28 September 2014

BF: The Revenants

This is the first review in my 2014/5 marathon. Check out the whole list here.

As you may know, The Revenants was first released as a free download with an issue of Doctor Who Magazine in 2012. The following year, it was included as the fifth disc of the anniversary extravaganza The Light at the End Special Edition, which is the only place to get it nowadays. I'm a big fan of Ian Chesterton and William Russell's portrayal, but this is the only non-TV release I own featuring the character so far.

In terms of audio stories, Ian Potter is very much First Doctor centric; all his Doctor Who stories feature him, and his only other (announced) work is an episode of CounterMeasures. This was his earliest audio writing on record, but he has written for a variety of incarnations in the printed Short Trips range, as well as providing sound design for three main range stories.

The story begins with Ian meeting Jeannie on an Orkney Ferry in 2012. He's on his way to the funeral of an old friend, and by a stroke of co-incidence, so is she. Janet McKay was Jeannie's aunt, prompting Ian to recall the story of the time they met. As a framing device for this Companion Chronicle, it's certainly engaging, but then I suppose William Russell announcing he was about to read the Yellow Pages would be equally satisfactory.

The first episode, titled The Marsh-Wains, is very much Ian and Barbara's chance to shine. There's always something magical about that initial TARDIS team, and it's two strongest characters, so I was perfectly happy to be reminded of how they came to be aboard the Doctor's ship. Soon after they arrive on what they later discover is Orkney, the TARDIS seems to disappear and they are left stranded. However, the Doctor had not long sine commented that he had found a way to get them home. The fact that it turns out this is set in 1956 shows that maybe his calculations were correct after all. 

I love the Hartnell and Troughton stories that spend an episode just exploring the new location because all the budget for that week's gone on the sets, so they can't afford to pay any actors outside the regular cast. It's famously the entire premise of The Edge of Destruction. This was right up my street, as it builds the atmosphere of this new land they're arrived in. It's very much built up to be a foreign land (and it is - it's Scotland!) as much as Marinus or Skaro was, and I really enjoyed that. The pace was pretty slow compared to what I've become accustomed to lately, but really it was nice to take a moment to breathe and not dash into the main plot. This isn't an entirely authentic two-parter, with the individual episodes running to 37 and 34 minutes respectively, but that's almost the only thing that sets this apart, as far as I can tell.

In some ways, this works better on audio than it would have on television back in the day. The sets are always going to be better in your head for starters. The section of the story that benefits most from a lack of visuals is in the second half of The Marsh-Wains when Ian and Barbara become trapped in a bog, dragged beneath the surface by unseen hands. You can just tell this would have been directed flatly, with Russell and Jacqueline Hill having to 'fall' into the bog in the same way Anneke Wills is 'caught' by the Macra in The Macra Terror. I'm not knocking the direction of the time, it should be said. Things were different in those days, and there simply wasn't the time to concentrate on interesting angles and imagery in the way there is now. As it is, this is a really exciting scene (one of the best in the whole piece) and really comes to life in my head.

The cliffhanger of the piece is a remarkably strong one, and I didn't see it coming until Russell uttered the Wissfonjarl's first line. The guardian, god-like figure, watching over Orkney is in fact revealed to be the Doctor, which made be beam widely. The second episode is indeed called The Wissfonjarl.  It turns out he didn't intentionally strand Ian and Barbara in their own history. In fact, if anything, it was the other way around. The two former school teachers left the ship before it had fully materialised. It continued back through history - we're not told how far, but the implication late on is back to the time of the Vikings - and the Doctor waited until his companions showed up again. Almost all of the reviews of this I've read have slammed Potter for bending continuity out of shape with this element. Apparently in The Rescue, the Doctor laments the loss of Susan, which is implied to be recent. I don't really see the problem here. Throughout, time is said to act oddly around Orkney, and that's explanation enough for me. Even though his body may have lived through centuries on the island, the Doctor's mind may have experienced exactly the same period of time Ian and Barbara do. There's no definite answer given, and I think it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup to be perfectly honest.

The concluding instalment of The Revenants is more dialogue-heavy than the first, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, because Potter peppers his characters' speeches with some good lines. There are still moments of action and tension, such as when the Marsh-Wains attack the cottage, and I especially enjoyed the moral dilemma presented at the conclusion that harked all the way back to the first ever story. Potter undeniably knows his stuff, throwing in reference after reference that you'll notice if you're steeped in the show's history (or read the TARDIS Wiki page) but amongst others there's throwaway mentions of the Steve Lyons book The  Witch Hunters, The Keys of Marinus, The Aztecs, The Sensorites and probably a whole host more. Don't worry though, this story is still perfectly digestable if you don't know much about the early years of the programme. I myself have only seen 11 out of twenty surviving Hartnell stories (quite deliberately, I'm trying to stretch them out). 

The legacy left by the travellers is very sweet and justifies the whole story, giving it an emotional resonance serials were rarely afforded at the time. Ian is also quite keen to stay in Orkney for seven years before returning to their old lives, but Barbara argues against him. Having learnt from her travels, she refuses on the grounds that she wouldn’t be able to just sit by and let every disaster they recall from the last decade unfold. This is some sound characterisation, and I was very impressed not only by the segment’s inclusion but by the writing here. Potter definitely made the right call by basing his tale in the ‘50s and it adds another layer to it. Spending a short period so close to their own home, you can see it from Ian’s point of view. But at the same, he (and we) knows his ‘colleague’ is right.

Although there's enough material for three episodes, this works best as it is, pivoting on the appearance of the Doctor. I wasn't waiting for him to show up (expecting the TARDIS to reappear come the conclusion) so it was a lovely surprise, and played beautifully. On second listen the clues leading up to the revelation all make sense, and it's good to hear it knowing what's coming. This is a very quaint, 'comfort Who' story. Although the monsters of the piece are good, and the concept is executed effectively (I'm really glad they weren't attempted on TV though - they would've been awful) there never feels like there's much danger. I think this is thanks to William Russell's infinitely soothing tones, reassuring us everything will be alright implicitly. The cynical amongst you will be going "well of course they'll be alright, Ian's telling the story in 2012" but that's not the point. This is a classic adventure in the mould of the sixties but with a greater depth than they were afforded, and it really works.

The music isn't entirely authentic of the time, but I don't mind when it's as strong as this. Toby Hrycek-Robinson (he of the famous Moat Studios lunches) has scored several stories before and I was impressed here. His score never dominates the story, instead almost underplaying some moments, but certainly underpinning the whole thing. He knows how to build up tension, no question. His use of (presumably) electronic strings is a good choice, but feels a bit cinematic for the black and white era. Nonetheless, it suits the material admirably and contributes to a pleasing end product. As already mentioned, the standout scene was in the bog, and his sound design definitely played a large part in its success.

Aside from his brief turn as the First Doctor in The Light at the End, this is my first real experience of William Russell's work for Big Finish and I think you can probably guess I was impressed. His voice is noticeably older than, but it wouldn't take Sherlock Holmes (who gets two mentions in this) to predict that one. Ian is his most accomplished recreation, and the Doctor and Barbara are on a par. Both have their moments, but also shakier points. As soon as the First Doctor's first line in the final scene of The Marsh-Wains was spoken though, I had absolutely no doubt who was talking. The Revenants is Sharon Small's only contribution to Big Finish so far, and although I didn't dislike her performances, I did feel they were a bit wooden (especially compared to Russell) in places. She's probably a good actress, but not suited to the audio medium. Or that could just be an incorrect opinion (as a lot of mine seem to be, judging by feedback).

Overall, this is a pleasing little tale that fits snugly into Series 2 and the heart of the listener. This provides exactly the nostalgia kick Hartnell-era fans look for, and despite the fact it doesn't add much to the ongoing story of Ian and Barbara, it uses them well, particularly in the first episode. As a slice of sixties Who, this doesn't put a foot wrong, and also considering the fact it was originally free makes it even more amazing. If Big Finish were going to entice new listeners with a Companion Chronicle, it seems William Russell was the right man to help them do it. This has certainly got me in the mood for more from this series.

In a Nutshell: An authentic yet original tale that makes the purchase of The Light at the End even less of a decision.

You can buy The Revenants as part of The Light at the End Limited Edition here, read Joe Ford's review here, Emrys Matthews' review here or see Nick Giles' brilliant fan artwork here (and whole site here).

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