20 July 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Max Warp

Max Warp is classic Doctor Who, and classic Jonathan Morris. What initially appears to be a relatively straightforward - but hugely entertaining - pastiche of Top Gear soon turns into an unconventional - but hugely entertaining - murder mystery. This is one of the most confident Doctor Who stories I've ever heard, and I found it incredibly difficult to pick any holes in it. Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith are even more energised and brilliant thank during their first series, and Barnaby Edwards ably handles proceedings, to deliver the best Eighth Doctor story yet.

It all begins when the Doctor takes Lucie to the Sirius Inter-G Cruiser Show, from which renowned spaceship-based entertainment show Max Warp is broadcasting its latest episode. But not everything goes to plan when a Kith Sunstorm presenter Timbo 'the Ferret' is piloting is hijacked, resulting in his death. But what happened? As the Doctor and Lucie dig deeper, they learn of a war between the people of Sirius, the Varlon, and the Kith Oligarchy, which someone seems to be attempting to restart. 

This play makes no secret in homaging Top Gear - the presenters, the funky board, and certain events will all familiar to viewers of the BBC Two 'motoring' show. Graeme Garden stars as Geoffrey Vantage, an outspoken columnist with outdated views; James Fleet as O'Reilley, a dullard making up what he lacks in people skills with his knowledge of hyperion boosters; and Duncan James (you know, him from Blue) plays Timbo, a young, eager member of the trio who was always ferreting about - hence the nickname. I'll let you guess which of the trio are supposed to be Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May.

Morris does contribute an entertaining commentary on the show - some events seem particularly prescient listening to this eight years after it was released in 2008; Mystic Morris strikes again - but he shows his real skill in knowing where the line is and not going overboard. As Lucie goes undercover as a guest host, Vantage's mask soon slips and though his views remain the same, a lot of the bravado and ego are gone. The scene between Graeme Garden and Sheridan Smith in the bar is one of my favourites of the whole story, underlining the versatility of all those working on Max Warp - from the writer to the director to the actors. 

As the story's dominant interest comes into focus, and the Doctor begins investigating Timbo's murder, everything steps up another gear. This is a cleverly devised story, and really just an extremely high quality adventure for this greatest of TARDIS teams. To go into more detail about the events which unfold would spoil them, but suffice to say the blend of all the different personal stories against a larger history is extremely skilful, and helps create a story which makes perfect sense, but is still unpredictable and thoroughly gripping. Samantha Hughes and Katarina Olsson have pivotal roles and, as with all of the guest characters in Max Warp, are given great depth to play with. Unless I listened to this straight after Human Resources it never would have occurred to me that the actress playing Gilbride was also the Headhunter. A great performance from both, matching the calibre of their colleagues.

The post-production work on this story was undertaken by Gareth Jenkins and Andy Hardwick, and it's an extremely impressive affair all-round. The Max Warp theme and bed are incredibly memorable, and fit the tone perfectly - and are still used on the Big Finish podcast to this day - but their incidental music and sound design are great too. There are a couple of places where a little more could have helped, but really these things are so minor they're barely worth mentioning. ERS' work really enhances an already cohesive product, getting the tone exactly right throughout.

Max Warp is a perfect hour of Doctor Who. The Richard Hammond character having an apparently fatal crash was perhaps a little too risky for my tastes, but overlooking that, this is a faultless story. Jonathan Morris has struck gold again with this idea and its execution. The Doctor and Lucie - and indeed Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith - are at the height of their powers, each perfect in every single scene. All of the guest cast are excellent too, with Graeme Garden the standout. Hilarious, clever and relentlessly entertaining, Max Warp is one of the very best Doctor Who stories.

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