Tony feels the music.
After the insanityfest of Neverland and Zagreus (which starred a big handful of Doctor and companion actors in roles other than the ones they traditionally played), the Eighth Doctor did the typically noble Doctor thing and got himself banished to another universe, as far as he knew giving up his life to save the universe - and Charley Pollard, the companion who turned out to be a complex time-space event.
Except Charley stowed away with him, having realised that she loved her Doctor.
Scherzo is their first adventure in the alternative universe and that gives it license to be definitively weirder than anything we've heard, which to anyone who's heard Zagreus might be a terrifying concept.
Fortunately, for the first story in the alternative universe, and what amounts to a two-hander between Paul McGann and India Fisher, we're in safe hands for all things weird - Friend of Frobisher and god of all Daleks Robert Shearman takes writing duties for this one. When you see Shearman’s name on the credits you can guarantee yourself you’re not in for anything dull or even ordinary (Big Finish’s ordinary already being pretty damn special).
Scherzo gives our heroes an almost blank canvas – an endless march, devoid for the most part of sensory input as they walk forever in a blinding light. It gives them time and space to talk and not to talk, to express what’s important and what’s not. There are “I love yous” in this story, but there is also fury, spitting contempt from the Eighth Doctor, the desperate worthlessness of love that leads to death, the solitude of our self-sacrificing hero, and a journey into the emotional hearts of a brave young woman and an ageing Time Lord for whom bravery has almost become a defining instinct. It’s a hard listen when you hear McGann’s Tiggerish Doctor say he’s not sure he can forgive Charley for following him into the new universe, that her love has killed him, that it means nothing to him, that it’s worth nothing, that she’s a stupid little girl. It’s a performance that would not be out of place in Twelfth Doctor on-screen Who, with its emotion raw but chained within the framework of the Doctor’s mindset, each line of it almost as though Shearman has challenged himself to write the next thing that could strip a layer off Charley’s heart, and in a way off ours too, as fans of the Doctor.
Charley, for her part, responds with the vulnerable honesty of every woman everywhere who’s ever told a man she loved him, and heard only silence in return. Fisher is spectacular in Scherzo both by virtue of the emotion she puts into her performance – not blazing, just soft, and soft still when kicked by the Eighth Doctor’s words – and by virtue of her pauses, how she judges the emotional landscape of the script. Charley makes the case that love is never worthless, but then can only get on with their endless trudge, waiting for him to process what they’ve said and haven’t said and speak to her again. On a purely emotional level, Scherzo is hard but wonderful going.
Don’t panic though – there is a plot here too. It’s a plot framed in two ways, firstly by an episodic fairy tale recited by McGann at the top of each instalment, The Foolish King Who Banished Music, and secondly, more scientifically, by an experiment to accelerate the evolutionary process in a sealed and winner-takes-all environment. The fairy tale is an unusual angle – again, put your trust in Shearman, ladies and gentlemen, he will not lead you astray – and it has both a lyrical beauty in and of itself, and if not exactly an explanatory power within the episode, then at least an analogous power. The idea of music as a sentience, as a thing that can repay kindness or brutality, as a thing which both needs and feeds on sound, on voice, on every footstep’s rhythm is a potent one, and within the main storyline, it also allows for some grimness – a power that needs sound and knows that to get the best sounds, it needs to open up the throat is a ghastly, potentially upsetting concept. At no point does Scherzo ever pretend to be an easy listen – if it doesn’t upset you with our Doctor saying hurtful things, or punch you in the heart when he declines the easy path of retraction, it’ll get you with sliced throats, potentially cannibalistic savagery, the fear of blindness or the fundamental self-interest of children. Oh yes, there’s a child of sorts in this story too. Charley’s child, demanding that she pass on her inheritance and then go off and die, as all parents must for their children’s sakes.
The idea of a child of course begs the question of a father (at least in Charley’s age), and there’s certainly a case of Charley and the Doctor, to use a quaint Biblical phrase, ‘being of one flesh,’ but this is Doctor Who, so you can be certain only that things are not what they sound like. We’re not quite in ‘metacrisis’ territory, but certainly the Doctor and Charley will never be quite the same again after Scherzo.
So – one to get and listen to, then?
Tricky. Scherzo is the beginning of a story-arc, so there’s a sense that if you slip Scherzo into your brain, you’re agreeing to a commitment to see the thing through, and you should be aware that the alternative universe stories divide fans to this day, with many thinking they go too far into the dimension of ‘just freakin’ weird.’ Before you listen to Scherzo, it’s also probably a good idea to have actually got Neverland and Zagreus under your belt – which is not an easy thing to commit to either.
But if you take Scherzo as just itself, it has lots to recommend it. Fluffiness and punching the air are no-shows here, but there are two fantastic performances, taking Doctor Who into uncomfortable, raw territory – or at least territory that would have been raw and uncomfortable before the Twelfth Doctor and Clara (and let’s not forget, Scherzo was released in 2003, before there was any such thing as on-screen New Who). It also gives the Big Finish sound department a chance to really show off, developing a soundscape that unnerves in the same sort of way as Eighth Doctor classics like The Chimes of Midnight and Embrace The Darkness. It’s a release that many fans still have difficulty with, but with all of the provisos we’ve mentioned, you do miss out if you don’t listen to Scherzo. McGann, Fisher and Shearman have rarely been braver or stronger in Who. Braver precisely because Scherzo takes you into uncomfortable territory, and some fans will hate it for that, will claim it’s “not Doctor Who.”
Some fans are wrong. It’s very much Doctor Who, just not Doctor Who with easy answers, lumbering monsters or the sense of air-punching heroism you might be used to.
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