Sunday, August 27, 2006

 

Storm Warning Warning

Tonight at six o’clock and again at midnight, BBC7 will broadcast the first part of Storm Warning, an exciting Doctor Who adventure starring Paul McGann, the Doctor from the ill-fated 1996 TV Movie. With a lively lead performance from Mr McGann and introducing an equally lively companion, it’s fun, pure and simple – set on the doomed airship R101, this is a slice of 1930s pulp adventure, with few pretensions to anything deeper. If you’ve never heard Doctor Who on the wireless (or, through the miracle of modern technology, via the digital televideogrammaton), this is a splendid place to start.

The 1990s were an uncertain decade for Doctor Who. The BBC had quietly cancelled it on TV, leaving the flagship continuing the series as Virgin’s New Adventures books – a superb line, but with an audience in the tens of thousands if they were lucky, rather than the millions for BBC1. In 1996, a co-production with an American network brought Paul McGann to our screens as the eighth Doctor in a TV Movie with a good lead performance but a terrible script… It did well in UK ratings but tanked in the USA, leaving those who talk of, say, ‘The Tom Baker Years’ when referring to other Doctors to dismiss his reign as ‘The Paul McGann 90 Minutes’. It didn’t help that the BBC took over publishing the original novels in 1997; where few of the Virgin books had been poor, sadly few of the BBC books were very good, and the whole line stuttered on for years with little sense of direction. The real shot in the arm for late ’90s Doctor Who came when Big Finish began producing full-cast audio plays in 1999. They’re still going, still a mixture of good and bad, but on occasion they’ve really struck gold – authors like Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Rob Shearman who worked on them and sometimes the New Adventures too have even gone on to write for the new TV series.

I thought some of the early Big Finish CDs were superb, particularly New Adventure-ish day-after-tomorrow stories like The Fearmonger and The Shadow of the Scourge (ignore the appalling cover picture for the latter) or those with an historical tinge like The Marian Conspiracy, The Fires of Vulcan and The Holy Terror, but people really got excited when Paul McGann signed up for a season of stories released in early 2001, making him feel more like ‘the current Doctor’ than a nostalgia trip with some of the previous ones. Storm Warning was the first of these, and a lot of his first couple of years with Big Finish are hugely entertaining. Last year, the enormously successful television comeback for Doctor Who gave BBC7 the idea of launching it on the radio, and they turned to Big Finish. The BBC had done the odd radio Who before – on this day in 1993, they began The Paradise of Death with Jon Pertwee – but it hadn’t been terribly good, and the Big Finish Paul McGann stories had the advantage of not just decent quality but quantity, making up a series of stories that followed on from each other and were ideal for broadcasting. Well, almost ideal; while Big Finish emulate the old Doctor Who format of dividing a story into four 25-minute episodes, it’s fair to say that their timing is a bit stretchy. So, if you get the CDs, you’ll notice most stories have rather a lot more in them; the editing’s been done by one Nicholas Briggs, a name you may recognise as the actor who voiced both the Daleks and the Cybermen for the new TV series. As well as an actor and sound technician, polymath Nick is a writer, director, composer, moral theologian and the new producer of the Big Finish range. But can you draw, Nick? Ah hah. You probably can.

The best thing about Storm Warning is how much Mr McGann seems to enjoy it. His Doctor is joyous, with a zest for life and an instantly great chemistry with new companion Charley. The script is generally fun and undemanding, with many delightful things about it as well as the odd weakness. Former Doctor Who Magazine editor Alan Barnes had written some splendid comic strips for the Eighth Doctor (and still writes some very jolly ones in the children’s fortnightly Doctor Who Adventures, though today’s not a good day to sample those; his latest is the first he’s written for them that’s been truly dreadful, but he’s usually much better) but was evidently not used to writing for radio yet. Still, Mr McGann even manages to make lines come alive when they’re pretty much ‘let me describe this thing in front of me to you… Or even to myself!’ Probably his best moments are when he’s just met Charley and, as well as giving the second best name-drop about Lenin I’ve ever heard, they instantly hit it off as fellow adventurers. India Fisher’s Charlotte Pollard is rather posher than Rose, but hardly less perfect a companion, plucky and enthusiastic, having come aboard the R101 disguised as a boy in best Blackadder fashion (having met India, I can’t imagine the improbable amount of strappage she’d need to make that remotely plausible) because she wants to have an adventure. India had previously appeared in Winter For the Adept, almost the most disappointing of all the Big Finish plays (best just to ignore the feeble story and skip forward to the hidden scene at the end, which is a scream), and you might recognise her from her occasional appearances in BBC2’s Dead Ringers.

The star performance of the guest cast is provided by Gareth Thomas, the eponymous Blake of Blake’s 7, who gives a marvellously blustery turn as former general and Minister of Air Lord Tamworth (all the passengers of the R101 are fictitious), reminiscent of the Brigadier. Others include Nick Pegg and Barnaby Edwards, now acting in Doctor Who with their bodies rather than voices as opposed to the other way round in their roles as the blokes inside the Dalek casings. Mr Edwards plays the obligatory 1930s ‘conniving foreign villain’ Rathbone, though in a revisionist twist he’s an Afrikaner and so, of course, acting for the British Empire. It helps make it all a slightly more complex terribly British Boys’ Own adventure than many of the time, with a great ‘big movie’ feel as an antidote to the terribly American TV Movie it follows. There’s even a big, movie-style music score, from the opening jolly 1930s newsreel fanfare onward.

Amidst the smashing gung-ho action, there are some intriguing questions about the R101. Who is the mysterious passenger in Cabin 43? What is the strange rendezvous for which the dirigible is required by the Empire? And, as listeners will know it’s doomed to disaster on its maiden flight, what will bring about its fiery destruction? Well, as is often the case, some of the answers are much less interesting than the questions. Without spoiling all the details, when yet another Doctor Who story features an ‘alien culture appointing a single lawmaker to completely control their brutish natures’ and makes it more Star Trekkish than ever, with nameless aliens divided by function to tell us a moral about human violence, it’s bound to be by far the weakest part of the story. But that, and the slightly more satisfying conclusion, are all things to look forward to in later episodes.

Storm Warning continues at the same times over the next three weeks, and I assume they’ll be carrying on with the next five stories they’ve licensed from Big Finish (yes, I know; Big Finish produce Doctor Who on licence from the BBC, and another bit of the BBC buys it back again. Isn’t life confusing?). Two others you should particularly listen out for over the next few months are The Stones of Venice and The Chimes of Midnight. The Stones of Venice is a gorgeously atmospheric tale of a doomed city only let down by shying away from full-blown tragedy at the end, while Rob Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight isn’t quite his best work, but still a satisfying slice of spookiness. Imagine Upstairs Downstairs meets Sapphire and Steel (hmm, another series I may just write about soon – if you’re familiar with it, imagine this story as the ‘downstairs’ half of Assignment 5), full of drama, absurdity and heartbreak, and best served as a Christmas ghost story.

Stay tuned.

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