Sunday, 16 November 2014

Masters of Earth written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on. The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy. When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators. By history. Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless... The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help

Softer Six: We have the best of both worlds with the Doctor and Peri these days. Once the black sheep of the Doctor/companion family, they have both matured exponentially on audio to a point where the characters are older and wiser and the actors are intimately acquainted and the net result is a partnership that rivals the best of the best. I've always enjoyed the spiky relationship between this pair but if you were to tell me that the day would come when they would be my favourite Big Finish team over any other combination of regulars I might have laughed in your face. There is a genuine warmth and affection between them now that is palpable. And yet there is still that spikiness and tension that rippled between them too, that can erupt when you least expect it. The Doctor admits with a laugh how much he has missed her these past five years. The Doctor has promised Peri a fresh start and complete honesty. Like an authentic take on the first Doctor's adventures, the Doctor is prevented from returning to the TARDIS to aid his rescue of Peri when it is swallowed whole by a bog. Instead he has to ride across country in a motorcycle, an image I would have loved to have seen on screen. It goes against everything that he believes in but the Doctor cannot get involved. He doesn't give a fig about the Web of Time, he just doesn't want to give the Daleks the heads up about himself or the TARDIS. Trusting Peri with this information, he asks her to do whatever it takes to prevent the Daleks from capturing him and finding out his role in their demise. Even if that means extreme action... This might be the only time in the Doctor's life where he has given his companion permission to kill him, that's how high the stakes are. The Doctor promises to never let Peri down again, a big guarantee to uphold. Listening to the sixth Doctor talk about Dodo is just surreal. He chooses his friends very carefully and his enemies usually choose him.

Busty Babe: Peri remembers that momentary fizz when the Doctor doesn't know where they are once they have landed. She saw enough executions on Krontep to last her a lifetime. She's even more reckless these days because she's enjoyed years of autonomy without his restraining influence. After her experiences as the widows assassin her own name sounds funny in her mouth like she is isn't sure who she is anymore. Because they have been apart for so long Peri has started to wonder if the Doctor has changed more than she thought and because it took him so long to look her up after the last time they were split she wonders if he will just leave her to her fate. After all, he doesn't seem to be particularly interested in getting involved in this conflict with the Daleks. One moment that really stood was Peri calming Ross down in a particularly tense situation when he doesn't think he can go on - this used to be Peri that panicked in these fraught situations. She's furious with the Doctor when he calls her a stupid woman and slaps him around the face, a violent act that shows that she has really grown a pair. You have to feel sorry for a woman who has spent the last five years in the thrall of a nasty from the Doctor's worst imaginings and as soon as she gets her faculties back she is preyed on by Varga plants and partially transformed. I think Peri might be in need of some major therapy once her travels with the Doctor are over. Peri channels Evelyn for a moment when the Doctor appears dispassionate about the loss of one of their friends and she is appalled. Her reaction to the Varga transformation is one of outright hysteria, a very natural response to having your body and mind consumed by pure hate. The writers have Peri react to the massacre at the end of this story in a way that Eric Saward should have had her do in the mid-eighties. She's appalled at the loss of life and how the Doctor got others to pull the trigger for him, keeping his hands nice and clean. In that respect she doesn't think he has changed at all.

Standout Performance: Concentrating the story in Scotland is another unique aspect, giving the story a distinctive location via the actors' brogue. It's a great cast of actors with very natural chemistry, something about how all the characters are working together desperately to survive that gels them into a strong unit.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Like brutal barons of old, the Daleks have cleared the Highlands.'
'I've parked better.'
'Watch out the human race is coming...'
'The Daleks are evil...but they exist. It's not for the likes of me to sign their death certificate.'

Great Ideas: The Dalek Invasion of Earth presented the ultimate post apocalyptic nightmare, the subjugation of the human race by the most evil creatures in the universe. Human beings were either exploited or killed. The planet was raped of its resources. Whilst I question the execution of the story in parts, on paper it is a compelling scenario and one of the few occasions where the Doctor has been on the Earth to prevent its occupation by an alien force. By the time he arrives to sort the problem out it the human race has already suffered for over ten years. It's a huge stain on the planets timeline and the Doctor's record. It is a period that has been mostly ignored since given the end of the story has already been told but it provides Cavan Scott and Mark Wright a fresh avenue to tell a Dalek story in, one where they can explore the psychological ramifications of Dalek occupation without having the burden of having to bring the invasion story to a climax. They can concentrate on their handful of characters and how they are dealing with the nightmare scenario. The human race is trying to hold onto its values but when it is every man for himself the social niceties tend to go out the window. There is always the chance that fresh writers can examine what was presented in an earlier story and offer a gripping new spin on it and the idea that the Dalek neck restraints are curved to prevent the slave workers from slicing their throats open and free themselves from Dalek labour is a case in point. Pure Scott and Wright. Meteor bombardments and sickness struck the Earth and then the Daleks moved in six months later like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The solar system is blockaded and other worlds are unable to stand against the Dalek Empire. A decade of occupation that almost brought the human race to its knees. Moira Brody is on record as being the leader of the Scottish resistance, a woman who was essential in the rebuilding of the Earth when the Daleks were defeated. Her timeline has already been polluted by exposure to the Doctor and Peri and he is starting to worry about further changes if they don't get her back where she needs to be. A forest of Varga plants in Scotland? They are a particularly nasty form of plant life native to Skaro and they have been shipped to the Earth as another arm of the Dalek invasion. The Daleks are turning the Earth into a battle platform that will be piloted through space and plan to shower each planet with Varga seeds prior to their invasion. Varga literally means 'devourer.' If a return to the Dalek Invasion of Earth wasn't enough with an added forest of Vargas, Scott and Wright throw in an ocean seething with Slythers to truly take you back to the height of Dalekmania. Without realising it this band of rebels have passed an intelligence test, managing to escape all the dangers that have been put in their way and reach what was supposed to be an island of safety. There are two types of robomen, the simpler versions and the Elite and unwittingly the Doctor and his friends have been tested to see if they have the appropriate skills to pass as one of the latter. Very sneaky. The Daleks are growing tired of rebel factions springing up all over the world and want to infiltrate those groups with sophisticated robomen that appear to be normal human beings. The trouble with double agents that can blend in seamlessly is that it can work both ways...and that's where things get a little be complicated. Who can the Doctor and Peri trust? Who can the Daleks trust? After all those years of fighting off Dalek subjugation is it any wonder that the human race has developed a sense of xenophobia? Would they become as intolerant of others as those who forced those feelings out of them? What if they had the strength to make sure that no other races in the galaxy had a pop at them? Would they really turn away from that opportunity? Fascinating questions this story throws up. Whilst the Doctor and Peri don't get to bring and end to the Dalek invasion (that was never on the cards), at least one arm of their attack on the earth withers away and dies because of their intervention. Who knows, by causing the Elite programme to fail they might have made a significant difference to the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

Audio Landscape: It's been a while since I have been this impressed by the direction of a main range adventure and it comes as no surprise that it was Nicholas Briggs that was responsible for bringing this two hour long action set piece to life. Birdsong, a lynch mob, a Dalek saucer descending and the landing ramp coming down, Robomen walking through wet mud, the TARDIS swallowed by a bubbling bog, authentic Dalek spaceship background noise and doors, lifted straight from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, pouring a glass of liquor. heavy machinery in the refinery, motorbike spluttering out, Daleks on the intercom, sparking Roboman helmet, gunfire, alarm, two Daleks taken down by a truck, a bracing Scotland wind, a sheep on open land, Robomen shooting at the truck, Dalek fire raining from the sky, the truck tipping down a ravine, dogs barking, Varga plants smashing windows and slurping in hunger for blood, seagulls screaming, waves both inside and outside the boat, a screaming Slyther attacking the boat, heart monitor, high pitched whine, a huge explosion, dragging the TARDIS out of the mud.

Musical Cues: I really enjoy Nick Briggs' soundtracks and don't think we get nearly enough of them these days. He is more in favour of ambient music rather than melodies which reminds me of the scores of stories such as The Dalek Invasion of Earth ad The Daleks' Masterplan. There were moments in Masters of Earth that reminded me strongly of Jubilee, The Apocalypse Element and Dalek Empire. That's a good thing.

Isn't it Odd: It was a creative decision to update the quality of the Daleks voices in Masters of Earth (the ones from Invasion Earth were particularly effeminate dictators) and yet Briggs chooses to keep the slurred voices of the Robomen authentic. I would have been bold and changed those too because at times the remedial brogue of the metallic slaves makes this sound like amateur hour. 'Escaped prisoner has escaped!' - Daleks have never been known for their scintillating conversation but this bunch are validly crass. With so many moments of high drama there were a few occasions when the story descended into an awful lot of hysterical shouting.

Result: I have often complained in the past about certain Big Finish stories coming across as big brash action adventure stories that feel like soundtracks to missing stories, presenting big set pieces that should be seen rather than heard. Rather than exploiting the audio medium for its greatest strengths, the exploration of language and ideas, the stories instead indulge in lots of shouting and explosions. Well I'm going to go against my own argument when it comes to reviewing Masters of Earth because it features more than your usual handful of action sequences and yet delivered by director supremo Nicholas Briggs I was able to shut my eyes and see every frame of the action taking place. Desperate rebels travelling across country and pursued by Daleks at every turn, Masters of Earth presents a gripping scenario that is well dramatised by the authors and expertly brought to life by the director. The action is fast and furious and I was helplessly caught up in dramatic kisses to Dalekmania throughout. The characters feel much more vivid than your average 2014 main range adventure too; battered , bruised and desperate, this band of unlikely friends have developed a no nonsense attitude to life that sees them through the hardships of this story. It's an unusual Dalek story insofar that the writers aren't in the position of having to put a stop to the threat because that has already been dealt with elsewhere so they can concentrate on their own band of characters and their journey exclusively. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish setting and it was a delight to hear so many distinctive accents in play, another unique selling point. Even the dynamic between the Doctor and Peri has been given a fresh lick of paint. Whilst they are far more comfortable with each other now they are older and wiser, her return has brought a bit of that spikiness back to his character and she is no-nonsense these days in an extremely forceful way. They make a great team but there is room for some very interesting tension that comes from knowing each other so well and trying to discover each other again after five years apart. That I wasn't expecting. The final surprise is the fourth episode, which from nowhere reveals that everything that we have been through in this story to that point has been for a purpose. What appeared to be a plotless jaunt through the Dalek invasion coheres into a very strong and well thought through narrative. I was prepared to be very cynical about another Dalek story (tenapenny these days) but this was much, much stronger than I was expecting. I thought the setting and characters were brawny enough that this could have been a pilot for a spin off series - mixing Terry Nation's Survivors and Dalekmania. I'd buy them if they were as good as this: 9/10

3 comments:

Paolo said...

I listened to this one the other day too and loved it. Really a strong classic adventure with some great twists. In fact this could easily have been a 6-parter I feel. Loved it.

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