storyline began to fold at the end of the frankly superb Protect and Survive as the two TARDISes merged. The most recent instalment in this arc was Gods and Monsters, where the Doctor utilised his Machiavellian setup to bring down Fenric. Hex gave his life at the conclusion to save those of his TARDIS companions. In the final scene after the credits, he was heard to be inviting the Elder Gods to 'play' with him, implying his survival. This wasn't a widely-discussed scene within fandom and I think many may have missed it.

So, I was both incredibly excited and apprehensive for this release. Coming off the back of all that continuity that had been building for nearly a decade, this needed to be a clean break. I knew (through hope and intuition) that Hex would rejoin the ship; I was praying that surely Big Finish wouldn't be foolish enough to brush what I considered to be their single best creation aside. I was also nervous because Matt Fitton is the author of this story, and my only prior experience of his work was Black and White (which slotted between Protect and Survive and Gods and Monsters) which I wasn't overly appreciative of. I don't think it was necessarily badly written but the style of story just wasn't to my taste - compounded by Aristedes, and Ace's attitude. Since then Fitton's become pretty prolific in the Big Finish world, and now has over twenty credits to his name for the company. Nevertheless, I was still worried. This is a little section of the Whoniverse that I care about so deeply. I really didn't want it to get screwed up.

Afterlife unfolds with a very similar structure to that which Nick Briggs tried to introduce when he first became Executive Producer, of a three-part and a one-part story. Only here, the one-part comes at the beginning. The first episode features no actors but McCoy, Aldred and (all-too fleetingly) Olivier as Ace reels at the Professor for his actions. He is clearly heartbroken, but can't afford to dwell on every death that he encounters (even if it is that of one of his best friends) else he truly would be a sorry state. Many people find it easier to ignore a death than try and adapt to it at first, but he really does have the means to never have to face the consequences. Of course, it all burns away at the back of his mind, but the memories can still be suppressed. There's a conversation reminiscent of School Reunion where the Doctor tries to explain to Ace that he sees time differently to her. For him, everything is already over and done with - every trip is like going back in time. Everyone he encounters is already dead, and it's strange to get this fourth-dimensional 'time sensitive' aspect of the Seventh Doctor's nature examined so particularly. Perhaps this futility in the mortal universe is why he tried to meddle with the Eternals, those who can outlast even time. In an especially touching moment from McCoy, he says he dabbles with the big events to better the lives of the 'little people' - a recurring theme that's become prevalent in all Who media since The Waters of Mars. I had grown a little tired of this drawn out 'other perspective' but it sounds so good here. McCoy bleeds desperation into the Doctor, and it shines through.

Nonetheless, Ace thinks the Doctor ought to learn a lesson. After finding a letter written from Hex to his grandmother that was never posted (leading to a couple of nice flashbacks of an adventure on Palanor) she tells him to post the letter before going to visit Hilda to break the news about her grandson. He duly obeys, but I suspect not for her sake. He feels he owes it to his dear departed colleague, especially as he saved his life (not that that wasn't true multiple times both ways around). The difference is that he gave his life so that the Doctor had his. After a bout of the inevitable fussing, the Doctor gets down to business. It turns out he's also organised a wake for the late Mr Schofield, which Hilda shouts him from as he tries to give a commemorative speech. Happily though, Sally Morgan's on hand to help him out. Sally (and Amy Pemberton, who plays her) was one of my favourite things about the Elder Gods saga, so it's great to have her back. She, like Hex is from the 2020s, and was dropped off by the Doctor six months prior to his arrival in Liverpool. Sally came in search of Hex's family, and has grown close to Hilda, who thinks she's from the council. To be honest, I was glad the rather grating Lysandra wasn't involved in proceedings as she would have upset both the plot and tone of this story.

Meanwhile, Ace scares off a bunch of thugs trying to abduct a fiesty, but aging, lady. Grateful, the lady invites Ace to her club - Finnegan's - and gives her free tickets to the venue for the New Year's celebrations that evening. Ace is also introduced to Finnegan's two boys (never sons, but that is the implication) Robbie - a mute asthmatic - and Barry, who ain't too sharp guv. I loved having this variety of Liverpudlian accents on display, especially after I noted a similar pleasure during Fanfare for the Common Men. The regional dialogue that Fitton weaves in is also gratifying. However, it can become a tad confusing. For the first few minutes, Hilda and Lily Finnegan sounded nearly identical to me. Knowing Big Finish's strategy of casting one actor in several roles to broaden stories' scope, I thought that was what had happened. It did transpire relatively quickly that I was wrong though.

I was trying to guess where Hex would turn up all through Part Two. Initially I thought it would be just as the Doctor was telling Hilda of his death, then I thought it would be at the wake, then as soon as we started getting mentions of Mr Thomas I knew this could be none other than our Hector. I nearly guessed the cliffhanger correctly. Rather than it being some sort of "wow! it's Hex!" moment, there was actually a few minutes of dialogue with him - or should I say Hector Thomas - before the question was put to Ace, "who the hell are you?" This felt unnatural, and in my humble opinion it would have been much more impactful if he hadn't said anything beforehand. For me at least, it would've been what Joe from Doc Oho calls a punch-the-air moment, a triumphant, euphoric, almost victorious moment. There was another opportunity to end the episode on Hector's line "I'm just here to wish the Finnegans a happy new year." This is a similar moment, and I imagine Fitton devised this with the impact in mind. The thing that undermines it is that the action carries on so soon after that it's not given any real weight. I'd managed to avoid all spoilers for this one so I didn't know for sure if Hex really did feature other than in the flashback segments (as was advertised) but all this turf war stuff was too terrestrial to be the main plot. There had to be more to it. Fitton's work could be viewed as confused, but to me it seems like he deliberately tries to create scenarios to double bluff the listener. This makes full listening more rewarding for me.

Over the course of Parts Three and Four, it's revealed that Hex had won enough from Fenric and Weylan to earn his freedom. What Koloon, the fire elemental with whom the Gods deal, refrained from telling Hex was that he would have his memory wiped and assume a new persona for the year. He was given a history based on an autobiography that Barry reads extracts from throughout, about stealing cars and spending six months in prison. At the time of the story, he owns half of the clubs, pubs and restaurants in New Hoylake and Finnegan (Koloon in human form) owns the other half. The two factions frequently fight it out, often with consequences to others. What's nice is Hilda moans about the disturbance caused by this conflict in her opening speech, completely unaware that it's her grandson who's involved. When Thomas uses a mind-wiping device on the Finnegans, he comments that it's the second time that month that he's killed them. He says he acquired his weaponry from some Russian associates, and I like to think they were members of the Light from The Assassination Games

In a very similar notion to the Chameleon Arch, Hector has been granted his memories in an object that he's been trying to keep safe. Without them, he can never return to his old ways. He'll never be Hex again. The Doctor, Ace and Finnegan all believe it's a bottle of champagne and so when the latter smashes it, the Doctor's fury is let loose. He had a chance to effectively save his friend and she destroyed it before his eyes. Barry was the portal between the Elder Gods' dimension and this that sustained Hex. He was used by Finnegan, and was never real. To this end, he is the one that sends her to her punishment for losing the prize. The Doctor gets a monologue of his own here, and I really liked it. It's very much in the vein of such speeches from Voyage of the Damned, The Parting of the Ways, The Pandorica Opens and The Time of the Doctor, and even McCoy's own Remembrance of the Daleks. It's a beautifully written and performed piece though, and all of the talent present in this serial comes to a pinnacle here. He concludes with "I look after my friends," which is delivered so potently. It really stirred up my emotions, and was an incredibly affecting scene. I credit this to my affection for Hex as much as anything else, but McCoy proves in the same way Colin Baker did in The Light at the End that when he's given really good material, he really goes for it.

They're wrong though. Hex's memories are in fact stored in a St Christopher chain which Sally finds at the community centre at the play's conclusion, after the TARDIS has left; Hector must have left it there. I thought this was a neat little inclusion from Fitton. St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, and so when Hilda comments he didn't do his job properly, it feels warming both in and out of the context of the story. In the ship, Ace is desperately trying to will her mate to come back. Alas, all she is given is Hector. And so the TARDIS sails off with this team of three. Although Mr Thomas was only supposed to be given a year to live, Ace took him forward a few hours in the TARDIS, in an attempt to jog his memory. For this reason, he probably has about another six to eight hours to live. Presumably, the next two stories in the series - Revenge of the Swarm and The Mask of Tragedy - occur within this timeframe before events catch up with the three of them in Signs and Wonders. I also wonder if we might meet a version of St Christopher (or his Elder God equivalent) in this last story.

I personally can't work out the reason for this 'reset'; it often feels self-contradictory as well. Just because Hex is given a new identity, and no memory of his previous life, he assumes this role than Koloon wants him to fill. Nowhere is it stated he has a personality transplant. The real Hex wouldn't have pursued this life for a day, let alone a year. This makes it quite hard to buy into the story. I went with it at first, assuming he'd been reincarnated or possessed or something, but when we're then supposed to believe it's our Hex that's doing all this, I just couldn't believe it; it's just is so far removed from the Hex we know. Why would he get engaged in this infuriatingly petty, endless turf war as well? I get it's because he's become conditioned by the Gods to play games with each other, no matter the consequences for others. As Koloon says, "anything to wile away eternity." I'm inclined to hope that the Gods have some sort of control over him here and are playing him against Koloon in a similar match to that in Gods and Monsters. One thing I wasn't keen on was the Finnegans' resurrection. I don't believe any version of Hex would go so far as to attempt murder, so the inclusion of this seems to be more to bring the listener up to speed with the gang tensions.

I can see the appeal of the concept for Afterlife. We arrive in Liverpool to meet Hex's grandmother, only to find him alive and well living a life as a gangster. Unfortunately the execution doesn't really do this justice. The explanation is sound - another of the Gods' petty games to waste some more time. In the writer's notes in the accompanying booklet, Fitton comments that as soon as he heard Gods and Monsters, he knew he wanted to write the next one. His script, as before, is quite dialogue-heavy, but it's relatively good dialogue, and relies fairly regularly on flashbacks. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, I hope it isn't a structure he depends on frequently. In both Black and White and this play, a certain level of it is key due to the way the serial is constructed. Although it's unusual for flashbacks in Big Finish, I don't want it to become one of Fitton's 'tics'. I don't doubt there will be such things in Signs and Wonders, but I hope to a lesser degree. The subplot with the detective is interesting before it's brought quite literally to a dead end. It ties up a few loose ends well, but sadly due to the business of the rest of the episodes, Mortimer comes across as more of a plot device than a fully fleshed out character. Perhaps it's the brevity of his tenure, but as I said, this couldn't really be avoided. I liked the irregular structure to the play, and felt it worked well here, so I applaud Mr F for experimenting.

I can tell that Fitton's own Signs and Wonders is going to feature Elder Gods, Sally, Hilda and Hex's memories already and so it seems that the events that could have been played out during Afterlife have just been delayed by three releases to some extent. Signs and Wonders is said to change the face of Who history, so that means that either Ace or Hex dies / leaves. If Hex is going to have his memory restored, to be honest I would much rather they'd done it now, and if he's going to die, then that should equally have happened here. I can see the powers that be may have been trying to make the range more interesting, to have an unpredictable Hex who's learning to love life with the Doctor before he's struck down in some way but I really do hope that if he survives Signs he gets his memories back otherwise I will feel cheated out of the last x years of stories. I've invested more in this series than any single range since Christopher Eccleston's series, and as is probably plain, I love it. I don't mean any criticism on a skill level, as I'm sure whatever path has been chosen will be trodden carefully. I just hope they haven't gone too far, as the Doctor did.

If you'll indulge me for a short while, I'll run through my top three outcomes of the next trilogy. My preference of course would be to keep the core three, and have more 'standard' adventures with them. But, as we've been told something seismic's on the cards, here's my options (following the next chunk). I would like the major change to be Ace's exit (purely as the lesser of two evils) and would like our Hex to come back rather than this Hector character. I love Ace in this series; she's a million miles from either of her portrayals in the last two stories I've heard. This is thanks to Aldred and the permanent script editor Alan Barnes' work over the years. The only link she has with that incarnation is her calling the Doctor, Professor. Here she has depth, credibility and likeability. In short, I've grown fond of her. However, I do think it could be time to mix it up a bit.
  1. The Doctor and Hex to travel alone for a short while.
  2. Sally to join the Doctor and Hex. She and Schofield had quite a connection during the 2012 series, and I'd love to see more of it. This was one area where Black and White really worked for me.
  3. Sally to travel alone with the Doctor, with Hex departing as well. To misquote someone, Hector Thomas is better than no Hex though.
To address a previous point, the producers of the main range may be wanting to make Hex more interesting. To continue the threads I started, I really do believe these could all have been achieved by keeping Hex. Following Project: Destiny, his relationship with the Doctor was fraught at the best of times. He was still angry with him. This made his self-sacrifice in Gods all the deeper. He knew deep down that the Doctor meant well. The strand about learning to love being with the Doctor, the wonder of his life, could also have been achieved in this way as the pair grew closer over time. I'm glad that Jonny Morris has the next one, as he'll probably convince me that it'll all be fine. I can't wholeheartedly say I'm looking forward to September though, as I fear for Hex/Hector's fate. As I've said before, I don't doubt the company's ability, I'm just worried for their choices. I trust they'll be fine, and I'll be singing their praises by the end of September though.

Back to the play at hand, and despite all I've said, I did quite enjoy it. It was a totally different story in tone and content to all of the serials I've listened to recently, as well as the Seventh Doctor series in general. It falls outside the usual realm of storytelling for the range, and I'm all for experimentation. I think I secretly long for the days of the series where the Doctor, Ace and Hex just had three bog-standard but brilliant adventures. The Magic Mousetrap, Enemy of the Daleks and The Angel of Scutari are a particularly good example, but there's never been a bad run. Philip Olivier is consistently the best thing about his stories, and that's no different here. All the main four protagonists are excellent, and I do hope we see the return of Jean Boht. It's a shame the setting isn't explored more, in terms of technology and development. There's a sole, quick reference to the 2020 riots, and I know Fitton had a lot to get through, so I appreciate his efforts. If you go too far and spout exposition, it can go the other way and make it awkward and stilted. Matt, if you're reading this, which I doubt someone as busy as you can spare time to do, please don't think this is critical. I look forward to each 7/Ace/Hex story, I just fear for the characters because they are the team I've grown up with over the last eight years.

This a great concept; another jewel in the McCoy series' crown and a recommended listen. Amy Pemberton is even more enjoyable than last time and Andy Hardwick's score is just brilliant. I loved listening to the last few tracks on the first disc so much that I replayed them twice. His music is a delight to hear  and the only thing I wasn't that keen on was the 'twinkling' that reminded me of magic dust showering down on proceedings every time I heard it. All contributors give their all to a well-conceived play, I'm just sorry that the outcome isn't necessarily for me at the moment. Had this finished with Hex regaining his memories, it could well have scored much higher as I could forgive it the inconsistencies. As it is, I feel a little unsettled. I'm sure I'll look back on this play as the beginning of a new golden era, but the tension four-month tension is getting to me at the moment. A beautiful piece of work.

In a Nutshell: A dialogue-based, idea-heavy script which catapults the current arc into 2014.

You can buy Afterlife from Big Finish here. Joe from Doc Oho hasn't reviewed it yet, and neither have the Doctor Who Podcast. Read Emrys Matthews' review for Blogtor Who here.

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