If you need Tony Fyler, he’ll be down in the shelter.
It is a fact multiverally acknowledged that if you’re going to have the darkest, most manipulative Doctor of all time, you’re going to need an above-average set of Big Bads against which he can face off. Not the Daleks, not the Cybermen, not the Ice Warriors or Zygons – none of them are going to cut it, and nor, to be brutally honest, do they have the storytelling flexibility to be able to spring what is essentially the same trap in enough inventive ways. Hence the development, starting on TV and going through into Big Finish, of the Elder Gods, against whom the Seventh Doctor battled tirelessly (or if you want to be harsh, tiresomely) until relatively recently in his audio career. The Elder Gods are generally creatures like Fenric or the Gods of Ragnarok – which is to say mystically powerful, woefully underexplained and giving writers the freedom to invent their particular area of interest and rules of engagement as they go along, then ramp the tension up for an Episode 2 cliff-hanger when blow me down, all the stuff that hasn’t made sense so far turns out to be down to – yep, you guessed it – one of the Elder Gods.
Protect and Survive lands us in the course of what is essentially a brilliant idea from Jonathan Morris: imagine being stuck in the 80s as they could have played out without someone as sane as Mikhail Gorbachev in charge of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The 80s, like the 60s before it, was an age of heightened fear over the reality and apparent inevitability of nuclear annihilation – TV dramas like Threads portrayed a horrifying nightmare world if and when the bomb dropped, and even cutesy Snowman creator Raymond Briggs addressed the reality of it in When The Wind Blows, where an elderly northern couple build a comb shelter, only to horribly underestimate the power of the nuclear fallout they will face.
In fact, it’s Briggs’ book and the subsequent film that provide our way into this story – separated from the Doctor, Ace and Hex find themselves seeking refuge in a Britain on nuclear alert, and helping elderly northern couple Albert and Peggy build a shelter. Gorbachev is nowhere in the news, and events play out instead with an aggressive Soviet leader, and the tension builds as it looks as though the bomb will be dropped on the Tardis travellers’ lives.
And then it is.
It actually is. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, ‘they actually went and did it – they blew it all to hell.’ All this while, we’re rooting for the old couple, and for Ace and Hex, and we follow their story into the shelter, into blindness, hair loss, radiation sickness and death. Harrowing stuff, all underpinned by a sense of ‘what-the-hell’ as Ace, Hex and we the listener all know it didn’t actually happen that way. But if we know anything in 21st century fandom, it’s that time can be rewritten.
And rewritten. And rewritten it seems, as Protect and Survive trades When The Wind Blows for Groundhog Day halfway through, our heroes living through the same escalation, the same fear, the same pain, time and time again. It’s all very Sapphire and Steel – and it’s pretty much at that point that the wheels of tension come off the story and it turns into another in a long line of Seventh Doctor ‘we see what’s going on here, but how do we stop it?’ puzzles, the result of his ongoing battle with a universe of – certainly in this instance – fairly nondescript Elder Gods.
To be fair, the puzzle in Protect and Survive makes a lot more logical sense than some that McCoy’s Doctor and his companions have had to deal with, but it’s also weighted down with the baggage of plot arcery it has to carry: this story is slap bang in the middle of the Black Tardis-White Tardis malarkey, when (for the uninitiated) there are two Tardises, with two different Seventh Doctor crews, beggaring about time and space without (at least until the end of Protect and Survive) being aware of each other. It’s also definitively part of a story arc that’s Going Somewhere Bigger, and that sense, combined with the Black and White Tardis Show, robs the story’s second half of much of the tension and the impact that it generates and wrings out of the listener over the course of its first two episodes. In essence then, this is two stories trying to be one, and failing to maintain the listener’s interest across both ‘halves.’ As such, given the heaviness of the story-arc, it’s not one to simply pick up and dip into – it really helps to have at least a clue of what has come before if you want to not spend the final two episodes scratching your head.
In terms of performances though, Protect and Survive doesn’t disappoint – Ian Hogg (who Seventh Doctor fans will remember from Ghost Light) and Elizabeth Bennett (from practically all UK TV over the last thirty years) giving great, subtle, honest performances throughout the story as Albert and Peggy, the shelter-building couple, and Aldred and Olivier as Ace and Hex impressing with how far their resilience has come in the company of the Doctor, for all they react to their time travelling with different degrees of enthusiasm.
Protect and Survive is one that newbies to the story-arc into which it fits should probably steer clear of, and overall, it has the feeling of a potentially excellent story, hobbled by the weight of story-arc and Elder God ‘super-villainy’ it’s required to carry.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk