05 August 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Harvest of the Sycorax

It's not like James Goss to do something traditional, but out of the three Classic Doctors, New Monsters stories so far, Harvest of the Sycorax feels in many ways the most authentic. But that's not to say this is predictable - it's traditional only in its daring and inventiveness. As Simon Barnard and Paul Morris did with Judoon in Chains, Goss tries a different style of story - one that fits perfectly with the villains of the piece and with the era they herald from - and it works very well.

Of all the one-time monsters created for Doctor Who since 2005, the Sycorax are my favourites - so much so that they were the villains of Decadence, the script I wrote with Tom Newsom, one of the site's other editors, to celebrate ten years since the show's revival. They have that perfect mix a Doctor Who baddie needs, and are scary and indisputably alien. They also have a unique angle in blood control, which is understandably where this story fixes its sights. 

Harvest of the Sycorax is a hostage survival story. By the time the Doctor shows up, the Sycorax are already well in control, and the following hour is spent trying to defeat them from within, rather than just preventing an invasion. The site they have chosen to assume control of is the Blood Bank, an outpost owned by pharmacological corporation Pharma Corp. The station contains blood samples of 99% of all humans, in order that every impairment, headache and emotion may be suppressed. The human race is being slowly numbed, as seen throughout in the form of Zanzibar Hashtag, as she experiences fear, grief and bravery for the first time.

James Goss is an ideal candidate to write a story for this kind of series. I've long believed he's the closest thing Big Finish have to Russell T Davies among their regular writers, an idea reinforced by them placing him in charge of their (highly-acclaimed) Torchwood revival. But that's not to say he's a mimic - far from it. Goss is always extremely astute in his stories' social commentaries, including in the killingly witty Haterz, and this story is no exception. From the lead guest character's name and humanity's over-reliance on technology, it's just possible Goss is trying to make a point about contemporary society. It isn't heavy-handed though, and neither is it gratuitous - in the end, it turns out to be key to the entire story.

Harvest of the Sycorax does share a few similarities with the titular race's debut The Christmas Invasion, which fact fans will note was also David Tennant's first full episode. For one thing, the Doctor is out of the way for large swathes of the action, before being forced into a sword fight at the conclusion, as well as regularly despairing at the state of humanity. It's Goss' own additions which mark this out as different though, and the contrast between Zanzibar and Pharma Corp executive Cadwallader Cadwallader, effectively our two leads, says a lot of what the story is about.

Nisha Nayer stars as Zanzibar. She previously appeared in 2005 television episodes Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways as the female programmer. The character's lack of an actual name makes her sound less significant than she actually was - one of the most memorable characters in a story/series/era of memorable characters. I have a much easier time trying to remember her than any of those who appeared in the 2015 series, and she's extremely preferable to "Me". Thanks to the ambiguity of Nayer's three episodes, it's possible she plays the same character in all of them, which would be great. Anyway, she's great, and so is Jonathan Firth who plays Cadwallader - and yes, he is Colin Firth's brother.

Giles Watling - brother of Deborah - plays the Sycorax Leader, and while he seems to be having great fun with the part, he does perhaps send it up a little too much in places. Barnaby Edwards gives this story a light mood throughout, but the Leader is too often chewing the recording booth walls where another actor may have been dripping with menace. Sean Glider (Shameless, Penny Dreadful), who played the part in 2005, got the balance just right, and something more along those lines would have been welcome. Rebecca Callard (the daughter of Coronation Street's Liz McDonald donchaknow, but she's done plenty of stuff for herself) is the unfortunately brief role of Shadrak, and her and Zanzibar would surely have made a great couple. It's also relatively obvious thanks to her Leeds accent that she does the Pad and computer voices for the rest of the story. But I like the idea of AIs having regional accents in the future. Mine would definitely be set to West Midlands.

Thanks to the style Goss chooses, this has a fairly unusual structure, but it still works. This is a pacey instalment, thanks to Howard Carter's music, which works really well with Goss' New Who-lite approach here. I actually bought this series mostly for this story - the inclusion of Sycorax and James Goss was enough, let alone the fact they were on the same episode - and I'm not disappointed at all. It's fantastically inventive, cutting and yet touching (see also: The Last Post). Another great episode of this series, and it's not Seventh Doctor vs Sycorax for the sake of it - there's more at work here. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

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