18 May 2014

BF: The Brood of Erys

Welcome to the site's fiftieth review! And it's fitting in a way that such an unconventional story should land in this spot. This, I feel, is the most appropriate word to describe The Brood of Erys. It's my first experience of Andrew Smith writing for Big Finish and it's enthused me to seek out his name in future schedules. The ideas in this may not sound wholly original when described in plain English, but the concept and execution really merits Smith. After the disappointment of Antidote to Oblivion, this has restored my faith in the audio maestros.

Erys refuses to conform from the off, opening with a scene in which a man with a rather deep voice confronts a woman who appears to have lost her memory. She doesn't know who he is though, and he declares it time to begin. Skimming the back cover of the CD across this opening exchange, I noted that the Erys of the title was actually to be given voice in this story - I try and come to these as clean as I can. Beyond the information the cover portrays, I'm often completely oblivious to the narrative. So, as I was listening to this male conversing with this female (who turns out to be Sarra), which is deliberately presented to subvert the listener's expectations and make it seem like he is some malevolent force, I just assumed he was Erys. This substantially confused matters later in the episode when the sentient satellite begins to talk, and is a sign of how convincing the performance and production were, given that I was well and truly duped enough to just assume malpractice.

Doctor Who at its most traditional would arguably contain the title character (whose name definitely isn't the title) and his plucky, often female, assistant landing in a remote interior (base/space station/bus, delete as appropriate) only to be caught up in some trouble that has only just developed. What I like about The Brood of Erys is that is conforms to a minimal number of these conventions. Arriving in a deserted solar system with only three celestial bodies, the TARDIS detects a ring of satellites warning them to stay away. Shortly after, they're boarded (at Flip's hand) by the Drachee, seemingly adorable imp-like creatures with an endearing curiosity.

It's at this point that I read this terrible news. By the time you read this, I will hopefully have compiled a suitable article, but suffice to say it's knocked me for six. I am utterly ruined by this tragedy. For this reason, I'm stopping here. I'll resume this at some point, but I'm sorry if the rest of this seems a bit downbeat, Andrew et al, but it's nothing to do with this play.

Right, I'm back. After the Drachee reveal their true colours as malevolent servants of Erys, they kidnap Flip and leave the Doctor unconscious, his mind exhausted after a mental battle with their leader. As he awakens, he sees a wrecked craft tear into existence, and so makes a bee line to rescue the one life aboard - Sarra. Over the course of the next few episodes, we learn that the planet, which the Doctor and Sarra visit, was created by Erys to occupy his children, the Drachee (the titular brood). The TARDIS is cast off into space, but it's not a complete surprise when Flip manages to board the ship and navigate it (in a pleasingly original fashion, I'll admit) back to Erys again.

Smith displays his fine skill as a writer most prominently in the denouement of The Brood of Erys, where all of the threads left hanging are tied up neatly. I'll begin with Erys. Elgin, Sarra's father and the man she was talking to at the top of the story, manages to restore Erys' nerve fibres damaged by a disease. In fact, he proves to be a major character as the story goes on. He's a top brain surgeon back on their homeworld. Erys was a bit of an exclusive tourist destination, and illegal tours were run to it. Sarra's husband Levek took their two children on one of these trips as a birthday present, only for them never to return. The authorities refused to offer any assistance even though the wheol expedition had vanished without trace. Elgin and Sarra decided they had to make a stand on their own and so he wiped her mind, knowing that Erys preyed on memories to weaken its victims; the perfect weapon. Her goal was to retrieve her family.

The Drachee have long been yearning to stretch out, and are very keen to take charge of the TARDIS each time they come across it. It was a really neat trick on the part of the writer to have Lona (a Drachee) revealed as an embodiment of Erys. It's only at that point that you realise he's been a bit quiet for a while. This is very well plotted and executed - and it makes sense! The Doctor and Elgin manipulate Erys into being a more gentle being, by providing strong memories of their own in order to influence it. The memory the Doctor donates is the conclusion of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, as he lets Susan go. By 'repairing' Erys, the pain and the anger is gone. A much more benevolent being remains and in this most unusual of constructs, I like how 'normal' he is at the end. Although the Susan sequence was a very nice idea, I did feel it was a little overplayed, particularly in quoting from it. The sentiment was pitched perfectly though. All of the captured men and women providing the lifeforce for the Asphyans are released, and everyone is allowed to continue on their merry way.

In my opinion, The Brood of Erys has a wonderful script but the execution feels disparate from the writer's original intentions. The pacing varies quite significantly throughout and it's often possible to tell when actors are in different moods. There's no single aspect of the production that really distracts from the narrative, and Steve Foxon's sound design is highly accomplished. It just feels like the writer, director and sound designer were all working towards different end stories. As a result, it does feel a touch confused and, dare I say it, forgettable. I had to listen to the final episode three times as each time I was trying to remember what happened, there was just a blank space (appropriately for this story). In addition, I can remember vaguely what happens in the middle episodes, but no specific moments. I don't think this does justice to the fine script, and I think had a more cohesive effort been made, this could have been a standout for the range. Reading the script, I feel much more engaged with the story and lines simply leap of the page at me. After all, it's unconventional, inventive and amusing. It builds a credible world and characters to inhabit it, and it gives the regulars the opportunity for a star turn. It's a shame this didn't translate to the final product.

Baker and Greenwood are given a good part in this. Even though the events of the first episode do almost feel conceived purely to split the pair up, it's done expertly and doesn't feel laboured. Sarra, rather than being a plot device to 'mix up' the team, is a character in her own right with her own history and intentions. This writing is simply on a different level to Philip Martin's basic, straightforward and at times, uninteresting, characterisations. Smith has a great handle on the Sixth Doctor, capturing the verbose and self-confident (without straying into arrogant) of the TV incarnation and the caring and intelligence of his more recent persona. He's an utterly likeable chap in Smith's hands and doesn't deliver a duff line. The only criticism I might have is that he never seems in a particular rush to rescue Flip, though this could be due to the mental bombardment he's recently undergone.

Flip comes into her own here. Whereas at points in Antidote to Oblivion she fell into the 'default companion' mould a bit too often, there's little doubt in her character here. Smith writes her with confidence and skill, proving that Big Finish were right to go with her as Baker's new sidekick. The Flip of Erys is intelligent, inquisitive and uses her initiative, but all in her own unique way. A great example of this is in the first half of the story when Erys is communicating with her and she asks if she's hearing him in her mind or out loud. Lisa Greenwood is a very accomplished actress and makes Flip highly likeable. However, I do have a minor point to make about Ms Jackson. In some scenes she's very 'street' and how I imagine she actually would be, and in others she appears to be a very different, much more formal character. The infrequency of this leads me to think Alan Barnes wasn't quite rigorous enough in nailing her character, but saying that, this is her best story from a writer other than Jonny Morris. Greenwood sounds a bit uncomfortable delivering some of Flip's lines and it's not overly surprising when they seem to deviate so far from her more natural characterisation.

Outside of the TARDIS team, the guest cast are generally strong. Glynn Sweet is marvellous as Elgin, and he inhabits the part exactly as I read it from the page. Given his high status within the story, I'm not entirely sure why he's bottom of the cast list, I would have placed him higher. Tori Hart, who plays the slight and relatively unprofilic Drachee/Erys creation Lona, meanwhile, is second on the billing and features on the cover. This seems a bit odd to me, but nevertheless she performs well. Chris Overton and Brian Shelley are both strong voice actors and the former in particular gives his parts (Terill, chief Drachee, and Levek) gusto. There's an energy to his performance that really helps sell the environment, despite the (ever so) slightly annoying tone he adopts.

The same cannot unfortunately be said for the main guest of the piece - Nicola Sian as Sarra. She often seems disconnected with the piece or confused by her lines. I don't know if this was a deliberate move on her part to make Sarra seem more vulnerable or 'human', but the part seemed to me (when reading it) that it required a bit more dominance. Sian is very good is places though, and this is most true of Part Four. Her bravery and courage comes to the fore here, and you see a glimpse of a very talented actress. I only wish she'd chosen to play it this way throughout. Nevertheless, she does gain the listeners' favour quickly with her naturally soothing, if a tad too calm, voice and does shine when interacting with Erys.

There was a pleasing amount of progression with the Peri arc I neglected to mention last time. I had hoped it wouldn't just be a throwaway idea introduced by Philip Martin given that he wrote the character out of the series. I do wonder what it's building too though. The fact that there is a Peri trilogy running from October to December this year makes me curious as to whether we'll see Nicola Bryant joining Baker and Greenwood. That'd be quite original, exploring the time in Peri's life after she left the Doctor (or was left, rather). I'll just have to wait and see what happens in the final play of the trilogy though, to see if there are any significant development. One aspect of Smith's writing I must just quickly mention is his skilful use of dialogue. There has been a slight tendency of late (*cough* Philip Martin *cough*) for writers to have characters recite what they see in front of them, which usually sounds unnatural. The worst offender that springs to mind is in the previous release, when Flip describes Anzor as a "purple potato with his eyes on sticks". The omission of any of this descriptive dialogue here shows that it is the ability of the writer that determines its inclusion. Smith proves to be above this, and I'm both unsurprised and glad.

Overall, I think this was a bit of a missed opportunity. All of the story's constituent elements are accomplished and enjoyable on their own, but when brought together their clash of directives doesn't serve Erys well. The script has to be the strongest aspect of the production for me, with its high-concept premise that's pretty novel, and handled in a way that I don't recall it being done before. I think Alan Barnes' greatest contribution to this was asking Smith to combine his 'woman who's lost her memory' and 'sentient planet' ideas, a real masterstroke. Smith meshes the plots seemlessly, and you wouldn't know the whole story wasn't constructed as a single entity, such is the security and tidiness of the narrative. Mud creatures are used to much greater effect (and sense) here than in The Light at the End, but Briggs had a much tighter grip on proceedings there. I felt he needed to establish a clear focus here, in order to fully benefit the script. If this was a rush job, I'd love to see what Andrew Smith could do given time. While it's light, it's all the better for it. The break in format was very refreshing too. In conclusion, pretty good.

In a Nutshell: Confused in tone but sparkling in script, this ends up being a good-but-not-great release.

You can buy The Brood of Erys from Big Finish here, read Joe from Doc Oho's review here or read Andrea McGuire's review (for Blogtor Who) here.

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