31 August 2014

AG: Night of the Whisper

Rose was my introduction to Doctor Who back in 2005. As a child of the nineties, I'd missed the TV Movie and obviously wasn't around for the classic series so when Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke and a whole army of Autons burst onto our screen, my imagination was immediately fired. From that episode on, I was a fan. Perhaps my fondest memories of watching the program herald from the end of Eccleston's sole series - that glorious run from The Empty Child onwards. Controversially, Boom Town is one of my favourite stories ever, thanks in no small part to the winning team of the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack. I absolutely love this team, and that really was my era.

So it was with accidental anticipation that I built up my expectations of Night of the Whisper in my mind. The longer I put it off, the more fantastic - to steal a catchphrase - I imagined it was. This got to silly levels. I was so convinced this was going to be excellent that I was almost dreading listening in case it didn't reach my expectations. I'm over the moon to report that not only did this meet my expectations, but it surpassed them by quite some margin! 

We open on Rose working as a waitress in the Full Moon casino in twenty-third century New Vegas. Immediately we're immersed in Rose's new world as we meet her boss, Wolfsbane. Like a furry Al Capone, he's a canine you don't want to mess with, especially given that he practically owns New Vegas, with the police eating out his hand. The corrupt casino is soon besieged, a masked figure attacking the patrons whilst repeating "justice will be served". Looming over Rose, we get our pre-titles cliffhanger as justice is said to be served for all, and the titular Whisper's electricity-firing palm is thrust in Ms Tyler's direction. I think pre-titles segments have rarely been more exciting or instantly engaging than in that pioneering first year, so it's brilliant to return to the outrageous style of storytelling. 

Wolfsbane jumps the Whisper and Rose quickly dashes from the restaurant, dodging stray energy bolts all the while. Following a brief reunion with Jack Harkness, she's taken down to the police station where she is questioned by Commissioner James McNeil (John Schwab). Pretty soon an Inspector George Dixon shows up with an uncannily familiar northern accent. Yes, that's right it's the Doctor undercover. I love his cover name by the way, I kind of wish the writers would go with this sort of thing more often. There can only be so many times he wants to be John Smith, can't there? Maybe now Capaldi's taken up the reigns we'll see a resurgence of the 'James McCrimmon' alias. Anyway, the Doctor rescues Rose and no sooner have they left the building has Wolfsbane arrived to take her home. He senses something fishy with the businessman, and has entrusted his companion to find out what it is.

In no uncertain, but definitely ominous, tones Siras Wolfsbane lets Rose know that he's watching her. Impressed by her discretion under questioning about his illegal activities, he promotes her to the senior waitress of the private lounge. Jack, meanwhile, is under cover at the Daily Galaxy in order that he might access their archives to find out the truth about the Whisper - a vigilante sweeping the streets, killing for any or no crime. He's approached by a colleague - Daisy Hewitt - to look into the disappearance of her friend Lorraine. Curiously, it's after her husband, formerly an employee of Wolfsbane, passes on. The gangster trains all his cameras on Senior Waitress Tyler and as she exits the casino for her break, he spots her meeting up with Dixon once more. Looking to attract the Whisper, he's brought along a spud gun to threaten Rose with. There's a lovely bit of misdirection here as the vigilante does show up, but passes on to where a graffiti artist is defacing a building. The law-breaker is of course killed.

Determined not to let the Whisper get away, the Doctor mounts a hoverbike, and Rose swings on behind as they pursue the murderer. This is a brilliant sequence, with bullets being fired and a third party joining the chase. Trying to evade Wolfsbane's men, the Doctor drives the bike to unprecedented heights. The bike's engine fails and they plummet to the ground, forcing the Doctor to repair is quickly. While he is, Rose notices a billboard with an interesting message... Yes, this is where the Eleventh Doctor shows up. The arc element here is mercifully lighter than in Enemy Aliens or Shockwave. All that is asked of him here is to ensure that McNeil survives, which takes on a real depth later. Even though it's a one-sided conversation, there were some really great bits to this scene. I especially loved the line where the narrator refers to Smith's incarnation as "the bowtie-wearing idiot," Briggs delivers this line perfectly and it makes me howl with laughter every time.

The Time Lord-turned-mechanic is soon joined by a certain canine criminal and he powers the bike back up. He and Rose head after the Whisper once more. Very brilliantly, he manages to crash the hoverbike into a stand of leaflets on road safety in New Vegas after dodging traffic, almost fatally cutting across lanes. He enters the Police HQ and begins to construct a "Whisper sniffer-outer" as Rose puts it, to find the location of his lair. McNeil, seeing what they're up to, makes a sharp exit, not that Rose or the Doctor notice. 

Using a spare squareness gun the Doctor hasn't confiscated, Jack and Daisy hack into Wolfsbane's casino security camera room, hoping to spot Lillian on the CCTV. Watching the video, a heated argument between Wolfsbane and Lillian ends badly for the latter, as the former's men are told to dump her outside the 50-mile dome in which the city exists. The despicable alien admits to killing Lillian's husband too. His and the Whisper's immediacy and lack of hesitation in killing makes this feel more dangerous than regular releases, like our heroes might actually bite the big one. Following the signal from the Doctor's device, they arrive at a suburban street, only to receive a phone call from Jack letting them know what he's learned. He quickly hangs up though, sensing someone else nearby at the Casino. Daisy exposes her true colours and stuns him.

Back in suburbia, McNeil appears and enters a house. The Doctor quickly follows him, and he and Rose arrive to find him in the grip of the Whisper. There's a brief struggle and they manage to throw the vigilante out. However, Rose has pulled off its mask - to reveal the face of a young woman. The Doctor wants answers. It turns out the Whisper is Lillian - McNeil's daughter. After she was thrown outside the bubble, a Star Marshall found her. These are biomechanical lawmen who patrol the non-human parts of space for the Magnala Collective. When they're damaged, they can merge with organic lifeforms to restore themselves, and this one had crashed. But the transition didn't go well and the resultant entity was neither Lillian nor Star Marshall. But it came back to McNeil. Evoking childhood memories of holo-comics, he saw an opportunity and created the caped crusade the Whisper to get back at his arch enemy Wolfsbane, turning his own daughter into a weapon.

Jack comes round in the clutches of Wolfsbane at the atmospheric generation plant. He's captured Jack because he's knows just as little about the Whisper as he does at this point. He may run the city (unofficially) but for all his contacts and sources, he can't figure out who he is. That's why he let the Doctor, Rose and Jack investigate for so long; they're his best hope of finding out what's going on. But then Daisy screams - the Whisper is here! Using the Doctor's tracker, he, McNeil and Rose show up at the plant. The vigilante heads straight for Wolfsbane, ignoring Jack. She easily works through his heavies, and quickly dispatches Daisy too, as the wolf-man uses her as a human shield. Soon though, the Whisper has him in her grip. There follows an affecting scene where McNeil begs her for forgiveness. Gradually, it works and Wolfsbane is released. But he grabs his staser and instantly shoots her. Fatally. 

As the police chief grieves over his daughter in her final moments, the Doctor steps away. Rose is still trying to free Jack. The Time Lord gives his restraints a single tug and they fall away easily. But while they've been distracted, McNeil's gone - after Wolfsbane. Finding them a few rooms down, the commissioner's gun to the criminal's head, the Doctor pleads with him not to do it. But, declaring that there was no value in survival, McNeil unclips and a safety chain and throws himself and Wolfsbane off the gantry. The Doctor manages to grab his ankle before a momentary struggle between Wolfsbane and McNeil in mid-air, much to the Doctor's displeasure seeing as he's the only thing holding them. The casino owner tries to clamber up the police chief like a human ladder, and the Doctor loses his grip, pitching over the edge. But just in time, Rose is there, holding onto his hand for all she's worth.

However, Wolfsbane has lost his grip. With a final cry of anguish, he disappears through a cloud of gas below. And now McNeil realises that, in the end, he did the right thing. Hearing about the disturbance, the police show up. O'Hara, McNeil's deputy, arrests his boss on his own instruction. A final, wordless look between the Doctor and McNeil says everything as he's led away. After a month of covert investigation, the case is closed. 

I must just say what a brilliant story this is. It fits the mould of the type of Who I love exactly. There's moments of danger, suspense, fun and curiosity. These may sound like general ingredients but the wonderful thing about Mark Wright and Cavan Scott's tale is that it feels just like a 2005 story, and not just because it's this TARDIS team fronting it. The comparisons are easily drawn, both on an obvious level ("Kronkburger" is the very first word of the story) and in the subtext of the piece. The relationships and revelations present in Night of the Whisper evoke Russell T Davies' domestic perfectly and strip all the futuristic, space stuff away and you still have a brilliant, human drama. Listening to this makes the preceding entries in the series feel a little shallow, and makes you think that maybe they fitted into their respective eras too well.

The characterisations of the three leads are spot on. The Ninth Doctor ranges between heroic, tragic, ecstatic and furious in that seamless blur of character that I always thought Eccleston did so well. There's a return for the "stupid apes" notion championed by Father's Day, and it's a really deep moment when Rose says it's the first time she's heard him say "fantastic" without any enthusiasm. It helps that the line is performed in such a depressed way. Jack, while being the most absent of the trio from this, definitely contributes to both the plot and human story and I would much rather he were in this than the alternative. The interplay between our TARDIS team is precisely captured by the writers too, and there's really nothing that ever makes you think this wouldn't fit into the aforementioned 'golden run', which is perfect for me.

Nick Briggs takes on the vocal duties for this story. When this was announced, there was a bit of a backlash and accusations of favouritism. I admit it would've been a real coup to have one of our heroes reading this, but Briggs is certainly a good fit for the role - possibly more than any of the three leads, dare I say it. His Ninth Doctor starts off a little shaky (but still well above average) but by the conclusion, there is very little at all to set Eccleston's voice apart from Briggs'. Not only does he recreate the voice successfully but the essence and spirit of Nine. It was just joyous listening to my Doctor being brought to life once more. Briggs' Rose is less accomplished, and from time to time the impression I got was that the emphasis on the line was delivered differently to how it was intended. These were rare occasions, and overall he gets her pretty accurate. Jack, I'm afraid to say, was the least convincing. While it didn't detract from the story, this was more of an impression than an impersonation, as with the others. Although Briggs can do a convincing American accent, it didn't really sound like John Barrowman's American accent to me, which I'm sure is just down to varying voices. As with his two companions though, Jack is effortlessly brought to life and the role was thoroughly enjoyable, stealing many of the best lines (describing Daisy as "crazy with a capital nuts" made me roar with laughter on each listen).

I think Briggs' best role would have to be as Wolfsbane though. He easily voices the criminal, snarling and growling his way through scenes like there's no tomorrow. I don't if some kind of modulation was added, but I really enjoyed this role and it's fitting that Briggs voiced many of the monsters of the modern era, as it's likely he would've voiced this villain had he appeared. Nick also has a very listenable 'normal' voice too, which is useful for a narrator. Like on the Big Finish podcasts, I think audio was always a natural medium for him to move to as he does have such a skilled and versatile range. Overall, he easily proved critics wrong and there can surely be no doubt that he was up to the job.

John Schwab fills the second role here as McNeil. Given that this story runs to seven seconds shy of eighty minutes, there's more time for character development. The role of McNeil doesn't feel like the guest character it did in a few of the previous plays. He feels integral to the action, and the whole story does indeed revolve around him. I'm afraid to say I thought Schwab's American accent was weaker than Briggs', which is why I was shocked to discover that Schwab actually is American. He gives a good performance as the commissioner, and he emotes a lot more than some of the other supporting performers from this range. Despite what the lawman had done, I really felt sympathetic for the character and the ending had me welling up a little as he cradles his daughter in her arms. Thanks to the plotting and writing of Scott and Wright, the narration of Briggs and the performance of Schwab (and undoubtedly helped by Howard Carter's score, but I'll come to that) it builds to a terrific climax that left me in no doubt as to the quality of Night of the Whisper.

Howard Carter, who I most recently praised for his work on Scavenger but also deserves much applause for Fanfare for the Common Men, is - as I've mentioned - on the musics for this. The score for this instantly feels grander and, dare I say it, more sophisticated than the music of the first eight has. It fills the space left by Murray Gold, but uses the same starting point in a different way. It's hard to describe with words, but it definitely has an authentic feel, despite being fresh material. It's really nice to have someone else score the Ninth Doctor's era, and I'd love it if Carter were to get the TV gig - even if it was only for one episode. He incredibly successfully underpins 80 minutes of drama and adds layers to every scene. If there's ever an album of the scores of the Destiny of the Doctor series - unlikely as that is - I really hope Carter's work on Night gets a look in. His sound design is similarly accomplished, always appearing at just the right spot during the narration, which is trickier than it might sound. Close your eyes and you can't help but be transported to the highways of New Vegas as the Doctor weaves between lanes and buildings, dodging bullets and chasing a cloaked assassin through the night. It doesn't get any more Doctor Who than that, and I think this scene must be Carter's standout from the whole piece. Brilliant, and I can't wait to hear what he has in store for Death's Deal

John Ainsworth is mentioned in every one of these reviews by requirement, given he's the director. But here, I think he's surpassed even in his own previous standard. I did feel it dropped a little with Enemy Aliens, so it's great to have him back on form. I don't know how many notes he had to give Briggs and Schwab, but whatever he did, it worked. This is an outstanding story with only a couple of (very minor) points. I loved it, and I'm sure Ainsworth probably deserves some of the credit for that.

There have been some strong serials in the Destiny arc so far - Shadow of Death, Babblesphere and Trouble in Paradise most notably - but I'm afraid to say this surpasses all of them. I was so hoping that this would be less reliant on the arc, but I am intrigued to see where it's all going, especially as John Schwab's on the cast list for The Time Machine, so I was delighted with this. This is a showcase not just for the cast and crew involved, but for the characters featured. Had this been on TV, I don't doubt it would be something of a fan favourite, along with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. It's effectively another two-parter for Eccleston but not a second is wasted in Mark Wright and Cavan Scott's brilliantly tight narrative. It snaps between setting and atmospheres efforftlessly, repeatedly leaving us on tenterhooks between scenes without ever feeling repetitive. The story they've devised works best because it's a human drama, something which has been missing from this series until. Not that I realised it 'til I heard this. Not only is it a sound concept and execution, but the story is peppered (very heavily) with a number of top-class lines: "hand over your dough or I'll fill you with maris piper"; "cheers, ears"; "if that's your mother, tell her we're out!" et cetera. There's so many good ideas in this it's hard to know where to start, but not in a bad way. The planetoid with the New Vegas bubble, the Whisper, Wolfsbane and the Full Moon...

I could wax lyrical about this all day, and I'm sure some people reading this feel like I have. I will just say that if this was some kind of test to see how Big Finish would handle a New Series license, surely there could have been no better audition. Every contributor is absolutely on fire, and I certainly wouldn't object to a whole series in this vein, even with Briggs as the leads. His performances became more assured and accurate across the course of the episode, so imagine how good he'd be with a whole series to work on. I thought we'd had the single standout classic of the series in Babblesphere, but Night of the Whisper just edges it out due to having my favourite team that I grew up with at the forefront. There's no denying that this is a great story though, and I think it would appeal even if you're not as enamoured with those three as I am. A masterpiece, it was stupid of me ever to worry that I wouldn't like it.

In a Nutshell: Fantastic!

You can buy Night of the Whisper here, read the Doc Oho review here or read the Blogtor Who review here.

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