02 April 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Phobos

The fifth play in this opening series of stories starring Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith is all about fear and its perception. It's another interesting approach: so far we've had a sci-fi Dalek adventure, a glam rock character piece, and a high-concept fairytale. This mix certainly keeps things fresh and although Eddie Robson had to adapt this extensively it comes across with a single voice and works well enough as a standalone piece.

The TARDIS arrives at a luxury holiday resort on Mars' moon of Phobos where tourists have come for some of the greatest natural thrills around, including wormhole-jumping and gravity-boarding. As you can probably guess, all is not as it should be. This story is set out as a relatively straightforward series of events, but that's not a negative observation as Robson builds the tension and mystery very well before all is revealed as we progress towards the end.

Phobos features a lot of strong ideas and it really feels like it's set in a real place. Robson has invented its own language, in the way people speak of the history, its place in the Solar System, and the understanding people have of other demographics and relationships. Even introducing little words like 'drennies' for adrenaline junkies helps to sell it. And Amy and Farl's scenes are fascinating in all kinds of ways, in how they see and treat each other, and how others see them. Timothy West and Nerys Hughes, as Kai and Eris, are the principal guest stars of the story but their characters actually seemed less interesting to me due to having fewer layers.

Paul McGann once again gets to show off many sides of his Doctor, and again he seems to be relishing the challenge. To start with he has a childlike inquisitiveness, coupled with a cutting wit ("I've literally met savages with better manners than Lucie"), but at the climax of the episode, we see him at his darkest and most unknowable since Blood of the Daleks. As he faces down the story's villain - a being from another dimension that feeds on fear - he is terrifying and Lucie's comment about him being scarier than the monsters is completely understandable. Just when she thinks she's beginning to get to know who he is, this must make her think twice about what the Time Lords have dropped her in.

It's definitely worth mentioning again how good Sheridan Smith is. She approaches every scene with massive energy and inhabits Lucie utterly credibly. The listener should have no issue believing this is a 19-year-old from Blackpool, with all the subtlety (or lack of) that brings. In every story there's one character she attaches herself to - in a positive way; she's anything but clingy - and here her relationship with Amy is a highlight. It really surprised me to discover that Katarina Olsson played both Amy and the Headhunter, but that's the magic of audio. Speaking of the Headhunter, I wasn't a huge fan of her scene at the end of this story, where she's made to look incompetent after being told across the last three stories how ruthless she is. It must just be a blip, but it still detracts a bit. With just one more story to go until the finale, I wonder if she'll have a bigger presence in No More Lies.

The sound design is just as accomplished as in any of the last four episodes. Gareth Jenkins is proving very adept at moving between such different locations, both interior and exterior. You can almost picture the blinding white of Phobos here, and it's never too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage any scene. The music supports the material just as well, and Barnaby Edwards' reliable direction keeps the pace up throughout. This first series of the Eighth Doctor's new adventures is nothing if not well-produced.

This isn't the most spectacular story we've had yet but I think it comes off very well considering its troubled origins. There's a lot of clever ideas in Phobos and the tension is built expertly but it perhaps lacks a certain punch. That said, there's a lot to enjoy and the production really comes together. The American accents sounded realistic to me (though I believe John Schwab actually is American) and the whole cast work well together. Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith still stand out as the stars but this nowhere near as poor as I had been led to believe - in fact, quite the reverse. Phobos works well as a story taken on its own merits but is also interesting in the context of the season with the Doctor and Lucie's relationship being as fresh as it is.

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