06 July 2014

AG: Babblesphere

I must admit, part of the reason I elected to start on the Destiny of the Doctor series over any other when I caught up with the Main Range was so that I'd get the chance to listen to this again. I bought it when I visited the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff last summer, mostly due to the author, whose work I have loved for years. Spoilers for this review, but if you hadn't already guessed, I loved it. On the strength of this release alone, I decided to work through the entire Destiny works, and I think this story is a real credit to all involved.

I'll start with a little introduction to Babblesphere. In this story, Jonathan Morris has created a perfect parody of Twitter and modern society's increasing reliance on technology. But what makes it even more remarkable is the way in which he's done it, making it slot effortlessly into Series 17. I thought previous entries in this series were authentic, but Morris (with respect) takes it to another level. This is on display right from the off, with the Doctor and Romana II landing on the eccentrically-named Hesphatos, only to discover a recently-deceased citizen of the colony. This is precisely the sort of start I can imagine filling the screen, and I can picture it perfectly instantly, right down to the smoke rolling across unnoticed.

Another idea, which could only have ever come from the mind of Morris but slots without difficulty into Douglas Adams' era, is that the whole colony is modelled on the Palace of Versailles, and the inhabitants are dressed to match. There's even a particularly naff bunch of robots who are supposed to maintain the colony - the Pediseqouds (sorry if that's spelt wrong, I copied it from the cover). Many years ago, the Babble Network was a way for colonists to communicate and pool ideas - the aim of the base after all was to create the finest works of art in all history. Soon though, it became too addictive and nearly everyone was on it. Babble users became suspicious of what those who hadn't had the implant (you can almost taste the seventies-ness of having a lumping great chip sticking out of peoples' heads) and so it became compulsory for all colonists to have the implant and to share all thoughts publicly. 

This is a genius send-up of Twitter. The beauty of its design is in the fact that it goes so far with the notion. It would be easy for an average writer to be content with having Twitter-by-any-other-name. Morris runs so far with his version that it's not only technological parody, it's a mockery of modern society. As you may be able to tell, it's hard to articulate quite how Jonny Morris manages to make this work so well. Quite soon, the Doctor and Romana are of course separated by the chandelier-shaped robots. Romana is thrown in a cell, where she meets Aurelius, a man who has managed to shut out the Babble Network, voiced by Roger Parrott. After just enough time has passed to convey the information detailed above, the pair are rescued from their cell by a band of the most unlikely (and therefore likely in a Morris-penned adventure) rebels. 

Although their appearance is slight, I really liked the time spent with the Outlaws. It reminds me only too much of a Graham Williams-era assembly, and it knows it. The Outlaws are a bunch of old ladies of varying physical characteristics, who have all defied technology. Morris uses the shorthand of the physical aspects of the Outlaws to instantly remind us of the characteristics of the TV rebels they parody so well - The Sun Makers, I'm looking at you. For a while now, I've been wracking my brains to think who Hannah Bartholemew of Moonflesh, Tomb Ship and Masquerade reminds me of, and now I've had my memory jogged. It's Phillis, the leader of the Outlaws. The blustering British spirit, 'stiff upper lip' style of work and general manner are all uncannily similar. This isn't paying the biggest complement to Ms Bartholemew though, but her character is yet to be sufficiently expanded.

Romana makes her way to the Doctor, just in the nick of time, and they decide the only way to defeat the computer controlling the colony (via a number of - highly amusing - jokes about the number of times they've defeated delusional computers) is to enter it through their consciousness and join the Network. They do so, and thus enter a seemingly-physical space: a spherical matrix of information a mile in diameter, with faces swimming in and out of vision. This would've been impossible on a BBC budget in 1979, but I love the brass neck of it, and I see it coming off in the same way as the scene in Underworld where the protagonists are falling. The Prolocuter (again, apologies for spelling mistakes) has been driven insane by the inane babble it's had to suffer for years on end, and this sequence is probably the standout of the whole hour, which is saying something. The Doctor and Romana manage to defeat the overbearing protocol-abider by overloading it with even more mindless trivia, after discovering it had been cutting out the most boring contributors - permanently. 

This is a real treat for the nostalgia-heads, without ever alienating anyone not in the know. There's lists of malfunctioning TARDIS components, old Presidents of Gallifrey (I had to look up Slann, Pandax I, II and III), nursery rhyme characters (with mentions to the Krafayis, Shakri, and most pleasingly Salyavin - I loved how Morris left it ambiguous as to the existence of Shada) and many other useless pieces of information. It's at this point that the Eleventh Doctor comes swimming into vision. I was so engrossed in the story I'd completely forgotten he was due to pop up - and I've heard it before! In much the same vein as he asked previous Doctors to preserve artifacts, he gets the Doctor and Romana to save the ruling computer to a hard drive and drop it off at an academy. There's some lovely grumbling from the Fourth Doctor ("I probably would have done that anyway...") and Morris writes Smith's Doctor flawlessly, all energy and getting distract-

- what was I saying?

Before he pops off, the older Doctor contributes a Top Five of his own: his top five foes. I especially loved the commentary alongside each entry, and it was this that sent the computer over the edge. Here, I really did sympathise with forum moderators (having been one, this was a hefty reminder of those days... *shifts uncomfortably*). The Doctor and Romana swiftly withdraw from the sphere and the Doctor does as instructed suggested. Within twenty-four hours, the Palace is back up and running as usual but not everyone has quite got the hang of talking to each other face-to-face again yet. Aurelius and Phillis bid the pair farewell as they head off to deposit the hard drive.

Real credit must go to the amazing Steve Foxon for this release. From the first second, his sound design and music is absolutely exemplary, perhaps even surpassing Simon Hunt's work up to now. The music is authentic and supports the material well - something of a contradiction I know, but Foxon pulls it off. The sound design is where he really gets to play and have fun with Morris' material. Even now, I don't know if the robots and computer were voiced by Ward or Parrott. I would guess the former but such is the manipulation Foxon adds, it's impossible to tell. The Pediseqouts (brilliant name) sound so gloriously crap it made me grin with joy. The Prolocuter likewise, and I cannot fault this area of the release at all. In my previous encounters with Steve Foxon's work, I've always come away satisfied, and this is no different.

Lalla Ward is brilliant in Babblesphere. This is actually my first experience of her audio work (having steered clear of Gallifrey for years) and I was mightily impressed with the energy she was able to inject into the script. I was thinking recently (dangerous, I know) and it seemed to me that one of the most terrifying times as a writer must be the moment when you hand over your script, and it's out of your control. No matter how good your effort is, there's always the potential for it to be ruined by the cast and crew. Of course, the chances are much slimmer when you're working with Big Finish, but it must still be scary. This makes it all the more impressive how each release manages to use the script as only the foundation and to build something truly joyous upon it. 

Ward's Romana is pinpoint accurate, evoking 1979 like it was yesterday. She's at the point in her life where she's no longer learning from the Doctor and drives much of the plot forward in this story. And above all this, thanks to Ward and Morris, she's a joy to be around. Self-satisfied know-it-alls can often be suffocating to be around (*cough* Adric *cough*) but this really isn't the case at all with the future Lady President. Beyond the Time Lady, Ward's Fourth Doctor is also brilliant. I have to highlight the various 'WHAT?!'s as the pinnacle, but she didn't miss a beat. Whereas some narrators in the series may have struggled with embodying their respective Doctor so far (OK, maybe just the one), Ward gives a performance second only in terms of authenticity to Frazer Hines' Second Doctor. She plays Phillis with gumption and conviction and makes her instantly likeable and overall she just seems to get Morris' style of story, which is wonderful as he emulates the Williams (and indeed any he sets his mind too) era with such style and skill. 

Roger Parrott is afforded the most substantial guest role so far in this range as Aurelius. He's given a typically 70s role, and I can see his character slotting into The Pirate Planet in particular with no trouble. Once more, he's sidelined in favour of Romana but that's very much the style of this series and the story is no worse off for it. He gives a good performance and also seems to understand the story Morris is trying to tell, and the style of narrative he chooses to tell it. He has a very listenable voice which lightens what could potentially be a heavy exposition scene.

John Ainsworth has piloted this release as successfully as the preceding three. I don't think there would ever have been any doubt in his mind as to whether he wanted Morris onboard, but it was still an excellent idea to involve him, especially in this slot, with this TARDIS team. While Babblesphere does evoke Festival of Death momentarily at points, Morris does manage to twist another completely authentic story into the fold expertly. Ainsworth's direction is excellent, and Parrott is well cast in the supporting role. One thing I must just note: I was impressed that cover designer Paul Hocking put Romana in a different outfit to any we saw onscreen, yet very much in her style - small details like this show a care for the programme almost unrivalled by any other franchise. I don't doubt it was achieved by recanvassing existing costumes, but it still works well.

To sum up then, this in a top-class addition to the Destiny of the Doctor series. I loved it from start to finish, and while it may not be the most emotionally-challenging release, that doesn't make it any weaker or less enjoyable. Babblesphere is more Series 17 than Series 17 itself. If Douglas Adams had imagined the Internet, this is exactly how it would have been brought to life. This manages to be vast, self-contained, hilarious and exciting all at once, for a whole hour. Whereas previous entries often had a natural split into several episodes, this plays with the rebels-versus- the-state format to dispense with the more traditional aspects swiftly and feels like a continuous narrative. As much as I have enjoyed the previous stories, they barely get a patch on Morris' effort, and it's a real shame he's only contributed the one story to this series. He can turn his hand to anything and sprinkle his 'Morris magic' (his words, not mine) anywhere. This manages to be completely traditional and startlingly original throughout and will no doubt be the highlight of the range. It's only a shame that in the fourth release of eleven, we've reached the seventeenth series of thirty-three. I can't find any reason not to award this top marks. Suffice to say the most enjoyable story I've experienced in a while, reveling in its own joy with an infectious charm that you'll miss for a long time after.

In a Nutshell: The best Series 17 story there never was.

You can buy Babblesphere from Big Finish here (DO IT!), read the Doc Oho review here or read the Blogtor Who review here.

Don't forget to check out the posts on Babblesphere by Mr Morris here and here.

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