02 February 2015

BF: Mistfall

Kicking off the bright and shiny 2015 for Big Finish's main Doctor Who range is Mistfall from Andrew Smith, and as these two initial details may suggest, this is something of a sequel to Smith's most well-known tale Full Circle. Overall, I must conclude that while I wasn't bowled over by the sheer imagination of the piece, the topics and themes, and the method of exploration undertaken, did appeal to me.

We kick off right away with Nyssa looking forward to seeing her son and daughter again. However, this being the Davison-era TARDIS, the team's eventual location is about as far removed from the intended destination as you can get. That's right, we're back in E-Space. There are certainly elements of Mistfall that are reminiscent of the source text, but this isn't simply the re-run that early scenes might suggest. Over the course of four (relatively brief, it must be said) episodes, we move between locations and storylines with relative ease. Whilst the ride is enjoyable enough, when considered afterwards, it is quite a straightforward tale.

I'm also beginning to see a theme emerging from Smith's works. Regrettably, this is only my second  encounter with his Big Finish work, but the overriding themes of last year's The Brood of Erys, including love, loss, and regret are presented once again here, only this time in a different light. The basic premise - assuming I've understood correctly - is this: 300 years hence of the events of Full Circle, a group of scientists from New Alzarius have returned to Alzarius to explore the possibility of developing their own powers of telepathy. The mental communication was another topic explored in Erys of course, with the titular sentient celestial body in particular.

The regulars are all recreated well enough, with some particularly sharp wits on display, but none of them receive much material to progress the characters, or explore many of them in any depth. Nyssa, for example, barely seemed to care about missing on reuniting with her children. I'm not saying Tegan "Heathrow" Jovanka-level histrionics were required, but some kind of mention, particularly when attempting to recover the interfacing device stolen from the TARDIS, wouldn't have gone amiss. Sticking with The Traken One for a minute, her and Turlough are handily packed off into a subplot right from the off. It seems remiss of the Doctor to send his friends off with the possibility of mistfall being just around the corner, but that aside, the pair are served rather well in black and white terms. When it came to any kind of emotional depth though, particularly from Mark Strickson's Turlough, I was left rather wanting...

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Tegan neatly become wrapped up in the main proceedings of the story, and quickly arrive in the hospitality of Decider Merrion. This is where the meat of the story is divulged, and where Smith places all the best moments of tension. Given that Alzarius has reconfigured several times since our first visit, the two main reasons (outside of the plot) for setting it there seem to be nostalgia and the Marshmen. The latter is infinitely more enjoyable here in my opinion. The Marshmen were a relatively effective 'villain' on television but oddly enough the removal of images actually increased my enjoyment of them. Indeed, lying in bed after finishing Mistfall, I was left with some surprisingly scary visions of them in my head. Despite the terrible screaming they were provided (it really did sound like a bloke who'd had too many stumbling out of his local) I think they were an effective foil.

It's odd that we only really get a full-on antagonist for this play in the second half. There's been much talk of a traitor in the base throughout the opening disc, but it's pretty much a mystery with one suspect. Solus (who I kept mishearing, offputtingly, as SOLAS) isn't quite a one-dimensional villain, with a credible motive and history, but I'm afraid he won't be ranked amongst the greats Big Finish (or even Smith) has created. The decision to make it personal (Merrion was indirectly responsible for the death of his sister) is valid, but almost feels clichéd. However, his character arc within this story is pretty enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing him in future stories, particularly for the verbal whipping Tegan will deal him. Nigel Carrington's name isn't in the published credits for the last story in this trilogy, The Entropy Plague, but it is of course possible that the credit was just withheld. I do hope that the team manage to escape E-Space by the conclusion of the third story though.

Some of my favourite lines in this oddly enough come from the Fifth Doctor and Tegan, two characters who I don't usually feel so much warmth towards. The former deals the line that must have been building up inside him for nigh-on two series (in TV terms): "Not now, Tegan. I'm busy!" The reduction of her role and biting wit of Smith's writing is evident throughout, and Tegan herself gets the immortal line, "You don't hear me complaining." For this alone the writer earns himself another point. My bugbear of Series 8 has surfaced within the Big Finish universe again, and I do hope this isn't a trend developing. Turlough queries towards the top of the story, "That's a thing?" Frankly, I've had enough of people and their 'things' by now.

On a production note, I'm sad to report that Ken Bentley doesn't manage to inspire much energy into this story. I've never found Jemma Redgrave's lifeless tones particularly endearing, but I agree she had the gravitas required by the role of Merrion. She gives her usual, slightly removed performance, and fails to ever really convince this listener. It's quite a coup though, and hopefully introducing her in the lead guest role will help encourage Redgrave to work with the company again; I know she has a great many fans, and I'm always open to giving her another chance. Of a similar level of passion is Paul Panting, who plays the dual roles of Drell and the Marshleader, a Marshman who learns to talk at an accelerated pace. It occurred to me while listening that these are essentially the same character presented from different angles, and it seems Panting agrees, delivering notably similar performances for both. 

On that note, I thought Emily Woodward's performances as Fem and Arana were also of discouraging similarity. The former is far more significant, and perhaps the most interesting character in Mistfall. The intonation and speed of delivery (fluid versus staccato) were varied but the voice was undeniably that of the same person. To add to the confusion, I kept hearing aspects of Lisa Greenwood, who plays Sixth Doctor companion Flip, in Woodward.

Taken as a whole, I was very impressed by the sound design and music of this story. Nigel Fairs lovingly recreates (and surely samples) Paddy Kingsland's evocative Full Circle score and adapts it excellently to the material here. It's undeniably omnipresent, but in this instance that's certainly a good thing. My issue with Fairs' work comes with the other division. At times, there was marked discontinuity between volumes, whether that be between actors or music or sound effects. It seemed quite an amateur oversight for such an experienced professional, but it occurred to me that it could of course be a consequence of listening on headphones as opposed to the studio-level sound system it may have been designed on. Sticking with gripes for just a moment longer, the sound effects (particularly the gun firing, and water bubbling) often felt like they were pulled from a stock library, and were usually entirely treble, detracting from the story Smith and co. are trying to tell.

Overall then, Mistfall is an enjoyable if not entirely impressive entry. I hope this review doesn't come across as overly negative, as there was a solid story thumping along at its heart. It's just the window dressing which didn't quite satisfy me, and the while the way the plots meet and cancel out is well-planned but possibly too neat. There is of course one massive loose end come Part Four, but other than that, it's essentially 'and everyone lived happily ever after' (and I thought February had the monopoly on fairytale!). Solus is a pleasingly gritty (occasionally set-chewing) villain, killing off characters left, right and centre, but he's no Sharaz Jek, to be blunt. The regulars aren't afforded much in the way of development, and one must question whether it was worth Mark Strickson travelling halfway around the world for this, simply due to Turlough's (my personal favourite of this foursome) lack of involvement. At times I found it hard to shake the feeling Nyssa was delivering dialogue intended for K9 too. This was my first experience of either Tegan or Turlough within the audio realm, so it's a bit of a shame they were so peripheral.

I wanted to mention the great cliffhangers. But they didn't fit anywhere.

Thematically, this is a continuation of Smith's previous work, but I wouldn't say it plagiarised it and certainly not to the levels Big Finish has become more capable of in recent times. The finished sequence where the TARDIS re-enters E-Space is deliciously crap (meant as a complement; it's completely authentic and does feel designed as such) and I look forward to limitless storytelling now we're back. The possibilities now are even more vast than usual, and I hope something is done with that. I wouldn't want Warriors' Gate for the next two months, but equally I wouldn't want State of Decay. My one major narrative dissatisfaction with this story is that the theme of telepathy, the entire raison d'etre for the New Alzarians' mission, isn't used beyond Fem, who's an extremely interesting character.

In a Nutshell: Smith harnesses his love of evolution to spin us a new yarn that enriches all that has come before whilst providing an enjoyable enough start to a new trilogy in E-Space.

You can buy Mistfall from Big Finish here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

No comments:

Post a Comment