26 October 2014

BF: Old Soldiers


"It was as if history itself had broken into pieces and come to kill us.."

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

It may seem like I'm saying this every week, but I love the period this story is set in. I do love most eras of Doctor Who - each has its positives and negatives - but Season 7 has to, I think, be my favourite series the show has ever offered. Yes, even pipping Series 1 (2005) to the post! I don't think the ball is dropped once throughout those twenty-five episodes, and I think the only story I'd be able to award lower than 10 to would be Inferno, and even that would be a 9 or higher. I'm well aware that there are many faults that could be highlighted for each of the four stories, but it is just perfectly enjoyable for me. I think one of the reasons people tend to take a disliking is because they bulk-watch stories - they might sit through four episodes of The Silurians in an evening, for example. It wasn't designed this way and doesn't work that way. At one a day, it's perfect. 

If I had to pick one story from Pertwee's debut season to save it would have to be The Ambassadors of Death. If I ever get around to reviewing it, I'll explain why then, but my point is that this is fortunate since James Swallow's Old Soldiers most closely resembles that third serial of all those set around it. Settling down with what sounds like a brandy, the Brigadier begins to tell us a story about phantoms haunting an old German castle. It's exactly the sort of opening I can imagine would be perfect to listen to on a dark, cold, winter's evening. However, my first listen took place out in the bright, summer afternoon heat - precisely the wrong environment. I've only picked up on this now, though. Nicholas Courtney's gorgeously soothing tones are listenable enough to make this story enjoyable in any scenario.

Receiving a telegram from his old friend UNIT Colonel Heinrich Konrad, the Brigadier makes for Germany just a few weeks after the 'incident' at Wenley Moor. His comrade is stationed at a research base out in the German countryside - you can almost imagine the inevitable, comical "Top Secret" sign preventing any unwanted aggressors from entering, in much the same style as that seen in The Three Doctors. Kreigskind is an ancient establishment, dating back to before the times of the Roman Empire. All military bodies since have seen its strategical advantages and claimed it as their own. And now it's one of UNIT's top laboratories. They investigate the remnants of attempted incursions, in order to try and learn something from the extra-terrestrial technology to give them a better chance against any future aggressors.

When Lethbridge-Stewart arrives, he finds Major Schrader in command and Konrad delirious in his sickbed. Before too long, the mystery of why everyone at the base is on edge, jumping at shadows, is revealed when the Brig is attacked by a Roman Legionary in his quarters. The boldness of the idea is beautiful, and you can imagine the scene as it would have been shot in 1969 perfectly, in all its 4:3 425-line glory. We find out that these phantoms have been haunting the institution ever since Project 995 was undertaken, but its exact nature isn't revealed.

Naturally, the Brigadier summons the Doctor, and when he arrives (just as naturally) it's by parachute. As Lethbridge-Stewart comments so accurately, "one could never say the Doctor didn't have a keen eye for a theatrical entrance". The Time Lord soon comes up with his usual barrage of explanations (time slippage, psycho-plasma matrices), and it's nice to see that for once he's flummoxed somewhat (at first, at least). I won't go as far as revealing the way in which the two major plotlines - the phantoms and Konrad's deteriorating condition - are tied together, but it is a satisfying conclusion. Major Schrader, a character written in such a way that we're supposed to dislike him thoughout, is also afforded a dignified exit by Swallow, redeeming him at the last minute. That's not to say that Schrader is a bad person, he's just doing what he thinks is right.

This theme underscores much of this story, and very effectively for the most part. Old Soldiers offers some breathing space where the Doctor and the Brigadier can go some way towards reconciling their differences, away from the traditional UNIT backdrop. I thought the parallels between both Schrader and Konrad's decisions with the Brigadier's at the end of The Silurians were really neat, and integrated sufficiently subtly. They are all doing what they feel is right by UNIT and by their country - doing their duty. Two sides are portrayed across the three experiences, showing that sometimes this is the correct thing to do, and sometimes it isn't. Where I felt Swallow took this too far was in verbalising the comparison right at the tail end of the second episode. It worked perfectly well as it was, and I felt this took some dramatic weight away from events.

This is undoubtedly more of a character piece than the action-thriller type stories we were presented with back in 1970, but it nestles into the middle of the season perfectly comfortably. As much as I love Liz (if only for Caroline John's portrayal) and the UNIT setup, it feels right for the Doctor and the Brigadier to distance themselves (mentally and physically, appropriately) from it all for a bit, to allow them to work out their differences properly. I tend to think that Terror of the Autons and The Claws of Axos are where the Earth-bound premise starts becoming a bit cosy. With the introduction of Jo, it becomes much more of a family atmosphere. Even the Master eventually becomes like that uncle you're actually quite fond of. There's none of that same vibe between Spearhead from Space and Inferno and it would be true to say the same of Old Soldiers. However, that's not to say there's not shades of the calmer atmosphere beginning to break through (as it inevitably will when writing retrospectively) and the Brigadier and the Doctor seem to have a lot of unspoken affection and respect for each other, reflecting the relationship between Jon Pertwee and Nick Courtney.

My love of the early '70s stories makes it all the more heartbreaking that the its three major players - Pertwee, Courtney and John - are no longer with us. We were lucky enough to get five further adventures featuring the latter two from Big Finish before their sad passing though. In this current marathon, I'll be listening to three of them. Nick Courtney really does have a gift for the audio medium, emoting and evoking faultlessly for much of this story's 62 minutes. Neither the Brig nor Courtney have changed a bit since their television days, and I can imagine the former nestling in for the evening in a bit, leather armchair, telling his grandchildren the story about the ghosts in Germany. Courtney has such a beautiful voice to listen to, it's a tragedy we only got one Companion Chronicle featuring him. I would happily lose all of the (reportedly sub-par, on the whole) Fourth Doctor slots in this range to gain more with him and his character. It's equally sad that we only got two other Doctor Who stories featuring the Brig from Big Finish - the pretty enjoyable, if a little unoriginal Spectre of Lanyon Moor and the absolutely dire Minuet in Hell. The one place where Courtney falters minutely is in his recreation of the Third Doctor towards the end, but I'll forgive this man anything.

Toby Longworth is a very prolific performer in the worlds of Big Finish, featuring mainly in Judge Dredd or Main Range Doctor Who stories (including, possibly co-incidentally, a turn as the villain in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor). Here, he plays both Konrad and Schrader with what I thought were convincing German accents. The only difficulty I did have was that if you weren't playing 100% attention it did occasionally become hard to tell which of his two characters was speaking. I'm not putting the performance down at all - both the ailing Colonel and the confident Major were convincingly embodied - but there wasn't a fantastic amount of distinction between the two. I realise it's harder when you're doing an accent to diversify, but it stuck out at me as the one flaw of Longworth's contribution. On the whole, though, I was highly impressed. 

David Darlington is a massively influential sound designer and musician in the worlds of Big Finish. If you've listened to more than 10 stories from various ranges in any era in the company's history, there's almost no doubt you will have listened to his work at some stage. He's contributed hugely to the Main Range, the Companion Chronicles, Bernice Summerfield, Gallifrey, as well as all of UNIT. I've encountered Darlington's work before, but not in any reviews for this site. I usually find his work pretty satisfying, but not as remarkable as that of Lauren Yason and Richard Fox or Howard Carter, for example. My assertion was reinforced with Old Soldiers. His work was highly effective in the framing scenes, but was less notable elsewhere. In the battle scenes (particularly when the legionary springs on the Brigadier, but also in the scene with the World War Two Germans) there was a bit of a lack of punchiness and dynamism. Listening to the isolated score, right at the end of the disc, I was more impressed than during the course of the story, but I was still a bit underwhelmed. The sound design also lacked a little, particularly after the stellar work I've encountered in the last couple of stories. The explosion at the end - not exactly a spoiler, it is the Pertwee era after all - didn't have much of an impact on me but for the remainder this aspect of the production was serviceable. I'm not complaining, it just feels like Darlington wasn't quite up to Courtney, Swallow and Fairs' level on this one.

All in all, this is a beautifully poignant story that examines humans and their mentality in many ways. The standout character is of course Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (incidentally possibly my favourite 'companion' of the Doctor's) but Swallow writes everyone well. There's setup for Battlefield and a reference to The Devil Goblins from Neptune, whilst tying perfectly into the surrounding stories. Whether consciously or otherwise, Swallow borrows elements (particularly in the Doctor's actions) from both The Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death. It's an intelligently-written stories that bridges the gap between Seasons 7 and 8 well, developing the gradual relationship between the Pertwee era's two main characters delicately and realistically. It's lovely that the Brig looks back on his old adventures with the Doctor, and that image of him with Nick Courtney's warm glow of a smile spread across his face is just perfect. This release is made all the more affecting by Courtney's passing, particularly in the interview in the disc's extras. Nigel Fairs directs this strongly, and makes this a worthy addition to any Pertwee or Courtney collection. 

In a Nutshell: If we lose our humanity, there's nothing left worth fighting for. A beautiful tale, making it all the more tragic that this is the last we heard from the Brigadier.



You can buy this from Big Finish here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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