14 September 2014

BF: Signs and Wonders


Wow. That is the one word that sums up Matt Fitton's climactic Signs and Wonders. Back when details of this trilogy were announced, it was promised that there would be consequences for the TARDIS team, after many complained that the story of Hex seemed to have no ending. In Fitton's last story Afterlife, he of course was resurrected as Scouse gangster Hector Thomas, who Ace enticed aboard the Doctor's ship, with massive reservations from her fellow travellers. After a few weeks seeing the sights of the universe, they arrived back on Titan when Mr Thomas was forced by the Nucleus of the Swarm to pilot the TARDIS. 

Shortly after the conclusion of this incident, the Doctor decided what they all needed was a little light relief, and so took them back to 421 BC to catch up with his old friend and playwright Aristophanes. Everything going as much to plan as could be expected, they were then menaced by an army of living dead Athenians as the Spartans tried to capture the city. Surprisingly, the conflict was resolved with a play of Aristophanes' that wasn't awful - 'Peace'. But Hector was shaken up by these events, deciding that his first trip into history would be his last. He demanded to be taken home, and so we arrive in a Liverpool of the late 2020s in Signs and Wonders.

From the off, this feels like something special. Rufus Stone, famous for being famous, is leading the world to its end - and partying hard while he does so. In league with a race of Elder God-worshipping, shape-shifting giant female eagles, he has been chosen as the channel between this race and their god, To'Koth. Elsewhere, Sally Morgan is bidding farewell to Reverend Janet Green as she heads off to rejoin her unit in London. Two years have passed since our heroes were last in the city, and only a month prior to this story, Hex's grandmother Hilda passed away. It means little to Hector, but over the course of these two and a quarter hours (it is a long story - there's enough for nearly six regular episodes) memories he shouldn't have begin to seep through.

I got the impression that this was very much a Russell T Davies-style finale for an eighties team, set ten or fifteen years in the future. The blending of styles works wonderfully, lending an even greater uncertainty to proceedings, with the knowledge that this story will see the parting of ways for this TARDIS line up. There's appropriate build up and payoff to all concerned storylines (to say more would ruin these parts of the serial) but the real drama here is between our human leads. Sally Morgan has always been a favourite of mine. In the interviews succeeding the story, Fitton notes that Morgan could be seen as Ace "without the emotional baggage". I agree to some extent, but she seems to have her head screwed on a lot better than our McShane, and is better in a crisis. I was really glad Amy Pemberton was back for this, the end of an era, and I couldn't have pictured it playing out without her. 

Ace is treated pretty well here compared to the last two stories (Revenge of the Swarm to a lesser extent) but there's still a lot of the shouty, teenager in her that we more or less got rid of a few years back. I'm sorry to see her return, and there's absolutely no subtlety or ambiguity in her character any more. Where there was sibling-like affection before, now there's just jealousy whenever Hector even looks at another woman (but especially Sally, brilliantly). She gets a lot of Ace-like material here (blowing things up, fighting giant slugs) but in a good way. She's not sidelined, but this clearly isn't hers or the Doctor's story. Her reaction to seeing Hex again after pining after him for so long is quite oddly played by Sophie Aldred, but well written. The emphasis is in the wrong place in the execution, but it's nonetheless an impactful moment.

The Doctor is really quite involved in his own strand of the action here, being sent off into space and generally sorting out the eagles before the two major plotlines converge towards the end. He's given a good amount to keep him ticking over, and a couple of great lines, and Sylvester McCoy certainly gives his most assured and confident performance of the trilogy (as he often does when asked to perform subtlety). I only have one real gripe with this character. Once Hex returns, he doesn't even talk to him when in the 2020s. It's only when they visit him after fifteen years that the characters interact. This may well have been for timing reasons, but after all the characters have been through - especially over the last two years or so - it felt out of place to me. One more point: the Doctor says only Hector (specifically not Hex) can defeat the Elder God Janet Green is revealed to be, but when it comes to it, Hex does so. Was this remark only to inspire hope and confidence in his young friend? Either way, it was lovely to see them finally bonding. If only we could've had more of this (and I'm not criticising the scripting there, by the way).

This really is Hex's story. Every major plot development or beat of Signs and Wonders occurs in either his or Hector's presence, and he is responsible for the resolution, even if we do have to hear about it second hand. The scene where Ace and Sally recalled his adventures and experiences was quite a reminder of all the great times we've had while he's been in the TARDIS. I thought he was restored a little too easily, and the fact that Hector wasn't mourned even for a second was really odd. Someone who's been a companion for the last four stories dies, and no-one bats an eyelid. The fact that all that needed to happen was the St Christopher was zapped and suddenly he was back was a bit anti-climactic given the weight this (almost inevitable) event was afforded in Afterlife. Philip Olivier does give a powerhouse performance though, in all three of his roles. I (and a few other reviewers) have noted that Hector is hardly distinguishable from Hex recently, but this was the story to prove us wrong. Olivier does actually play the parts very differently, and it's only when they're contrasted in close proximity that you can actually appreciate this fully. I hold my hands up. The scene with Hex and Cassie at the end was one of my favourites. The joy this character finally has, after all the shit he's been through, is totally worth it. Olivier plays it for real and the relaxed, loving tones of his voice say it all. A superb actor, and I really will miss him from future Seventh Doctor stories.

The main plot of this is that Rufus Stone is predicting the end of the world, and the TARDIS lands on the night it's going to happen. The trains are cancelled, there are power failures and giant slugs rise from the Mersey. It's a really compelling plot that could stand well enough by itself, but is made all the greater being used in this context. Matt Fitton's clearly researched the legends of Liverpool well and it seems only right that Hex's home city is so intrinsic to the plot of his final story. I have no idea about any of these Scouse myths, but it does seem that Fitton's tied them all together well, and what we get is a massive, all-out tale that scores highly both on a character and plot level. There are a few conveniences and corners cut, but you'd probably only notice them if you were approaching this from a negative perspective. I don't if I just missed it or not, but were the eagles responsible for the 'end of the world'? I know To'Koth was dying, but given that it turned out he was a force for good, would he really be causing all these negative events? The idea of harnessing psychic power isn't a new one, but it's used in quite an original way.

One thing I really liked about this story - even if it really should've been called The Pool of Life - was how it gave a satisfying end not only to Hex's story (although I dearly hope we hear more from him, Sally, Cassie and their unborn second child in the future) but also to the Elder Gods arc. They have, of course, become almost synonymous in recent years, but their disparity is made clear once again here. I loved the twist in the tail of the benevolent Elder God, after all this time. Even though a truce might not be the cataclysmic ending many were expecting, it does draw a line under all this business, allowing the Doctor and Ace to move on. However, I didn't appreciate the inference that this storyline isn't yet over. What this team need is a fresh start; we've had something of an indulgence in this storyline for many years. I have loved this though. As I'll go onto, this has been brilliant for me and I really appreciate Big Finish taking the risk of running with one story for so long. For me, it's certainly been worth it.

Every story featuring Philip Olivier and Amy Pemberton - Black and White, Gods and Monsters, Afterlife and now this - has absolutely shone because of the natural chemistry these two have. They light up the metaphorical screen, and they're one of my favourite pairings in Doctor Who history. I'm so chuffed they ended up together, it makes much more sense than pairing him off with Ace (no matter how disgruntled Sophie Aldred might be). It's with this in mind that I take a side step for a second. Imagine McShane died in Gods and Monsters instead of Schofield, and that in the four stories since it was Hex and Sally aboard the TARDIS. Doesn't this sound like a really exciting prospect? The same issues of grief and trust could be dealt with, but with a far superior team heading up the adventures. I don't mean to be harsh to Sophie Aldred, but I'm beginning to find her performances getting weaker with each appearance. I've said the same about Sarah Sutton, the other companion who is nigh-on always with her Doctor. Time to give her a rest? I think so. She may come back in a couple of years and blow us all away with a brilliant turn. Here's hoping.

My first ever experience of Big Finish's work was The Veiled Leopard, which was released as a DWM freebie all the way back in 2006, shortly after I turned ten. If you don't know, it's a story in which the Fifth Doctor has sent Peri and Erimem to prevent a diamond (the titular leopard) being stolen, so that the Seventh Doctor can send Ace and Hex to steal it, all set against the backdrop of 1966 Monte Carlo. It's probably not the best story ever told, but it holds a special place in my heart. I happen to think it's a pretty good story too, especially the score (I can always think of the main track that opens each episode). But my point is that over the last eight and a half years, I've grown up with Hex. There's been a steady stream of stories featuring him (but I've by no means heard all of them) and the Seven/Ace/Hex team quickly became my favourite. I think their run of stories might still be one of my favourites in the entire history of the show. There's been some stories I consider among the best of Big Finish's canon - The Harvest, The Word Lord and Protect and Survive to name just three - but apart from anything else, it's felt like 'my' era of the classic series. I came to this team before many Doctors. Of the pre-2005 stuff, I think I'd only seen The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Five Doctors - completely unpredictably, these are still two of my favourites - before I stuck The Veiled Leopard on. People talk about their old Target novels getting ruined and damaged through rereading. Well, this story was my equivalent. I've heard it countless times, yet am still not tired of it. It feels appropriate that this aspect of my life (Hex) that I've grown up with during my 'formative' years comes to an end just a few short days before I undertake the biggest change in my life so far, going to university. It seems to me that once people move out to go to uni, they never really move back home in the same way. Where both the audios and my life are concerned, things will never be the same again.

There's a really great score on Signs and Wonders. The way Jamie Robertson cuts between scenes really works for me, and it felt like a step up from even the standout work of Fox and Yason last time. He emulates Murray Gold for this most RTD-like of stories, and I'm in my element. This is my era of the show, and so it feels perfect to me. There's one piece of music in particular, which Stone's DJ plays in Part One, which I really liked. I know Joe Ford hated it, but I thought it was a really good track and if there's a full version I hope Robertson puts it on Soundcloud before too long. There's some great sound design too. It's all really good, but particularly memorable are the crowd scenes and the battle with the slugs, particularly in the air and water. Robertson's underwater sonics twinned with Olivier's performance really chilled me to the bone for a moment. Drowning is one of my greatest fears, and this evokes it perfectly. Overall, it's a magnificent contribution Robertson makes to this story, and elevates it to one of the greatest the range has heard.

To conclude, this was a truly excellent story in my opinion. Sure, there are bits that aren't fully explained (to my knowledge), leaps of logic are made and Ace and Sally's fight is just totally naff in the final product, but there are far, far more positives than negatives. An electric score and pacey direction help keep things moving for the full running time and this really does have an end-of-era vibe to it. Philip Olivier gives one of his best performances, and reminds us why we all loved Hex so much one last time. Although it may have been a long time coming, this conclusion was certainly worth it. There's an abundance of fine ideas in Signs and Wonders and Rufus Stone is a great character. Captain Gormley is enjoyable, but we're never allowed much time to get to know him like we did the policeman in Afterlife. There's barely any flat notes from the cast and Olivier and Pemberton really are at the heart of this tale. The human drama is excellently handled and enacted, making this one of my favourite things I've heard from Fitton yet. Jamie Robertson's score and sounds are a cut above and Tom Webster's cover is suitably evocative. I hope they keep him on the books, he's certainly worth his salt. After so many years of Hex, if this really is the end, there's no denying it's been prepared for. I listened to Part Four, then the interviews and then went straight into Jon Hopkins' Life Through the Veins. All this result in me going a bit misty-eyed, proving what a wonderful and heart-warming finale this was. Even if it did try too hard to tie into the New Adventures. Thanks all.

In a Nutshell: A fantastic end to one of my favourite companion's adventures, firing on all cylinders. Hex will be sorely missed.

You can buy Signs and Wonders here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

I will now, on Jonny Morris' recommendation, go back and relisten to this trilogy. I look forward to it.

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