25 May 2014

BF: Scavenger

William Gallagher, like Philip Martin and Andrew Smith before him, isn't a name that I'm overly familiar with at Big Finish. This is the first of his work for him I've experienced, but his fourth for the company. The first was a single-episode cut for the Demons of Red Lodge anthology, and for the last three years, he's been contributing a single story to each Sixth Doctor trilogy. This means it's his second tale featuring Flip, and he certainly treats her well, placing her at the centre of Scavenger (literally) whilst never sidelining either her or the Doctor. He also builds a credible near-future environment and this really reminds me of early Pertwee-era stories, particularly The Ambassadors of Death. This is no bad thing; I love Ambassadors!

The story begins with the Doctor taking Flip to the ISS Mandela, the international space station of choice around 60 years. He hopes she'll appreciate the experience; in her own time, very few people have had the opportunity of such a magnificent view of Earth. However, she's uncharacteristically keen to leave, for reasons revealed right at Scavenger's conclusion. Pretty soon, they're roped into preventing the Mandela from being destroyed by an Earth rocket headed their way - Salvage 2. This is part of the Clean Up Space operation and is an automated ship that can swallow bits of space junk which will no doubt be a necessity by 2071. In a joint venture by the Indian and British governments (managed by the former and financed by the latter) this probe has been sent up, but it's gone out of control. Flip stays aboard the Mandela to help get everyone to safety, but the Doctor tries to stop a collision by landing aboard. Back on Earth, mission controller Salim and overbearing (Scottish) British culture ambassador wrestle with each other for control whilst trying to regain management of Salvage 2, preventing the Doctor from doing so.

As a result of this, the observation module (where Flip and a nice young filmmaker called Jyoti were) is broken free from the Mandela. Although we get a limited amount of damage, I actually expected it to be the other way around. I thought the remainder of the crew of the Mandela (represented by smarm-embodiment Commander Gabbard) would be removed from the story at this early stage with only Flip and Jyoti left alive. The fact that my expectations were subverted was a nice surprise, and made for an interestingly different setup. Now of course it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons with Gravity but this was written long before the film had even been heard of. I did wonder what Commander Gabbard and his colleagues were up to while the pair were floating in space, and why they didn't use the drones that we learn of later, but the story moves on too quickly for you to notice at the time. 

Pretty soon, the titular character comes into play. Scavenger turns out to be a long-dormant 'zombie satellite' which the Doctor accidentally revives whilst trying to buffer satellites towards Flip and Jyoti for them to grab. When it comes alive and turns out to be a robot ship programmed to repair and replace itself, he very wittily comments it's undead rather than a zombie. This assimilates machine and human parts alike to improve itself. We learn through Part Two that Scavenger first visited Earth in 1600 and took Crown Prince Salim and his dancing girl Anarkali aboard. The former was rejected but the latter absorbed as part of the ship, becoming its 'host'. The aging of both of these people was halted, and it's revealed that mission controller Salim is that same prince, working his way up through the ranks over centuries and guiding India's space programme in order that he might have a chance of seeing his love again.

Early in the story, it seems that two acts of sabotage have been committed: a power failure at a critical moment that eventually leads to the collision with the Mandela; and pre-programmed co-ordinates in Salvage 2. It's a clever twist that the two people we spend time with in mission control are the two culprits. While it may not sound completely revolutionary, it's the way in which Gallagher delivers the characters of Jessica (the aforementioned ambassador) and Salim that makes this work so well. As it is clear to tell from Kate McEwan's strong performance as Ms Allaway, she thinks herself most important and is all for British (not English) supremacy. She organised the power cut so that she could swoop in, representing Britian, and save the day, to belittle their Indian partners. Salim setup Salvage 2 so that it would pass into the orbit of Scavenger. He intended to bring it back to Earth so that he could be reunited with Anarkali once more, still believing her to be alive. While it was never going to be any other characters responsible for these events, Gallagher's skillful reasoning and storytelling benefits the narrative considerably further.  

While it would be impossible for me to detail every event of Scavenger, suffice to say that Flip ends up as Scavenger's host. To save her, the ship returns to Earth in order to take on oxygen. Very neatly linking the twelfth episode of the series with the first, Flip manages to avoid being blown out of the sky by Jessica's missiles by directing Scavenger to Atlantis - the place she mentioned wishing she could visit on Tranquillity in Antidote to Oblivion. This of course doesn't exist, so the robot is sent whizzing all over southern Europe. It's a really clever solution, and in retrospect it's obvious where the Doctor wanted Flip to go. Whilst listening though, I had no idea where he was getting at. In fact, I'd totally forgotten the Atlantis reference, and I had to return to the script for the earlier to adventure. 

At the conclusion of the tale, Salim teleports himself into Scavenger, taking a flight computer with him. He hopes this will encourage the machine to accept him as a new host, and he's successful. By this point Flip has managed to disentangle her mind from Scavenger and it's teleported her right back to where she was taken. She discovers the camera of Jyoti's and leaves a message for the Doctor, which he discovers twenty minutes later when it occurs to him to check the camera since it's been uploading to the cloud for the entirety of the story. In the message, Flip declares her intentions to the Doctor, making them quite clear. She believes he brought her back to Earth to make her homesick, and make her want to leave rather than just dumping her back home. That's why she wanted to leave, because of the supposed implications. She thinks he wants to be rid of her so that he can go in search of Peri, continuing this particular line of inquiry. Of course, this is totally wrong, and the Doctor protests in futility at the message as he watches it back. Flip decides to save him the effort and activates the thrusters on her suit (a Baumgartner, in a nice touch) to fall to Earth. The trilogy ends on her scream, and the groans of fans hungering for the story to continue.

The only English voices in this are the Doctor and Flip, and without wanting to slur Big Finish, it's always nice to have a story set to a different backdrop. This does remind me a lot of You Only Live Twice as well, which is my second favourite Bond film (to Casino Royale if you're interested). All of the accents sounded very authentic to me, but I'm far from approaching an expert. I thought Anjli Mohindra was particularly convincing in this area, but this is also Nick Briggs' best direction of the three plays. Whilst The Brood of Erys  was deliberately slower and more thoughtful, Antidote to Oblivion was slow due to a lack of event. It feels really refreshing to have a high-octane, action thriller. It wasn't just the change from the norm that made this work, I was gripped from top to tail by William Gallagher's exciting narrative and the way he delivers it. In the extras, Briggs describes it as a technological thriller, and while it does involve technology, I wouldn't say it was overbearingly so. Although this is the type of story I love, I feel that it would appeal to a pretty broad audience anyway. 

I'd argue that this isn't solely a plot-based script though, because it's full of character moments. Despite being something of a relentless powerhouse of a story, there's still plenty of room for quieter, slower moments. The secondary plot of this is the interaction between Allaway and Salim. If the new series were to attempt a Pertwee-style story, I feel Allaway is the sort of character they might come up with. Whereas in most action-heavy works the supporting characters are more for window dressing rather than any particular substance, quite the reverse is true here. Allaway could be quite a thinly-sketched character in lesser hands, but now she seems to represent one of the current-affairs commentaries Gallagher seems to be making. She rigorously defends Britain despite being from Scotland, suggesting the writer's allegiance on the upcoming independence referendum. She never falls into any stereotype and is certainly not predictable. Another of the points Gallagher might be trying to make is about our 'throwaway society'. Although we need to begin cleaning up space now else we might never be able to go into space again, as he notes in the accompanying booklet, this could provide a neat parallel for human activity on terra firma. It's never explicitly stated, leaving the listener to make up their own mind (often the most pleasing of solutions). 

Nick Briggs confirms in the interviews that the Peri trilogy coming later this year is to be set shortly after Scavenger, with the Doctor going to locate his old friend. I hope Flip isn't sidelined, and that he at least tries to find out what happened to her in The Widow of Hurn (the first of the three). This is a disadvantage of the trilogy format; sometimes it doesn't allow the storytelling to come first but focuses more on being too individual. At times, the opposite is true of course. I feel that the last twelve episodes have got it pretty much spot on though. What I'm hoping for most of all I guess is some kind of closure either way. I would absolutely love another Flip trilogy but I don't want the Doctor moping over trying to find her for the three stories with Peri. I don't think BF will kill Flip off, she's too popular and they've pulled that trick with Hex a few times already. I think an ending would be (should be?) concrete and definite, rather than loose and weak. I'd love a spin-off with her in 2071 London though, perhaps seeing the downfall of democracy mentioned in Antidote with the benefit of hindsight? It'd be flipping marvellous though. Sorry for the divergence from Scavenger, but it's because I loved the thrilling ride of this final installment so much that I feel the need to speculate. All of the twists included and the manner in which they are revealed are joyous. Gallagher has such a fine ear for dialogue and conjures up great character very quickly, most notably the excellent Jyoti in this story. Thankfully there were no 'Toast' or 'Pretty' type names, which I've heard about from his two most recent contributions, but Colin Baker did seem to struggle a bit with Mohindra's character's forename.

Neil Gardner isn't a sound designer whose work I've come across before (he focuses mainly on Dorian Gray, but has done Mastermind for the Companion Chronicles) but off the back of this I would welcome more efforts from him. This is some of the most accomplished sound design I've heard in a while, and the ordinary standard isn't half bad. Every scene is vividly created before your ears (is that a thing?) and atmosphere is generated from the off in every scene. You're never in any doubt as to which location you're listening to and there's some nice scene transitions delivered, particularly in earlier episodes. I must mention John Banks here. I don't doubt his voice was heavily modulated and altered, but he still gives a great turn as Scavenger (as well as a couple of other bit parts) in his umpteenth role for Big Finish. I'd like to see him get a big guest role or regular character soon, he's been doing great work for the company for years. Gardner manipulates his voice skilfully to create just the right impression and it matches the part just perfectly (and I mean that nicely). Music maestro Howard Carter's back on the scoring scene too, and every episode oozes his stylish tones. It served the material extremely well, and I guessed it was his work before checking the credits. He is, in my eyes, Big Finish's most accomplished musician (I love the orchestral feel to this score) and it's a joy to have him back. The only thing I would say is that two pieces, one at the end of Part Three, and one mid-way through Part Four jarred a little, underscoring quite action-y scenes with strings. No matter though, he still stands head and shoulders above competitors. Gardner and Carter only add to the cohesion of talent present in Scavenger

This is an action thriller with a heart. It has a deeper meaning and backstory. It's full of fun as well as being serious and straight-faced. Flip and the Doctor are given their best outing since The Curse of Davros and the script is great to read as well. It feels like one I would write, in my style. Gallagher uses lovely language such as 'lunges' to conjure up a perfect image in the reader's head. Whereas some can be very prescriptive, this is descriptive. It only reinforces my general feeling that Gallagher is very talented. I've certainly been encouraged to seek out his other stories as a result of this, once the current backlog is cleared. This trilogy of adventures has certainly felt more like a cohesive series rather than three stories stuck together. I like this general direction for Big Finish's main range, but three plays does feel a little short to allow it to develop fully. Maybe even just one more would benefit the over-arching narrative in this area? Nevertheless, this is the best of the series by far, and both Greenwood and Baker are an absolute delight. They are quickly rising to the role of one of my favourite TARDIS teams. If this is to be Flip's exit though, I can hardly complain. It's a magnificent story to go out on. I can't wait to see where the Sixth Doctor is taken next, and hopefully William Gallagher will be a part of wherever that is.

In a Nutshell: A thrill-seeking rollercoaster of a story with an emotional heart that keeps you gripped throughout.

You can buy Scavenger from Big Finish here, or read Joe from Doc Oho's review here.

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