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November 24, 2008

Mirage

Zygon Forty-five years.  Let those syllable roll around your mouth as you say them out loud.  Four-tee-five-yeeaarrrs.  A certain sketch from Doctor Who Night not withstanding, it’s doubtful Sydney, Verity and Waris had any idea that the tale they began with an imagined ‘One upon a time…’ and a junkyard all those years ago would still be in the process of being told four and a half decades later, with full stop or ‘The End’ nowhere in sight.  The Doctor might walk into the sunset now and then, be interrupted by a freeze frame or make some bad choices, but he continues, still fighting. 

And what better way to celebrate than with a story which typically captures exactly why he endures, that features an incarnation of the Doctor who only appeared in the show’s natural home of television once, in a version made in an unnatural home after a gap of seven years or so and who five years later began recording audio versions for cd.  The play is authored by a writer who arguably found favour producing novels based on this incarnation and includes a monster who appeared on television only once, thirty years ago.  Phew.

Happy birthday to you, Doctor Who.  You don’t look a day over forty-two.

Even with it's rather fantastic title (which almost canonizes the play as a classic in and of itself) The Zygon Who Fell To Earth is another example of the kind trick Paul Magrs which has always stood Paul Magrs in good stead, in which his more way out ideas are threaded through a fairly traditional story type.  So his Tenth Doctor novel, Sick Building, features a base under siege story inhabited by sentient sunbeds and vending machines, or his story for the last series of Eighth and Lucie stories, The Horror of Glam Rock, in which a roadside café was attacked by what I still maintain were killer Wombles.  This latest episode is a small scale alien invasion story, which the crashed remnants of a race attempt to take over the world, but with the twist that one of the aliens had gone native, assumed the identity of folk singer, married a woman we know as Lucie’s Auntie and opened up a small lakeside hotel, surprising omnisexual implications included.  Unlike City of Death, the twist is that Pat is fully aware that her significant other is a space invader and doesn’t see why it should be a barrier to a successful marriage. 

surprising omnisexual implications

In the hands of another writer this could have been mawkish or silly or weighed down by its own philosophical pomposity.  But by opening on a light mood before nihilistically sticking the knife in, or in this case, the Skaresen, he gives the listener some time to become attached to the characters.  If only all of writers of these plays had been so patient.  Lynsey Hardwick’s Patricia makes a welcome return but the reunion is not overplayed for a change having occurred off-speaker before the adventure begins.  Trevor is as normal as can be (considering), Steven Pacey’s regional gasp underscoring his ordinary life, despite his extraordinary origins.  Even as the Doctor and Lucie natter about Wordsworth, this is a domestic scene, with even the visiting Zygons forced to partake in its crushing, restful triviality.

At this point, the story might not have been about aliens at all, but two cold war spies turning up to remind a sleeper of his duties.  Except the neat performances Malcolm Stoddard and Tim Brook-Taylor (Goodie, goodie, yum, yum) offer the impression of something being very wrong with Urtak and Mims, oh, and the title, which unlike Brave New Town of couple of weeks ago gives a fairly big hint of the returning alien.  Which is where, hidden in the middle of this paragraph, I make a rather startling revelation.  I’ve never seen Terror of the Zygons, which I know in some circles is tantamount to saying that you haven’t visited a galaxy, far, far, away.  But bar some publicity stills, a few clips of Tom in a tamashanta and the usual osmosis which means I know what Sarah Jane was talking about in School Reunion with the Loch Ness Monster, I’ve no idea what happens in that story.

Goodie, goodie, yum, yum

Though clearly I do now, since the bottom end of The Zygon Who Fell To Earth explains everything you need to know, unexpectedly pulling in a references to The Bodysnatchers, an old Eighth Doctor novel I’d tried to forget.  The exposition's not exactly seemless, but for once it doesn't get in the way of the drama.   I'm surprised the new series hasn’t resurrected the Zygons yet, with their budget saving ability to assume human form, though admittedly the Slitheen and The Family of Blood have done much the same thing.  They were achieved very well on audio with the huskiness of their voices demarking the change in shape, and their personalities, a kind of teenage hectoring mixed with utter sadism with a dash of strategic genius, perfect for the 80s setting in which just that kind of personality made a killing on the stock market (the fallout from which we’re finally having to deal with).  But they’re hard to dislike even as they’re plotting to use a mix of the plot of the film which almost bares this play's name and a lo-fi version of the Sontaran stratagem to take over the world.

Like that adventure too, we’ve an evil companion doppelganger, Lucie this time instead of Martha, and like Freema, Sheridan understood that the best way to play those scene is simply to key the performance down slightly, remove the lively spikes from the tone of voice.  Also as in that adventure, we’ve a livelier Doctor seemingly offering enough bumptiousness for the two of them, asking the questions which his companion is strangely forgetting about, commenting instead of curious.  I’ve been loving McGann’s attack on the role in these stories and he’s in good spirits here, with in the darker moments, a return of the man we remember from the earlier audios, the commanding rather than bluff presence, deciding exactly which status quo he thinks should be perpetuated.

This was grade A, top side Doctor Who of the kind which pops up now and then and reminds you of why you love the franchise.  Having made the pun in the title, Magrs feels the need to inject some further musical references, making the main supporting character a musician.  But typically rather than simply turning Trevor into a former Bowie impersonator or something, instead he's an ex-folk singer and we get to hear his hit anyway, sung with great determination by the man who was once Tarrant in Blake's 7.  I love these sojurn's into fake music history and this is certainly preferable to Children of Tomorrow from last year, even in deliciously accurate rubbish 80s 12" remix. 

sung with great determination by the man who was once Tarrant in Blake's 7

But it’s at the close of what's been an uneven radio series that we finally see what the show is capable of and if you haven’t heard the play yet, I’d look away now.  That final moment in which Lucie reflects on the death of her Auntie Pat and how she can’t be dead because she remembers her, with the Doctor explaining that the web of time is a resilient construct, is amazing, and probably the best scene this series.  It takes a giant sci-fi concept which has developed across the decades, and makes it personal, explaining why the Whoniverse can be contradictory and demonstrating that even a simple human can deal with the consequences of that and then, like Father’s Day, someone makes a sacrifice so that it can happen.  Was Trevor’s meant to survive all along or are we seeing/hearing an example of how time rights itself?  We might never know.

Next Week:  The Chimes at Midnight !?! Or I might have another idea …

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