03 August 2014

BF: The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time

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.

And so we arrive at the final play in this marvellous anthology, and what a delight it is. It's no big secret that Nev Fountain was inspired by Mark Haddon's (astonishing) book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time after going to see the play with his wife (Nicola Bryant, if you didn't know). While it's certainly possible to see the inspiration in this story, Fountain moves beyond creating a carbon copy to focus his episode around a new character - Michael (adapted from Christopher). The story is presented almost entirely from Michael's point of view so it seems a shame that there's no framing narrative included - in Haddon's version the book is a book Christopher Boone is writing for school. Nonetheless, this is a standout script.

We begin with a highly informative piece of narration from Michael, which isn't like an infodump at all, despite the fact that that's essentially what it is. It's written in such a style - recognisable but irregular - that makes it instantly attention grabbing and I liked that we continued to return to this device throughout the piece. In a way it reminded me of the Companion Chronicles, which is perhaps appropriate now that Fountain is arguably best known for his sole contribution to that range (Peri and the Piscon Paradox). I've listened to this story twice at time of writing and both times I forgot that the Doctor and Peri hadn't appeared in it for the first ten minutes or so. Given that it's supposed to focus on Michael, it's right that we should only see them when their plot overlaps with his.

Speaking of which, following a day helping his dad at the DIY store where he works (Homebase in all but name, and even that's close) his father is sacked for stealing gnomes. It began when Michael was young because he liked them, but got rather out of hand. He eventually had 129 in the back garden, as counted by his son. Geoff and Olivia (Michael's parents) believe that Michael must have inadvertently told one of Geoff's co-workers because he loses his job over the offence and so decides to go off fishing with his friends. The tragedy is that he never comes back, and this provides us with the best snapshot of Fountain's writing. I don't mean to be offensive or generalise but it would seem from both Dog and Doctor (and from a little personal experience - I grew up with one autistic boy) that people on the autistic spectrum find it harder than others to distinguish fact from fiction. This is all to do with their perception of language, a trait that means they struggle with subtleties and hidden meanings. For this reason, Michael can't accept his father's death because he hasn't seen it, and on television you always see the deaths. It's a very tragic and poignant move from the writer, but I'm so glad he made it.

It's soon after this that the Doctor enters Michael's life. Noticing that an extra gnome (dressed not dissimilarly to his father) has appeared in the collection, and given that he hasn't seen his father, Michael comes to the conclusion (which might even be a real plot point in another Doctor Who story) that Geoff has been turned into a gnome. The Doctor and Peri are on the track of this gnome (it's actually a killer robot named Llangragen of the Genoi - obviously) and so the Time Lord of course deems it appropriate to just rock up at Olivia's front door in the hope of finding it. Michael's actually interrogating it in his bedroom, convinced that it's his father. Soon enough Llangragen begins to talk, pretending to be Geoff. He tries to get Michael to take it back to the Houseproud store (the explanation being that he wants to reactivate all his brothers and sisters). It's a typically Fountain-style idea that all garden gnomes are weapons of war created by the Galactic Federation. I mean, there must be some reason for the little buggers.

I really liked the way the serial was concluded too. It fitted in totally with what had gone before whilst also fitting what we knew of the characters. Michael is written so well he literally makes the Doctor a guest star in his own show. The final conversation has been done before ("nothing's truly gone if you can remember it") but it's handled in a manner typical of this episode - slightly askew to what we're used to. I think it was really important to give the Doctor and Michael a moment alone, and it came at just the right time too. There's always the debate to be had about saying the Doctor's a bit autistic (the TV Sixth especially) but I think ultimately he's just alien. Fountain does overplay some of the Sixth Doctor's less endearing characteristics more than you'd find in your average script, but uses them to great effect so I'll let him off. I should stress they're not overdone, just emphasised a little more heavily than usual. He knows that for best effect, his more eccentric characters are best showcased against 'ordinary' people, and Michael and the Doctor work very effectively with Olivia and Peri.

Peri is again given unfortunately little in this concluding tale, but it's understandable when there's the two mighty pillars of the Doctor and Michael to build a script around. It's not like Ms Brown gets nothing to do, it's just every story Nicola Bryant's in feels like it needs more of her (thanks to her great vocal talents) but perhaps that's just me. This is my first experience of Fountain writing for Peri, and in his hands she and the Doctor are a sparky, loveable pair. Perhaps only in An Eye for Murder is their chemistry superior. It's lovely to have these two old friends back together, and it surely only builds anticipation for the trilogy beginning in October (which, incidentally, begins with Fountain's The Widow's Assassin). I've already discussed the handling of the Doctor, but it was another strong characterisation and it seems that the writer really gets this pair, and thumbs up to Bryant, Colin Baker and Nick Briggs for creating such an enjoyable team.

I must admit, there was one major letdown to Curious Incident for me, and I'm sad to say it was Johnny Gibbon in the central role of Michael. I understand he was the understudy Fountain saw play the part of Christopher onstage. Unfortunately I really didn't like his interpretation of the character. Christopher (which is essentially who he was being asked to play here) has always seemed softer in my head when I've read the book - which I have many times over the years. Overall, Gibbon's voice just felt wrong. I don't think he did anything badly, I just think he was miscast for my personal tastes. It's a shame that he plays such a key role in proceedings, but I feel it wouldn't be fair to all those involved if I didn't review honestly.

Wilfredo Acosta really is a magician. As if Fountain's story wasn't touching enough, the musical guru (or gnu as director Briggs would probably say) deftly underpins the story with a beautiful score. It swells and ebbs in all the right places, and when I heard the first piece of music in the extras at the end of the first disc I was immediately entranced. That piece occurs here a few times, and really has the jovial (but not in a light way, this story very much feels like a dark piece) 'investigating' tone when the Doctor shows up. I'd love for Acosta to become more prolific in the main range (but not too prolific, just our little secret) and I'm delighted to see he's been roped in on Dark Eyes Series 3. It's only today that I realised he also did the magnificent Protect and Survive - possibly my favourite full-length Big Finish ever. It's not only his music that's good though, the sound design also delivers. I particularly liked the fire alarm he created. Odd thing to say, I know, but it was good. Briggs is more than able to pull off this one, and delivers Fountain's vision in shedloads. He really has impressed me this time round, showing off his range to the maximum.

Overall, this is a brilliant story with only one flaw that I can find. And it's not even a proper flaw, it's just personal tastes. I don't think there can be any criticism aimed at Nev Fountain's script or inventiveness. What a delight Curious Incident was. My only wish would be that perhaps the links to the aforementioned book could have been more ambiguous with those 'in the know' getting an extra kick from it. Also, one minor gripe. I don't understand why the frustratingly logical Michael (with the perfect memory) is so surprised that the gnome knew his name if it wasn't his father. In the same breath as he asked it if it could hear him, he introduces himself with his full name to the dictaphone. That aside, this was a very tight affair and, like An Eye for Murder, a type of story that we're very unlikely to ever get again. It works best in the constrained running time, and the ending would be very moving, were it not for Gibbon. One thing's for certain, there's been a giant upswing in quality in the main range with this release and I only hope it can continue. Were it not for my issue highlighted two paragraphs above, this would easily score full marks.

In a Nutshell: A precise, beautiful story of humans and humanity.

The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time is available as part of Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories here. Read the Doc Oho review here and the Blogtor Who review here.

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