19 October 2014

BF: The Forbidden Time

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

I've always been rather intrigued by the main Season 4 team. I loved Ben and Polly in The War Machines and Jamie and the Second Doctor are brilliant throughout the following two series, but I've never really experienced this team as a unit in a proper sense. I did of course study the telesnap narration of their stories in the DWM special by Jonny Morris nearly a year ago but I (deliberately, to some extent) haven't listened to the soundtracks or watched The Moonbase. From what I read, I think The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones would be really strong entries, and it made me lament this era's loss all the more. So, with this in mind, it was up to David Lock to provide me with the closest thing to watching them onscreen yet. 

The tale begins with Polly holding a press conference. The entirety of the human race has received a psychic message, and she is there to explain it. This isn't the most solid of framing devices, but did set me up,for some kind of confrontation with whatever monsters had impressed themselves upon humanity towards the end of the play. Perhaps I was skewed by the relatively substantial "outer story" of Home Truths but I still expected it to build to something. 

Many years ago in the future, the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie arrive on Earth, in London in fact. But before long, they slip sideways across universes to a reality where London is grey and lifeless, and buildings are made of crumbling rubble. The Doctor explains they've travelled to a shadow world, and they soon encounter its creators - the Vist. These creatures fit really well into the nightmarish location the writer tries to summon up. Imagine waking in a world where everything was ashen black and grey, and strange creatures roamed the streets - Labrador bodies, giraffe legs and monkey faces colliding into one horrible entity. Perhaps a nightmare really was the inspiration for this story.

I had suspected that Ben would be written out somehow towards the start, but even I was surprised just how soon it was before he was gone. One of the Vist seems to remove him from this world, explaining why there's no-one else about. The cliffhanger - where the older Polly invites the audience to return after a five minute break was bit too knowing for me, and destroyed what little tension had been built surrounding the seemingly impending demise of the Doctor and his young friend. I did like how they managed to escape destruction though, and the reference to "badly made props" did make me grin. Hiding from the hideous time walkers, the Doctor and Polly spot themselves handing themselves to the Vist. Time is slipping all over the place in this alternate dimension, so obeying what they know must happen, they approach the (excellently described) Vist ship. 

I haven't said much about Jamie yet. Although this is very much Polly's story, he does get his own strand of the narrative to play in. I'm afraid to say that it boils down to running away from the Vist, essentially. At the start of the story, Polly gives Jamie a digital audio recorder (a dictaphone) made by Professor Brett to play with I think, tying in to the lovely idea that it's a cosy family atmosphere in the TARDIS and the young McCrimmon is the baby brother. But this is how we hear hIs side of the story - he records his experiences through the story. It's quite well done, but Jamie uses far more descriptive and colourful language than he ever did onscreen. I know this is purely for dramatic purposes, given we can't see what he can, but it was a strange inconsistency. The Scot's best moment was definitely when he lobs the dictaphone at the Vist Leader, which really made me laugh. 

I liked how the Doctor managed to defeat the villains, and although it showed a much more Machiavellian side of his incarnation than we're used to, I think it was justified by his regretful attitude and sorrow afterwards. Quickly, they escape back to the real world, where the thought of material objects has allowed Ben and Jamie to be brought back too. The conclusion to the framing narration is that there's nothing to worry about, and that the message was just an echo of the Vist's attempted invasion. This massively subverted my expectations, and I'm not sure if I'm happy with it or not. On the one hand, if it was deliberate, cheeky misdirection, then I'm totally onboard and I thought it was excellent. On the other hand, if it was intended as a proper conclusion to the story then it's a real anti-climax and brings the whole thing down a few notches. I think of this occasion I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Anneke Wills' vocal abilities impressed me during The Forbidden Time. She obviously used her natural voice for the older Polly, but in the historic segments her evocation of the period was almost uncanny. I was surprised to learn she voiced the Vist too. Although I liked the effect on the voices (it was apparently applied live in studio, and that was what was recorded) I did find it increasingly difficult after a while to actually make out what they were saying. Her Troughton is far inferior to that of Frazer Hines, and it seems a shame that they didn't get him to fill in as he was in the studio anyway. Her Ben reminds me more of the memory of him rather than the character himself if you know what I mean, but overall I was very happy with Wills' work and I do now want to add The Selachian Gambit and House of Cards to my next order to hear more of this team. I can't help but feel Frazer Hines was a bit wasted here, being mostly superfluous to the main story. That's not to say his parts weren't enjoyable - far from it -  but the story never really gave him the meat he can handle.

The dream team of Lauren Yason and Richard Fox were back on sound duties for this release, and after my high praise last time, did they live up to my expectations? In a word, yes. The tale being told here is much less atmospheric than Home Truths was, but the pair still do a good job of matching the nightmare-like locale the story is set in. The music is most effective, but there are great bits of sound design too: the crowds at the press conference, the tape effect when Polly plays back Jamie's recordings (although why they're on tape when they were originally recorded digitally confused me) and the effect applied to the 'recordings' themselves. Another great score from the pair, and I'm beginning to wonder if they can put an audible foot wrong.

The official credit for the writer of this story is David Lock, but that's a pseudonym for Andy Lane, a relatively prolific contributor to Big Finish's output. I can't really tell why he chose to write under a pen name for this story - it's not exactly bad. It's an odd decision, particularly given that he'd written for the Companion Chronicles before, under his own name. Perhaps he wanted to have a total departure from his normal style. I haven't yet heard any of his work (although it is coming in a few weeks) but that would seem to be the most logical explanation to me, coupled with the fact that audiences would approach this without any baggage as far as the writer was concerned, and be completely honest. Lisa Bowerman of course directed this, and we're much more towards the style of The Revenants again, in that the framing narrative could really be removed with losing much impact. She directs this irregularly-toned story well, invoking a sense of claustrophobia in the capital city of Great Britain - quite a feat. I'm beginning to see why she's trusted so much by the company; she can adapt to any style or tone (even within stories) and make the pace and narrative fit perfectly.

It may sound like I've criticised more than praised The Forbidden Time, but that's not my general opinion of it at all. The Vist are an excellent creation, and I love the idea of fencing off areas of time, and charging for entry. It examines perception in a brilliant way, and this was a great concept to base the story around. The notion of the world flickering into colour towards the end was startling, and something that could be realised really well onscreen nowadays. There's some wonderful creativity at work here, and this is a lovely blend of ideas. Although it doesn't really feel like a Troughton-era story at all (it's too sprawling and 'epic') it works, taking the team out of their comfort zone. Ben is got rid of too quickly, and Jamie is underused, but the moments between the Doctor and Polly are magic. There's some great lines in there too "time is free at the point of use" and "falling off the cliff edge of time" particularly. The only other negative point I have left to make is that I felt the very final scene (after the press conference) undermined it somewhat and didn't add anything, even emotionally as it was supposed to.

To conclude then, I did have mixed feelings about this but The Forbidden Time is definitely a cut above average. It doesn't quite fulfil its potential in my opinion, but the content of this release is mostly excellent. The Troughton era is still alive and kicking, and I'd love to delve into it further when I get the opportunity, for this was a really strong start. Ben was virtually absent but the moments where he did appear were highly enjoyable, I'm glad to say. I look forward to my next encounter with Andy Lane, for this is quite a beautiful tale.

In a Nutshell: Pitching the Season 4 team into the most unlikely of locations works effectively whilst still feeling entirely authentic.

You can buy The Forbidden Time here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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