Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Wrong Doctors written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: With Evelyn gone, the Doctor sets course for his destiny... in the form of his first meeting with Miss Melanie Bush, a computer programmer from the village of Pease Pottage, currently busy rehearsing with the local Amateur Dramatic Society – and blissfully unaware that her future is on its way, in his TARDIS. Make that two TARDISes. Because at that very moment, a slightly younger Doctor is flying into Pease Pottage, too – returning his future companion Melanie Bush to her rightful place and time, after they were flung together during the course of his Time Lord trial. Time travel is a complicated business – the iguanadon terrorising Pease Pottage being a case in point. But how much more complicated could things possibly become, if the wrong Doctor were to bump into the wrong Mel?

Softer Six: ‘You’re undoing my life! You’re destroying me!’ As if Colin Baker’s return to the main range wasn’t exciting enough this time you get double the Sixie for your money! When I heard the premise of this story I must admit I got rather excited – not only is it an introductory story for Mel but also a chance to compare and contrast how far Big Finish have brought the sixth Doctor over the past decade. One of the Doctor’s we meet is post-Evelyn and he is still mourning her loss (naturally as she was such a fabulous companion), especially when there is still a slice or two of her delicious chocolate cake left. He makes the decision to actively seek out Mel, having already had a premonition of her existence in his life during his Trial. Mel finds his blue coat a bit too sombre (and boring), she preferred the patchwork of sick but then she always did have a florid sense of style. When asked by his former self why he is wearing Necros mourning colours he admits that tastes change and he doesn’t remember ever being quite as obstreperous as he appears. The younger Doctor is walking into a trap and the older Doctor has to try and cope with the knowledge that everything he has experienced since then will be erased from history. Whilst the news that the Earth will be destroyed again and again because of his premature death, it was the thought that he would never meet Evelyn and have all those wonderful adventures with her that really chocked me up. Although it means we never have to endure Sylvester McCoy so maybe its worth it… He does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in this regeneration blowing things up! The older Doctor hasn’t completely lost his rude streak, he’s just learnt to ask nicely…most of the time. On her death bed the younger Mel from the temporal backwater tells the Doctor he is nice and he tries to shrug it off but accepts the compliment, admitting that is what experience and good company does to you. This is the point where he puts on the patchwork coat again because that was Mel’s favourite. It explains the discrepancy between the blue coat the Big Finish Doctor wears and the fact that he is back in the colourful one for Terror of the Vervoids. Rather beautifully the older, more sensitive Doctor lies to his younger self and the older Mel, telling them that the younger version has shunted off to her own reality rather than forcing them to cope with the pain of her death as he has had to. He really has learnt something about humanity after all. Bravado and bluster can only get you so far and by the time he becomes the Big Finish Doctor we know and love a few rough edges will have been ironed out. Never was a truer word spoken.

Brusquer Six: ‘Two of you make this twice as confusing!’ It would appear the Doctor exited his trial and took Mel straight home in order to prevent his future timeline being corrupted. How he put up with the constant badgering and carrot based cordials eludes him! Whilst Mel swears that this Doctor is far more bolshie than hers he declares that he is revolutionary! Like Henry Gordon Jago he is more than capable of holding his own in the alliteration stakes. Mel thinks he is there to audition for Joseph because if his Technicolor dream coat and she also thinks he is extremely rude (he declares her invisible and ineffectual!). The younger, snarkier Doctor wants to remind his future self that he is the one that seems to be solving all the problems here.

Computer Programmer: When did it happen? I can vividly remember a time when Doctor Who fans wanted JNTs blood for daring to introduce Bonnie Langford to the show (indeed one TV smashing addict went as far as to severe all ties with the show and almost explode with resentment like a great bile filled-spot) and her period on the show is hardly regarded as one of the highlights. When Sophie Aldred’s Ace came along it was seen as a real renaissance; a tough, down to Earth sort of girl to wipe away the memory of squeaky clean, whiter than white Mel. The thing is Doctor Who fans can never have too much of a good thing (or so they think) and so through the various media that the show was kept alive during the hiatus years (cancellation years would be more accurate but we’re too stubborn to admit that was ever the case) we experienced a deluge of Ace stories (something like 30-odd New Adventures, 10 BBC Novels, countless comic strips and then BBV audios followed up a mass of Big Finish audios). As a result the character has been flogged to death and Aldred for all her fans can hardly be said to be improving as an actress with age (that might not be a very nice thing to say but it is honest). In contrast Mel has had surprisingly little exposure. Thanks to the abhorrence for the character she’s appeared in only a handful of adventures since she left the TV series in 1987 and as a result feels fresh and rather wonderful. Writers like Steve Lyons and Gareth Roberts have explored new depths with the character, she has proven surprisingly versatile (working just as well in high comedy, historical tragedy and sci-fi drama) and most wonderfully of all Bonnie Langford has proven all of her detractors wrong (Catherine Tate style) by delivering consistently strong, memorable performances that show that it was the scripts at that time that refused to take risks with the character and not the actress. Somewhere along the line fandom started groaning at more Ace and shrieking with delight at more Mel. And that’s a rather delightful turn of events.

How charming to get to experience Mel in her hometown of Pease Pottage! Every companion deserves a starting point like this (Peri’s came in the Big Finish story The Reaping) and it’s a delight that we get to explore that post-TV series for some of the neglected friends of the Doctor. I love how the story plays up to Mel (and Bonnie’s) squeaky clean image with her reciting a song about Pease Pottage as though she is rehearsing for panto. She’s only home for five minutes and she’s chased down her own street by a dinosaur! Young Mel seems oddly distant, lacking in intellect and enthralled to Mr Petherbridge…something is not quite right about her. When the Doctor says they need to put her much vaunted computer skills to the test it could Matt Fitton speaking on behalf of fandom who have seen very little evidence of her capabilities (especially on screen). Mel has an eidetic memory and she isn’t afraid to let people know and I love how Fitton manages to make that a vital part of the plot. Rather awkwardly the older Mel catches the younger Mel in a clinch in the bushes! In 1987 Mel should be off to university but this younger version of this timeline never got accepted. When one Mel has to stop the other from unravelling the Doctor’s timeline she resorts to a stiff uppercut to the jaw – what a gal! The younger Mel’s mind is like a mayflower with barely more than a days worth of memories because the rest is required for Petherbridge’s processing power. She is willing to sacrifice herself for the Doctor because she genuinely believes that he is more important. Born 1964, computer programmer, resident of Pease Pottage and so much more. Constructed by the TARDIS to see the Doctor through to his regeneration and beyond.

Standout Performance: ‘You really are a child of eighties, aren’t you Mel?’
‘I’ve heard of self congratulation but this is ridiculous!’
‘What if another B turns up? Who’s she…Mel C?’ ‘No! That cannot be allowed to happen!’ ‘Wrong decade for the Spice Girls’ ‘A miscellany of Melanie’s could herald the collapse of reality!’ – for the sheer cheek of this dialogue it deserves a spot here.
‘Mel…bush!’ and ‘No point beating about the…bush.’
‘I’ve a reality to arrange!’
‘Melanie Bush you are a marvel! If you didn’t exist I’d have to invent you!’
‘Take Pease Pottage and you think you own the world!’
‘Forget the poultry puns Petherbridge!’
‘And as for you…be you later!’ ‘I’m not as young as I was…thank goodness.’
‘Make me a Mel for all seasons!’

Sparkling Dialogue: There have been many reviews when I have sung the praises of Colin Baker (and all thoroughly deserved) but for the sheer effort and energy that he puts into The Wrong Doctors I have to point and praise in his direction once again. He cleverly differentiates between the two Doctors by giving one more gravel and bite and the other a gentler, more composed tone suggesting the experiences he has been through since. You would swear in the scenes with the two of them together that they had cloned Colin because they bat dialogue back and forth in quick succession, interrupting one another and speaking in unison. The work that Baker and director Nick Briggs have put in to make this work is extraordinary and the effort is more than worth it because the scenes are a delight. Finally the Doctor meets another version of himself that he can get on with…because it’s the same incarnation!

Great Ideas: I was going boss eyed in the most wonderful of ways very quickly…this is exactly what I was talking about when I said that sometimes I like things to be deliberately complicated. Its really well thought through so whilst you might be lost at stages it ultimately makes perfectly good sense and the joy is watching it all fall beautifully into place. The younger sixth Doctor drops of the older Mel (post trial) at the wrong point in time (too far back) and she gets hooked up with the older the Doctor who has come to pick up the younger Mel! At the same time the Mel of this period bumps into the older Doctor on her bicycles. All the wrong Doctors with the wrong Mels. By the end of the episode we are in two Doctors territory as two versions of the same Doctor are interacting and saving one another from the mischief they keep blundering into. Somebody had to bring up the fact that the older Doctor should remember the events of the younger Doctor’s life…but they skip over that with a fatuous remark (he’s foiled so many alien invasions how can he be expected to remember then all?) and with some empirical evidence (that the time experiments effects his memory of these events). The are stuck in a pocket of time cut off from the rest of the universe and what happens in cauterised time stays in cauterised time. They are the wrong Doctors in the wrong place at the wrong time…neither of them is the one that first meets Mel because the older one says so. Valanxiam is a very dangerous and volatile element and can be used to ensure short range passage through the time vortex. It decays backwards through time. Mardax technology allows hops of several thousands of miles but the element is chronically unstable and punching holes in the vortex willy nilly is never a good idea. The Mardax are a shipping company, through time and space. Why would Pease Pottage even need a Heritage Society? Nothing much ever happens there! Why are they picking and choosing moments of history? Alternate realities wink in and out of existence constantly, every choice you make splinters into an infinite number of realities…if you’re going to try and monitor them all you need something much stronger than a computer. ATC stands for Alternate Timeline Control, Petherbridge is using Mel’s remarkable memory skills to manipulate the timelines. The only reason that the younger Mel is lacking is because more than half her mind is being used as a memory buffer. All the bleeding timelines from history, a poo pourroi of Pease Pottage from the past because tomorrow belongs to Petherbridge. He’s a creature from the vortex, a time demon. If the Doctor’s younger self dies then the older one becomes an anachronism and this pocket of reality will collapse and the raving, starving parasites of the vortex will feast on him. All Petherbridge is trying to do is bring about his own existence and take his place in reality. The beginning of episode four opens with a myriad of moments in Pease Pottage, tugging at the threads of casualty until Petherbridge reaches Mel. All the other characters are links in a daisy chain, keeping Petherbridge anchored to now, to Mel. Imagine the universe of time as a giant trampoline, this time pocket is a tiny trampoline suspended slightly above the first and the weight of TARDISes are like a canon ball, stretching it and weighing it down until the realities touch and Mel is the pinpoint Petherbridge will use to rip through from one to another. The weight of two TARDIS was the gravity well at the centre of all things, anchoring this reality. The Doctor is literally hot footing it away from a chronon explosion that will blow a hole in the 18th Century! Mel forces Petherbridge into a temporal cul de sac so that whichever way he turns he cannot escape. Mel isn’t dead, she’s been removed from time, empty but full of potential. She’s the same Mel that travelled in the TARDIS but she’s been stolen from the present, deleted. The Doctor has to find the right memories from all the alternates to reconstruct the Mel that just left, to leave her there for him to meet in his future (or rather past). Only the TARDIS can do it via the ATC. She builds the bravest and the brightest for the Doctor to meet. As a result of this story the Gary Russell introduction of Mel in Business Unusual has been kept intact and in no way contradicted.

Audio Landscape: Gunning a car, a screaming, stomping iguanadon, birdsong, purring cat, bleeping equipment, sonar, the contact noise, blowing a whistle, time explosions, screaming horse, punches, time spillages, polite chatter, a cheering crowd, striking a match, soldiers marching orders, owl hooting, clinking pot, footsteps, cheering, an almighty explosion, being trampled underfoot, walking on gravel.

Musical Cues: There’s a lovely jaunty tune for the Pease Pottage sequences that conjures up the joy of a glorious summers day in Sussex. There’s also a lovely militaristic march tune in there too which will be going round my head for days.

Standout Scene: Mel is a weak point in space and time, her travels with the Doctor twist and turn upon themselves, the strands of time tangle around her. She’s been bounced through the temporal spectrum so far and so wide that the Vortisaurs and Chronovores attract to her like moths to a flame. They all want a piece of her, to devour her. How clever of Fitton to take the temporal conundrum of Mel’s introduction (a mere continuity glitch in the hurried ending of Trial of a Time Lord) and build that into her character and make it a vital element of this story. This Mel from a shunted off reality also gets a very touching death scene where the Doctor admits he would have been proud to take her with him and he firmly believes they would have had a wonderful future together. The chemistry between Colin and Bonnie has never been better as he shushes her and she slips away in his arms.

Result: ‘Just forget that you saw me…I’ll be along later!’ I’m biased (because I basically want to marry Colin Baker), I know that but that was fabulous. Only Doctor Who could create an entire story out of a missing link in continuity and turn it into a amusingly dense and nuanced puzzle to solve. What’s great is that this isn’t just a story featuring the sixth Doctor and Mel, it is constructed out of their characters and has the potential to have a profound impact on both of their lives. As if cocking up the time period and thus creating a paradox of two Doctors and two Mels wasn’t bamboozling enough, Matt Fitton throws in time experiments that erase events, cause anachronisms and the odd time travelling company messing about with the vortex for good measure. You might think with so many elements that this might become unwieldy (as Fitton’s previous Black and White proved) but he has taken a great deal from his first main range script and rectified the mistakes, ensuring that this remains consistently entertaining, explaining itself as it goes along with oodles of great lines and fresh ideas constantly being pumped into the plot to keep interest levels high. Who would have thought that scenes of two Colin Bakers talking to each other could be so enticing? Take a dash of Invasion of the Dinosaurs (time experiments), a cup of The Five Doctors (multiple incarnations and companions), add in Big Finish’s revolutionary take on a maligned Doctor and companion (given we have had to wait so many years for Bonnie Langford’s return its glorious that her homecoming is heralded by a story that is bound together by her character) and grind some over the top the best aspects of The Quantum Archangel (twisted realities invading, nasties from the vortex invading) and you have a recipe for success. Whilst Matt Fitton deserves a round of applause for containing so many fascinating elements in one tight script a further round of applause must be saved for Nick Briggs who directs The Wrong Doctors with absolute clarity and ensures that it never gets too complicated to enjoy and remains highly entertaining. More than worth waiting a whole year for, this is a unique blend of insanity from beginning to end but there’s no part of it that isn’t firing on all cylinders. A most satisfying puzzle to unravel, as a result of this story the TARDIS builds the ultimate companion for the sixth Doctor and one we can be proud to travel further with: 9/10

4 comments:

James Matthews said...

Another fantastic review and this has finally made me actually buy a Big Finish audio for the very first time.
Thankyou

James

Joe Ford said...

Many thanks for your comment, I'm really pleased that the reviews are convincing people to explore the world of Big Finish. There are so many great stories to listen to!

Anonymous said...

Your reviews are so brilliant, been catching up recently & am so grateful. Lots of love to you & yours.

Anonymous said...

It appears you have 'sparkling dialogue' and ' standout performance' accidentally switched around.