16 November 2014

BF: The Doll of Death

The Doll of Death is only the second Marc Platt story I've experienced. I've seen Ghost Light, and was - like most people - utterly confused by it, but that was many years ago. This is a similarly thought-provoking script, in that it'll probably take you most of the second episode to get your head around what's going on.

This story, if you didn't know, is all about retro-causation (events occurring before the act that caused them) and time running in reverse. This is a pretty intriguing premise, and the second part explains a lot of the questions created by the first as our heroes journey back through time so that the conclusion runs simultaneous to the opening. The story begins with a modern-day Jo laid up ill in bed in a hotel in London while her husband Cliff gives a speech about the imminent destruction of the rainforests - not that anyone will listen. Utterly bored by her surroundings, Mrs Jones has decided to update her blog with a tale from her UNIT days...

The Brigadier was always trying to get Jo to go on surveillance and espionage training courses, which were scheduled for Fridays, but unfortunately that was the day aliens seemed to prefer invading, meaning she'd missed months' worth of them. Given the choice between sitting in a stuffy office being told how to do her job or going gallivanting off with the Doctor around London in his yellow jalopy, seeking out the next extra-terrestrial menace, which do you think she'd choose?!

Discovering a tablet in an office, the Doctor and Jo are thrown into an intriguing mystery. After being tasted by Mike Yates that she'd be better known as Jemima Bond (licence to spill), Jo's determined to prove her worth, and so sets off on the trace of a lead. Benton gives her a lift (I hope dinner date Yates didn't find out!) and so becomes embroiled in this strange adventure. Before too long we meet Mrs Killebrew, and the being possessing her - HannaH. HannaH isn't an especially malevolent entity in herself, but she is most certainly presented as the villain of the piece. She's from a universe where time runs parallel to ours, except in reverse, and is trying to get home. Like some of the best villains, her actions are driven by desperation, and there's nothing she won't stop at.

Setting a story about sentient toys in Season 8 is only going to invite comparisons and associations with Terror of the Autons. Now I'm quite a fan of the Master's introductory story, but this twisted the concept in a different way and indeed the only similarity is the fact that the dolls appear to be sentient. In reality, they're being controlled by HannaH, as a giant bear is towards the end. The portions of the narrative which explore moving through the world as they walk through reverse time are quite expertly handled. It transpires to be really tricky to predict where people have come from as well as where they're going - if you can make sense of that! There's one line which I felt really summed up this experience well: when the Doctor and Jo are heading back to the museum, she says that they leave around seven o'clock, and were there just after six. It's a simple line, but I thought it was a clever little one. 

Being able to go back through your story and plugs gaps in it from within the narrative must have been a really fun experience. As a consequence of writing a story where the main characters go through the same events twice, from different perspectives, this a really tidy serial. There are no questions left unanswered - even those extraneous to Platt's writing, such as David Darlington's snarling dogs in the Professor's office in Part One. As such, this is quite a satisfying listen, and one that is completely self-sustaining. 

I was never a huge fan of Jo Grant during her television days. Don't get me wrong, I love the Pertwee era (as I've said before) and she is a massive part of it. She does get some lovely moments, and I think Katy Manning could never be accused of not giving it her all. The character wasn't particularly well written in my opinion though: she was sweet, inquisitive and selfless, all admirable traits. I enjoyed the character's presence but she didn't stand out for me in the same way as some others did: Ian, Liz, Leela and Turlough for example. Here, however, she's a revelation. Told through the wistful eyes of an older, more responsible Jo, we get a sense that she was a much fuller character than I at least believed. Platt and Manning do the girl a wonderful service here, but I do think the latter lends more to my enjoyment than the character herself does. Katy Manning is a wonderful actress and gives a flawless performance here, embodying each requisite voice exquisitely. 

The Doctor, the Brigadier and Benton form the secondary layer of characters here, each dipping in and out of the story. The second gets the best introductions though, bursting in just at the right moment. The Brigadier here is loving and friendly at heart but gruff and responsible on the outside, just how we love him. He's written and performed perfectly, his tone and manner nailed from the outset. There's something of an ongoing narrative between him and the Doctor even within these Companion Chronicles, I'm noticing. Here, he bans the Doctor's excursions, believing them to be a waste of UNIT's money, but at the same time is paying for weekly courses for Jo, which she never attends. He's not afforded so much heart here as in earlier stories, but he's loveable nonetheless. My favourite line of the Brigadier's was the desperation to escape the reverse time stream before "we all disappear up our own birthdays!". A classic line, and probably my favourite of the whole story.

Just as well-captured - or possibly even more so - is the Jon Pertwee Doctor. He's protective, loyal and authoritative in equal measure, with a hint of mischievousness about him. I love these aspects of the Third Doctor, and Katy Manning once more delivers a perfect impersonation of her old friend. Allow yourself to be swept along in the story and before long you'll have forgotten that it's not Pertwee you're listening to. One moment that stood out to me as a brilliant moment was when he eats food from a shop they're passing in reverse, before there's time for it be unmade. He leaves some of Jo's money as payment. This reminded me of a moment, but I can't remember which story this is from, when he takes a plate of sandwiches from Jo, telling her she's too busy to eat, before scoffing the lot in front of her! It's touches like this that Big Finish excel at, proving that nostalgia doesn't have to be delivered as fanwank.

Benton, as on television, isn't afforded as much time or as much of the action but nonetheless makes an impact. He's the same old Sergeant we know and love, and completes the family atmosphere of the story. Benton was always my preference over Yates onscreen (even before I learned of the events of Invasion of the Dinosaurs). The latter always seemed a bit cold and superior to make him very likeable for me, which is a shame because as far as John Levene and Richard Franklin are concerned, quite the opposite is true, from what I gather! Nevertheless, I'm glad that it was Benton who got mixed up in all this, rather than Yates (despite the fact his ongoing thing with Jo is mentioned).

David Darlington really excels himself here. The music in the middle half of the story is especially enjoyable. The seventies-esque tingles on the synths are glorious and raised a smile at each injection. They never undermine the dialogue though, only serving to reinforce it. There is some 'proper' music in there too, with some quite orchestral-sounding pieces swelling during the finale. The sound design matches the quality of the soundtrack for me, with the dolls' dialogue being especially effective. The 'mama's are really creepy, and lend an edge to the story that it wouldn't otherwise have. Top marks to Darlington; aurally, this is nigh-on perfect. This is showcased at the cliffhanger, when the sound cuts sharply for the iconic sting. It may sound like a small moment, but I'm now more used to smooth transitions in Big Finish's stuff. To have a sheer cut is entirely reminiscent of the era this is intended to herald from and is a lovely touch.

Despite the thoughtful plot, The Doll of Death is more a character piece for me. This is where it scores most highly for me. Whilst I appreciate the plotting of the narrative and its ingenuity, its strengths really lie in Platt and Manning's evocation of Jo, the Brigadier and the Doctor. As Mrs Killebrew, Jane Goddard (Mrs Rob Shearman, and one of Katy's children's many godmothers!) is pretty strong, but isn't a main feature of this story. I liked the character moments and the aural presentation of this a lot, but the thrust of the piece was all that engaging for me, which is odd. It was a brilliant premise, and is well devised and executed but doesn't come off as good as it could for me. Lisa Boweman gets the opportunity to show that she can turn her hand to another wildly different genre, and is much more competent a director than Mark J Thompson. As such, this is a much more complete production and the overriding emotion that I get from this is that it's satisfying. Which can't be a bad thing.

In a Nutshell: The Companion Chronicles tackle a completely different story and win again. Is there nothing this range isn't capable of?

I'm afraid this wasn't quite good enough to be a 7.5 in my books, so

You can buy The Doll of Death here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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