13 July 2014

AG: Smoke and Mirrors

Steve Lyons is a writer whose work I've only encountered briefly, in his enjoyable Ninth Doctor book The Stealers of Dreams. Despite this, I've always had some respect for him and he's one of those writers who doesn't often get mentioned. I think this is quiet respect though, because some of his work is very highly regarded indeed, especially Son of the Dragon, Time Works and The Selachian Gambit. With all this turning over in my head, I pressed play on his latest effort, Smoke and Mirrors, and I wasn't disappointed at all.

Lyons takes on the challenge of writing for the notorious crowded TARDIS of Series 19, setting this just after The Visitation. He manages to pull off the feat very well though, in a fashion that's both faithful and innovative, and gives everyone a pleasing amount of involvement with the main plot.

He parks the TARDIS in an American fairground and introduces our regulars to Harry Houdini. The notorious escapologist has featured in several other stories with the Doctor, and this base is neatly covered by Houdini early on: there's mentions of prior adventures with Jo, Ben and Polly. This feels entirely authentic of the early-80s mentality, having an early celebrity historical. However, where Lyons differs from John Nathan-Turner's methods is by making Houdini a central figure to the story, much in the vein of more recent television stories of this ilk. 

The Doctor's old friend says he has noticed something suspicious with one of the fortune tellers at the fairground. After the sun has set, the fivesome return to inspect the caravan. The Doctor and Houdini elect to follow this line of inquiry while his young companions explore the rest of the grounds. Soon they are in the clutches (almost literally) of a released tiger. This leads to a pleasingly substantial turn for Adric when he supposedly leads the animal off to give Nyssa and Tegan a chance to escape. This reminds me especially of the scene in Earthshock when he clobbers an android with a rock. It's these rare moments of courage that go some way to redeeming the character, but he is soon captured by the tiger's owner.

The Doctor and Houdini, meanwhile, discover an Ovid sphere in the fortune-teller's caravan, of the sort they first encountered many years ago when the Time Lord travelled with swinging sixties duo Ben and Polly. I like to think this was between The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders as I'm led to believe The War Machines, The Smugglers and The Tenth Planet all lead into each other. I'd love to see a story with the Second Doctor and Houdini, can you imagine the mischief those two would get up to? This is the point where the Doctor gets the message from his future self in this tale. It's unusually early, but wouldn't make sense at any other point. The Eleventh Doctor appears in the crystal Ovid sphere and tells his younger self (I loved the mentions of Davison's Doctor's characteristics by the way; I think it was done better than in Time Crash) that he must return the sphere to its homeworld.

All of these seemingly unconnected items being needed seems to be leading to two possible conclusions from my perspective. One possibility is that all of these objects are required to build some kind of machine or weapon, and the other as I see it is if these are returned to their correct places as part of the denouement of the arc. I guess we'll have to wait for The Time Machine to discover the truth, but I am definitely looking forward to it (despite what I've heard about that play). I'm loving way the mystery is being built up at the moment, it gives each story a different depth.

Back to Smoke and Mirrors and Nyssa has managed to get herself captured by the villain behind this masterplan. Look away if you don't want to know who it is - it's the Master. It may feel like an obvious selection for a story set in Series 19 that's supposed to celebrate nostalgia but this is actually one of very few tales set in this period to feature the bearded baddie. And not to mention that his inclusion actually adds depth to his arc across the season rather than including him gratuitously. He hypnotises Nyssa easily, and sends her after he friends to capture them.

It's at this point we learn that Houdini is actually in cahoots with the Doctor's old nemesis, and he knocks him out before shoving him in a lake inside a crate, in a scene that reminded me a bit of Castrovalva. To be fair to him, he does experience serious regret before long, but not quite enough to do anything about it. It seems it must have been quite easy to persuade him given how speedily he switches his allegiance again. While this could be blamed on poor characterisation elsewhere, this is actually explored as a point of discussion. The Doctor says that no-one can live up to Houdini's expectations, and talks about all his idols being destroyed after he sets his expectations too high. It's a lovely exchange that adds weight to both characteristics and makes the escapologist a more rounded character, and shows us they have history, rather than just telling us. This is one quality (of many) I love about Steve Lyons' writing.

 Inside a circus tent, the Master holds the Doctor's three young friends prisoner, with Nyssa under his spell. Pleasingly, Adric endeavours to discover his captor's location, given that he appears only as a ghost to them. He spots a pane of glass and remembers the GCSE Physics fact 'angle of incidence = angle of reflection'. He climbs to the point where he calculates the Master should be, but he isn't there. Somehow, the Master, despite still being in a ghostly form, manages to strangle Adric - but not fatally (who groaned?). Tegan comes to her senses and smashes the glass and it's at this point the Doctor turns up, having previously nabbed Houdini's set of lock picks.

Using the Ovid sphere, they expel the Master from this dimension and the Doctor explains that he was never really here in the first place. It seems it was some attempt to escape death from Castrovalva, where he is still slowly being collapsed upon. The Doctor and Houdini make up, and there's just time for the former to have a go on the merry-go-round (yes, apparently they open at the crack of dawn). Tegan even cracks a smile, which is unquestionably stretching plausibility.

Steve Lyons has constructed a solid story in Smoke and Mirrors. It cracks along at a fair pace without feeling rushed and while a large section of it (or possibly all of it) is padding, it's enjoyable padding. Surprisingly for me, the most enjoyable moments in this story involve Nyssa, Tegan and Adric, none of whom I care for in their televised adventures. Lyons re-imagines the team significantly as likeable individuals with personalities, motives and common sense. The line about Adric being more comfortable with a pad and pencil almost made me have a positive emotion towards the character as well. Almost. One of my favourite sections from the whole story has to be when the Doctor is thinking calming thoughts to the Ovid sphere and Tegan rushes over to help. The way she protests indignantly to her friends is just brilliant - I love the way it's written and performed. It really made me chuckle, which is some feat considering this is Tegan Jovanka we're talking about. Overall, it's a satisfying plot and fits the bill well without ever being particularly startling in any respect.

Janet Fielding narrates this story, and this is the first instance where her character isn't pushed to the forefront any more than any other companion. Of course, the only other occasion so far would be Shadow of Death, but even so it's nice to see the emphasis changing a little. If I'm not making myself totally clear, what I mean is that Smoke and Mirrors could be read by Sarah Sutton or Matthew Waterhouse just as easily with minimal script changes. Each character gets their own fair share of the action. Fielding hadn't undertaken this role before for Big Finish, and Tegan is something of a rarity in their productions, so this was an opportunity to be relished. Unfortunately, I didn't really get along with Fielding's narration terribly well. I mean, it was passable, but her accent seemed to waver from scene to scene, depending on whose actions she was reciting. It varied between cod-Australian and an upper-class accent so trying that it set my teeth on edge a bit and made me uncomfortable. Coming after a string of such experienced and skilled narrators, this was a bit of a shock and reinforced how natural they were.

Conversely to popular opinion, I thought Fielding's Eleventh Doctor was her personal low point, gabbling too much. It slipped into the caricature mode Steven Moffat was so keen on wheeling out in  Series 7, rather than the character of the Eleventh Doctor we got earlier in his tenure. This isn't down to the writing but the delivery. Janet's Tegan was uncanny though, and entirely evocative of the early '80s. Some bits had me chuckling and others shifting uneasily, but overall it was still an above-average input. I think Fielding's main issue was experience, especially given that she never had the opportunity to perform a comparable Companion Chronicle.

Tim Beckmann as Houdini was great, and this has got to be the most substantial role for the secondary character the series is going to offer us. Beckmann features from the very first scene. A big disappointment though was that the name of his part was announced over the opening credits. I've mentioned before, but I often try and go into Big Finish stories with as little prior knowledge as possible. Given that it's virtually impossible to sit down to a TV episode and know nothing about it these days, BF is my main opportunity for this. So I was a little miffed at this, but I suppose it's fair enough. Beckmann gives a great turn as the escapologist, and his accent in particular is convincing. I warmed to Houdini almost instantly, and was slightly shocked when he revealed his agenda. An enjoyable turn, and it's good to see an actor get a part to really sink their teeth into in this range.

Steve Foxon is again on the sound and music duties, I'm pleased to report. He is proving himself to be highly skilled, so much so that I'd go as far as to say he's approaching being the Jonny Morris of the sound design world. He perfectly creates the sonic landscape of the Davison era without sinking to its lows, instead learning from their mistakes to deliver a fitting and memorable score. Indeed, some of his hooks from both this and Babblesphere have stayed with me weeks after listening, so he must be doing something right. Almost instantly, I can picture the fairground thanks to the words of Lyons and the atmospherics of Foxon. Nice work, Steves!

Please remind me never to say that again.

John Ainsworth again pulls his weight, engineering another successful instalment to his arc as something of a back-seat driver. Given that the supporting character's part is substantially larger than usual in Lyons' hands [steady - Ed] Ainsworth has more to occupy himself with in terms of acting direction rather than just narration, which by definition comprises the majority of this range. I can only assume he did his job well as his cast seem to be up to the job. (I realise this may sound contradictory, but I mean as far as he can, Ainsworth seems to have influenced the delivery. There is little he can do about Fielding herself - and I mean that in the nicest possible way.)

All of these elements pull together to culminate in a great entry. While it may sit towards the bottom of the first five, this should still be taken positively. Considering 5/10 is average, this is doing well in my opinion. I think it's all the better for not being a 'big' Master story. Not only would this have eaten up time from the regulars, but it would have left a poorer overall impression I think. By playing out as a stepping stone in a larger arc (or two) it benefits enormously, and allows much of the emphasis to be placed on the Doctor and Houdini, both of whom are written very well. As good as they are though (and they are good) the Doctor's companions were a revelation. If they had been written like this in the '80s, I think a Series 19 boxset would've been released far sooner than August 2014. The whole thing keeps giving you the nagging feeling of being a runaround, but it's an especially enjoyable one and the piece comes together very well as a culmination of talents. I loved the imagination on display here, and just the style and substance with which Lyons delivers his plot and his characters. He does seem to be a master of prose, and should be proud of his effort here. The only thing which left me slightly unenthusiastic was Fielding's narration, but it definitely wouldn't be classed as bad. I think it's just coming so soon after the previous four, well-versed, narrators that Fielding is shown up a bit more. This explores its concepts well and tells a great little story that ought to have you grinning by its conclusion - even if you think you hate Adric.

In a Nutshell: It's appropriate that the story featuring one of the most famous showmen in history pulls off the staggering trick of making me like Nyssa, Tegan and Adric - and it has a great story behind it too!

You can buy Smoke and Mirrors here, read the Doc Oho review here or read the Blogtor Who review here.

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