12 October 2014

BF: The Drowned World

After listening to Home Truths, the first in this trilogy of adventures starring Jean Marsh, I commented that the opener could function just as well as a standalone release as it does the first story of three. This definitely isn't the case for The Drowned World. Despite the fact that everything you need to know is explained by Robert across the opening portion of this second of three, this is very much the "middle story".

Bravely, writer Simon Guerrier reverses the set up of Home Truths and makes Niall MacGregor's character the lead. Whereas before we learned about Sara's past and got inside her head, the dynamic is reversed here. This isn't a particularly briskly-paced serial either. For Robert it takes place over the course of at least twelve years. We get more inside the head of the man (the House literally so) and learn about his fears, his desires, his morality and his history. Parallels are very definitely made between Robert and Sara's own origins, and this comes to an interesting head at the halfway point and conclusion of The Drowned World.

What impresses me the most about this story is the complex layering of narratives presented within it. The framing story, which is undoubtedly the more prominent, mirrors the tale Sara (and later Robert) recounts neatly - in the subtext rather in the more tangible or literal sense. The title in particular portrays this well. 'The Drowned World' could refer to the planet of the Silver Sea, where Steven, Sara and the Doctor land to discover a colony of miners waiting to be saved. Or it could refer to the suffering Robert's world (geographically and psychologically) is undergoing, with plague, famine and war rife. The use of the word 'drowned' really conveys a sense of defeat and dread. There's no hope associated with the title of this story.

I like the idea Guerrier presents that after all those millennia of space travel and exploration (which we're seeing the roots of in Series 8 at the moment, coincidentally) society reverts back to the level we're at now, further even. A council of Elders seems to rule a significant land mass from a Cambridge base and to reach the House you have to row. That's one place where the title could be interpreted literally - there's talk of streetlights still bubbling with life miles below the surface. This is a beautiful piece of imagery, and one that's pretty close to something I came up with a few years ago (although I hasten to add that Guerrier pulls it off much better than I ever could). I wrote a piece of fan fiction where a new Sea Devil colony was discovered - Lamppost in the Ocean. Please don't search for it.

But this kind of evocative language and idea is typical both of Guerrier and his work here. There's not a wasted sentence to be found. Although the strand of the narrative concerning the Doctor's escapade is a less engaging entry, that's only true because the flip side of this tale is so gripping. Indeed, I had to rewind the first ten minutes of Part Two because I was still deep in thought about the events that occur at the end of Part One, and realised I wasn't concentrating on the new material at all. The additional character introduced with the second episode is well chosen. She adds a depth to both characters with only a single line, such is the tension and history of the relationship between Sara and Robert. The extent and skill of Guerrier's writing is showcased perfectly with her. You'll know what I mean when you get to it.

All of this isn't to say the secondary plot is uninteresting; far from it. The First Doctor and Steven are just as well evoked and embodied as Sara is. In a way, it feels a shame that more time isn't devoted to this story - it could really be quite intriguing were Guerrier to recreate it as the centrepiece of a Companion Chronicle. As it is, the events are almost rushed through (despite having a slow pace), with time for deliberation and description saved almost entirely for the 'present day' narrative. What time we do spend on this planet is really enjoyable, and the elderly Doctor pottering about, arguing with Steven and making a nuisance of himself is all high quality material. For all the time they appear, Steven and the Doctor are great. I desire more of this team from this pen, but in an adventure all to themselves.

The climax, right up to the last line, is very neat. It's the perfect ending for the 'filler' segment of the trilogy (though this really isn't deserving of that label). I particularly liked the symmetry between the way this and Home Truths ended, although surely there's no question as to Robert's decision, given the character that's been built up over the last four episodes? Given that we don't get a straight answer here, I'll just have to wait until The Guardian of the Solar System to find out. Fortunately that's next on my list. Hooray!

Jean Marsh is an actress championed by many, including Joe Ford. However, having been born too late to see most of her TV work and not watched her Daleks' Master Plan episodes, I'm left with only the Companion Chronicles and Battlefield to judge her on. Battlefield isn't really my thing, but Marsh is pretty good as Morgaine. As Sara Kingdom on audio, she is a complete revelation though. In Home Truths I was completely blown away by her performance, and that play remains one of my favourite things Big Finish have released. Here, she is similarly magnificent as Sara - in both narratives. I don't think there was a point I could pick up on where her performance wasn't captivating as Sara. One criticism I do have though - and this applies to her co-star too - is that their impressions of Hartnell's Doctor were terrible! They sounded nothing like him. It didn't make my experience of this story any worse, but my attention was drawn away from the words supposedly emanating from the Doctor's mouth (on second listen, I learned they were excellent words in a coherent order - well done Simon!). 

Niall MacGregor really takes the lead here. Where Home Truths was the tale of Robert entering a ghost story and becoming acquainted with the entity that haunted an old house, here we hear what happens when the situation is reversed and the house tries to learn about his world and involve itself in it. In deploying this clever narrative trick, Guerrier affords MacGregor a lot of worthy material and airtime. He proves that he can front a release and it's telling that after only brush with the world of the Doctor (in both reality and the story) MacGregor is ready to take the lead. Both the character and actor are strong enough. Well done director Lisa Bowerman for another excellent piece of casting. The highlight of Robert's appearances in this story for me were those that featured or mentioned the family member introduced properly in Part Two after being merely an idea in Part One. That MacGregor can evolve a performance so far and so effectively within 30 minutes says a lot.

Atmospherically speaking, I won't lie: this is no Home Truths. As much as The Drowned World tries, there is a lack of mystery compared with its predecessor and the jumble of storylines it tries to keep abreast of almost seem to overwhelm it at points. A lot of the intrigue is gone and whilst the two episodes tick by merrily enough I can't help but feel it's a little bit of a comedown. Perhaps I set my expectations too high. I found this wasn't only in the way it was written, but also in the usually-faultless Richard Fox and Lauren Yason's sound design. I didn't sense as much confidence or willing to do something truly extraordinary as first time round, and I think that's a shame. However, the music (and the startlingly effective lack of in places) was generally excellent, and did help lift the story in my estimations. I really hate criticising this story as it is still one of the strongest to bear the Doctor Who logo, but I feel that I should justify my viewpoint and score, and not become one of those reviewers ridiculed by writers on Twitter that often comment, "Brilliant, loved everything about it! Best episode ever! 6/10". I hope I've made my point clearly enough.

I think Lisa Bowerman deserves a lot of credit. Assembling such a talented bunch of people is no mean feat. Aside from the wonderful Ms Bowerman, you've got Jean Marsh, Niall MacGregor, Simon Guerrier, Richard Fox and Lauren Yason all working on a single production - and even the cover's done by Simon Holub! Rather than relying on the success of her team though, it does feel like Bowerman is striving for something energetic and fresh in this piece. As already noted, it doesn't quite come off in the final result, but top marks for trying. It's when Big Finish have talented directors such as Bowerman (Barnaby Edwards also springs to mind) on their books and yet insist on utilising widely-accepted 'weaker' directors that I feel a bit deflated. Bowerman has proved time and again across series and ranges that she has the knack. It's great to have her at the helm on this one.

There's not a lot left for me to say, really. Despite the impression I may have conveyed earlier on, this is an exemplary story, well above average. It's an intriguing continuation of the ongoing Sara/Robert story, and I simply cannot wait until I get round to Guardian. At the same time, I'm also apprehensive of approaching it because it will mean the end of a fine run of stories. These first two serials have both been engaging, listenable and innovative thanks to all contributors involved. This is one of the more impressive instances of Doctor Who you could hope to find, and it confirms Simon Guerrier's place amongst Big Finish's best in my estimations, if such confirmation were still needed. This is a tale of two halves, and both stories are interesting enough. But the real drama comes from Robert and Niall MacGregor shines in the lead role. I'm going to sorely miss this set up, but I can't put off The Guardian of the Solar System for long. As well as Home Truths would have worked by itself, I'm beginning to think it's even stronger as the first of three stories. Bring on the next one!

In a Nutshell: An excellent story, but I wouldn't recommend trying this one without the other two segments of the trilogy available.

You can buy The Drowned World from Big Finish here. or read Joe Ford's review here.

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