24 August 2014

AG: Enemy Aliens

Enemy Aliens, to me, seems to be a very different type of story to the preceding seven instalments of Destiny of the Doctor. For one thing, the appearance of the Eleventh Doctor is for a very different reason. For another, there's a very different attitude and air to this release. It holds itself differently and is perhaps more self-aware than some of the other stories I've heard from this saga. Things are certainly ramping up as we get to the thick end of the series, with stories seemingly becoming increasingly arc-heavy. This isn't a criticism but an observation.

Freshly returned from an exciting-sounding escapade involving Faberge egg bombs and concluding with Charley in Russian military uniform, the Doctor and his companion arrive back at the TARDIS. Ms Pollard collapses into a chair whilst the Doctor - still full of energy despite forty eight hours of exertion - scrambles around the console. It's not long before he's in a fit of outrage though; the TARDIS' internal communication systems have been activated, and no prizes for guessing who's left a message. That's right, the Eleventh Doctor. Here's where the arc threaded through these stories is treated differently. Instead of asking for something or someone's preservation to be ensured ("time can be rewritten" indeed) Smith's character needs assistance of a different kind. He is currently in the process of sending the messages we've become accustomed to back to his previous selves, but something is blocking his transmissions: a great electric fuzz hanging over 1935 London like a fog cloud. Quite how this affects the Doctor I'm not entirely clear, but I'm prepared to let things like that go once in a while, and it's the only 'hole' of this kind that I've noticed all series - unless it is later explained.

Some of the Eleventh Doctor's message is obscured by this and so all the Eighth Doctor and Charley get is a tantalising clue telling them that William Tell is the key to the whole thing. Reluctantly, Ms Pollard pulls her boots back on in order to dash after the Doctor, who seems to have a renewed energy about him. I always think it's a bit of a shame that we don't often get two completely separate, but consecutive, adventures taking place in the same setting. While it might not be appropriate for the TV show nowadays, I do think it's something that could work in the realms of Big Finish. They have done similar things before, but not with the same leads in the same location for an extended period of time. For this reason, I was very glad Alan Barnes chose to go down this path (even if we didn't see the first story) as it seems more realistic to me that not everything would be neatly wrapped up at the end of each story. 

Soon, our heroes arrive in the West End, searching for a performance of Rossini's William Tell Overture, thanks to some inspired humming from Charley. Some boys sat on a wall join in, and shortly after the Doctor and Charley leave, are brutally killed by some extra-terrestrial. The Doctor spots a "William Tell - Europe's most famous memory man" billing on a variety house they pass, and so in they go. As luck would have it, they have come to the right place. This Tell supposedly remembers fifty new facts every day and is like a prototype of Wikipedia - the Doctor even making this comparison, much to Charley's confusion. The Doctor notices that he gets football results from 1896 wrong, and so decides to approach him with his own line of questioning - about the enemy aliens they're on the trail of. If there's one thing I really disliked about Enemy Aliens, it's the number of times the title gets repeated. It would be alright a couple of times, but it feels like Barnes is trying to smash you over the head with it so that when the twist comes he can sit back, self-content. What's worse is that it's such an unnatural phrase. When do you ever hear it said like that? Just 'aliens' would have sufficed, and still achieved Barnes' goal.

Tell is in the middle of revealing the secrets of a key and a lock, and a straggly witch, when he's shot. Charley, for some reason, picks up the murder weapon and the Doctor is promptly carted off the local nick whilst a stranger helps Ms Pollard out of her tight spot. The next morning, this stranger reveals himself to be Hilary Hammond - a shipping clerk. Thanks to his line of work he knows that the Straggly Witch is actually a bay just north of the Scottish border, it's apparently a term only maritime folk know. Someone or something begins smashing up the flat below Hammond's - which is located in Portland Place, just near Broadcasting House, incidentally - and so he and Charley decide to make a quick exit. Hammond's neighbour is a sailor and so Charley decides to borrow one of his outfits. If she's perfectly happy dressing as a man, why wouldn't she borrow some of the more normal clothes? There's far too much time spend detailing Charley's attire in this, and this is just one instance.

They make for the train station and manage to get aboard. Charley then spills the beans about her entire life, the TARDIS and the Doctor to this (pretty much) complete stranger. Towards the end of their journey, the train is boarded by several soldiers and so Charley goes to the baggage carriage to see if she can find something to change into (see what I mean?). There, she finds a coffin and considers getting in it to hide, even though she suspects there's a corpse in there. She does briefly mention that it's a horrible idea, but even so. I'll get to my rant about Charley later, but this has got to be one of the instances where my dislike for her spiked massively. Not only is it quite a revolting idea, it seems really disrespectful to me. Anyway, she goes to open it and the Doctor pops up. He quickly recounts his story of how he survived (the police vehicle was hijacked on the way to the station, attacked by some unearthly monster) before the soldiers find them. Charley hides in the coffin while the Doctor leaps from the train as the military personnel fire at him. Once they've left, Ms Pollard once more assumes him a gonner and goes to blub on Hammond's shoulder.

However, her new best pal's been joined by a pair of old ladies and he's spun them some yarn about eloping to Scotland to marry Charley so that they don't require parents' permission. How sweet. Handily, the Straggly Witch is at the same stop on the train so they all disembark. They collect a cab which Charley assumes the Doctor must have booked (but it's blatantly obvious Hammond did) and it takes them to a local church. It seems that a lot of couple followed this practice, all under the name of John Smith. The old ladies have offered to bear witness to the marriage, but Charley is most ruffled by the revelation that she is soon to be married. She dumps Hammond and goes for a sulk. At that moment, the Doctor (as inexplicably as it sounds) shows up on a horse. The scene which just played out between Charlotte and Hilary is then replayed beat-for-beat but with Ms Pollard trying to persuade the Doctor instead of her being persuaded. Similarly, he denies her the 'pleasure' and it's at that moment that a couple of German soldiers turn up. Yes, these are the titular enemy aliens (or at least one lot of them).

They're then taken to the castle at Straggly Witch, where it's revealed that Tell was talking about a loch and quay, not a lock and key. It also turns out that Hammond is a German agent, readying himself the upcoming war. He tells them that their performance at the variety house has meant that they must relocate and find a new base. Tell revealed where their base was, and so they're moving out. The Doctor realises that the incorrect football scores were a deliberate error. The audience had been seeded with German agents and they all went weekly to learn the new code to decipher messages. The amount each score was wrong by was the amount a letter needed to be moved, given that there were twenty-six teams. This was one revelation that really did work for me. I knew there was more to it at the time, but I couldn't figure out what. The Doctor also recalls that the two old ladies (from the train and church) were at the Tell show, and at that moment the castle is stormed by British troops. Handily, Hammond has had the TARDIS brought up from London so the Doctor and Charley are able to make a quick exit, to the following evening. Just before the Brits arrived, the Eleventh Doctor's message was played in full so they know that they must arrive at Broadcasting House in time for the performance of the Overture.

They arrive at eight o'clock on the dot, and rush inside. They're once more pursued by the monster, causing both the receptionist and pianist (who plays the first few notes of the Overture) to faint. However, a few notes were enough. These were the signals needed to announce the beginning of the invasion. To synchronise across time zones, the invaders needed to know when to begin, and that was to be the signal - for no explicable reason other than it fits the plot quite well. The Doctor manages to rig up some kind of noise blast though - 20000 terraHertz apparently. This - along with a message from the Eleventh Doctor - scares them off and they go and attempt to invade a less developed planet. The older Time Lord is now able to send his messages out so all is well. But there's one last twist, Hilary Hammond shows up now a double agent for the British. The monster is said to have taken a shining to Charley because she was humming the Overture. It now thinks she is its superior. She introduces it to Hammond, saying he intends the monster's race's destruction. This is quite an irresponsible act seeing as it rushes Hammond and they are taken through a window. It falls to its death but Hammond is left hanging from the hand of a clock face.

And there you have it, nearly 1700 words detailing the plot of this story. Despite being shorter than many of the earlier Destiny stories, it feels about two or three times as long. I've never heard Zagreus, but I get the feeling the experience would be much the same as this from what I've read (considering they share a writer, it's not overly surprising). This really needed tightening up. It darts between locations so quickly, and the plot is pretty incoherent and relies on far too many unlikely coincidences. The Doctor makes a number of River Song-style entrances that just annoyed me a bit (as that woman does every second she spends on screen) and came out of nowhere. By showing the Doctor surviving so many seemingly impossible scenarios, Barnes removes a lot of the jeopardy from the situation. Another device in this vain is being able to pilot the TARDIS to a specific location. I really don't like it when this is used as a way of moving the plot on in stories, in the most part. It feels a little lazy. I think this would have been much stronger if it had slowed down a little and if the bits of the plot set in Scotland were moved to a London location. I think the capital is big and varied enough that it would have worked.

Now onto Charley. I was never that keen on the character during her original run with the Eighth Doctor, as detailed in my review of The Light at the End. This seems to be the epitome of all her worst characteristics crushed together. She's reluctant to go with the Doctor, cries over his death every few minutes, is extremely self-important and thinks little of anyone else (the Doctor excluded), there's no subtlety  to her, she seems to want to change every five minutes, she speaks with a really authoritative tone and just... argh. She rubs me up the wrong way. I so so so so so wish this could have been a Lucie story instead. Big Finish were convinced a few years back that characters that were too working class were hated by fans. Well this is the exact opposite situation. Charley seems so up herself that I really had to struggle through this (three times, I might add. Three times! And there were still loads of things I didn't understand). India Fisher gives her all to the part in fairness and embodies the character well, it's just that I really don't like the character. She also gives life to the remainder of the story, especially the McGann Doctor, very effectively. She took me right back to those early seasons of Eighth Doctor audios and it must be said that Barnes does write well for him. Considering that he was a major driving force in creating the character of the Eighth Doctor (and Charley) as we know him, that's the way it should be.

There are some enjoyable ideas and bits of dialogue (I loved the policemen being referred to as bobbies, and the "fizz of fuzz" line worked for me) at work here, but I must confess that I did think the overall story was poor. Not nearly enough is explained and it relies on sweeping the listener along to a new location to avoid giving answers and hoping they don't realise far too often. It feels like Barnes was a bit rushed for time on this one, which is a shame. In the past he's proved he can write excellent stories and he script edits the vast majority of the main range, so he must be doing something right. He brings up a lot of references to the TV Movie (chiefly the reliance on Rossini, compared with Puccini) which I could quite frankly have done without. I think it would have been a fitting recreation of the McGann era (which he was instrumental in anyway) without them. 

Michael Maloney is something of a regular in the world of India Fisher. He was in Patient Zero, Blue Forgotten Planet and the recent Charlotte Pollard box set (please may I never have to listen to that!). Here, he plays Hilary Hammond. It's a shame the part is so sketchily written and so aggravating since he seems to be an excellent voice actor. I think it was justified having a second voice here, conversely to normal. Maloney gave an above-average performance but I think my own opinion was skewed a little too much by Hammond - no doubt he defected again once war broke out. 

Simon Hunt does the best he can with the music, but he's barely given time to establish a location. He's proven in earlier stories what he can do, but he does seem to struggle with the material here (understandably). His themes and stings are enjoyable but due to the nature of the narrative he has to convey an ongoing breathless dash through events, locations, people and revelations. Some of it is exceptional, but he's really not given a chance to shine. The sound design is much stronger, instantly evoking the places we're supposed to be in and his treatment of voices worked wonders to wake me back up at certain points. The mantle will be taken up by the brilliant Howard Carter and Jamie Robertson for the next couple of stories, but I hope Hunt gets more of a chance to showcase his skills in The Time Machine

I did love hearing the Eighth Doctor's theme music again. It's a great arrangement, and a really distinctive piece of music that marked out the Paul McGann adventures as something special early on.

I've devoted over five hours of my life to Enemy Aliens so I'm inclined to leave it there. I can't comment yet as to whether it's possible to skip it when listening through these, but I'd be willing to bet that it's worth the extra legwork you might have to do in later stories to avoid this. After the sustained high standard of the series, there had to be a dud somewhere and I'm afraid this was it. I wouldn't go as far as to say this was doomed from the start in my opinion, but having Charley reading it never enthused me much. There's probably a good story to be told at the heart of Enemy Aliens (god I hate that phrase now) but this isn't it. How two stories set so close to the outbreak of World War II (An Eye for Murder and this) and be so diametrically different (narratively and in terms of quality) is in one sense a good indicator of Big Finish's output and in another shocking and worrying. The best thing about this is the Doctor, which is a credit to Barnes. Sorry, but if possible don't bother with this.

In a Nutshell: The first real letdown of the series, this ambles and bores more than a very ambley-borey thing. And Charlotte Pollard is bloody unbearable.

You can buy Enemy Aliens here, read the Doc Oho review here or the Blogtor Who review here.

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