13 April 2014

BF: The Assassination Games

Whereas I can appreciate the genius of intriguing tales like Fanfare for the Common Men, this is much more up my alley. I didn't consciously register this when first consider this, but after the first episode I had a real energetic buzz. I even uttered the words, 'bloody hell this is good,' whereas for Fanfare I'd remained silent. This political thriller type scenario that we got in abundance during the Pertwee years is exactly what I love. Give me The Ambassadors of Death, The Mind of Evil or Day of the Daleks any day. Thank you, Dorney, this is exactly what I wanted.

I don't know what it is about Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, but he just gives me a different feeling. I didn't grow up with him by any means (I was only born shortly before his era came to an end after all) but I think had I been alive during the classic series, he's the one I would class as my Doctor. I don't know if it's accurate or not, but I think his was the era I delved into most when I first started buying the 'old' stories. In The Assassination Games (a dyslexic's nightmare) the Doctor and Ace are from the period between Series 25 and 26. There's even mention at the conclusion of the moment when Seven changes his jacket, which I thought was a beautiful little touch in a story full of such references.

 Whereas I love the TV (and Big Finish) Seventh Doctor, I don't really get on with TV Ace. She's too brash, unstreetwise and '80s (to be blunt) for my liking in quite a number of her stories and it's this incarnation we're served here. Whilst Dorney's being totally faithful to the source material, it feels like a big step back after her excellent progression and development over the last few years at Big Finish. Don't get me wrong, the character is very well written and portrayed, I'm just not as much a fan of the 'cheers big ears' Ace as the sisterly figure she becomes once Hex is introduced. That said, it's not all that bad in Games, it just feels more significant as it's so irregular.

It feels appropriate that the fiftieth anniversary story (note the release date) harks back to halfway through its history with the Counter-Measures team from Remembrance of the Daleks returning alongside a TARDIS team from only slightly later in the Doctor's chronology. As John Dorney points out several times in the CD extras and accompanying booklet's writer's notes, it's now as long since Remembrance as it had been from An Unearthly Child to Remembrance at time of broadcast. Barmy. Group Captain Gilmore (not one mention of 'Chunky' sadly), Alison Williams and Professor Rachel Jensen are all back, bringing with them their Counter-Measures co-star Sir Toby Kinsella, brought to life by Hugh Ross. Undoubtedly the lead of these four is Gilmore as he's given most time with the Doctor, who's established himself as politician John Rutherford. It's a shame though that Alison only really gets to meet any other protagonists in the climactic scene (aside from a brief exchange in Part Two) as she was one of my personal highlights of Remembrance. As lovely as it is having the team back, they do sound noticeably older, Simon Williams in particular. They still give convincing performances though.

The actual concept of the story is pretty complex, as noted by several characters in the concluding episode. In the 1800s, creatures called the Light - secret rulers of the Universe - came to Earth, and looked for a power base. Of course at that time the British Empire was in full force, so the United Kingdom was the obvious choice of location. However, they hadn't predicted the dissolution of the Empire and so by the time of this story, they only really have any influence of Britain thanks to placing members of their people in powerful positions - literally. The Light established a nursery for the rich where they implant themselves inside human infants and so grow instead of the person - a perfect way to avoid arousing suspicion as any background checks will be clean. It's not infinitely clear why they want to control Earth apart from the sake of controlling it, but that doesn't really matter. The personal level of the race more than makes up for the collective. They are all prepared to die for the Light as well.

Sir Gideon Vale (whose wife is a member of the Light) has created a new nuclear deterrent - Starfire. A dummy missile is to be launched for the purposes of demonstration, but the Light are keen to eradicate all other nations on Earth in order that Britain - as ruled by them - will regain its Empire. They of course as keen to do as little work as possible, and are using the pacifist organisation Disarmament Now as their scapegoat. In the opening episode, the Minister of Defence is assassinated and an explosion at the Houses of Parliament in Part Two achieves the same end: murdering government ministers standing in their way. At the last election things didn't go as planned and the Light only managed minor positions. By killing the senior members, they can manoeuvre themselves into place to assume control. 

Where Starfire comes into all this is that the Light have programmed it so that it actually is a warhead, and have aimed it and several duplicates at all the major cities in America, and also plan to blow up the base where the demonstration is to occur, to eradicate the last of the obtrusive ministers. They have also fed false information to the Russians so that when they need to react to the scandal, their own missiles detonate on the launch pad, and destroy the nation. It's a devilishly cunning plan, over a century in the making. I really liked Ace's comment that it was convoluted enough to be one of the Doctor's plans as that was my first thought.

The whole play is executed superbly though. The story changes so subtly between Parts One and Four that you won't notice the shifting tone at all. It's only in retrospect when you consider the two episodes directly that you can see how different they are. Dorney's splitting up of the main characters is particularly impressive, finding a vital role for all of them. Each has their own plot strand to follow which develops the narrative and the fact that he uses his ingeniusly wide-reaching concept to map the team across the country is so clever. Never let it be said John Dorney's run out of ideas. This story is all about restoring the British Empire and whereas Fanfare was a love letter to the Beatles and British popular culture, this is a love letter to all that makes us so stereotypically British. You've got the ministers with the inherent dislike of each other being frightfully mild-mannered; the stately homes; the self-importantness of upper class poshos; and most of all the aspirations of glory. They don't actually want to be forced into doing anything, but want to appear that they're prepared to. Every single character, Dorney-original or not, is unquestionably three-dimensional and the supporting cast are all flawless. It does become hard to tell one character from another at one point, but that's a deliberately clever plot point that is best experienced by listening. Yes, the one with Alison.

Sylvester McCoy has a bit of a reputation for his Big Finish performances. Many claim that they're extremely variable in quality and that while sometimes he seems very well versed with the material he's being asked to convey, sometimes he 'phones in' his performance. I've never really seen that, and think most of his performances are consistently good. This was perhaps the first instance where I began to understand what they meant. In the final episode particularly, the Doctor's speech patterns seem to go to pot and it often feels like Sylv just hasn't noticed there's the other half of a sentence still to go, leading him to rush it. It seems like he didn't get time to read through the second disc's script before recording. I'm sorry, but he was easily the least convincing cast member in the first segment of Part Four. He was fine with its conclusion though - was there perhaps a recording break where he got chance to have [another/a first, delete as appropriate] look through it?

That's another thing I love about Dorney's writing. He adds real credibility to the Doctor. As if it's coincidence that he meets Gilmore again! He and Ace were in a bookshop 50 years after the events of this story, reading Gilmore's memoirs when there was a vague reference to meeting the Doctor a second time and saving his life, which occurs in the opening scenes of Games. The reference is only so infuriatingly vague because the Doctor told it would be though, in a paradoxical loop. Similarly, the Doctor knows that he cannot just assume a role in the government so he arrives on Earth in May '63 and becomes a proper official MP - John Rutherford. I love this idea, and is there perhaps a mini-series to be set during this time, where the Doctor works with a cunning aide to out-manouevre his political opponents? I'd buy it! Likewise, the Professor hangs around ten months after the conclusion of Games to serve his constituents until the next election, placing this story in December 1963. The concluding events are said to occur on a Saturday - could this be the same day that the first episode of The Daleks aired? There's plenty of time in ten months for a couple more invasions with a plucky new assistant, surely? Perhaps even another brush with Counter-Measures?

Jensen spends the whole story saying that she wants to leave the Incursion Counter Measures Group, but everyone secretly knows she'll be back. I don't know when this is set in terms of the Counter-Measures series Big Finish run, so it was a little confusing for me. I imagine between Series 2 and 3, but the references to funding issues make me suspect otherwise. Wherever it's set, it's lovely to have these four characters included in this story. I do worry how much longevity there is in the series though, as UNIT will be established before too long - approximately six years or so, I'd say. Wouldn't it be great to have a story featuring the Doctor, UNIT, Torchwood and the ICMG? Only fleetingly I mean, it'd be far too audacious for a full story. Step on it Briggs! 

In summary, this is a first-class story with a superb script and cast. Wilfredo Acosta's sound design sometimes leaves a little to be desired, but never to any great extent. The supporting cast are invariably amazing, particularly Simon Williams who gets some of the best lines of the piece. There's also the possibility of a return of the Light (on Earth I mean, of course they can feature in off-world adventures), given that the full scope of their plan and the identities of all their agents isn't known. I personally hope we get to hear that, preferably with the Seventh or Eighth Doctors. The only things holding this back from a perfect score are the character of Ace (but as I've said don't confuse this with criticism of the writing or acting, Dorney and Aldred are excellent) and McCoy's performance. Aside from these extremely small niggles, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories I've experienced and must surely go down as a modern classic. I loved Fanfare, but this is in a whole different league, and just the sort of story I adore. Thank you all.

In a Nutshell: The perfect anniversary story, absolutely marvellous from start to end. Hoorah! </russelltdavies>

You can buy The Assassination Games direct from Big Finish here (come on, they deserve the money) and Joe from Doc Oho hasn't reviewed it yet.

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