Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "Real Time"

And now for something.... a little different.

As I've mentioned before, in 'the Wilderness Years' when Doctor Who was off the air, the BBC licensed out the rights to the show. Book publishing went to billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin media empire and the audio rights went to a company called Big Finish.

Big Finish began doing audio dramas featuring four of the five surviving Doctors -- the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker), the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann -- who otherwise only got one poorly received TV movie to his name). They also rounded up many of the actors and actresses who played companions in the past to reprise those roles alongside the Doctors.

The idea was that the audios were stories which happened in-between the television serials. Since, by the modern era, the show rarely had serials which were obviously linked this was reasonably plausible. Big Finish, however, also began branching out to introduce new companions which also fell in-between the televised stories. So the Fifth Doctor and companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) picked up an ancient Egyptian princess named Erimem as a traveling companion for a while, the Seventh Doctor picked up a young nurse named Hector, "Hex" Schofield, and the Sixth Doctor picked up, among others, a fifty-five year-old history professor named Evelyn Smythe (played by actress Maggie Stables).

In 2002, the BBC, interested in taking more advantage of the opportunities offered by the web, approached Big Finish with a proposition -- to create an original Doctor Who story which featured a complete audio cast along with limited flash-based animations. Big Finish agreed and a story was created featuring the Sixth Doctor -- Colin Baker. At that time, in the Big Finish audios, Evelyn Smythe was the Sixth Doctor's companion and so she became the Doctor's companion for "Real Time" -- making it the first time a non-canon companion has appeared on a BBC sponsored story. It would also mark a costume change for the Doctor as the animators found the Sixth Doctor's clashing coat impossible to translate to the simplified animations. As such a new, blue coat was designed. This outfit would prove quite popular with fans (gee, I can't imagine why) to the point where it has even been featured as a variant in a Sixth Doctor action figure.

Due to the Internet limitations of the time the story was decided to run in 12 minute parts for a total of 60 minutes. The story was also supposed to take place as near as possible in "real time" -- so a five minute conversation between characters would take up five minutes in the story as well.

"Real Time" can still be found and listened to on the BBC's Classic Doctor Who website HERE. The flash animations no longer seem to work (or at least I can't get them to work) but the audio plays perfectly well and the story doesn't really need the animations to be followed. Fair warning though -- the story has to be played using Real Player. If you don't have Real Player loaded on your computer you might have some problems listening.

And now, on to the review!

The Plot: In the 33rd century two archaeological teams go missing from a strange planet. The last communication from them mentions a temporal wave... and Cybermen. A third team is dispatched to solve the mystery and the Doctor is asked along as an expert in both the Cybermen and time.

The team soon discovers a temporal gateway inside and temple and the expedition leader is pulled through only to be returned mere moments later converted into a Cyberman! The other missing archaeologists have been similarly converted and they converge on the rescue team threatening to kill everyone unless the Doctor gives them the secrets to his TARDIS!

The Doctor knows that with the TARDIS at their control nowhere and nowhen would be safe from the Cybermen. But the stakes are even higher than he realized as he learns that in this time and this place the timeline is in flux and there is a horrible potential past and future for the Earth which could become a reality as well. The Doctor must step very carefully now because the whole of time -- past and future -- rests on his decisions...

My Take: I love audio dramas. I have loved them since I listened to my first Flash Gordon at the age of 16. Modern audio stories get to benefit from bigger and better casts, better recording technology, better sound effects and original music... all of which this story has.

Doing Doctor Who in what basically amounts to an audio format also has the added benefit of not being bound by the limits of technology or budget for special effects. The only limitation to the visuals here is the power of the listener's imagination. Which is actually a mixed blessing... as I'll get into later.

The performances range from good to mediocre -- as does the script really. Colin Baker gets to show off a more tempered version of the Doctor than the one which appeared in the television episodes. To be honest, I used to hate Baker's version of the Doctor until I listened to a few of the audios. The Big Finish writers managed to strike a perfect balance -- still keeping the haughtiness, the arrogance, and the smug superiority but dialing them all back down from '11' and then cutting them with a greater sense of empathy and a deep warmth for his companion. In point of fact, at one point in the story the Doctor remarks upon the "love I hold for Evelyn" -- something that never would have happened in the TV stories where he was too busy insulting the intelligence of his companion there.

Maggie Stables is also quite fine as Evelyn. An older, more measured and feisty companion -- someone who is willing to take the Doctor to task and take him down a peg or two when his arrogance threatens to fly to high. Stables and Baker play off of one another well and comfortably -- which is a sign of the established working relationship the two had by this point in time.

The rest of the cast is where things get a little tricky. Most of the supporting cast are steady but not exceptional with a few missteps where they are obviously overplaying their roles with the misguided thinking that they need to "sell" the part more because the audience cannot see their faces. Probably the weakest link is Yee Jee Soo playing the character of Reece Goddard. Soo already had a history with Doctor Who having appeared in the 1996 made-for-TV movie featuring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Here Soo's tone is almost universally off. He comes across as awfully bright and cheerful most of the time which is just wrong considering most of what is happening in the script.

And then there's the script. It, too, is uneven. Many scenes come off forced -- for example the "banter" between members of the rescue team which is supposed to indicate a warm camaraderie and a long-standing friendship between the characters. Instead it feels false -- an imperfect imitation of real banter. There are also many scenes which go into "info-dump mode" (as I like to call it) where one of the characters suddenly turns into Captain Exposition (insert heroic trumpet fanfare here) imparts a tremendous amount of information -- usually in the form of backstory -- in one huge splat. And the audience's eyes glaze over in response. Of course, some of this might be forgiven due to the time limitations the story was operating under. But really, if the time limitations were hurting that much perhaps a simpler story should have been told.

Where script writer Gary Russell really excels here, though, is in playing around with that central idea of the show: Time. There is non-TARDIS time travel involved, potential alternate timelines which might become the real timeline, and threats to the stability of the past and the future -- all with the Doctor at the heart of it. And isn't that what Doctor Who is supposed to be about?

The sound effects used are also good -- helping to tell the story without overwhelming it. In point of fact they might be too good. And here's where having an active imagination is a curse... as well as being another problem with the script. There is death here. And it's gruesome and horrible even without any visuals. At several points the website warns that there are scenes which might be inappropriate for younger audiences. And that's a problem... on multiple levels.

For one, it shows one of the problems which hit the show in later years as well as one of the problems with a lot of the spin-off media... Doctor Who for an adult audience. Over the course of decades the show had slowly been pushing the envelope. It didn't want to be considered a "kids' show" and it pushed with more sophisticated stories, more stories with themes which resonated with an older audience, etc. By the time the show went off the air it's target audience was far more 'teens and up' than 'whole family viewing'. When it came to the books, many of them also told darker stories with death, destruction, blood, torture, and the like. The BBC may have put "Real Time" on their website but it's audience was definitely not younger computer users.

For another thing... well, it's very off-putting. I'm not a fan of horror movies; they're not my bag of goods and several scenes here skate pretty close to horror movie levels. For example, one of the expedition team members has his head crushed by a Cyberman. He screams in pain and fear for several seconds before the inevitable 'crunch-squish'. Likewise, we listen as another team member is converted into a Cyberman. We hear whirring machinery and his screams going on and on and on until they start taking on an electronic tone and then finally stop. Ugh. Seriously, I sat and shuddered. It was really uncalled for and also, if this had been something shown on TV they never would have gone that far. But somehow not having the visuals is supposed to make it more okay to write something so horrific. Ick. No thank you.

If you're someone like me who hated the Sixth Doctor then this is actually a pretty good place to start to see what kind of Doctor Colin Baker really could have been if only he had been given better scripts. It's also a fascinatingly complex time travel story. Fair warning though -- the story ends on something of a cliffhanger which was never resolved. After this the BBC decided to do all of their web-based stuff in-house and so did not collaborate with Big Finish again and Big Finish decided not to do a sequel of their own. As such this story has officially been labeled as "non-canon" by both the BBC and Big Finish. It also has some scenes not for the faint of heart. If you're curious, though, it's free and a fairly decent waste of an hour's time if for no other reason than a look at what might have been for Colin Baker.

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