Last year (though it feels longer) before every review of the first series of Eighth Doctor BBC7 (as it was then) plays, I’d include a spoiler warning because I was aware that they hadn’t been released on CD yet and there would be some people waiting for those rather than listening to their radio broadcast. This time, the reverse is true and yet, with Brave New Town I feel like it’s still important because there’s a rather neat left (or right) turn which is best approach without some idea of a road map. The title was even changed because the original gave too much information away. The Wikipedia gives the game away too, rotters. So consider yourself warned. There be spoilers ahead.
tonight the nature of the franchise changed – the show will never be the same again
With that kind of build up, you’d expect me to dive straight into a glowing review, infused with phrases like, “tonight the nature of the franchise changed – the show will never be the same again” but I’m really not. Brave New Town is actually a pleasantly old fashioned bit of Doctor Who, which in its plotting and payoff wouldn’t have seemed too out of place in the 60s, tucked in between The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker. The story begins with the opening of the Tardis and the Doctor and Lucie finding themselves trailing around a desolate sea side town and as they discover that every day isn’t like Sunday, but is Sunday and the power is off, for they’re passengers in the ensuing events, with the Doctor only really taking charge at the conclusion.
Where writer Jonathan Clements parts company with the Spooner style of storytelling is the lack of jeopardy for the time travellers – the blue box doesn’t disappear into quicksand and it hasn’t been half-inched by powers unknown. Alternatively, now in the position of simply expecting something to be wrong wherever they land, the cravat man and her dive straight into the mystery discovering that this isn’t some pocket universe of the kind already featured in Dead London or Memory Lane, or a repeating time loop resonating with the sound of the Chimes of Midnight, but a Soviet recreation of the English Riviera; it’s the old late eighties John Travolta film The Experts. That’s surprise number one – that the setting is so pleasingly mundane, not weird for its own sake and as far as I’ve heard perfectly plausible, a Pleasantville with an aural Bryan Adams inspired soundscape instead of Leave It To (Joan Allen's) Beaver.
a Pleasantville with an aural Bryan Adams inspired soundscape instead of Leave It To (Joan Allen's) Beaver.
Surprise number two is of course the Autons. Don’t cut yourself up too much for your stupidity, Doctor, I had no idea it was them either. If this hadn’t been an audio and they looked like the rubbish Mickey from their last broadcast outing in Rose I might have had a chance. Clements takes full advantage of the fact that we couldn’t see them, allowing us to sympathise with them before their being revealed as latex alien psychopaths. The understandable tendency in on television is to reveal the monster in the teaser and let the Doctor and co catch up with them and the audience – call that the Columbo approach; I much prefer the Poirot in which we’re as in the dark as the detective for much of the time and perhaps just slightly behind him; it’s more satisfying somehow and offers the tantalising prospect of ‘working out’ what’s going on before the hero does (though in the best written stories we never can).
Flipping expectations, the antagonist here isn’t the Autons themselves but the pirate radio version of the Nestene Consciousness invading and sapping away their identity. Though with shades of umpteen episodes of Star Trek in which the Borg attempt to assert their identity from the hive mind, though in this largely angst free version of the Whoniverse, there were no great complaints from the community about their loss of identity (unlike say Marc Platt’s seminal Spare Parts) mostly because they weren’t too aware that voice in their heads was doing much harm. Instead, the plastic cast of an Ealing comedy were passive-aggressively non-threatening even as they marched on the oil wells never sounding like they’d know what to do with their finger guns, let alone shoot them. It’s potentially arresting image, the entire population of a village marching across an empty river bed.
Surprisingly considering the lack of story to go round, I think this is the kind of story which is hurt by the short format. Over four episodes, we would have been able to spend more time with Jason the newsagent so touchingly played by Derek Griffiths, and his daughter Sally, dealing with that dynamic, she his daughter but not quite. Also flesh wounded are the army types whose presence was kept fairly shadowy and enigmatic, with Adrian Dunbar’s McCarthy never quite breaking out of his fairly generic anti-Alistair shell, despite the actor’s spirited playing. But this might well be my preference for character over plot bobbing to the surface; it’s just that everything seemed to be over too soon with the climax being typically rushed. Like the Hartnell stories which seemed to be influencing it, the resolution was beautifully simplistic, tossing something in a thing and then drop a cliff on top of it.
Surprisingly considering the lack of story to go round, I think this is the kind of story which is hurt by the short format.
I suppose it’s worth discussing where the series is three episodes in. Broadcasting to a tiny audience on a minority channel, listening to these stories in contrast to the television series feels rather like attending a fringe meeting at a party conference when the leader of the party is giving his speech in the main hall. Unlike last year with the connecting tissue of the Lucie story or the various arc stories in the in-vision counterpart, these three so far have betrayed a lack of momentum, a lack of continuity. Paul and Sheridan are clearly loving each other’s company which is infectious and still the best thing about the plays, but I think this is the first run of Eighth Doctor stories in any media which aren’t connected to one another somehow, and it feels weird. Perhaps I expect too much, perhaps I should just be pleased to have a new weekly slice of the franchise on free radio, for at least another three weeks, especially given the upcoming drought. We have been spoilt of late, haven’t we?