05 January 2015

BF: Flywheel Revolution

Flywheel Revolution is the first release in the next stage of Big Finish's Short Trips range. Over the years, this has taken several forms: print anthologies, audio anthologies, and now single audio stories. Although I don't have very much experience with the range, this format already seems a success to me.

It's a very vivid and visual world that Dale Smith (or Paul Dale Smith if you believe the credits read by narrator Peter Purves) has crafted. He clearly knows it inside out, even outside the scrapyard we spend this story's entire 32 minutes in. There's a commentary on modern society's disposable attitude to be found underpinning Flywheel Revolution, from the literal (time standing still) to the more metaphorical (recycling of 'junk').

In fact, Smith's whole story fits very neatly into the libertarian First Doctor's era very well. I thought this was shown best with the crucial line, different means broken and broken means disposable", exemplifying the view of the show's pioneering years of acceptance. I thought Smith managed to tie his plot to his chosen era very well, it almost seems inspired by it. 

Even without the explicit references to Ian, Barbara and Susan, this is clearly supposed to herald from Season 1 in my opinion. The Doctor has moments of joy, displeasure and admiration. He isn't yet the frailer figure of Season 3, imposing and formidable. I thought his personality was captured better in the prose of the piece than the dialogue, but that's not to say this was bad. Indeed, much of the opening third of this is dedicated to the arrival of the Doctor, characterised by the observer as "the monster". This is a very shrewd way to draw us into the story and portray the Hartnell Doctor at his best.

And that's where this story really shines in my opinion. It gives the Doctor plenty of opportunities to exhibit all his best facets. He does do rather a lot of the Season 2-style chuckling fascination, but in a harmless little piece like this I think that can be excused without too much trouble. I loved the way he interacted with the robots, showing kindness and willing to help. After his initial depiction as a figure of fear and threat, the subversion is gradual and satisfying. Very good.

This story is narrated by a rover named Frankie, giving it an engaging edge from the off as the listener is led through the world he now inhabits: the junkyard. As the narrator, Purves gives a good performance, placing emphasis on his curiosity. It isn't until the end of the first act that you realise Frankie is a robot, but looking back, the clues are plain. Thanks to strong (mis)direction from Lisa Bowerman, the audience is almost wrong-footed. Where Purves and Bowerman come into their own though is with the former's famed evocation of the First Doctor. Recreating Hartnell's performance, Purves uncannily enacts each chuckle and ponderous "hmm", the only downside for this listener being that there wasn't greater opportunity to show off this talent.

The sound design and music (created by Moat Studios maestro Toby Hrycek-Robinson) is on the whole supportive and enhances the listening experience. I'd only have two objections to the creative decisions taken. The first is the voice of Toby, another robot who features most prominently at the beginning and end, which is very deep indeed. A mechanical distortion would probably have done the job, but as it is, the effect pulls you out of the story a little, especially when the Doctor is referring to him as "child". The second is that this seems to stop and start a lot: there are three moments where all the atmospheric sounds fade before swelling up again. It makes the narrative feel a little disjointed and may have been better had the effects (which were commendable) just been left running, with a natural pause in narration. Still, these by no means ruined the story and are intended purely as constructive criticism.

Overall then, it looks as if, once again, the Short Trips range has been given a new lease of life. Off the back of Flywheel Revolution, the monthly series seems to hold much promise. The format certainly works, and I hope the quality of story can be sustained. With Philip Lawrence in the writer's chair for next month's Little Doctors I think we can rest easy.

In a Nutshell: A strong start to Short Trips' latest incarnation, and unquestionably worth the price of admission.

You can buy Flywheel Revolution from Big Finish here.

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