10 August 2014

AG: Shockwave

One thing I might not have emphasised enough with previous entries in this Destiny of the Doctor series is how much I love the standalone nature of each story, whilst still contributing (to greater or lesser degrees) to the overall arc. It's fitting that the most continuity-bound Doctor (on audio at least) is not afforded this privilege. Shockwave definitely could not exist in any recognisable form if the arc elements were removed. This isn't to say it's a bad story - far from it, this is really enjoyable. I must say, Sophie Aldred gives a much more authentic and layered performance here than in much of the main range Big Finish selection (and she's pretty good there). 

We open with an introductory monologue from Aldred (as Ace), detailing life with the Doctor. The music and sound design matches the narration here perfectly, as we hear about perfect beaches stretching miles under gorgeous purple skies. This idyllic moment is inevitably broken by the sound of a klaxon as the narrator moves to the more commonplace day-to-day events of travelling with the Doctor. We segue from here into the TARDIS crash landing on forty-ninth century Tarsus Six after being buffeted by an abundance of artron energy. But the Doctor intended to come here anyway, despite not revealing his reasons to Ace.

The planet is in the middle of a crisis. Its sun - Tarsus Ultra - is expanding and has absorbed Tarsus One to Five already. Six is next, and so - quite naturally - almost everyone is keen to leave. The Doctor wants to board the only ship remaining - the Obscura - and so uses Ace's planet of birth to blag their way aboard. I have to say, even with the McCoy Doctor at his most manipulative, I was still a bit shocked that he put himself before the humans who were left on the planet when there wasn't enough room on the Obscura. It felt a bit wrong, him being so selfish, but I think James Swallow wants the listener to feel that way. We're introduced to the Captain (OhOne) and his first mate (KaySix), characters who occupy a much larger role in the second half of this story. 

Just before the embark, the Doctor and Ace spot the Senders. They seem to be a cult who believe in the afterlife and re-incarnation. They aren't keen to leave, believing that their lies on Tarsus Six, where they were born. Just as the ship departs, Ace looks out to find a girl of her age (a member of the Senders) banging on the window, begging to be let in. McShane manages to use a T-Mat cubicle (I loved this inclusion - why aren't they in more stories?) to beam her aboard and we learn this is NineJay, and she looked into the stars and discovered that her true destiny lay there instead. Taking pity on the girl, Ace gives her the key to hers and the Doctor's suite and tells her to hide there. It's really nice to see the more human side of Ace coming to the fore as this wasn't afforded much screen time compared to the "street" persona the writers attempted to inflict upon her.

Before too long, the Doctor is running the show up in the command deck and he manages to fly the ship from the planet. He excuses himself and he reveals his true mission to Ace: he intends to rob a bank vault. In one of the containers loaded aboard the Obscura was a large collection of safety deposit boxes, and in one of these was Voice of Stone - a legendary object in the history of Tarsus Six that only the Senders believed actually existed. When the Doctor reaches the vault, however, it's already missing. At almost the same time, all power is lost in the primary drive and the secondary is not strong enough to move the craft. It looks like the ship won't reach the Red Line (the point of safety) and will be consumed by the shockwave emanating from Tarsus Ultra. 

It's not overly surprising that it transpires that the same person is responsible for both of these events, but it seems to take Ace and the Doctor quite a while to join the dots. It should even be obvious to you after listening up to this point who the saboteur is - that's right, it's NineJay. The young rascal has come to rescue the artifact sacred to the Senders - the Voice of Stone. She thinks her purpose is to sacrifice these people seeing as they'll be reincarnated. However, by proving that the Senders weren't right about everything, Ace manages to convince the girl that this isn't the right choice - and that she doesn't have the right to make the choice for everyone, mirroring a similarly appreciated comment by the Doctor earlier in this piece. 

To save the Obscura, some kind of space walk must be made. OhOne, taking the responsibility upon himself to serve his passengers and crew, has insisted on going. NineJay uses another T-Mat cubicle to switch places with him though, thus sacrificing herself. In quite a touching moment, Ace watches as the shockwave meets with the girl and a shimmering light travels off across the galaxy. It's a nice message from Swallow that if you believe strongly enough - or have faith to resurrect a theme of the Seventh Doctor's TV tenure - anything could be possible. The Doctor and Ace are forced to sit out the last few days of the journey as the cosmic debris is also too hazardous for the TARDIS to take off, and it feels like a fittingly relaxed conclusion to a highly authentic story, almost reminiscent of the end of Remembrance of the Daleks.

All in all, this is a really enjoyable story. The Voice of Stone, which Ace recovers, turns out to be a Time Lord message cube (of the same sort we saw in The War Games and The Doctor's Wife). It does of course contain a message from the Eleventh Doctor, which asks that OhOne be kept alive, hence the inspiration for the conclusion. Swallow writes the Smith Doctor well, giving a cheeky nudge to the past as always. This is once more one of the highlights of the story, and the entire reason the story came into existence. The Seventh Doctor heard an echo of a message from the cube and traced it to the only point where its precise location is known in all of history. This fits well with the general agenda of the McCoy Doctor, and I think it was very wise decision to make this release so Doctor-centric. The disadvantage is that we're denied a brilliant standalone adventure for Seven (which it would seem Swallow would be able to deliver off the back of this, and did prove with Kingdom of Silver).

This was my first experience of Sophie Aldred in the narrator's chair. I thought she did a really good job of capturing late '80s Ace, which she doesn't always manage. Perhaps the more private recording of Shockwave compared to her usual stories helped. Aldred can do a great Scottish accent, but I'm afraid she can't do a very good impression of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. To be honest, for my first few years watching McCoy stories, I didn't really notice that he had a Scottish accent. It's certainly more pronounced in most Big Finish material, but even so it's a very soft rolling lilt rather than a raging abuse. I thought she did very well with NineJay though, I forgot they were being voiced by the same actress a few times. Indeed, the narration was so accomplished that I felt completely immersed in the story from the first moment. Aldred proves herself to have another talent here, and I hope the audio overlords decide to use it again some time.

Once more, I felt that the role of the second voice was a bit unnecessary. Ian Brooker gives voice to OhOne. This is very much Ace's story. It's pretty much told from her perspective (the only thing not making this true is that it's written in the third person) and we follow her the whole way through, following her journey around the various environments Swallow creates. What this means though is there is no real chief guest star: it could equally be OhOne, KaySix or NineJay. In this way, Brooker has a pretty small part to play. It's not insignificant by any means, just arguably insubstantial. He does well with what he has, but I think Aldred could have handled the whole piece on her own, judging by the supplied evidence.

It's something of a rarity in my experience of Big Finish-produced audios to have two different people do the music and sound design. However, that's exactly what you have here, and it works really well. The score is certainly evocative of late '80s Keff McCulloch, yet it really works with the story. Something of a contradiction there, I know, but bear with me. Throughout the story, Daniel Brett's music underscored the action without overshadowing it or detracting from it. Likewise with Matthew Cochrane's sound design. While I felt this could've been a little more present, where it did appear, it was most appreciated. Despite working on separate aspects of the post-production, the results of Brett and Cochrane's labours are really enjoyable. They collectively create an immersive atmosphere that, along with Sophie Aldred's narration, helps the listener lose themselves for an hour. Oh, it was a happy experience listening to this.

Swallow's descriptive and emotive language was one of the highlights of his Tenth Doctor story Peacemaker, and while I can't remember precise details of Kingdom of Silver I do remember coming away from it satisfied. He seems to be a criminally under-used writer and this proves he can write very well. The story feels much longer than an hour (but not in a bad way) yet still feels brisk in terms of pace. The first half is undoubtedly superior as Swallow uses his extensive dictionary to illuminate new worlds and people for us before he has to tie it all into a more serious, less wondrous conclusion. That's not to say it's poor, quite the opposite. I usually get on very well with the more 'hard' science-fiction tales in Doctor Who (but not at all outside it, curiously) and this is no exception. After a run of relatively happy stories in this range, it's nice that we're put a bit more in the shadows here, against possibly the darkest of Doctors. Swallow clearly understands his source material and emulates it well in places while being impressively original in others. While it might not be ground-shatteringly brilliant, this has created a few ripples and was a great listen. If there's any lasting impact of Shockwave, it's that I'm not anticipating the upcoming stories and finale even more, and in that sense (amongst others) this is a success.

In a Nutshell: A really enjoyable McCoy-era story that works better as an instalment in an ongoing saga rather than a story by itself.

You can buy Shockwave here, or read the Doc Oho review here.

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