07 September 2014

AG: Death's Deal

David Tennant's Tenth Doctor is the second incarnation whose full era I lived through. Going from the age of 9 when he took up the reigns to 13 when he left (although it was just seven days before my fourteenth birthday), he was obviously the incumbent Doctor for quite a substantial period of my childhood. For many others of my generation, he is THE Doctor. To put it into the words of oldsters, he is their Doctor. However, he's not my Doctor. I did love the character as I grew up but I could also see his flaws. Tennant poured his heart and soul into his portrayal, and that was one of the things I loved. Also, for me, the RTD era is something of a golden era in the history of the show, and I have a real appreciation and respect for that man (especially after reading The Writer's Tale).

One thing I generally didn't like about Tennant's tenure though was Donna Noble. I disliked her for most of the same reasons I disliked Amy Pond: she was abrasive, loud and too in-your-face, especially in her first appearance. I did enjoy moments of her (much of The Fires of Pompeii, Turn Left and The Stolen Earth) but on the whole, she just rubbed me up the wrong way, I'm afraid. So it was with slight trepidation that I approached Death's Deal.

Darren Jones had written a couple of Eleventh Doctor audiobooks before this (The Eye of the Jungle and Sleepers in the Dust if you're interested) so he may seem a peculiar choice for the Tenth Doctor slot, especially when some prolific (in the Doctor Who audio world at least) writers such as Dan Abnett, Scott Handcock and James Goss had contributed to the range for the Tennant incarnation. But nonetheless, Jones seems to handle the task relatively well, producing a story that does struggle to hold the attention in places, but is pretty solid.

Death's Deal is a planet from which the TARDIS receives a mayday call. Once they arrive, they discover that in fact several hundred calls are being broadcast. The Attraction, a tourist spaceship, lands on the planet for a two minute stop before disaster strikes and the ground begins to move. The ship begins to take off, leaving behind several of its former occupants, but it's soon struck by a tendril rising from the ground and bursts into flames. Seconds later, the TARDIS is consumed by a giant throat. The Doctor learns from his motley band of survivors - a teenage space pirate called Tad (who reminded me very much of Jethro from Midnight), his friend Lyric and a Nimosite named Krux - that the Howling Jupiter (a crashed ship) is the place to go. These five form the main thrust of the episode (they are accompanied early on by a couple of other characters) and it's nice to have a bit more of a traditional story in the new series, with time to get to know the supporting cast as well as moving the plot forwards.

On the Howling Jupiter (what a great title that would be) they discover where the message is coming from. That's right, the Eleventh Doctor. He's full of smart comments, as always, and asks Ten to make sure Erskine survives. Despite what I've said, Donna's line "who's this bozo?" really worked for me, in a similar way to how the Ninth Doctor reacted to him in the last story. The crew must then make their way across coral fields to find out who this Erskine is. Naturally, they're separated relatively quickly and the Doctor gets lumbered with Tad and Lyric when Donna and Krux are swallowed by the ground. The whole planet is revealed to be a world of living coral, which is why it's moving.

Through a series of events of varying likeliness (including one enjoyable sequence where Donna has to hide inside Krux) the team are reunited (having met Professor Merritt Erskine). The professor was stranded on the planet seven years ago when he objected to the mining company coming to harvest Slaughter Crystals, and Lyric is his daughter, come to find him. I can't remember which exactly, but this revelation did remind me strongly of a Doctor Who story I've experienced recently (I think it might've been in the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories set?). He is attacked by one of the many creatures that roams Death's Deal, and hands Lyric his locket that he refuses to open in his dying moments.Despite having been sent mad and apparently not recognising his child, he must still have had some subconscious connection.

There are certainly a lot of good ideas bubbling under the surface in this story. Perhaps my favourite was how the audience's expectations were subverted to assume that the Erskine the Doctor had to save was the professor, when in fact Lyric was who the Eleventh Doctor meant. It's surprising that the future Time Lord needs another person saved, and it seems we're to get quite a crowded finale, what with three people being saved now. I also liked the idea that it's the alien technology that makes the planet so dangerous rather than there being any inherent hostility in it. Krux was also a great supporting character, and I enjoyed Lyric's presence. Although he was there to provide a bit of contrast, I do feel this could have been presented within the story and he could've been a bit more personable.

There's no denying this is authentic to the period it's supposed to come from though. One thing I love about the Wotcha! page of Doctor Who Magazine is the 'season checklists' they've been running recently, which are tongue in cheek looks back at the classic series. If they were to produce one for the 2008 series, I can't help thinking a lot of the boxes would be ticked in the Death's Deal row. There's the extremely dangerous planet which no-one has any chance of getting off, the grumpy teen, the lost child (The Fires of Pompeii, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, The Doctor's Daughter, The Unicorn and the Wasp and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead all used this) the great sweeping vistas, the TARDIS getting lost within minutes of touching down, the epic scale of the story, and there's the message that not always the right people survive.

I did think the Doctor and Donna were written well, and by that I mean authentically. There isn't really any new ground trodden for these two characters here, which is a shame given the longer running time. The Doctor "allons-y"s about the place, Donna is mouthy and tries to kick other people into action and the sonic does a magic trick at the end. As mentioned, I do like the Tennant Doctor, but I wasn't really feeling the love here. Despite the undeniably high quality of writing, this wasn't my favourite period of the show, and this doesn't feel like the warm nostalgia kick it's trying to be. There was an amusing line about insurance that must have been written to foreshadow Steven Moffat's Series 4 story.

Although Catherine Tate has read several audiobooks for the BBC before, this is my first experience of her in this role. I'm sorry to say I didn't think she did a very good job. In the pieces of narration, she reads it in a soft, calming voice no matter what she's reading. Previous narrators have changed tone and pace depending on the content of the scenes and I have to say it really took me out of some of the more action-based moments when you have such a tranquil commentary of events. Her Donna was a spot-on recreation of the fiery redhead (perhaps unsurprisingly) but I didn't feel Jones wrote especially well for her - there's one particularly cringe-worthy "whatever!". One thing I must mention that I liked though was when Donna was totally put down when she asked what Krux was and he replied with his occupation rather than species. Tate's Doctor is less convincing, adding "ah"s to the end of more words than even Tennant did. She has a handle on his style of delivery but it left me a bit cold. I'd say her interpretation of Lyric was superior in all honesty, especially in the scenes towards the story's conclusion.

Duncan Wibsey is a contributor with quite a high profile within the Big Finish universe. Here, he plays the dual roles of Krux and Professor Erskine. The former has an almost unrecognisable voice though, distorted far from human tones (probably appropriate given he's not human) but Wibsey still manages to breathe life into him successfully. In fact, I found the mollusc-like creature quite endearing. As Erskine, he manages to put in a performance as a mad, lonely scientist and leave with his credibility intact. His doddering and uncertainty sells the part, even though in a few places I would have said the intentions of the script and the performance weren't in the same place. Overall a good guest turn and much more justified than in some previous entries to this series.

Jamie Robertson is generally quite well known with fans who've listened to a few plays in a few ranges, so it seems a bit odd that he turns up just for one story here. But his presence is nonetheless welcome, and he provides as cinematic a score as always. The use of strings and orchestra-sounding fanfares is entirely reminiscent of Murray Gold's approach to scoring the show, and it's good to see how the same starting point could be pulled in another direction. I did feel that in the more active moments perhaps the music wasn't trying hard enough to excite the listener, but it may just have been the overall impression I got. I think my highlight of the score was in Robertson's evoking of Gold's 'I am the Doctor', played when the Smith Doctor turns up. Although Howard Carter may have got the essence of it across more fluently in Night of the Whisper, Jamie's is more accurate. The sound design was good, if a little lacking in the scenes set on the planet surface. But don't get me wrong, it was thoroughly convincing for the most part and I'm glad Robertson got this slot if he was only going to get one.

To conclude, Death's Deal's opening is its strongest moment. Once the TARDIS is swallowed, the plot relaxes to a more pedestrian pace and it becomes more of a character piece masquerading as an RTD-era mind-blowing blockbuster. The landscape Jones creates is intriguing and charming but the way it's used and the characters he inhabits it with are a little lacklustre. The monsters are good and there are some great ideas presented here, it just feels like they're never given a proper airing. Catherine Tate's role wasn't one of my favourites on TV and she's authentically recreated here, but I didn't feel the actress was quite accomplished enough to pull off the narration - although it could have been the direction. Unlike the previous two stories (which were terrible and amazing respectively) this is just kind of there for me, never really exciting or especially dull. It does get a few points for imagination and ambition. But overall, I don't think the bluster and bravado was quite achieved. It would've been a real coup to have someone like Gareth Roberts write this (given his history with both the TV and audio lines) but nonetheless Jones was a solid choice. I can't wait to see how all this is tied up though.

In a Nutshell: An inventive but overall pedestrian story, but you'll probably like it a lot more if you're a Donna fan.

You can buy Death's Deal here, read the Doc Oho review here or read the Blogtor Who review here.

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