02 November 2014

BF: The Blue Tooth

I think my opinion of The Blue Tooth is damaged a little by coming to it so soon after the magnificent The Last Post. I first listened to this story a few years ago, and had really positive memories of it. I was a little disappointed then when I revisited it to find it didn't quite hold up to my expectations. That said, this is far from bad and covers a great deal of brilliant material.

One thing about The Blue Tooth that disappointed me was that it never answered the question posed at the very top of the first episode. As with all the Companion Chronicles, Liz doesn't seem to be talking to anyone in particular, just recounting a tale from her days at UNIT. The ponderer proposed in the pre-titles of Part One concerns Liz's reasons for leaving UNIT. This is a topic that Big Finish hadn't covered before, and haven't covered since (so far as I'm aware) and really quite an exciting hook. Personally, I was expecting some kind of massive, climactic showdown - probably between the Doctor and Liz, but possibly with the villains of the piece.

We begin with Liz popping to Cambridge to catch up with an old university friend, Jean Baisemore, while she's got a few quiet days. However, Jean never shows up, so Liz visits her house, to find it overturned; someone's been there. Promptly, the Doctor and the Brigadier are on the scene before they're all called to another local disappearance. They work out that there's a connection with the dentist - both used the same one. The second house belonged to an Andrew Cowell (a cleaner at the university) and presumably Jean just kept going to the same dentist even after she left. Thinking she'll find nothing, Liz attends the surgery and gets an unconsented check up.

The Doctor and the Brigadier find Cowell's corpse at a train station and discover he is slowing being converted into a Cyberman by living metal. Meanwhile, when they rejoin Liz (following a blackout) she has a new blue filling, which is later revealed to do the same. The Doctor and Liz end up trapped in cocoons on a crashed Cybership. The craft originally had a small crew and was supposed to report back to the main fleet before the main invasion of, well, The Invasion. I liked this idea and it made sense to me, because a logical progression would surely be to survey the world you plan to invade before attempting to and suffering massively. However, despite their lack of report, the attempted invasion did go ahead (and failed) and only now has the sole survivor of the crash reawakened. 

A human called Gareth Arnold stumbled across the ship, with a great thirst for information. He was of course converted before too long, but this Cyberman retains something of him and indeed seems to be the Cybergang's leader. I really liked how he  (it?) talked about just converting everyone instead of storming in, all guns blazing. It adds a bit of depth to The Invasion and reminds the audience that these malformed men were scheming tactician humans once too. Although it's not abundantly clear how the Cybermen are defeated, the way in which they (and the Cybermats) are handled in the hour leading up to it is very mature. Unfortunately, TV dictates a certain rapidity to stories that audio doesn't. Also, Doctor Who fans are probably more willing to sit through slower parts of an audio drama they've purchased off a special company than the average viewer is not to lift his finger and switch channels. What this means is that writer Nigel Fairs can afford to take his time examining the body horror of the mad Mondasians. There's one scene, spanning Parts Three and Four, that lasts about fifteen or twenty minutes (or so it feels, I haven't checked). This is the sort of thing you simply couldn't do on television.

As disturbing as these scenes are, I found those in Liz's tutor's office to be more so. The vivid description, leaving little to the imagination, is really powerful, and when twinned with Lawrence Oakley and Robert Dunlop's gruesome sound design, you're in no doubt what's happening. In particular, the sections when Cybermats (or Cybermites, as they might be referred to were this story released now, such is their size) emerge from the skin and burrow themselves into UNIT personnel were a bit discomforting for me. The standout moment in this vein (no pun intended) for me was when one was crawling up inside a soldier's leg, visible from the outside. I'm pretty squeamish (I have to look away during Orphan Black, let alone anything stronger) but I do get a weird kind of pleasure from it, so thanks Mr Fairs for making me squirm with disgust and pleasure simultaneously!

I think there's a lot of sound material in The Blue Tooth but I think my main issue is how it's conveyed. Unusually, this is comprised of four fifteen-minute episodes and I really don't think the additional two add anything whatsoever. The cliffhanger to Part Three, following five to ten minutes featuring the Cybermen, is a description of what they look like. OK. Could have got that one from the cover. The idea of living metal is (while not astoundingly ingenious) used well here, showing the horror of the Cybermen (what a great title that would've been!) at its best. As characters watch, it spreads across their bodies. This does of course differ hugely from how we're used to humans being converted, but is nonetheless enjoyable as a one-off. 

This is used most disturbingly on Jean. Like The Last Post, The Blue Tooth builds a world around Liz. James Goss did very well not to contradict anything mentioned here, but I also think his interpretation of Liz's world was the more successful. The little vignettes when we travel back to the swinging sixties with thinly-veiled descriptions of Liz's sexual awakening are pretty enjoyable but I thought the music went a bit over the top. The twanging guitars and basic percussion are all very well, but they feel like someone trying to emulate that era of music rather than something than could have actually heralded from that period (exactly the reverse situation to Fanfare for the Common Men). The harp flutters when entering or exiting a flashback felt like a step too far for me too, but aside from that I think this portion of Ms Shaw's life is created well. Fairs gives us exotic descriptions of times shared by Jean and Liz. It's telling that even though the real Jean never features, you still feel pity and disgust at her converted body.

I didn't quite understand why the living metal was blue - other than just because. The connection to the dentist is so tenuous. It feels like Fairs wanted the title, and so devised that scenario. It's not even a full-time fake surgery! When Yates goes to check it out, the place is deserted. That aspect of the plot isn't related to the central narrative at all, and the result is that it feels like a bit of a waste of time. When Liz's UNIT pass is stolen, it feels like the beginning of something that will become quite significant later in the story, but I don't think it's addressed again. That's another thing I found: this is strangely unmemorable. I don't know if it's the direction or the writing, but I really struggled to remember what actually happened in this. Correct me if I'm wrong on any counts, but I've given it too dedicated listens. There was a narrative tic used here that I'm not keen on in high volume. Again and again and again, Liz faints or is knocked out, or is hypnotised. They're all strategies to move the plot along a bit and seem like a necessity born out of trying to do a four-parter in sixty minutes. There simply isn't the time to move Liz between places so we skip those bits of the narrative.

The Third Doctor was captured expertly, and it seems astonishing to me that this is still the only time in an official medium that he has encountered the Cybermen. That really surprises me. It's great that it's Liz who's there by his side when he does though - the most scientific and, dare I say it, enjoyable of the Third Doctor's companions. Her reaction to them is unique, and immensely enjoyable. The Doctor has an array of gadgets at his disposal, and I love how he has the chunky mobile phone. It's a 2000s version of a 1970s imagining of a 1980s concept. Nothing dates as much as our view of the future, and this ties in perfectly with that. As someone once said, evolution is easy to predict. It's revolution that you can't. Liz is well recreated for the most part here, but there are a few moments that are out of character that seem to stem from the time constraints on Fairs' hands. The Brigadier is missing from the action for the vast majority of the story, and I was fully expecting him to be instrumental in the conclusion, so it was a shame when that wasn't the case. I adored the description of the argument over the electricity bill.

This was Caroline John's first work for Big Finish as Liz, and without wanting to be disrespectful, it shows. Her voice when in character is far older than that of Liz in The Last Post, recorded something like four or five years later. I don't think the direction helps much, either. Mark J Thompson did only Series 1 of the Companion Chronicles, and hasn't returned to Big Finish since. When compared to the slick productions overseen by the likes of Scott Handcock, Lisa Bowerman and Ken Bentley, you're reminded just how faltering the early stories were. It's clear the range hasn't found its feet yet, and the style varies between episodes. John's voices for each character is inconsistent and often bleeds into the narration. She is trying her best, but unaided and unpractised (for thirty five-odd years, I think I'll let her off) it's a noticeably shakier performance than in her final story, which is chronologically her first (at least of those that I'm looking at at the moment). Nicholas Briggs' Cybermen sound just like Nick Briggs doing a Cyberman voice, put through a ring modulator. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but I've become used to a different style of voice for them. The settings used make them sound uncannily like the 2006 versions rather than the 1968 ones they're supposed to be, but that's hardly surprising given this was made in the same year. Really quite disappointing, but the emotional dialogue (don't worry, it's good!) does work.

As already noted, the sound design and music here was unashamedly confident. While I applaud this (it's much better than being tentative and inconsistent) it doesn't suit the story or the type of soundscape I'm now accustomed to. In places, I thought the story would've benefitted from scaling back a little in this department and I'm rather glad to learn that Oakley and Dunlop (as with Thompson) only worked on this seminal season. While their work isn't bad, I felt that (as with the whole production), it needed a bit more controlling. 

To summarise, this story feels a bit lost. Coming as part of the first experimental series of Companion Chronicles, there isn't an established format to break, but this nonetheless contradicts a lot of the house styles adopted later (with the arrival of David Richardson). It's an interesting experimental, but on a production level it doesn't really work for me. The whole thing feels like it needs another go and were this made as part of the final eighth series, I don't doubt it would be lauded as one of the all-time greats. The structuring is off, and isn't aided by the (self-imposed?) format Fairs adheres to. However, there is a lot of great material in this story. All of the elements mentioned have some merit, and this is overall a pretty enjoyable story. It's always great to have Liz (and Caroline John) back and we have to treasure these last five stories we have with her even more now. My biggest gripe with this is that there is absolutely no reference to Liz parting ways with UNIT beyond the hook - a real missed opportunity. This is quite engaging and entertaining, but Liz, Nigel Fairs and the Companion Chronicles would all go on to do better, more enjoyable things.

In a Nutshell: Entertaining, if unmemorable, the Third Doctor's only encounter with the Cybermen is a fascinating but flawed experience.

You can buy The Blue Tooth here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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