Friday, 21 September 2012

Black and White written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS arrives in the land of the Danes, where a young warrior seeks to rid the kingdom of Hrothgar from a cruel and terrifying demon. The brave young warrior is Beowulf, the monster is Grendel…or so his name will one day be written. But what’s written down in black and white is sometimes very far from the truth – as the Doctor knows, and his companions are about to discover.

The Real McCoy: ‘I never read reviews!’ He hasn’t always taken good enough care of his friends and he is trying to change but its not easy. Its lovely to be able to see all the little adventures that the Doctor gets up to whilst his companions backs are turned. Its not a wholly original concept that he gets up to mischief when his friends’ backs are turned (I recall the NAs and the EDAs indulging in this sort of thing all the time) but there is something about the impish seventh Doctor where you can imagine him making every second count, even the pauses between the adventures he, Ace and Hex have been having. McCoy proves to be a fine bedtime storyteller, his soft Scots burr very easy to relax in. It is a fact that the Doctor often meets people on his travels that don’t think they need help or wont admit it…that’s half the battle. He has several reputations depending on who you talk to. The Doctor warns his companions to leave the TARDIS and to not follow him because he knows the dangers ahead are to terrible for them to face.

Oh Wicked: ‘What are you playing at frog features?’ Its quite an interesting dilemma for Ace and Hex to find themselves in. For so long now they have been the Doctor’s companions and along comes two allies/replacements/alternatives (take your pick) that the Doctor has selected to work with them. Whilst things are a little hysterical for a while (naturally Ace stakes a prior claim to the Doctor) things soon settle down as they are paired off in different time zones and after a fantastic Ace/Hex tale in Protect and Survive we get to see how they come against fresh new characters. Ace can’t believe that the Doctor ferries Lysandra and Sally around like his own private army but she is quite deluded in that respect…that’s exactly what she has been all these years – a soldier to guard his back. She did Beowulf when she was at school but only paid attention because of the fighting. I had to admit I did cringe a bit when Ace starting harping on about the Doctor two timing her and Hex with his ‘other companions’ – I thought we were beyond that sort of adolescent behaviour from her character these days. The trouble with Ace is that she thinks her approach is better because she and the Doctor go back years and she cannot comprehend that somebody might bring some fresh ideas and methods to the table. The difference between her and Lysandra is that she shoves this misnomer down the ex-Forge members throat. At least by the end of the story she admits that she has spent too long with her nose out of joint rather than focussing on what is going on around her.

Sexy Scouse: Hex has had it with the Doctor’s complications and schemes and wished that he had just kept walking when he was back in London in Project: Destiny. If this isn’t leading to some sort of closure for his character then I cannot imagine what all these criticisms of the Doctor’s character are all about. Ace is hardened to this lifestyle now but Hex cannot quite get over the fact that thanks to the Doctor’s disappearance they have just lived through a terrifying holocaust. He wants out. I find some of criticism valid (this incarnation does mess around with companions heads far more than I feel is strictly necessary) but Hex himself admits that he never changes, and he has always been this way. I’m not sure why this should be such a problem now aside from the fact that he might be leaving. Its interesting to compare Hex and Sally because she practically reveres him the same way he did at the start of his adventures. There was a time when he was happy to follow him blindly around the universe but he has since learnt to be careful. By the end of the story Hex is trying to comfort Sally, to protect her. It looks like he might get a happy ending after all.

Ex-Forge: Given that my reaction to Project: Destiny was akin to that of discovering disfiguring genital warts on my privates I was less than keen to hear that we would spending more time in the company of Lysandra. I’m pleased to admit that (and not for the first time) I was wrong and had jumped the gun with a snap judgement. Maggie O’Neill is a revelation here (it makes me ache to listen to her companion chronicle) and she brings a great deal of hard, professional attitude to the team. Pairing her with Ace might not have been the smartest move because whilst Ace is behaving like a spoilt child that has realised that she might not always be the favourite, Lysandra steals the limelight in every scene by simply applying her brain to the situation, by behaving rationally and by proving that she was one heck of a resource for the Doctor to acquire. I wouldn’t object to further adventures with Lysandra after this trilogy…if she makes it out alive. She’s not with the Forge any more and has been travelling with the Doctor long enough to take in some rudimentary knowledge of piloting the TARDIS (‘a few hours of training a week’). It would seem that the Doctor runs things a little more professionally with his second pair of companions.

Sally: She comes from a military family, her mother and father worked alongside each other in specialised forces. She and Hex get on splendidly from the off and prove to be far more convincing flirting and toying with each other than he and Ace ever did. Hex warns her that some day the Doctor will let her down, even if he doesn’t mean to. Her parents are both dead during a skirmish but it was a long time ago and she hasn’t spoken about it for ages.

Standout Performance: I wasn’t sure what to expect from an exploration of the Beowulf myth but needless to say a over mannered toad man played by Stuart Milligan wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Its not that it is a bad performance exactly, its just tonally very jarring against the backdrop. There I was looking for some gritty sword and sorcery and a camp as Christmas game show host turns up to join in the fun. I cheered when he lost his head…but groaned when that turned out to be a con!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You can only get the measure of a man from the stories that are told of him!’
‘When is a trap not a trap? When its anticipated!’

Great Ideas: Hex has a theory that Lysandra and Sally are the Doctor’s companions in the future after he and Ace have left him (its what I assumed during the Robophobia – House of Blue Fire run as well) but that is quickly dismissed when Ace spots a book that the Doctor was reading the last time she saw him sitting on the armchair in the console room. They are all contemporaries and he has brought them together for a purpose. As far as Lysandra is concerned each operation she has been on with the Doctor has a clear objective, a specific target. The Animus, the Great Intelligence…the Elder Gods the Doctor calls them. Another TARDIS materialises around the one they are travelling in – a white one inside a black one. They have been flying about in two different TARDIS and just as the Doctor has brought both sets of companions together, he has now done the same for the TARDISes. We get to experience the moment where the Doctor starts growing his second TARDIS, at some point not long after the events of Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge. Almost justifying the use of two pairs of companions, they split up through time and meet Beowulf in two stages of his life (think of the Brigadier in Mawdryn Undead). Garundel struck a deal with the man who saved him from the burning pod, sending a warbot to terrorise the local King so that he can save the day. Zybrox are cybernetic insect hybrids that are engaged on several fronts in the galaxy – Garundel stole some of their technology and it has just managed to catch up with him. The TARDISes prepared for symbiotic propulsion as soon as they detected the two sets of companions in one location. When the original TARDIS is prepared its next journey requires more power than a single ship can muster – back through the birth pangs of the universe, sideways through the vortex and diagonally through several relative dimensions. The black TARDIS will be consumed in the take off.

Audio Landscape: Explosions in the TARDIS, a screaming lizard God, the 80s console room noise, fire crackling, the purring TARDIS creature, sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS shutting down, felling a tree, a horse galloping, whinnying, hydraulic complaints, the stomping footsteps of the warbot, blasters cocked, the exploding black TARDIS.

Isn’t it Odd: It doesn’t matter that there are flashbacks to justify the inclusion of characters from other stories – if you came to Black and White as your first Big Finish adventure you would be completely lost. An array of characters from various stories, continuity that is supposed to make sense and this being the middle part of a trilogy of firmly connected adventures…this is definitely one for the hardcore fans of the audios and not the newbies. That’s fair enough, Big Finish has been running for over ten years now and so its probably safe to say that it has secured as much of a fan base as it is going to get (the next time they would see their sales figures increase rapidly would probably be with the cancellation of the TV series and all those story starved fans desperate for new adventures) and indulging the fan base by producing something denser and more intricate than usual is very worth doing every now and again because it does get the audience excited and anticipating future releases. The cliffhanger to episode two seems to suggest that the Doctor has been beheaded but since he is on the cover of the next story this only works in relation to Hex and Sally’s reaction to it rather than a statement of the Doctor’s fate. Another issue of splitting the narrative quite so many ways means that if you leave one set of characters at a particularly dramatic point (say Hex about to be shown the decapitated head of his friend) it can take forever to get back to them (I think its about ten minutes) by which time the dramatic impetus is well and truly lost. There’s suggestions that Ace was killed (mentions that she fought ‘to the end’) in the past but it feels randomly thrown in rather than part of a structured storyline. To be frank halfway through part three I was still unaware what exactly was going on because the story was still hopping about too much. I don’t need a narrative spelt out at every step of the way and sometimes a little ambiguity is fun but there is a difference between that and juggling too much so that your story refuses to flow coherently. This is a story where the characters are so busy reacting to everything all the time there is no chance to get down to any thoughtful conversation, to immerse ourselves in Beowulf’s tale, to get to know anybody. None of this is really Matt Fitton’s fault but his latest work has been sabotaged by the arc it is trapped in. Despite the fact that the shield is given prominence, episodes two to four are basically a run-around and had they remained in the TARDIS the same events would have played out. One of the complaints I made about season six of Doctor Who on the telly box was that often less successful stories were left on a positive note thanks to some exciting build up and a cliffhanger. The endings were so exciting its almost enough to convince you that the story you have watched was superb. Almost. Personally I feel Black and White pulls of a similar trick. Mediocre in itself but the ending is riveting and leaves you desperate for more.

Standout Scene: Considering his storyline gets lost somewhere in the mix, the death of Beowulf is surprisingly touching. It all comes down to the performances and some fine scripting. The story needed much more heart like that.

Notes: ‘Filtering your essence through a Nordic bloodline…oh it’s a good trick but I’ve seen it done before!’ The Doctor gives us a whopping great clue as to the identity of the villain of this trilogy. Runes on the shield are co-ordinates to where the TARDIS crewmembers need to be. The tone of the ending (‘they could all live happily ever after’) suggests that not everybody is going to get a happy ending in this trilogy. ‘We play the game again…’

Result: A scatterbrained approach to telling a story within a story within a story, Black and White stutters because it is constrained by the arc that surrounds it. You’ve got an introductory episode that has nothing to do with the main narrative but instead has to deal with the baggage that came with the cliffhanger to the previous story. Then a second episode where our heroes are torn apart temporally but instead of allowing them to interact with the Beowulf plotline it is much more interested in flashbacks and the tension between the two new sets of companions. Its not until almost halfway through the story that the actual narrative kicks in, which must surely be a record. The last time a trilogy was afforded the luxury of a companion chronicle to bridge the gap between stories it saw the writers take the opportunity to fill in a lot of the arc material so that the three stories could stand alone whilst still being part of an trilogy. Much of episodes one and two I feel should have been told in Project: Nirvana so Matt Fitton had the opportunity to flesh out his Beowulf storyline to its fullest extent. Frankly this tale takes an awful long time to figure what it is all about and where it is going and I’m not entirely sure that it ever does. Saying that, Lysandra makes a real impact and Hex and Sally provide a fun and flirtatious double act which just leaves Ace as the only disappointment – acting for all the world like a kid that finds out she might not be the favourite after all. As for Garundel, he’s snappily written but disastrously played by Stuart Milligan who comes across far more irritatingly than he ought to. There are about five stories going on here at once (a character tale that sees four of the Doctors companions joining forces, a temporal puzzle featuring Beowulf, the camp as Christmas adventures of Garundel, the Doctor nurturing the birth and education of a second TARDIS and an over arching tale of one of the Elder Gods manipulating everybody’s timelines) and I felt as if I was being pulled in too many directions. Once again the cliffhanger whets the appetite for next months release but the overall story is a bit of a schizophrenic mess where none of the threads are given the appropriate time to breathe: 5/10

1 comment:

Mike Smith said...

I'm now 2/3 through this story and couldnt resist coming in to check your review before I finish it. I suppose I'm looking for support and companionship! Compared to the great Protect and Survive this was an uninvolving and incoherent mess. I literally have no idea whats going on! Massive Big Finish fan that I am , I'm struggling with this one.. Keep up the excellent reviews they are very much appreciated by legions of us who listen to the audios. :)