22 June 2014

AG: Shadow of Death

While the Troughton era might not necessarily be my favourite in the show's fifty-year history, I do have a (very) soft spot for it. It's what I turn to if I just want something a bit fun and inconsequential. I adore it, and it's guaranteed to put a broad smile across my face after just a few minutes' viewing. The Second Doctor and Jamie are a pairing few fans can resist. Often I forget why it is I love the late-'60s stories when I go a while without watching any, but listening to Shadow of Death reminded me instantly. I think that's probably the best way to sum up this story; it recreates the era as you might remember it, rather than how it actually was, if that makes sense. This is far from being a bad thing though.

We begin with a fairly standard scene of the TARDIS spiralling out of control. For once, though, it's not the Doctor's fault. His craft is buffeted by something, in mid-flight. He touches down nearby and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe nervously venture out in order to discover what it was that sent them off-course. These opening scenes were really enjoyable for me, and don't feel like padding at all. The interaction between the Doctor and his young friends is captured perfectly by Simon Guerrier, and their tentative first exploratory steps around what transpires to be a survey base are very evocative of the period this would herald from. In particular, I was put in mind of Ms Heriot's first story The Wheel in Space. To point out just one enjoyable line from the script (among many), I loved the Doctor's comment about the corridors being part of a mass-produced line, and that he recognised them. Another great moment was when Jamie was tugging downwards mercilessly on a door handle, trying to get it to open, when Zoe calmly pushes it up and releases it instead.

Shadow of Death feels to me like it's split into three natural episodes within its 60-odd minute running time. The first 'cliffhanger' comes when Jamie and two of the base's inhabitants, Miles and Gough, are locked out of the main control room. Throughout the first quarter of the story, our trio experience what they believe to be earthquakes. An occurrence of one of these is what prevents Jamie, Gough and Miles from entering the control room. These are soon revealed to be time anomalies rather than earthquakes though. Each part of the base runs on a different time zone and the these three are just crossing the threshold between two. Perhaps Guerrier's biggest achievement in this is updating a Season 6 story for the 2013 audience. This is the first example of it; he embeds a concept much more at home in the Moffat interpretation of the franchise (time disturbance) and makes it fit the '60s format like a glove.

Soon, these three are being menaced by a shadow as the Doctor and Zoe struggle to get the door open again (the former through brute force, the latter through brains). The Doctor's method is most amusing, with him locking his shoulder under the handle trying to save his friend. The shadow reaches out to Gough, and ages him to death instantly in what's described as a silver light. The exact description given is much more emotive and powerful, and it really made it sound outstanding. It feels like it both does and doesn't tie into its period: on the one hand, the decision to make it silver makes it very easy to imagine in as part of one of those sacred monochrome adventures; on the other hand, I can't see how they would have achieved the effect other than with white light (see the Ice Warrior stories, for example). It doesn't matter, as the poor bloke's dead in an instant anyway. Luckily Zoe manages to get the door open and the Doctor severs the cables so that the Doctor won't operate again. It sounds like I'm having a moan above, but I'm really not. It was just a point to muse on more than anything else.

The shadow, after being proved to exist by Ms Heriot, makes its way around the perimeter of the control room, trying to get in. Sophie, the acting commander of the base, along with Zoe, Jamie, Miles, Callaghan and Woodbridge evacuate to the planet's surface. However, the external door needs to be operated from the main control room. The Doctor bravely volunteers to stay behind to ensure their safety. After some persuasion from Sophie, Jamie does leave him behind. This is where the story takes a bit of a turn. Whereas the focus in Hunters of Earth was very squarely on Susan, the central character in Shadow of Death is split between Jamie and the Doctor, thanks to Frazer Hines' vocal versatility. Now the latter takes up the reigns and we follow his journey for the majority of the remainder of the story. The menace soon breaks in, but it doesn't 'attack' the Doctor in the same way. Instead it communicates psychically with him, conveying a message for the survey corps: "Humanity will pay for what it has done!" This is a very ominous end to the second 'episode'.

Not long into the concluding act of this story, we learn a bit more about the 'monster'. The survey team arrived on the planet (which orbits a pulsar, hence the time phasing difference) in order to study the civilisation of the Quiet Ones, who seemed to exist for barely any time at all, and left nothing behind. The shadow is of course a Quiet One, and the reason it's invisible is because it's moving too fast for the human(oid) eye to respond to. It communicates with the Doctor because it senses he has a different relationship with time, and the aforementioned menacing message was more of a rant than a direct threat. For years, the Quiet Ones (living at a different pace to the humans) have had to endure the pain of the racket of the humans assembling their base and then conducting their research. The Quiet Ones want their planet, well... a bit quieter. That's all. The Doctor makes his way out onto the planet surface to inform the others, and then his party heads off.

My favourite scene in this is when the Doctor receives a note from the Eleventh Doctor. At first he thinks it's the Time Lords, before he recognises his own writing. The message is touching and heartfelt, a real love letter to Troughton's Doctor. Best of all was the closing line: "PS, I know what I'm doing." Troughton's Doctor brilliantly murmurs, "But that's what I say when I don't know what I'm doing!" It's a really lovely moment and a more than satisfactory replacement for the scene Guerrier originally had in mind to be played out by Hines and Matt Smith (read it in his interview with Joe from Doc Oho here). A strength of Guerrier's style of writing is that he scripts the narration with opinions of the main subject, even when we're not directly inside their heads. An example here is when the description of the Eleventh Doctor includes a "rather fetching" bow-tie, rather than just naming the neckwear. It peppers the story with lovely little touches and sets it apart somewhat from other prose (or audiobooks) I've experienced. 

I had of course heard much praise for Frazer Hines' interpretation of the Second Doctor. He did play the part in The Light at the End, but that was only a brief role and most of the dialogue was distorted on that occasion anyway. So, this was my first proper opportunity to see what all the fuss was about - and boy was I impressed. It's not simply that Hines sounds like the Second Doctor (which he does, uncannily so) but when reading his lines he embodies the character whole-heartedly. His performance is almost indistinguishable from Troughton's, and his Doctor was a joy to be around. So much so, in scenes without him (excellent as they were) I was longing to get back to him. This truly was a masterclass. The way Frazer slips between Jamie (who also sounds identical to 1969) and the Time Lord is amazing, and you'd wouldn't know it was one actor talking to himself. Even if nothing else in this story had, Hines has encouraged me to seek out some Second Doctor Companion Chronicles (which I've heard aren't generally up to much). It'll be worth it for this kind of act, though.

Evie Dawnay plays Sophie Topolovic, the acting base commander. She puts on an appropriate accent, and performs all her dialogue well, but she was always going to be second-best to Hines. Sophie's role is much smaller than that of Cedric in Hunters of Earth and I'm sure that Hines could have dealt with Topolovic satisfactorily. It seems that Dawnay was enlisted simply to have a second actor in this case, unfortunately. It's a shame that her role isn't more substantial, but it fits the story perfectly, so it doesn't make much of an impact. One aspect where I thought the narrative could have been more economical was in the other surveyers. Whilst a fair number are needed to make the expedition plausible, it did feel that there were one or two too many included here, with a couple barely speaking (in fact, they may not have, I can't quite recall). 

Simon Hunt is once more on audio duties for this serial, and he comes off very well again. His score is eerily authentic to the time, and his ghostly score accompanying the shadow scenes is even a tad unsettling. He does a really good job to make this story sound as good as any regular Big Finish production, and I hope he manages to get more work with them in the future. He uses effects conservatively and knows when to step back and let the narrator do the talking. Having said that, each location is precisely created (in my mind at least). Especially strong were the control room (full of '60s bleeps and whirrs) and the TARDIS interior. One thing I did notice was that when an internal door was released, the final sound as it opens sounded just like the ring pull on a drinks can being broken, with the contents fizzing excitedly. Could just be me, but that's the sort of thing I'd use if I had to go about creating such an effect.

I'm curious how much of a role John Ainsworth actually had on the studio work of this one. From what's been said before, Hines has been providing adept impressions for a while now, so there was presumably little to be done there. Hines' narration voice is clear and very listenable. He has a great way with words, and despite stumbling over a few lines, he proves to be highly accomplished in this role as well. Could he be Big Finish's other secret talent (after Colin Baker)? Still, Ainsworth seems to helm his cast (of two) well, despite Dawnay's slight inclusion. I hope he can manage to keep this standard of performance up, and it's a shame the plan to have Matt Smith included on each release fell through. What I am liking though is how much of an effect the older Doctor is having on each story. In the first one, his clues are key to deductions made at the conclusion, and in this it changes the entire ending. If the Second Doctor hadn't re-entered the control room to save the research, the bridges between the humans and the Quiet Ones never would have been built, and the research would've been lost forever. We're yet to see exactly why he wanted the research saved, but I don't think that was quite the point, I think that was simply a reason to go back. Excellent, anyway.

To summarise, this is a highly atmospheric and inventive story. Although time has been examined from a number of directions (usually in reverse) of late in the main show, it's never been used in this manner, and I was really impressed by Guerrier's scope of imagination. He marries two of the programme's most disparate (yet similar in some ways) eras together seemlessly, integrating contemporary technologies and concepts with '60s storytelling. I must look out more of his work, as he does have something of a reputation (in a good way!) within the Big Finish community. One thing I'm not sure worked for me was the fact that, due to the time-imbalance, the Doctor spends years in the base in the final scenes whilst only minutes pass for Jamie and Zoe. I think that was one modernisation too far for me. That aside though, this is staggeringly good and will surely be a jewel in the Destiny of the Doctor crown. It'll take something quite special to beat this. Although Zoe is the least active of the three regulars, you'll be too busy revelling in the joy of the Doctor and Jamie to notice. This had me beaming ear-to-ear practically from start to finish, and frequently laughing out loud. I'm glad the area where I go to walk during my lunch hour, listening to these, is quite quiet else I could've earned some strange looks.  It feels appropriate that in an anniversary release should play such a key role. This was an absolute pleasure, and a really loving homage to the Troughton era.

In a Nutshell: A brilliant little story than plays with the base-under-seige format to bring you a gleeful listening experience.

You can buy Shadow of Death from Big Finish here, or read the Doc Oho review here.

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