11 May 2014

BF: Antidote to Oblivion

Kicking off 2014's main range and indeed Lisa Greenwood's second trilogy as full-time companion. She's back alongside Colin Baker's trusty Sixth Doctor as the loveable Flip, and she's not the only returnee; Sil's back to grubby old ways! In Antidote to Oblivion, Philip Martin's created a story that tries to be both a third serial in his ongoing 24th century saga and a fresh, original tale. To me, it feels undecided and pulling in both directions and as such it suffers from a confused tone.

There are many subplots in Antidote, most of which are related. It does feel though like time is wasted getting to the culmination of the threads, leaving very little time for dramatic exploration of the story as a whole. At the very start of the first episode, the Doctor and Flip are taking a break from adventure on the paradise planet Tranquillity, much to the latter's resentment after a while. Soon though, despite the Doctor's uncharacteristic best efforts to ignore a distress call, the pair travel to Earth. Shortly after arriving, Flip falls ill after accepting water from underground (hoho) Northern Liner rebels Pan and Cerise. She begins to hallucinate and her mind is affected by the chemicals in the drink. The Doctor fixes this with a quick blast of rain water and she makes a full recovery relatively promptly.

This style of danger, of false threat and swift resolution is prevalent throughout this story. It doesn't really seem to be to any particular ends either because either the build up is too quick to make the threat credible or it's clear that the danger encountered wouldn't be the end of Flip. I understand that this is obvious in pretty much every story Big Finish produce, but in this, there isn't even much enjoyment to be found from the way they escape from these situations. Throughout Part One, Sil talks of experimenting on the Doctor, and having a showdown with him, so when he apparently shoots them at its conclusion, you're under no illusion that they've been anything other than stunned.

There's something of a tradition in four-part Doctor Who stories that the third episode will basically tread water before the climactic instalment. What a lovely surprise it is then that this section of the story is feature-length (nearly an hour!) and consumes the middle two episodes. Part Two features the Doctor and Flip escaping from Cordelia's laboratory, only for them to be captured and brought back to the lab. Literally the only thing different between the start and end of this episode is the fact that Pan and Cerise are now honoured citizens after the former turned the escapees in. This is a very repetitive exercise in storytelling and does very little to inspire the listener to want to return for the third episode. Still on the topic of false danger, the sentient psychic disease that the Doctor battles in Part Three is totally useless. The battle happens offscreen, lasts around two minutes, and leaves the Doctor entirely unscathed. Flip retains something of the infection, handily forcing the Doctor into helping Sil.

I feel it would be easier to understand all the plot strands if I ran through them by themselves. I'll start with Pan and Cerise. They seem like a nice enough couple, and are played by David Dobson (most recently in the superb Fanfare for the Common Men) and Mary-Ann Cafferkey (new to Big Finish). However, they do have the intensely annoying habit of tacking each others names onto the end of each comment. Let me give you a script extract:

Cerise: Anything in there, Pan?
Pan: Not today, Cerise. Rats are intelligent, they're getting wise to the traps.
Cerise: So hungry, Pan. It's been days now.
Pan: You were right, Cerise.


Cerise: Pan! Pan!
Pan: Alright, Cerise. You two - get away! We've got nothing you want!
Cerise: Pan! Pan! Any luck in the refuse stacks?
Pan: No joy, Cerise. The Bakerloonies were all over the Business Class throwouts.
These are a significant number of their lines from their first two scenes. You can probably see what I mean. Over the course of four episodes, it does grow tiresome. So, having dobbed the Doctor and Flip in, they're upgraded to be knights of Concorpia (Britain is no longer a democracy and is run by Concorp). This means fresh accommodation and jobs. Pan is tasked with regulating the water supply to keep the population sedated, while Cerise is handily given a role as Cordelia's assistant, having previously been a doctor. I'll return to these two in my summary paragraph.

Let's come on to Sil. The slimy lizard seems to have gained himself a position with the Universal Monetary Fund since Mindwarp, and looks to be enjoying every second of it. Never one to pass up on an opportunity to make a bit of extra cash, he is entirely responsible for the experimentation going on at Concorp HQ. He attracted the Time Lord Anzor (an old school bully to the Doctor) to Earth, and Cordelia managed to misjudge her calculations, resulting in his being turned into (as Flip puts it) a "purple potato with eyes on sticks". The only word Sil's new pet seems to have mastered is 'fiddlesticks'. Not having heard Mission to Magnus, I don't know if that was a particular catchphrase of his or just an irritance included for this release. Concorpia has a population surplus of 90% somehow, and Sil has been sent in to observe how the UMF's loans are being spent. Sil's solution to save money is to quell the population. He has acquired many exotic diseases from across the galaxy, and intends to dilute the water supply sufficiently to kill off 45%, followed by the same number again a week later. To save himself (classic Sil) he wants to have some sort of vaccine or antidote to all of these. He's decided that Time Lords possess the correct mix of antigens to save his hide, and so has called upon his favourite.

Cordelia has been employed under him as she has significant genetic manipulation experience (so we're told) and has a score to settle with the Doctor. Sil's told her that the Doctor was responsible for her father's death on Thoros Beta, and the big (cough) reveal moment comes when we're told she is the daughter of Crozier. I mean, it's a decent idea to introduce her, but it's established in all the wrong ways. When she makes the familial connection transparent, the audience are willing for the story to continue while the Doctor stands open-mouthed (another recurring motif). I imagine this would be a bit alienating for listeners unfamiliar with Mindwarp, as it's not explained desperately well who exactly Crozier was. It's mentioned in Part One that Cordelia has another role within Concorp, but by the conclusion of the story, it seems to be taken as read that serving Sil is her full-time occupation. She's played decently, but her mood seems to swing from scene to scene (a fault down to the writing, not the acting). When Flip falls ill, she efficiently revives her (even once she's dead, she doesn't seem very concerned).

And to the psychic contagion, who I think are called the Velendari, but I'm happy to be corrected on spelling. An appropriately-gendered avatar of the disease communicates with first Flip and then the Doctor. This is all quite weird and might fit into another story, but it really mis-matches the tone of Antidote. The creepy, voices in your head vibe doesn't sit well in the context of the story and anyway the Velendari don't connect with the main plotline at all. They seem to exist purely to try and create a bit more peril for the Doctor to worm his way out of, and to force him to help Cordelia. They don't even make it to the end of the story, making their inclusion feel even more stilted. I can't really see what the point of them was, given that there were many other ways the story could have gone that didn't involve a big reset button being pushed just to get rid of them. You've served their purpose, now be good little plot devices and self-destruct.

And so it all ends in a big explosion. The only thread of this that comes to a satisfactory conclusion is that of Pan and Cerise, although even that feels a bit laboured. Pan has been working to drain the subduing agent from the water supply, so the population revolt at just the right moment. Cordelia, watching Sil and the Doctor talk on the cameras, is so horrified that Sil tricked her that she destroys the Concorp headquarters at the same instant. This miraculously manages to destroy all the diseases, plagues and whatever that were in her lab. The Doctor comments that nothing could have withstood that 'inferno', but doesn't stuff get blown out (steady) during an explosion? It's a very tidy solution, and feels like a cheat.

The very end left me confused. Sil escapes to join Mistress Na (who has been performing a similar role for what I presume Asia has become - Hang Seng) where they revel in their success. It's not clear if they actually are allies or whether Sil is putting on a show because all the way through, we've been informed on his distaste for her. Also, just how did he get out? Mistress Na's accent is massively owerdone too, to point of beng widiccerless. I found this a bit insulting and unnecessary. When does Na need to have an accent? Is that just what some mentors sound like? And is this supposed to imply that Sil is profoundly British in his money-grabbing, self-obsessed ways? Thatcher's gone now, Mr Martin. Saying that, I think the idea of involving Sil in a situation mirroring the Greek financial crisis was brilliant. He'd be right at home there. It's strange then that he feels so out of place in this story. Nabil Shaban does his best with the material, and on the normal lines he manages to deliver the majority quite convincingly (an achievement). The giggling Sil really didn't do it for me though. This was where I felt the character strayed into caricature.

Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood were absolutely exemplary, as usual. The latter certainly has to be my personal highlight of the story. Greenwood is such a talented voice actress, it was a brilliant idea to place her alongside the Doctor full-time. Nick Briggs discusses the fact that BF management thought that 'lower-class' (his words) companions were less popular with listeners in the CD extras. This doesn't make for uncomfortable listening as such, more that it's just an area that isn't (and didn't need to be) visited. I can only speak for myself, obviously, but I wouldn't say Flip was lower class, just normal. I didn't think such division still existed in Britain. I've never once considered the level of her background, simply taken her as she is. I'd like to think that all Big Finish listeners do the same, rather than reject a character based on outdated presumptions. What matters to me is the character and what they're about. Flip really encapsulates a lot of the fun and joy I find in Who. I don't think it needs discussing again.

Greenwood's acting is so accomplished that she makes the Doctor sound rather foolish throughout. Perhaps a little directorial control was needed in the opening episode when Flip is affected by the water. Flip's personality changes significantly and Lisa Greenwood plays it very differently to 'normal' Flip. This makes the Doctor sound a bit slow when he only cottons on that something's up a few minutes later. Overall though, I think Ms Greenwood came out of Antidote best. Her relationship with Baker absolutely sparkles, and I adore this pairing. However, the Doctor's material isn't his most impressive, and I feel bad for Colin Baker. I'm sure Andrew Smith will be able to offer something more substantial.

Overall, this is a curious story. It seems to exist simply to have another Sil story, rather than being a story you might find Sil embroiled in. Despite the setup, the emphasis is in the wrong place. The middle 60% is lacking action, and subplots collide to give unsatisfactory results before it's all blown up. Sil's motives, authority and position seem to change between episodes but it is wonderful to have Shaban back. Great stories don't have to be complex. Look at The Robots of Death: it's almost universally loved, and it has one of the simplest plots in Who history. The ending is very convenient and the script isn't up to much. If a condition of Sil appearing is that Martin writes the story, then perhaps it would be better to delve into new villains. On the subject of the script, the three characters Velena, Kristal and Mistress Na could have been cut, allowing one actress to be relinquished. I can only imagine the crushing defeat Mandy Weston must've experienced when learning that the THREE characters she was to play were all so slight.

Briggs shows great directorial flair in places, and Fool Circle provide a very eighties score. I was a big fan of the cues used in the first episode, in particular. I may have even applauded. Undoubtedly my favourite character aside from the Doctor or Flip in this was the world-weary communications technician Bob, who I was delighted to learn was voiced by Briggs. I couldn't tell it was him at all, and his sense of humour was pitched perfectly. I would love for him to return, but maybe not anyone else in this (Sil excused). A nice idea, I suppose, but it required a higher scripting ability than Martin currently possesses.

In a Nutshell: If only this could be cut by 90%.

You can buy Antidote to Oblivion from Big Finish here, read Joe from Doc Oho's (even more scathing) review here, or read Jack Bowman's review (for Big Finish) here.

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