Tony has a naff night at the theatre.
The Virgin New Adventures were often weirder than anything the TV version of Doctor Who was able to put in front of the viewer. In a very real sense, the Virgin adventures began a process which continues through Big Finish to this day – delivering stories free from the need to appeal to eight year-olds. Stories made by fans, for fans, set in a rather more adult universe than the TV show was ever able to inhabit.
That said, they were also often an excuse to exorcise ideas, not necessarily with a particular drive towards any of the storytelling demands of the TV show either.
It's fair to say the results of the Virgin experiment were a very mixed batch. The two latest Virgin stories to be dramatised by Big Finish illustrate that inconsistency very well.
Theatre of War by Justin Richards has a couple of extremely good ideas in it. That needs to be said, because once it gets going, there's not a lot in the way of actual sense to cling onto. The central premise - an architectural ruin of a theatre that kills people by performing three-dimensional, real scenes of death or battle at them, taken from the universe's literary history, is a fantastic idea - honey-trap for pretentious theatre critics? Kickstarter campaign, anyone?
It's also worth mentioning the use made of Irving Braxiatel - a character who would go on to figure strongly in both the Doctor's, and more particularly in Benny Summerfield's life for years to come. If you're new to Braxiatel, it's possible you won't get quite as much out of this release as some other listeners. But he's still by far the strongest non-Tardis character in the piece. While fitting for a character that would go on to be as notorious as he does, and while the choice of Miles Richardson to play him here is sublime, combining slickness and a long view that's shocking in its brutality, the strength of Braxiatel here does rather show up the weakness of some of the other characters - particularly in the architectural team from Heletia sent to the planet Menaxus to investigate the ruined theatre. It’s extraordinarily difficult to care for any of them, some getting only a cursory introduction before “Run! Look out!” Splat. Oh - which is a shame when you get actors like Richard Vranch in to fill the parts. What’s more, the reduction in their numbers doesn’t result in any corresponding increase of investment in the survivors. Ed Stoppard as Fortalexa and Kirsty Besterman as Lannic try hard, and Stoppard briefly succeeds in giving us some character warmth, but the script beats that out of him before he gets any ideas above his station. There is an in-story logical reason why some of these characters are hard to like, but it doesn’t particularly help address the situation in audio.
Even when the action moves from Menaxus to Heletia, the level of investment it’s able to generate barely flickers. We get two new characters, the Exec, who notionally rules the planet, and Marlock (played by Ramon Tikaram – I’m telling you, he’s everywhere lately, and that’s a good thing, as next to Braxiatel, he makes Marlock the most interesting non-Tardis-traveller in the whole two hours), but they’re not really enough to make us believe in the reason for the whole thing. That reason is that the Heletians are obsessed by theatre, and so had to go and take a look when it turned out there was another species as obsessed as they were, the Menaxans, with their amazing ruined theatre. The impact of this ‘obsession’ with theatre doesn’t make itself felt, particularly – and neither does their long ongoing war with the Rippeareans – so both of the supposed drivers, for Heletian society and for the action, feel missing, or contrived simply for the purposes of the play.
So – one to avoid, then?
Well, no, probably not – I’m probably alone in finding this one as unsatisfying as I did, and that’s probably because I overthought it. To me it makes little sense in a socio-political context, and the characters of most of the Heletians feel flat. But there are certainly positives to look out for - there’s some great material for the Tardis team, Sylvester McCoy getting a gorgeously authentic Seventh Doctor moment with Bryan Dick’s Exec, demanding he shoot him immediately as an example to others and then bamboozling the Exec into saving a couple of thousand lives that Marlock had just written off. Sophie Aldred too gets her moment in the sun, giving us a younger, more TV-faithful Ace than we’re now used to, as is entirely appropriate for the Virgin New Adventures. She does a solid bit of action heroing here, and it shows us how far she’s already come – using the Doctor’s tutelage, certainly, but adding an inventive streak of derring-do that’s all Ace.
And then there’s Lisa Bowerman as Benny. There’s never any bad about this fact. Ever. Here Benny’s particularly in her element, as she was in Love and War, digging up the past in both the literal sense as she tries to make sense of the Menaxan ruins, and the intellectual as she’s despatched to the Braxiatel Collection on the Doctor’s ticket to make use of their resources and get to know Irving Braxietel himself. Bowerman’s one of those extraordinary people in which Big Finish, to its credit, rather excels at finding, like David Warner, Hugh Ross, or increasingly, Ramon Tikaram, who make everything they act in better by the quality of their judgments. So every Benny scene here is delicious, and there’s a sense of understandable chemistry between a Tardis team that goes back a long way in audio.
Overall then, there’s enough to like to warrant giving Theatre of War a listen, even if the storyline, the background and the characterisation of most of the Heletians isn’t especially up to much. Listen to the Tardis team, revel in Braxiatel, enjoy another solid, snarling performance from Tikaram, and solemnly note the importance of this story as the first Braxiatel story. Then move right along to All-Consuming Fire, which is a whole lot more fun.
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