29 June 2014

AG: Vengeance of the Stones

Vengeance of the Stones is the third in the AudioGo/Big Finish fiftieth anniversary collaboration series Destiny of the Doctor, and continues the high standard of storytelling. The one thing that the casual listener is most likely to know before going into this story is that it is the introductory tale of Mike Yates, but the story proves to be far more than just a gap-plugger. Based largely around a real setting (as many great Who stories are), Vengeance never loses its head and slots perfectly into those early Pertwee years.

Vengeance opens with two RAF planes flying off the north-east coast of Scotland. This instantly put me in mind of Mark Gatiss' fantastic book Last of the Gaderene, set between Planet of the Daleks and The Green Death. That story is based around an old air base, and includes a heavy emphasis on the flying aspect (and it's a bloody good read too - be sure to check it out if you haven't already). The opening of this serial made me think (and hope, a little) that there may be some similarities, and whilst this thread is picked up midway through, it isn't anywhere near as prominent. This isn't a complaint, it's simply a statement. Given how enjoyable these 'action' sequences were though, it did leave me longing for more (which is considerably better than feeling it was overdone). 

Perhaps slightly predictably, one of the planes soon goes missing, but as the mystery unfolds, this turns out to be much more substantial than could be expected from the Series 7/8 period. Writer Andrew Smith cleverly avoids falling into the trap of simply trotting out the Pertwee tropes; it feels like he hasn't deliberately crafted his story to avoid them, but that they don't fit his story. As enjoyable as The Claws of Axos is, it really is Pertwee-by-numbers. Vengeance of the Stones very much has the tone of a modern Doctor Who story, but for some reason it really matches the 1970s format well. 

Two days after the military vehicle (and its pilot) have gone missing, UNIT are drafted in to investigate. Lieutenant Yates (such is his status when we meet him) is assigned to the Brigadier to aid him with their enquiry, given that he not only grew up in the area but has been posted locally for two years. There feels like a nice amount of overlap between Yates and Smith here, with the latter bringing his own experiences to the story. Indeed, the author was kind enough to confirm to me on Twitter that the titular stones and their circular assemblies are real artifacts which inspired the story. There's something about stone circles that seem to fit the Who mould very neatly, so it's hardly surprising (but no less interesting, let me clear) to see them crop up every now and then. Although some may say their potential has already been exhausted (most notably in The Stones of Blood and The Pandorica Opens) Smith proves them wrong by combining two stories in the expert way that is proving to be his signature flourish, having pulled off a similarly accomplished feat in this year's The Brood of Erys

Quickly, the Doctor is alerted to the presence of the missing pilot some fifty miles from UNIT's mobile base, which it was lovely to have back, by the way. With his new colleague Mike navigating, he manages to get them there in under ten minutes thanks to his trusty roadster Bessie. When it was first mentioned that they would be making the journey, I tried to guess how long it would take, thinking that the minimum was about half an hour. As it is though, Smith's approximation feels cheeky without being completely impossible. More than anything, it brought a broad smile and a little chuckle to my face. At the stone circle, the pilot touches the central recumbent stone only to be killed. It's revealed he travelled to the circle as he was drawn by some unknown energy force, and the Doctor begins to rub the back of his neck - a sure sign trouble is ahead.

Through a relatively swift progression of events, Mike soon ends up in the hands of the Armideans, the creatures who devised the recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire. They're described as tall, spindly humanoids and, in my mind's eye at least, are pretty impressive. The sound design only helps to build the impression. This is where this release's guest star Trevor Littledale enters, as the leader of the four remaining Armideans (what was I saying about it being atypical?) Garlin. Over the course of the next track we learn that four millennia ago, the aliens arrived on our planet in an attempt to search for useful minerals. However, they were attacked by primitive humans, and as such had to retire into hibernation. More recently though, they have been awoken by the development of new roads and infrastructure, in a nice resurgence of themes from The Silurians, Inferno and The Hungry Earth (which itself stole from the first two).

Now they're awake and stronger than ever, they plan to exact their revenge on humanity - starting with northern Scotland. There's something beautifully quaint and innocent about this; it feels like the whole world is at stake when really it's just a quiet little corner of the isles. No longer are they simply a research expedition; they are a fighting force. That's why they took down the RAF plane (hidden behind a perception barrier not far from the Armideans base of operations) - to assess the threat of their opponents. Although this could be perceived as an extended infodump, it doesn't play out as such. Although much information is indeed exchanged, the conversation feels entirely natural - aside from the switch from benevolence to malice in Garlin's attitude. It does seem rather abrupt, especially considering it was he who saved Mike from death not long ago.

The Doctor arrives at the house to put a stop to proceedings and try to forge a deal between the two species. He is successful on only one count: he manages to save Mike. Just as it looks like things are swinging in the Time Lord's favour, Benton storms the house with his men, and they open fire in something of a replay of the humans' similarly hasty actions in the Silurian incident. Just prior to his intervention, the Doctor decides to recreate the conditions experienced by the unfortunate pilot at the top of the story. His craft is struck down in a similar manner, but for a completely different reason. The Armideans are trying to send a pulse back to their homeworld in order to request assistance. The Doctor, having been rescued from the water by the Brigadier, informs them that their home died many years ago.

Despite this, the invaders elect to persist with their efforts and disperse themselves across circles throughout the region. By uniting the power of four Pharan stones (the source of their energy) they can forge a single data packet to transmit home. The humans once more put up a fight though, and it doesn't end well for the newcomers. Eventually, it is the Doctor who initiates their downfall, having of course offered them a compromise first. In a manner similar to that which the Eleventh Doctor communicated with the First in the earlier Hunters of Earth, the older incarnation leaves the Third a phone message telling him to ensure the survival of the Pharan stone. It would very much seem that the Matt Smith Doctor is in quite a hurry to get his messages out - he hasn't directly appeared yet. He sent in a message to a radio station in Hunters, left his earlier self a note in Shadow of Death and now a pre-recorded soundbite. It seems a little unusual that the 'contemporary' Doctor isn't beginning to remember the earlier encounters and advice, but I suppose that's just the way things will go when you've got eleven different writers on board.

And so to the writer of this play. Andrew Smith seems to be quite the rising star within the Big Finish community. He did of course script Full Circle many a year ago (probably my favourite story of Series 18) but more recently he's contributed Companion Chronicle The Invasion of E-Space and the aforementioned Brood of Erys to the Whoniverse. He's also taken part in the high-profile new ranges Survivors and The Early Adventures (which he's done the first one of, dontcha know) as well as a Blake's 7 story and adapting his mid-80s tale The First Sontarans for The Lost Stories. Based on my two experiences of his work, he's definitely a talent to keep an eye on. He has a great handle for characters that marks him out from the crowd. As a relevant point, his Third Doctor is so uncanny that this listener frequently forgot Richard Franklin was in the studio, such was the natural flow with which the dandy's lines were integrated. I find Pertwee is one of the hardest Doctors to nail, but Smith manages it first time out, and it really makes me want to stick on The Ambassadors of Death or The Mind of Evil, which is surely the highest compliment I can pay the author. 

The narrative is definitely not the focus of this story, the function being to introduce Mike Yates. As already mentioned though, it never feels plot heavy though. Yes, it gives him several opportunities to showcase both his brains and military ability, but much more emphasis was placed (in the direction, if not in the script) on the interactions between Yates and the two other leads - the Brigadier and the Doctor. Almost instantly, they feel like a natural fit. Onscreen, I was never that keen on Yates, I'll be honest. I always preferred Benton, who seemed to be a bit more rounded and dependable and just seemed to fit UNIT better. On the basis of Vengeance though, I would have to say the reverse was true. Yates is instantly likeable in Smith's hands and Benton really doesn't fit with the morals the Doctor is trying to impose on the military outfit. I'm not saying this is poor characterisation though - if anything, the opposite. Benton joined the force sometime during Series 7, and this story is implied to be post-Inferno but before The Blue Tooth, so Benton would be new to the game. It's possible that he hadn't quite adapted to the UNIT mentality yet. I realise that he was simply acting on orders, but it still feels distant from the Benton we (I) know and love. 

Perhaps the biggest drawback of this range that I've noticed consistently over the last three stories is that the secondary voice is severely underused. Given how heavily modulated Simon Hunt's incarnation of Garlin is, Franklin could quite easily have performed the role himself. It's a casualty of the length and format of these stories more than anything else I think, and despite the different quality to Littledale's voice, he really doesn't get much airtime. Still, given that he's something of a Big Finish stalwart (with ten Whoniverse credits plus multiple others to his name) I'm sure he doesn't mind. That said, this is a very male-dominated serial. I don't doubt it was unintentional, but perhaps it would have been nice to have a little variety. The only female character - one of the Armideans - is relatively swiftly dispensed with and Vengeance bucks the trend of having one actor of each gender featured. This isn't a complaint, just a point to note really.

Elsewhere, Simon Hunt's post-production is again excellent. I have to say, upon first listen I was less aware of his score than in the preceding two stories, but that is perhaps because this is more character-heavy than they were. It's a fitting selection of music that underpins the narrative, but it's bested by his work on the sound design. From RAF planes to glowing stones to rolling waves it seems Hunt has an evocative array of effects for every occasion. His work makes this story even more of a joy to listen to, and his contribution to it is undeniably vast. I was totally immersed in the world of '70s Scotland thanks to his timely choices of atmospheric noises, and I can only reinforce what I said last week: I look forward to hearing more of his work.

In fact, that's true of every contributor to the audio of Vengeance of the Stones. Everyone is on their a-game, and Richard Franklin (whilst not sounding completely authentic) is an excellent narrator and is helped in his recreations of the Doc and the Brig by Andrew Smith's fantastic script. One area where he does seems to struggle is when a line begins with a clause pertaining to dialogue. For example,

The Doctor replied, "Oh, I should think so."

Franklin seems to have difficulty connecting the two sections together, often leaving an unnatural pause. Director John Ainsworth is also to be commended. While the more action-heavy sequences never feel rushed, there is plenty of time to breathe allowed to the Doctor, Mike and the Brigadier's relationship. So convincing is Mike's seamless integration into UNIT that I doubt the promotion was necessary to convince him to switch from the army. There's a joy about Yates' voice throughout this that makes him endearing, and as such is a good choice.

Overall, this is a no-strings story that isn't entirely original, but uses its source material in a very pleasing way  as a backdrop to the introduction of a mainstay of the UNIT family. Everything comes together highly successfully and the most character-heavy and plot-light story so far fits its era perfectly. I loved the Third Doctor's reaction to the Eleventh, and this was just one of many small but enjoyable moments littered through the 63 minutes of Vengeance. If you're into your drinking games, I suggest 'stone' as a good buzzword, given the amount it crops up across the course of this audio. This story is incomparable in terms of tone and content to the previous two titles, but all are unquestionably good snapshots of their respective eras. It's brilliant how well and how quickly each story manages to capture the essence of its era in sound and script, and I think this is one of the best things to come out of Big Finish in recent years, which is saying something. As in Moonflesh, the most exciting bit for me was when the Doctor was submerged in the water, and as in the Fifth Doctor serial, it's a shame it wasn't a more extended sequence - could they have had an underwater base, for example? Although the breach of Mike's origins has been plugged once by the continuity-a-tron Gary Russell in his novel The Scales of Injustice (so I'm led to believe), this sounds like a far superior effort to the book and I'm really glad that the producers of the series opted to go for the less obvious choice when plotting the series. I was a little surprised that Jo wasn't featured when I first read the schedule, but now I'm very glad. Another fine addition to the set.

In a Nutshell: A hugely enjoyable, authentic, interesting hour of drama that adds a lot to perhaps the most developed supporting character of the Pertwee era.

You can buy Vengeance of the Stones from Big Finish here, read the Doc Oho review here or the Blogtor Who review here.

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