17 August 2014

BF: Revenge of the Swarm

There's only a handful of stories left from the earlier part of Tom Baker's era that haven't been plundered by Big Finish, and with Revenge of the Swarm the number drops lower still. As you might be able to guess, this is a sequel to The Invisible Enemy, something which I was very excited about when I first heard, for two main reasons. For one thing, I thought there was a lot of unexploited potential in a sentient virus, and for another, Jonathan Morris had written it.

This isn't the story I expected it to be at all though. Usually I avoid almost everything I can for a story (trailer, synopsis and reviews) before listening so that I can listen to them clean. With Revenge though, I spoiled myself a little and read the description (which Morris wrote). From that I did get an impression of the story, and became even more excited (so it did its job). What I listened to over the last couple of days though feels almost entirely different to what I expected. This is often a good thing, but I'm not entirely sure if it is here. That's not to say it isn't, I'm just undecided.

We pick up the action several weeks after the events of Afterlife, with the Doctor and Ace exploring a beautiful planet named Pelisipodron whilst Hector sleeps. Before long though, he's awake and the Swarm has possessed him... Seeing the TARDIS heading to a point eighty years before the Doctor's first encounter with the Swarm, the Time Lord and Ace only just manage to make it back inside. Arriving back on the Titan Moonbase, what follows is almost a retread of The Invisible Enemy. But Morris is too clever just to go over old ground, instead throwing in the tension of not knowing who might be possessed. On TV, the crew had to wear masks in order to keep up appearances, but on audio there's no such clues. I must admit, I did think the repeated references to the Doctor's immunity were going to lead to a revelation of him being possessed all along at some point. But nothing came of it in the end.

Morris has said that he's always had an idea for an Invisible Enemy sequel, but what we're presented with first is almost a prequel. Like the Key 2 Time stories five years ago, this is very much a story of two halves. The opening two episodes seem too rushed for the material, and everything is wrapped up a little too neatly for the Fourth Doctor serial for my tastes, but I suppose the toys have to be packed away again with that sort of story. I thought the explanation provided for why the Swarm had waited so long to exact its revenge was pretty satisfying; Hector only has half the brain (Hex's knowledge and memories removed) and so this makes him more vulnerable and susceptible to infection. As the Doctor comments to Ace, he hasn't caught the virus, "it's caught him".

Before too long though, Ace has caught the Saturnian Plague and so the journey must be made from the Titan moonbase to the Bi-Al Foundation. The first cliffhanger of this feels a bit ripped from The Caves of Androzani (Part Three, fact fans) as the Doctor threatens to crash the craft they're travelling in, in order that Hector might be returned to him. In Part Two we get possibly the most daring material in the whole story as one of the crew members infected by the Swarm kills himself purely to prove to the Doctor that they mean business. This is a really interesting avenue to go down and signposted to me that the Swarm was finally being taken seriously and its potential harnessed. Relatively soon after arriving at the Foundation, the whole story seems to be wound up and through a (enjoyable) quirk of time travel the Doctor appears in the TARDIS seconds after leaving, having literally tidied everything up ready for The Invisible Enemy.

But soon enough the TARDIS is hijacked once more by the Swarm, still lingering in Hector's mind. The story is thrust two centuries into the future, but in exactly the same location. With everything appearing to be so neatly concluded, I did expect a revelation of this sort, but I thought perhaps it was too obvious to use Hector again. It worked in story terms, sustaining the entertainment and ramping up the excitement, but I'm not sure it's that satisfying for the listener. In the third episode, we meet Lugerman and Talin - the former voiced by John Dorney and the latter by newly-appointed Rani Siobhan Redmond. It seems like a bit of a stretch having Dorney pop up once more after his especially prolific role in last year's extravaganza The Light at the End, but having said that I did enjoy his role here (as is usual) and found him to be one of the more accomplished guest stars.

These two characters are working at the Bi-Al under its new guise of a Hypernet Hub Point, which I assume is some kind of futuristic router. The Hypernet connects the whole of the human empire, which explains why the Swarm wanted to come here. I'd assumed that it wanted to distribute itself across space, infecting every possible last being, but instead what it wants to do is sap the well dry, so to speak. It wants to use the energy of the Hypernet to grow bigger and bigger until it can consume planets and matter, so that in the end, there is just one organism remaining - the Nucleus. This is kind of the route I was hoping we wouldn't be going down. After the Swarm began to show signs of cunning and deviousness in the second episode, I thought we might be getting a more sinister plan, but unfortunately Morris opts to make the villain even naffer than in the source material.

For a few periods, the Doctor and Ace (and later the Doctor and Hector) have to enter the Hypernet to combat the Swarm's control of it, in a sequence that seems to have been devised (whether consciously or subconsciously) to remind the listener of a similar sequence when the Fourth Doctor and Leela are miniaturised. I'd say this element was just as enjoyable, if frustratingly unrewarding. In the earlier story, the Swarm escaped as a result of the Doctor's interference, but here there doesn't really seem to be much difference before or after their ventures into the realm of the Hypernet - the final time excused. But even that appears to have been engineered just so that the Doctor and Hector can have an argument, and one which wasn't dissimilar to those between the Time Lord and Hex. Perhaps that's unfair. I can see why Morris would want to ape the earlier conflict - it is almost the same man, after all.

And that brings me onto Hector overall in this story. I hate to say it, but in terms of his character development, this does feel a bit too "tell" instead of "show". The Doctor and Ace refer to it, and in one moment so does Thomas himself, but these moments aside, there's little to mark him out as a distinct character. In Afterlife, Hector was a notably different person to Hex, in both the way he talked and acted. I know that several weeks have passed between the two adventures, but surely the Doctor and Ace's influence can't have mellowed him so much in such a short space of time? I was hoping this would be a real chance to get to know this alternate version of a character I enjoy so much, and that he would perhaps be a bit edgier and maybe even make a questionable decision based on lower or lack of morals. I'm afraid no such material was delivered, instead having him rail at the Doctor for his lack of morals. Perhaps it would've been good to have a tale before this one where we got to know Hector rather than plunging straight in with him being possessed? I don't know. It may all work out in the end anyway, and we'll all be calling this a stroke of genius.

Revenge almost feels like this incarnation of the idea started as two Fourth Doctor stories, perhaps intended for consecutive series. I don't think a prequel was quite warranted in the case of the Swarm, and I think this could have been a stronger story if it had been set in the later period for the entirety, and had more of a focus on the threat to the Hypernet (and thus the Empire). If the Swarm had made some sort of connection to the TARDIS (that allowed it to open locked doors) then surely it could have piloted the craft to the location(s) anyway? And in its first appearance, it managed to overrun the Doctor. It puzzles me why it didn't deem any of the intervening companions suitable, particularly arguably vacant characters like Tegan and Mel. If I may make such a bold suggestion, I think this would've been better had it been significantly restructured. Setting all the action in the later setting, with the events and characters of both, would have improved it already I think. The resolution and the business with the TARDIS, which I did appreciate, could just be delayed fifty-odd minutes.

Whilst I must praise Philip Olivier for his performance in general, I did think there were a few moments where he was hamming it up a bit too much when possessed. He was really good when murmuring to himself, but when addressing a room the performance was less assured. I must also note his contribution to the lack of split between Hector and Hex - after giving a remarkably edgier turn as Hector in Afterlife, he falls back into the 'comfortable' mould of Hex when not possessed. All things considered though, it was a great embodiment of the part, and he handled a few solitary scenes well.

Sylvester McCoy seemed most at ease with this story in its quieter moments, but he does do his best to convince in the more active scenes, such as when riding a Harley Davidson. He undoubtedly gets better over the course of the four episodes, so perhaps it was a case of getting back into it after a number of months away. Sophie Aldred again chose to play an older Ace than in Shockwave, which I reviewed recently. I'm not sure what it is, but some of the more human aspects of her characterisation seem to get pushed into the background in these stories and humourous lines like "I wouldn't be asking if I knew, would I Buzz Lightyear?" nearly sound bitter. Still, it is a confident portrayal of the character and so much so that I really thought we'd lost Ace in the concluding episode. When Lugerman is possessed (the trick at first did surprise me) I thought McShane might well be a gonner. After all, Big Finish have pulled a fast one on us with false covers before, even in this series! There's quite a vocal cry for a change of lead team amongst the regular listeners (although I'm not one) and I thought they might've slipped this one in under the radar. It would make sense with all the references to how close Hector and Ace have become, but I assume now that that's building to the events of Signs and Wonders.

It's good to have Andy Hardwick back in the sound chair. He's been quite a prolific part of both the Main Range and the Eighth Doctor adventures over the years, but my last encounter with his work was in The Chimes of Midnight. Here, he perfectly recreates the atmosphere of Invisible Enemy and the scene where contact was made for the first time was just a feast to listen to. I absolutely adored that moment, with John Leeson growling his heart out. The score was excellent throughout, electrifying moments of tension and ebbing softly beneath quieter scenes. Ken Bentley is such a prolific director these days it's hard to mark out different directorial styles, but coming off the back of the superbly obscure Breaking Bubbles collection, his approach is notably disparate to Nick Briggs'. Here, Bentley seems to approach this with the mentality of it being an all-out action story, punctuated by fleeting moments of calm. I think he really comes into his own in the second half, even though it is arguably the weaker section of the script.

There's so many little details peppered through this story that I'd love to pick up on and talk about, but there's simply too many. There's great bits of dialogue in every scene (a real staple of Morris' work) and most of the characters are well envisaged. Having said that, Talin and Lugerman are, in my mind, superior to the cluster of guests we become accustomed with in Parts One and Two. I'll just pick out a couple of bits. "Pride comes before a fall," said by the Doctor, but who and what could it be foreshadowing? There's a subtext commentary on our over-dependence on technology, but seeing as the story twists away from exploiting that alley, it could just be me. The use of the vehicles from Lugerman's game was a great idea, and worked well. It may just be as I listened to it relatively recently, but the concept of the Hypernet and how to enter it did remind me of the titular virtual reality from Babblesphere. I did think the references to the Nucleus being rubbish were too self-aware, and devalued the threat too far. The moment in the first episode when the Doctor is locked up and bored, and begins searching for cutlery did make me laugh quite a lot.

I must just mention Mandi Symonds quickly. In Afterlife, she played the main guest part of Lily Finnegan (brilliantly, I might add) and here she's landed the part of Shafira, the fifth most prominent role of the opening couplet. You would never know they were played by the same actress though. Symonds completely transforms her voice, and it was a real shock to me when I found out about the connection.

To conclude, I think there was real potential in Revenge of the Swarm for a darker, more engaging story than Bob Baker and Dave Martin's original. Disappointingly though, despite a strong start, the writer turns the villain into a bit of a cartoon cliche, with delusions of grandeur and illusions of power. I know that this was inherent in The Invisible Enemy, and part of what makes the Swarm the Swarm, but it could have still had a flaw somewhere (the Doctor does need to save the day somehow, after all). The prequel element has the stronger script but the weaker story, if that makes sense, and sometimes feels like a box-ticking exercise, most prominently in the inclusion of Professor Kilbracken. As stated, I think this would have worked most effectively as a sequel concerned with the Swarm's attempts to overrun the Hypernet - thus avoiding the need for the 'waiting in the TARDIS' part of its plot. In terms of entertainment, this scores quite highly and I was engaged throughout. Despite this, I did feel a bit shortchanged. Last time the forces of Morris, Seven, Ace and Hex came together we got the mighty Protect and Survive. But here, it feels too much like Morris is trying to emulate Season 15.

With these three plays, Morris has the chance to make his mark on the Hex arc. He has of course script edited before but I think I'm right in saying that this is the first time he's had a series of stories to conceive and shape. I was massively excited about the four stories from July to September, and after kicking it off superbly, this is a little bit of a slump. It pains me to criticise the man so much because, as I've made no secret of before, he is my favourite regular writer Big Finish have on their books. I suppose everyone has to have their off days and this must just be one of his. Considering his prolific output (as the man himself put it on Twitter) having only three that failed to shine (Hothouse and Cobwebs, from what I've heard) is still highly impressive. This is by no means bad, and still a cut above what many writers would be able to produce. I think I may have set my own expectations too high. This does seem to achieve what it sets out to do, but I still feel there's missed potential here. I loved that it leads straight into Mask of Tragedy and I hope Hector gets more time being himself there. Judging from the cover, he will soon be consumed by another alien intelligence though.

Sorry about the long conclusion, but I hope my point is clear. As a piece of entertainment, this succeeds. I'm afraid that there are failings if you begin to consider it in terms of a wider arc or scrutinise elements of the plot though. It's difficult to score this as it's one I'm likely to return to, but not before a line of others.

In a Nutshell: Entertaining and enjoyable, but a little disappointing.

You can buy Revenge of the Swarm here, read Joe Ford's review here, or read Emrys Matthews' review here.

You can read my review (probably the only one on the internet written whilst Revenge was being recorded, dull fact fans) of The Invisible Enemy  here.

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