21 September 2014

AG: The Time Machine

In The Time Machine, Matt Fitton has the unenviable task of tying all the threads left dangling throughout the Destiny of the Doctor series' first ten stories. All things considered, the fact that Fitton makes an appearance is not hugely surprising given that he does seem to be Big Finish's go-to guy at the moment. Since his first work for the audioverlords, released in August 2011, he's racked up twenty six hours of output (including the first episode of the widely-praised Survivors series) with nine more lined up for release between now and April. And that's just the ones that've been announced. I don't doubt he'll be part of the new monthly Short Trips range, having learned some of the names involved with that series. It should be noted too that it's not just gaps being plugged by Fitton, it's proper headline slots. To give you an idea, he's landed the finale to the Hex arc, the entirety of Dark Eyes' third series, a Four/Leela/K9 vs the Master story, a regular slot on CounterMeasures and a whole lot else besides.

My own first experience of his work was in the Seventh Doctor story (not that the Seventh Doctor was actually in it) Black and White, and I was somewhat underwhelmed by that story. It suffered by being the middle part of a finale trilogy and I thought it showed. My next encounter was Afterlife, which was a definite improvement, and mostly highly enjoyable. With The Time Machine, I'm beginning to see why Big Finish are so keen to keep employing his services; this is his most accomplished work so far, that I've heard. 

It begins in Fitton's hometown of Oxford, but don't think that's just a convenience on the part of the writer. It makes complete sense that the story be set here, especially in light of revelations towards the end of the story. Cycling to her research lab at the University, Dr Alice Watson almost collides with the Doctor, only for him to turn up at her place of work. It's quite an intriguing concept that's presented here. Professor Chivers of Oxford University, along with Alice, is building a time machine, with a little help from himself. The story wastes no time introducing this concept: the Professor's success is assured because his future self is instructing him how to construct it, from notes he takes from his future self. If you can work that one out, you stand a chance of unscrambling the rest of this.

The Creevix have seeped through from the next universe along and are here to feed off all the potential time energy created by the time machine - a concept not dissimilar to the Weeping Angels' original motivation. The way the Professor communicates with himself is through a Time Lord Hypercube (yes, just like the one in Shockwave, more on that later). The Doctor takes the cube and journeys into a twenty year time loop in the TARDIS, accompanied by Alice. Of all the stories I was expecting references to, Dimensions in Time wasn't one of them! 

It's at this point that we meet Captain Guy Taylor, of the Time Agency. Undoubtedly the message of this story is that everyone is important and that remove any single part of history, and everything would be a bit rubbish. This is dressed much more fancily, of course, but it's Fitton's way of telling us that all of Doctor Who's fifty year history is brilliant, and absolutely crucial to the show we know and love today. I'd tend to agree whole-heartedly with that. Except for The Masque of Mandragora. I still don't see the point of that story. But that's a rant for another time! I think it was totally right of Fitton to base his story around a single innocent man - the most important thing in history. And Guy Taylor is vital to both this story and indeed the entire series. 

This is where things really begin to get confusing. I won't attempt to explain the plot of this story as it's too complex for me, even with several pages of notes made, and it's going to be told much better in the story itself. Instead, I'll move to the series arc now. It turns out that Chivers is in fact Cedric from Hunters of Earth! This absolutely blew me away, and I really wasn't expecting it, but it does make perfect sense. That's a beautiful use of the arc and series structure, and works so brilliantly. And all of the seeds planted by the Eleventh Doctor are sent out to his previous selves using the Hypercube, and I do wonder if Fitton was heavily involved in both this arc's construction and in the writing of these scenes. They are so interlinked that it seems almost inevitable. Whilst leaving the first nugget we hear via the radio back in the first story of the series, the Doctor plants the  seed of "Blowin' in the Wind" which changes Cedric's entire life. Inspired by this new music, he attends concerts, meets his wife, has children and subsequently they have children. Not wanting to lose his (newly-acquired) family, he pauses before using the time machine and it's this that gives the Doctor his opportunity.

I'll return now to the story of Captain Guy Taylor. I liked that Fitton expanded on the myth that is the Time Agency without actually telling us anything new, and done in the most satisfying way too. When Taylor signed up, his parents were very proud, but he did change his name from Merritt OhOne. You might see where this is going now. Captain OhOne survived the events of Shockwave, taking the Hypercube discovered in that story with him. He met Lyric Erskine (Death's Deal) and they were married at Joseph McNeil's (oddly his name's changed since Night of the Whisper) marriage complex in New Vegas. They then had a son - Taylor. I did wonder for a moment if the New Vegas marital sector also featured in Richelle Mead's Something Borrowed, but having checked my facts, the short story is set in a place that just looks like Vegas. 

The rest of the plotting brought about by the Smith Doctor is examined in one brief, perfectly gabbled link that begins with the Ovids (Smoke and Mirrors) and ends with the Quiet Ones (Shadow of Death). I didn't quite catch how they were all relevant (and in all truthfulness, they probably weren't) but it satisfied me in terms of wrapping everything up. I thought it was nice that the rocks from Vengeance of the Stones (a story I enjoyed but others less so, unfortunately) were key to the resolution, smashing the time capsule. I'll just quickly pick up on the Shockwave links. The Hypercube was found by Seven, given to OhOne, passed down to his son (Merritt/Guy), taken by the Eleventh Doctor from the time machine that was both Chivers' and Taylor's and sent back (or forwards, depending how you look at it) through time to be found by his seventh self. For this reason, it has no discernible beginning or end, but I love that little loop.

The Doctor manages to create a paradox around the Creevix's paradox and so cancels it out, smashing them back to their own dimension. Guy Taylor's timeline is restored, and just before he leaves, Alice goes off with him. Following a brilliant character progression (more on that later) and a few sparkling exchanges ("What's the most important thing in the universe?" / "Physics!" / "That's right, people!") she leaves with Taylor to get out there and meet people. She does return two minutes later, but who knows how long they were gone in her relative time stream? I couldn't find a specific date for The Chase, meaning that these two could potentially be Steven Taylor's parents... Maybe it's a twist too far.

To conclude this section, I think the story itself was perfectly sound. The Time Machine works by itself, not knowing the backstory of the series (everything you need to know is explained) but is undoubtedly designed with the assumption that you have heard at least the majority. Like the Eleventh Doctor's neckwear, it all ends in a neat bow. Not only is what's written good, but how it's written. Fitton's use of prose and language is skilled and interesting, and the way he winds you through the story certainly makes the ride enjoyable too.

Alice Watson is an engaging character. To begin with, she is cold and hard to connect with. She has no real knowledge of popular culture, and much prefers investigating physics to spending time with people. The influence of the Doctor is particularly profound, as over the course of just a few hours she has an almost complete reversal, her eyes being opened to the ways of the universe. Her style of speech and attitude totally matches what we're told about her, proving that Fitton knows his character inside out. The same is true of the story's only other (human) guest star - Professor Cedric Chivers. The transformation he undergoes is similarly satisfying and the reference to Ian matches both Hunters of Earth and An Unearthly Child exactly. They were a really strong supporting team, possibly made more so by their contrast against the Doctor's outlook and motivation.

The monsters of the piece are the Creevix. For the finale to an anniversary season, I would ordinarily have expected (and been happy with) a previous race of villains rearing their ugly heads again, but I can immediately see why Fitton elected to go with his own creations. Having an old monster in The Time Machine could easily have overshadowed the plan and plot of the story. For the sake of giving the best end result, he creates the space locusts to menace about the place. The invasion of Oxford is apparently already complete (or at least they're following Alice). They're fascinating creatures as they know everything that will ever happen, and so are time sensitive (but to a greater degree) in the same way as the Doctor. There's a beautiful description of them midway through the story: they "read the future like a book and then eat the pages". It simplifies exactly what the writer is trying to say without making it sound insignificant or juvenile. The use of 'eat' really fits with the whole image of the Creevix too, as they peer beadily out of this serial. Nick "trusty" Briggs is back on the vox for these most alien of creations. At first, his voice was hardly perfectly disguised (or perhaps I just listen to the Big Finish podcasts too much) but over the course of the adventure he adapted his performance and by the end I wouldn't have had a clue who'd given voice to them if i hadn't known. 

Monsters are arguably something this series has been lacking in. There was the mob mentality of Hunters of Earth, the Quiet Ones in Shadow of Death and the Armideans from Vengeance of the Stones, but aside from them it could be said the series has instead focused more on singular villains - the Master, the leader of the Herd, Hilary, the Whisper, Wolfsbane. It was good to get back to an all-out adventure style of monster; they're baaad. I'm not sure why one of the primary two contributors couldn't have voice the Creevix, but Briggs nonetheless gives a good turn. 

I'm sure at the time of writing this story Fitton didn't know who was going to be reading it. A similar situation has arisen with February 2015's Short Trip story, and no doubt the story will be unfairly derided due to changing schedules, which is a shame. Jenna Coleman does of course play Clara in the TV series but her character is absent here. Perhaps the intention was for Briggs to read this again (a la Night) but schedules changed to allow Coleman to be brought in. I don't think it matters that Clara isn't present in The Time Machine because Alice Watson works perfectly well anyway - and is far from a substitute. I've read reviews claiming that Watson could be anyone, and is Oswald By Any Other Name. I'd totally disagree. Not only is her background different, but her personality is almost incomparable. To strengthen this argument further, Coleman reads the part with a totally different voice to her own (and therefore Clara's). Coleman certainly has a very listenable voice (something I've found on TV too) and is an excellent narrator. Her intonation and approach vary dependent on content, which serves Fitton's tale perfectly. I'd love to hear more from Coleman. Come on, BBC! Big Finish have proven they can do the new series brilliantly. What's the big debate over the license about?!

Michael Cochrane did of course appear in a couple of classic series stories (Black Orchid and Ghost Light) but he's had more involvement with the world of Who through Big Finish, racking up quite a tally of credits. As the older Cedric, he is perfectly doddery and you really sense a change in his character after he gains a family and something to care for. With the references to his age and not retiring, I did think we were getting towards Professor Chronotis territory (and that's not the only Shada reference). Although Tam Williams portrayed the younger Chivers, there is a pleasing connection between the two actors for those who like such things. Cochrane was the sadly-passed Kate O'Mara's brother in law and Williams was her nephew. I don't know if it's a coincidence but there's a nice synchronicity about it.

Simon Hunt returns to sound and music duties after a couple of releases off and I'm sorry to say this isn't the blazing audio assault I hoped it might be. The music is stellar throughout, and that is undoubtedly the stronger of Hunt's contributions to this story. The sound design, however, is lacking in places. I'm not sure if this was rushed through post-production (but I would assume not; it was recorded about five months prior to release) but there is a noticeable absence of atmospherics. I felt the most prominent occasion was during the TARDIS trip halfway through. The narration states pandemonium is raging throughout the control room but the accompanying sound gives a different impression - there is very little going on, by the sound of it. I hate to be harsh on Hunt because he has served this series so well up until now, but it's partly because of his previous form that I was disappointed. John Ainsworth direction was back on form for this release and all the performers seemed to be on the same page as the writer, making this a delightfully cohesive conclusion.

This is a superb conclusion to the Destiny of the Doctor series and I'm glad it went out on such a strong story. I will certainly be looking forward to future releases with Matt Fitton's name on, and I hope Jenna Coleman gets the opportunity to perform in this way again. This isn't a completely arc-heavy story and I think Big Finish would probably get away with only releasing this one - there's everything you need here. I'll talk more about the series as a whole in the section below, but suffice to say I'm very impressed. What Fitton's written here is immensely satisfying and his guest characters are both all the stronger for being allowed more airtime. This wraps everything up very well and answers any questions asked earlier on. The only thing I'm unsure of is what is the device the Doctor was playing with at the start? If he really was texting, who was he texting? Given the interval this is set in, I assume the Ponds, but one line of clarification would've satisfied me. Although this is arguably a companion introduction story, I think Watson's story would probably be most benefited by leaving it solely in The Time Machine. This is well written and very enjoyable overall, putting it among the best of the series.

In a Nutshell: A self-contained story that still manages to wrap up and explain away the entirety of the Destiny of the Doctor most satisfyingly. Colour me impressed.

You can buy The Time Machine here or read Emrys Matthews' review here.

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