03 August 2014

BF: An Eye for Murder

Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories is 2014's anthology set, comprising of four 25-minute stories instead of the usual 100-minute story. These are pretty much an annual affair but last year the slot was surrendered to Afterlife. Previous entries of this type include 1001 Nights, Recorded Time and Other Stories, The Demons of Red Lodge and Other Stories, The Company of Friends and Forty-Five. The four stories included in this release are Breaking Bubbles, Of Chaos Time The, An Eye for Murder and The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time.

An Eye for Murder is acclaimed author Una McCormack's first proper Doctor Who story for Big Finish. As well as a string of best-selling novels and a couple of Smith-era hardbacks, she's contributed one story to the Gallifrey series and the widely-praised Good Night, Sweet Ladies to the recent New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield (which did feature Ace too) . And if Blake's 7 is your thing, she's written Risk Management and Ministry of Peace for Big Finish's ongoing boxsets too. Quite a CV.

But, based on my sole exposure to her work (this), what do I think? Well I personally hope to hear a lot more from her in the future! An Eye for Murder seems to bring the kind of drama I enjoy into the Doctor Who world perfectly, and I have to say I was reminded quite strongly of the excellent ITV series Endeavour by this. Without wanting to do down the marvellous work of LM Myles and Mark Ravenhill, it really feels like grown up writing has taken a hold here. The theme of perception is just as prominent here as in Breaking Bubbles and Of Chaos Time The but it seems to be handled in a much more mature way. In both of these stories, it is dealt with in quite an in-your-face fashion, whereas McCormack opts for a different tact. In short, she shows where the others told.

The premise of this story is relatively similar to that of Chaos: the Doctor has landed after detecting some kind of extra-terrestrial interference to investigate. It's perhaps telling that the first thing McCormack does with the Sixth Doctor is change his clothes, but it did work within the confines of the narrative, and maybe it's foreshadowing the blue attire he dons whilst travelling with Evelyn Smythe in his later years. Anyway, it's 1939 and the trail has taken them to girls' college St Ursula's. Coincidentally, they are expecting the return of a postgraduate novelist (Ms Sarah Perry - any relation to the contemporary author?) when our Peri shows up. Confusion naturally ensues but the Doctor is more than happy to go with it in order that he might locate the source of the irregular energy readings.

The pair are soon embroiled in the goings-on of the college, some of which don't live up to the squeaky-clean reputation the principal Dr Petherbridge is so keen to maintain. We are relatively swiftly (but by no means unnaturally) introduced to our three other guest cast for this half-hour: Dr Horwitz (a Jewish Austrian physicist); Dr Dalton (an unshy Communist) and Dr Backhouse (a closet fascist). They are all interesting, detailed characters. One thing I enjoy in a story (in any medium) is a bit of a spark between characters and it would be unfair to the writer and (supreme) cast to say that there weren't several here. Of the three segments of Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories I've heard so far, this is definitely the first where I've really wanted it to be longer. I think an old school-style threat would probably ruin the essence of the piece, so I don't know how it could be expanded upon truthfully. The main point is that I looooved it and wanted to soak in the atmosphere of the piece for a few more hours.

Dr Horwitz has been receiving horrifically hateful poison pen letters from another postgraduate at the college, and Dr Petherbridge employs Peri and her assistant the Doctor to discover who. McCormack had me totally hoodwinked right up until one character's arrest. and I was almost disappointed that I'd got it right. But of course I hadn't! The revelation of the identity of the actual sender isn't massively difficult given that there was really only one other person it could be. But no matter, because the audience is supposed to realise at the exact moment the characters do, or at least it seemed that way to this listener. The Doctor pursues the lady in a police car (with an excellent policeman who I can only assume is played by Nick "versatile" Briggs) before the final turn on the journey of An Eye for Murder is revealed.

I haven't touched on the source of the energy readings the Doctor was tracking. This is because I feel that to discuss it here would be ruin it for any potential listeners and it's such a brilliant idea and execution that I really couldn't put it any better than McCormack. Rest assured though, it fits in totally with the tone and backdrop of this episode and is a very neat concept in itself. Although it could be said we don't actually learn all that much about it, I kind of prefer it this way. I think all that needs to be said is said and it shows that McCormack has the increasingly-rare talent of knowing what not to write just as well as she knows what to write. There's somehow time for a solid conclusion to the tale too. The only thing I would have added is for the TARDIS to dematerialise and the observer to comment something along the lines of "well that was quick" right at the end. But this perfectly encapsulates itself in its own world, which I highly doubt we will ever return to.

I know I've praised Wilfredo Acosta in the past, but here he really takes things up a notch. His score is much more prominent here than in Bubbles or Chaos and the end product is all the better for it. I adored his work on An Eye for Murder. His soundtrack not only sat beneath but underpinned McCormack's excellent story, becoming the backbone of the piece. His sound design was similarly accomplished, but some of the door creaks did sound like they were pulled from a stock sound effects library. The pinnacle of his work is at the big conclusion of the story, as rain pours from the heavens, and he makes it the highlight of the half-hour. I don't know what Nick Briggs had for breakfast on 10th January (two days after my birthday, incidentally) but it must've been good. Perhaps unfairly, I often consider him more of an action director. That's not a criticism, action sequences are tough to direct, even more so on audio I'd imagine. But he really does show off his range here with almost the antithesis of one of those stories - a small group of women stuck together in '30s England. His direction here outranks his earlier work on this release by miles. Everything in this story really was taken up a notch, and it shows.

Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant also seem to revel in this script. They imbue every line of theirs with commitment and passion, and there's a really tangible glee to Bryant's performance as Peri as she takes control. McCormack's writing does help of course, and she nails these two in a different way to Mark Ravenhill and LM Myles. This wildly different, low-tech setting brings out more human aspects of their characters (or perhaps the reverse in the Doctor's case!) and this makes them very appealing. One of my favourite moments was Colin Baker's downtroddden, understated moan when it turns out he must play the role of Peri's typist. If you have the script, I think it's at the end of Scene 4. 

Despite the serious subject matter, the writer still manages to fill the story with a lot of humour, but certainly not to an overbearing level. There's too many lines to list all of them here but one of my favourites (and one that's stuck in my mind ever since) is "the revolution really has begun". In one line, McCormack succinctly underlines so many of the social issues of the time. She also veers close to breaking the fourth wall a couple of times too, what with the abuse on the "scene towards the end" in the "cathedral" (alright it was a chapel here, but I don't doubt it was meant to reference this). Many writers have fallen into the dangerous trap before of describing something with a line that can then be used against them. See Joe Ford's site for many references to these. Here, we have the potentially own-foot-shooting "what a dreadful episode". It's lucky it comes in such a brilliant episode, otherwise that could have turned out badly. That's another thing I like about this: it has an air of confidence. By examining issues and morals of seventy-five years ago, McCormack actually details a smart commentary on contemporary views and values and while I'm not going to go into my own opinions, I do appreciate it when there is a humanity beneath a story. I've found in a number of Jonny Morris' stories that (even more than usual) there is a message of equality or the lack of it. That's unsurprisingly prevalent here too (given he script edited this) but I do want to credit McCormack too. In some of her other work certain themes have cropped up that reappear here, but when they're handled so expertly, no-one should be complaining.

In short, I think this is one of the best single episodes of Doctor Who I've ever experienced and possibly one of the greatest things Big Finish have ever done. Has such an unquestionable lineup of talent (Morris, McCormack, Briggs, Baker, Bryant, Knappett, Churchill and of course Wilfredo Acosta) been assembled since The Deadly Assassin (Holmes, Maloney, Hinchcliffe, Murray-Leach, the other Baker, Pravda etc. etc.)? I think not. 

In a Nutshell: Top drawer storytelling and supremely brilliant Who. Seriously, it's stunning.

An Eye for Murder is available as part of Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories here. I don't like to influence my readers reader too strongly, but BUY IT! Read the Doc Oho review here and the Blogtor Who review here.

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