Sunday, September 08, 2013


Doctor Who – UNIT: Dominion

Have you heard the Doctor Who adventure with the future Time Lord from The Thick of It? Not that one – the other one. Alex MacQueen stars in UNIT: Dominion as the Other Doctor, alongside Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Tracey Childs as fabulous antihero Elizabeth Klein – sometime companion, sometime scientist from an alternate Nazi future. Available in boxed set or download from Big Finish, this is an epic audio drama, not unlike a movie remake of Doctor Who (but which?), and the threat of total dimensional chaos has been cheering me up today.
“Ahhh, the giddy joy.”
I have had an unremittingly crapulent day. Booked to go to a one-day Doctor Who event from Fantom Films, I’ve been horribly ill all the way throughout the night and from dawn to dusk, so I’ve missed out on seventh Doctor-themed excitement and meeting the likes of Lisa Bowerman (Professor Bernice Summerfield), Tracey Childs and Sylvester McCoy. However, having spent much of August catching up with a ton of Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio plays from several years, and particularly those featuring Sylvester – including twenty-six in a fortnight of an especially fine story arc of A Death in the Family and Gods and Monsters – I’ve turned to a special release (and much chocolate) to winch my spirits off the floor. Spoilers follow…

Dr Elizabeth Klein (Take I)

Readers familiar with Big Finish’s CDs or who listen to Radio 4 Extra will have a head start for Elizabeth Klein, the BBC station having broadcast a trilogy of her stories with (or against) the Doctor. There’s more to hear in the Big Finish originals, as well as the story from, goodness me, twelve years ago now that set the whole thing off: Doctor Who – Colditz. In 2001 it seemed a relatively average historical adventure for the Doctor and Ace, but with a twist, and slightly let down by being one of the few Big Finishes where something went wrong in the production (bits sound like they’re recorded in a tin can), it was always a decent enough tale, with the main thing I remembered from it at the time being Klein, an interesting character and concept: when the Doctor and Ace accidentally change history, she’s the dedicated scientist who travels back from the future Nazi timeline they created… And is stranded in our world, determined to single-handedly restore what to her is the ‘real’ history. Clearly, though, only a twist in the story and a loose end they’d never return to. These days, Colditz stands out in story terms as the first Doctor Who to feature the much more substantial figure of Klein – and in production terms as the first Doctor Who to feature the even more substantial figure of David Tennant, though here playing a villain and not another Doctor. And, shh, Tracey Childs’ cold intelligence and charisma made more of an impression then than David’s bullying Nazi…

Tracey Childs later appeared with David Tennant’s Doctor on television, too, in the fantastic The Fires of Pompeii. Colditz was about a future timeline coming back to see you unexpectedly – where Tracey Childs co-starred with David Tennant, the next Doctor but one. The Fires of Pompeii was about predictions of the future – where Tracey Childs co-starred with Peter Capaldi, the next Doctor but one. Keep an eye on her co-stars, that’s all I’m saying. And listen if she suggests you cross her palm with silver.

When Big Finish eventually asked Tracey Childs to return nearly nine years later, they’d put a lot of work into making Klein’s story something special, though, and it shows (not least in the fabulous, furious vignette of that name). A Thousand Tiny Wings reintroduces Klein in 1950s Kenya, never able to go home, with sweltering heat, terrific characterisation and never quite being sure where you stand with anyone. Survival of the Fittest is better still, with both Klein’s point of view and the alien culture well-sketched, building to a great ending. She’s a match for him. The only shame is that there’s only one story with the original Klein as the Doctor’s ‘companion’, as their mutual talent, strong convictions and tendency to knock sparks off each other was something I’d’ve liked to have heard more of. But, no, there’s no time to get comfortable: for both of them, the story drives on into The Architects of History. In this ‘Fall and De-Klein’, not only are a quiet, dangerous Sylvester and a ruthless Tracey clamping down on her underlying despair both terrific, but we even get another companion for the Doctor, in Being Human’s Lenora Crichlow. It’s easy for stories in which time is rewritten to unravel, either shooting up themselves or becoming merely pointless, but this pulls it off in making the events matter by nailing them to the effects on the people involved. There’s just a hint of the subtext of the Doctor as Nazi-hunter and who the looming Nuremberg would be – then I surprised myself by getting a little misty-eyed at the shot at redemption.

Big Finish is in the middle of releasing a new trilogy starring the seventh Doctor and Klein – Persuasion, Starlight Robbery and Daleks Among Us – with the alternative, rewritten re-Klein who doesn’t hail from the Nazi universe; Richard and I are waiting to listen to them all together. But in between the two trilogies, Big Finish last year brought out a new development for the DVD season box age, not monthly single releases but a boxed set containing one big story. UNIT: Dominion isn’t just the Doctor re-united / starting off with a new Klein, but a story so big it has another companion (or more) and an Other Doctor, too. Plus the title protagonists in UNIT, the UN-run special services that sometimes work with the Doctor. The story works better for some of its five competing leads than for others…

UNIT: Dominion – An Epic That Delivers

UNIT: Dominion is something of an epic. It sounds much more visual, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, than most Big Finish plays, and in a boxed set of four hour-long episodes (plus a ‘making of’) it runs to a fairly epic length as well. But while the extraordinary sound design and cast grab your attention, I’d give the strongest praise to the writers Nicholas Briggs and Jason Arnopp: it’s generally a strong story, though as ever I can find flaws along the way, but what’s really impressive about it is that they manage to keep it all together: a four-hour disaster movie teeming with different characters, locations and extradimensional beings could very easily have descended either into incomprehensible mulch or constantly had to stop for the forced dialogue of ‘Look, Doctor, at that [four lines of description] doing that terrible [four more lines of description]!’ Instead, they take a story that seems not at all suited to the intimacy of the audio play and make it work.

There will be spoilers, so I’ll tell you now that UNIT: Dominion is fun, and huge, and in quite a few ways, not what I was expecting – though predictably with Klein and the Other Doctor stealing much of it. I recommend it. But be careful reading on, as the further you get towards the end, the more spoilertastic detail there’ll be.

The first episode is the best, with lots of new ideas; the second’s the weirdest, mainly everyone caught with different extradimensional ooglies which have the feel of very early Twentieth Century weird sci-fi (but Mind Leeches, Skyheads and lava spiders work as terms that instantly sketch in the sort of thing they are), with Sylv entirely sidelined; the third is the most disturbing, as Sylv gets back into the story but someone else forces everyone’s hands; and the fourth, the several big finishes, including shocking codas and Klein’s second and so slightly less effective ‘happy ending’ that sets her up for the new trilogy.

With the Doctor, the Other Doctor, Klein, Raine and UNIT all vying for attention, and four hours for them to play in, there are large stretches for which different ‘lead’ characters are to the fore and others disappear into the background. So which of the five potential protagonists make it?

The Doctor

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor, and marvellous he is, too. It’s always a pleasure to hear him back again, particularly now he’s a big movie star: in a curious way, he’s one of the actors who always feels most like the Doctor, in his case I suspect because the New Adventures gave him such a long and compelling reign, the actor always in my head even when he wasn’t actually in employment for the role. It’s even true that, while if asked to pick out my favourite arrangements of the Doctor Who Theme Keff McCulloch’s would not be near the top of the pile, Sylvester remained the Doctor throughout such an influential part of my life that his Theme always gives me the shivers when I hear it from Big Finish, far more than others that my head says I prefer.

This time the Doctor – the seventh Doctor – gets his best material in the opening and closing episodes of the story, as the relationship between him and the Other Doctor is so incendiary that they can’t be together too often. That means the one we know is not so much sidelined as stranded in a different dimension and almost a different story. This inevitably means he’s a smaller presence for much of the story, which makes you appreciate him all the more when he breaks back into the narrative – and he finds a terrific resolution in the finale. Along the way, Sylvester rises to some great material, and while the ‘main story’ feels like a major reimagining of one old story in particular, there are subtler echoes of many other stories in this Doctor’s scenes in particular. Like Big Finish’s Project Lazarus, it dodges around making this a ‘two Doctors story’ by mostly keeping them apart and separating the Doctor, too, from the suspicious scientific-military organisation. There’s a hint of Russell T Davies’ early story Damaged Goods in Sylv as sinister Umbrella Man, and of Russell’s late story The Stolen Earth in Ace’s flickering cameo warning messages and all realities breaking down (the idea of Ace being on Gallifrey also having their cake and eating it as regards the Lost Stories, and yet more of the Time Lords’ sinister secrets, if not the Othering Other himself).

There are a few weak points in the treatment of the Doctor too, though; not so much all the time when he’s not in the loop, but the elements where he’s rather behind the audience in working things out, and most of all the weirdly out-of-character moments where he of all Doctors goes on and on about how would never interfere in his own time stream. It’s one of the script’s few jarring failings that, given one of the more complex and morally ambiguous Doctors to set against the Other Doctor, rather than comparing their different attitudes to interference and ruthlessness and using each to illuminate the other, it bottles the difficult questions and – despite Klein’s fear of him – leaves the Doctor a bit… Vanilla. Still, particularly if you can ignore the awkwardly inserted denials of his own methods, the contrast between the master manipulator who keeps everything broodily close to his chest and the swaggering extrovert Other Doctor who knows more than he does is very entertaining (as MacQueen does unto McCoy as McCoy did unto Davison in Cold Fusion). No wonder Sylv’s Doctor follows several other Doctor-Doctor clashes and detests him on sight.

Dr Elizabeth Klein (Take II)

Even though we knew a very different her, at times it seems as if Klein is the only person we know. The Other Klein was raised in a Nazi state and, for all her intelligence, drive and other admirable qualities was ideologically a true believer, the spark for a terrific battle of wills with the Doctor; there was a real danger that this one would seem like she’d been, well, doctored. Fortunately, she’s well enough written to still give her an edge, Tracey Childs is still outstanding, and perhaps most calculatingly she’s put in a position where she has good reason to be deeply suspicious of the Doctor – Sylvester’s in particular. That means that when she’s thrown together with the Other Doctor, while inevitably he steals quite a bit from her, they have a much more interesting if hardly trusting relationship: with her as the brilliant UNIT Scientific Advisor Dr Liz and him an unknown but rather flamboyant quality, it deliberately evokes the abrasive but fabulous rapport between Dr Liz [fascist in an alternate reality] Shaw and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in the ’70s. Of her colleagues at UNIT, though, there’s much less to be said: they’re far more suspicious of the Doctor, with far less reason, and though in theory you’d expect there to be five competitors for the position of protagonist, with UNIT a better bet than most for having the title, they’re not up to it. Colonel Lafayette is just a comic relief idiot to be killed; Major Wyland-Jones just a cartoon brute. So of all the things UNIT: Dominion works as, a UNIT story isn’t one of them. It’s far less the second series of a new UNIT than a relaunch for Klein, and for someone else, too…

Raine Kreevey

Beth Chalmers’ Raine Kreevey is the Doctor’s travelling companion here. Introduced in a recent series of Big Finish Lost Stories based on scripts that might have gone into TV production had Doctor Who not been cancelled in 1989, her character’s still rather battling to make an impression on me. In part, it’s because she’s not really yet had a story in which she and Sylvester McCoy are the only leads; in part, it’s because Beth Chalmers sounds a bit like Sylv’s earliest companion Bonnie Langford, which makes her less distinctive. Her most notable character trait is that she’s a top thief, giving the Doctor a scene in which he hypnotises her to do some mental safecracking to get out of a dimensional corridor. But even that’s less about her than an illustration of this Doctor’s similarities with the Other Doctor, who also makes much use of hypnosis – though given that the Other Doctor’s hypnosis leads people to box their personalities into safes, it suggests that for all they have in common they have diametrically opposite attitudes about control. Unfortunately for Raine, she’s just nowhere near as interesting as Klein, with whom she comes across as remarkably crass, and not only does she have to compete with all the other four protagonists, but Sylvester’s long-term companion Ace is more immediately memorable in just a distorted cameo.

I’ve said there are spoilers. Last chance, all right?

The Other Doctor

Of the four leads, the anticipation for the Other Doctor has to be the greatest, and Alex MacQueen is hugely enjoyable playing the role. The Doctor he most seems to have modelled himself on is Jon Pertwee, flamboyant, compelling, know-it-all and sometimes a bit of a shit. There’s also more than a touch of another Doctor quite appropriate to a Nicholas Briggs production, but more of that laters.

Puzzling out the character of the Other Doctor, inevitably he called to mind Sylvester’s story Battlefield, in which the master manipulator is manipulated in turn by another Doctor who knows more than he does – like the Other Doctor, identified as a future Doctor but feeling rather more like an alternative. I got a heavy hint of David Collings, too, though, an actor who’s twice played an ‘Other Doctor’. A Doctor who’s forgotten all the details sounded very much like Mawdryn Undead, deeply suspicious from the first, even hinting he might be something like the 517th. And that made me wonder about Big Finish’s own Unbound Doctor story Full Fathom Five, pushing harder at the idea of a Doctor who’s decided that the end can justify the means. Which in turn reminded of that other Doctor Who Unbound story Sympathy For the Devil… Doesn’t this Doctor seem fond of hypnotism – even if we have Sylv doing the same, it’s not to the same extent, and why do we cut away before the words we hear him use…? And why is he so keen to have a set of hypnotised soldiers he can deploy, and then tell Klein he’s abandoned not using guns and killing, while she’s contemptuous of his swimming off to save himself and leave soldiers to die…?

By this point you will have worked out what I worked out long before the Part Three cliffhanger, but while that episode finale wasn’t much of a surprise it was immensely satisfying. The Other Doctor has apparently betrayed UNIT, but as they shoot at him at the drop of a hat you can hardly blame him; the Doctor dives after him into his TARDIS, only to find that he’s not betrayed UNIT after all – that is, not in the way they all think, though answering the accusation that he was going to let them all die with “Tempting, but no” may not be the most reassuring of denials – but that for all its battered police box exterior, the ‘upgraded’ inside is very swish indeed, and just not his TARDIS at all. For all his flamboyance, in this – predictable as ever, but my favourite – scene MacQueen has three little moments where he’s simply at his finest, and they’re all suddenly dialled right down. Two of them are so underplayed that they’re almost subliminal: listen to this while pottering about or doing the dishes and you’ll miss them. While the Doctor is asking so many irritating questions, there’s just a tiny breath of a Muttley laugh; then, as the Doctor realises “You – you’re not me…” the weight of acting up comes off the Other Doctor’s shoulder and “What a relief…” comes out in the tiniest sigh; and while on their meeting in Part One he immediately got the Doctor’s back up with his braying “Hello, you!” and “Laters!” now the Doctor finally recognises the Master he gives a quiet, poisonous and quite brilliantly delivered “Hello, you” to make the spine chill as the music cuts in.

It’s not just that Richard and I keep trying to emulate that intonation when one of us answers the phone to the other, but that now there are two future Time Lords already cast as rivals in The Thick of It, we keep taking our leave of each other with a “Laters!” and a “Fuckettiebye.”

I’ve written before that it was in Sympathy For the Devil that Big Finish previously presented their new casting of the Master – and if you don’t know who he is, I’ve introduced each of his TV incarnations here – and though both of them and both stories are terrific (one actor slightly more here, one story slightly more there), the ‘shock reveal’ nature of each does make them difficult to talk about for fear of spoilers. You’re here now, though. If there’s one little bit of dissatisfaction with Alex MacQueen’s fabulous double portrayal, it’s that although at the reveal he gives a tour de force outmanoeuvring the Doctor from bellowing to near-imperceptible, I was rather surprised to find that his theatrical Doctor impression wasn’t really toned down very much once he was himself, despite an excuse for once for the Master to be the less camp and hammy one. Perhaps it’s just that, as Klein says (and as other Masters had previously proved), he’s envious and loved being the Doctor just a bit too much. And on top of the grandstanding Pertwee affectations (the Doctor seen most as the Master’s other half), the Other Doctor reminded me very strongly of Nicholas Briggs’ incarnation [see below], only with a little more domination and a little less tea. Is it the baldness that brings out that very specific sort of jollity in the Doctor, or just Nicholas Briggs naturally thinking, ‘Now, how would I characterise an Other Doctor…?’

Doctor Who – The Movie Remake
“I made my TARDIS look like yours because I needed everyone to think I was you…”
The biggest single echo of other Doctors in the story is, not unexpectedly after all that, a Pertwee one, too. If UNIT: Dominion is like a Doctor Who movie for audio, it’s almost explicitly like a movie version of 1971’s The Claws of Axos. I don’t mean that as a complaint: this story is far better than The Claws of Axos, and doesn’t just show how you might reimagine an old story on a ‘movie budget’ but how you can take relatively unpromising material and do amazing things with it. If Nick Briggs and Jason Arnopp did take that story as part of their inspiration, their homage to it turns everything about it around. The big flying Sky Heads from the original script are surprisingly friendly, and have fantastically massive voices… The power drain nodes are this time draining the weak aliens who say ‘Help us’ and then turn nasty… The Master again does a brilliant turn as UNIT’s scientific advisor, but it’s UNIT rather than Axos who are blackmailing him by refusing to let him get his TARDIS back… Perhaps most strikingly, at the root of the whole plot is an element that’s always been part of the Master, at its height on TV in The Deadly Assassin but framed here in an especially The Claws of Axos way: the Master hates the Doctor so much that killing him would never be enough, so he wants to humiliate him and destroy what he stands for first. In the 1971 story, the Doctor’s own a short-lived bluff made himself seem like a git who’s flying off to leave everyone to die, but here the Master takes the same idea and (at several points literally) flies with it. Death’s too good for the Doctor; humiliation alone isn’t enough; even endless subservience isn’t enough. The Master’s Doctor plan is tricking him into creating a terrible calamity and then going round as the Doctor being a total bastard on top, to make sure the Doctor’s remembered by the survivors as both responsible for horrors and for being a shit.

Like the more subtle but still clear comparisons the script draws between Klein with the Doctor – and the Other Doctor – and of course between Klein and Klein, this is about both similarities and the choices people make. While the script’s own choices bottle a few of those similarities and contrasts, at heart it’s why UNIT: Dominion works – a thrilling, epic disaster movie that remembers to be about illuminating its central characters for all the Big Giant Heads, Godzilla moments and very loud explosions around it. And between those three fantastic actors all acting as mirrors of each other, I suppose it’s another reason why poor Raine doesn’t get a look in…

The Audio Visuals: When Nick Briggs Was the Doctor

Inspired by last year’s release of Justyce Served – A Small Start with a Big Finish from Miwk Publishing, I’ve also been listening to one of the most obscure Doctor Who series of all, the “Audio Visuals” from the 1980s. As Miwk’s fascinating guidebook details, these were entirely unlicensed Doctor Who audio plays made by fans which, over the course of four seasons, became increasingly ambitious and polished. Unsurprisingly, several of the people involved went on to become the founders of Big Finish and then onto the TV series, most notably Gary Russell and Nicholas Briggs. Today Nick’s known as a writer, director, producer, the voice of the Daleks and more, but to a select group of cassette-listeners in the 1980s he was the Doctor. I was at school when these were produced and only heard of them as tantalising rumours; in the late ’90s, a friend gave me ripped copies which I only heard a few of before upgrading my PC and finding nothing would play that species of audio file any more; but after buying Justyce Served, someone else kindly gave me another set of the Audio Visuals plays that would, well, play. So far I’m three quarters of the way through them, and should I not return to review the lot, each season so far has been a quite remarkable jump in quality from the previous one. The first is a bit ropey in production and acting and all right in terms of stories; the second finds them suddenly finding their feet and producing something much more listenable; the third suddenly sounds professional, with all the stories pretty strong and a persuasive ‘arc’ running through it (though of all the stories, the grand finale is stronger on ideas than coherence). If you come across them in the dark and forgotten lanes of the Internet, there’s a good case for starting at the third series, I’d say. And the strange thing is that of the half-dozen stories remade since with much bigger budgets and more professional casts, mostly by Big Finish, the originals are almost always the most successful…

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I was absolutely blown away with this when it came out. Such an engaging story and a nice break from the "getting a bit complicated" Seventh, Ace and Hex TARDIS team storyline.

And the Master was just played so brilliantly. "Hello, you!" indeed. It has quickly become one of my favourite Big Finish productions and one day soon I'll get round to listening to the early Klein adventures. But for now I've got the new ones to listen to. Only one and bit episodes into Persuasion but I'm liking it so far.
Thanks! I'd got out of the habit of listening to Big Finishes for various reasons, but bombed through loads of them - especially those Richard had raved about. Masses of Sylv, Jago & Litefoot, and more...

I thought the Sylv-Ace-Hex-Evelyn arcs mostly worked brilliantly, but I suspect a lot of that's because I wasn't following them over 6 years but over 13 days. Klein is absolutely terrific, though, and very glad she wasn't too neutered.

Now I just hope spoilerphobes do the sensible thing and read top to bottom ;)
Don't get me wrong, I love(d) the Seventh/Ace/Hex dynamic. But after Black and White and Gods and Monsters I needed something a bit less dark.
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