“The Chimes of Midnight”

220px-Chimes_of_Midnight“The Chimes of Midnight”, written by Rob Shearman, is the 29th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. I’ve been trying to skip ahead, up to the 180’s range, to keep up with the audios that are currently being released, but there’s so much to listen to – nearly two hundred in just the main range – and then I get recommendations from friends, like this one. My friend told me that he thinks Mr. Shearman’s work is brilliant and recommended “The Chimes of Midnight” to me; Mr. Shearman’s other audio, “Scherzo”, is, according to my friend, “f*cked up but fantastic”, and requires some previous audios, as it’s the first story in the Divergent arc. I also happened to already own “The Chimes of Midnight”, so I started there.

Some spoilers ahead (I won’t reveal the whole plot).

I’ve said earlier that one of the things that I like about the Big Finish audio plays is that, unlike the TV show, they are very willing to journey into the surreal, and “The Chimes of Midnight” doesn’t disappoint. It starts out very ordinary, with the TARDIS landing in the servant’s area of a manor house on Christmas Eve, 1906; there’s nothing strange about that. The Doctor and Charley realize pretty quickly that something is odd, and they start exploring and meeting the staff, and this is where it starts getting strange. Everyone is nice and helpful, and everyone is so excited about the cook’s plum pudding, because “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs. Baddeley’s plum pudding!” The phrase is repeated by all of the staff, and it seems to focus the surrealism, just that phrase by itself. You start to cringe when you hear it.

Of course, more strange things start to happen, starting with the scullery maid, Edith, telling Charley very matter-of-factly that she’s going to die tonight, which she does, drowned leaning over her tub with her head submerged. The rest of the staff are happy to attribute this to suicide, and when the Doctor says that it’s impossible to kill yourself that way, they claim that Edith was too stupid to know it was impossible. And then the lady’s maid, Mary, begins to realize that she’s the scullery maid, because there never was an Edith. But, an hour later, there’s Edith again, working in the scullery.

I can’t really do this storyline justice, trying to summarize it. Suffice it to say that the weird things continue to compound themselves, and they are intricately wrought to have you going in circles until the Doctor figures out what is really going on. The plot is riveting, and the performances are fantastic. I definitely would recommend this audio as a great one. It does refer back to Charley’s origin audio, “Storm Warning,” but the reference is explained well enough in the audio that I don’t feel you have to have heard it.

Advertisements

“Zagreus”

zagreusWell, I ran right into listening to “Zagreus,” the 50th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, and I am so glad I did. Now, the ratings on Time Scales varies greatly for this audio: people either love it or hate it, and I can see why. It’s a very ambitious story, attempting to force the Doctor and Charley to separately navigate their own mindscapes to figure out what’s going on without losing themselves, and a lot of people are not going to like this type of psychological drama. However, I loved it. And it cemented for me a lot more of Time Lord lore and history, which is something I really love.

Now, there is really no way for me to discuss this audio without spoilers, so you’ve been warned. Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m outlining the whole story below.

“Zagreus” (pronounced “zah-GRAY-us”, by the way – I never get these pronunciations right; I still have problems remembering to pronounce “Omega” as “OH-me-ga”) follows directly upon “Neverland.” In that audio, the Doctor foils a plot by the condemned Time Lords in the ant-time universe to destroy Gallifrey by exploding it with anti-time by having the TARDIS swallow the anti-time bomb before it explodes. However, the Doctor becomes infected by the anti-time and becomes Zagreus, a previously fictional legendary destroyer of worlds. Charley is also in the TARDIS at the time and knows about the infection, but gets separated from the Doctor.

“Zagreus” then deals with what happens next. The Doctor is left to battle this alternate personality who wants to destroy the universe, and he spends much of the first half of the audio trying to avoid or escape from traps set by it. (I’m referring to Zagreus as “it” to keep it separate from the various male characters that show up.) Meanwhile, the TARDIS appears to Charley in the form of the Brigadier. He creates simulations of three different time periods to show her some important events connected with Zagreus and the anti-time universe. In each one, Charley plays the role of someone involved in the events, but mostly as an observer. The first involves an experiment run by humans during the Cold War, in which Reverend Matthew Townsend manipulates the experiment so that it shows him the creator of the universe, or so he thinks. The experiment explodes, or course, and kills everyone present, but what he sees through it is not what he expected.

The second simulation was of Gallifrey before Rassilon created the Time Lords. Tepesh, a Council investigator, made his way into Rassilon’s foundry to figure out what exactly he was doing. He finds out that Rassilon was planning to create the Web of Time to lock the universe into the timeline he preferred, and in the pursuit of this, was creating regeneration so that the Time Lords would live longer. Rassilon had also discovered that a new race, which he called the Divergence, was going to evolve to become more powerful than the Time Lords, and so he locked them into the Divergent Universe so that the Time Lords would continue to reign supreme. This is the universe that Reverend Townsend saw through his experiment. And lastly, Rassilon decided that the Gallifreyan form should be dominant in the universe, so he seeded tens of thousands of planets so that their dominant lifeforms were forced into Gallifreyan shape. Meanwhile, Tepesh reveals himself to be a Great Vampire, one of the last existent, and explains that Rassilon had waged war to genocide his race by spreading propaganda to the Gallifreyan people that the peaceful Vampire race were malicious and evil. Rassilon then incinerated Tepesh and his companions.

The third simulation was of Walton Winkle, or Uncle Winkie, a carny devoted to creating amusement parks and animatronic creatures for entertaining children. He was put into suspended animation a short time before he was about to die from a heart condition, and when he’s brought back, he finds himself in the last version of his amusement park, built on the burnt-out cinder of a planet. He discovers that he was woken up at the end of the universe, and the dead planet he’s on is Gallifrey. He’s been kept this long because he’s the one person with the mechanical skills to… Sorry, I don’t remember exactly what it was he was supposed to do, but the whole point of all three simulations is that the Divergence is trying to come back into the real universe. At the end of this simulation, Uncle Winkie is also killed.

While going through their various trials, the Doctor and Charley separately come to realize that there are sinister things going on, more than just the Doctor becoming corrupted by anti-time. They aren’t just trapped in the TARDIS: they’re in the Matrix, where Rassilon’s consciousness has existed since he died millions of years before. Everything has been orchestrated by Rassilon: he took the opportunity of the Doctor becoming infected by anti-time to bring the Zagreus persona into existence, to use it to destroy the Divergence as well as to use it to secure his hold on the Time Lords and the universe. While Rassilon forces the Doctor/Zagreus into forging a weapon that will kill the Divergence, Charley finds herself with Matrix representations of Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie, as well as President Romana, who, when she sees them, calls them Doctor – the men that Charley saw in the simulations have the forms of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Together, they confront Rassilon and (after a few more twists and turns) cast him into the Divergent Universe to be dealt with by the beings Rassilon had been trying to kill. However, the Doctor, still infected by anti-time, chooses to exile himself to the Divergent Universe, to protect the real universe from the anti-time within him.

As you can see, it’s quite a complicated plot, and there are some very cool/disturbing things that happen that I haven’t mentioned – you’ll just have to experience them yourself. They managed to create a plot that’s part adventure (how is Charley going to survive those simulations?), part history lesson, and part psychological drama, and it’s successful for some people (I thought it was riveting) but not for others.

One thing that was extremely interesting was how they presented the guest characters. Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie were depicted in the simulations and the Matrix as looking like the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (and indeed possessed significant character traits of those Doctors), and as such were played by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. But it’s also explained that the simulations presented by the TARDIS used faces that the TARDIS was familiar with, and so all of the other characters in them looked like old companions and were played by their actors (for example, Tepesh’s fellow vampire Ouida was played by Nicola Bryant). It was wonderful hearing all of these wonderful actors playing new parts, plus a few playing their regular parts (Lalla Ward as Romana, Louise Jameson as Leela, John Leeson as K9, Miles Richardson as Braxiatel). However, I can imagine that someone who bought the audio based on the cast list might be very disappointed to not hear an audio with a giant meeting of multiple Doctors and their companions and hate this audio just for that reason. Heck, the cover image up there implies this is a meeting of four Doctors.

Bottom line, I really liked “Zagreus.” I can certainly see why a lot of people don’t. Honestly, if nothing else, I’d recommend listening to it just to find out how corrupted Rassilon really was, because it really gives you a good sense of just how different from the other Time Lords the Doctor really is.

“Storm Warning” and “Neverland”

neverlandOver the last couple of days, I listened to “Storm Warning” and “Neverland,” two Eight Doctor/Charley Pollard audios which are connected by narrative events; the final part of this story arc is “Zagreus,” which I haven’t listened to yet (but I am eager to get to).

“Storm Warning” is Charley’s first episode. In 1930, the Doctor finds himself on the maiden voyage of a British airship, the R101, where he meets Charley, who has disguised herself as a male cabin boy, for the adventure of traveling on the airship. The Doctor realizes that the fate of the airship is to crash that evening during a storm in France, and because he’s taken a liking to Charley, he tries to save her from dying in the disaster. In “Neverland,” the Time Lords summon the Doctor to investigate some fractures in the Web of Time that are spreading and threatening to destroy the universe.

Without spoilers, I can say that “Storm Warning” was pretty average, with an uninspired story, while “Neverland” was fantastic. When “Neverland” was over, I thought to myself, “I wish the TV episodes were like this audio.” In addition to a great plot with a number of twists, it addressed a number of moral issues and challenged the Doctor’s beliefs. You don’t need to listen to “Storm Warning” to enjoy “Neverland,” and I would definitely say that if you get the chance to listen to it, grab it!

One thing I will say, though, after listening to these two audios, is that I really like the Eighth Doctor. He comes across as somewhat flighty, eccentric, and non-serious, but very personable and caring, and of course, like all of the Doctors, he has a core of steel. He also has that fascination with exploring the universe and seeing new things that I love so much in the Tenth Doctor, more so than any of the other Doctors. I am also very impressed with Paul McGann: he is a fantastic actor. I think it must be difficult to act in audios, because you can’t rely on facial expressions and movements to convey emotion and meaning, but Mr. McGann does incredibly well with just his voice: he can make you picture him, which is something most of the actors can’t do very well – they act their lines out, but Mr. McGann gives something more to the performance. I wish I could explain what I mean better.

Spoilerific discussion:

The problem I had with “Storm Warning” was that the alien race was just way out there, too weird and too improbable. I know that aliens have to be designed so that they react the way the author needs, so that the story happens the way it’s supposed to, but in this case, it was really obvious they were designed to fit the plot. It isn’t successful if the audience is thinking in such meta terms. Beyond that, though, the rest of the plot – what the humans were trying to accomplish, why they attacked the aliens, and the final outcome of the Lawgiver problem – was very predictable and not interesting. The story was mostly interesting for the introduction of Charley, and at least she was a great character to meet.

“Neverland” was enthralling all the way through, starting with the disintegration of the Web of Time from the very first seconds of the audio. We find out that Charley’s death in the R101 crash in “Storm Warning” was equivalent to what the modern series calls a “fixed point” and the Doctor saving her life there caused her to become a gateway between our universe and the universe of anti-time. (The Doctor mused about saving her life at the end of “Storm Warning” but was unable to identify any problems with her continuing to exist.) The Time Lords call the Doctor back to go on an expedition into the anti-time universe, to find out why the Web of Time is breaking down. There, they find that all of the Time Lord criminals that the Time Lords used to erase from history (a punishment they stopped using) had been sent there, and these people are angry, wanting to send anti-time into the real universe, to destroy it.

As in most of the other good Doctor Who stories, the characters are not black and white: the different characters have motivations other than what they’re saying out loud, and the Doctor finds that, in order to get everyone back to the real universe and keep the anti-time inhabitants from succeeding in their revenge plot, he has to figure out who’s trustworthy and who’s not. He does finally come to the conclusion that the only way to succeed is to sacrifice himself (in a very interesting way), and that doesn’t go unnoticed, as Rassilon himself appears and expresses his appreciation of the  Doctor’s efforts throughout his life. And then there’s the twist at the end, making me want to run off and listen to “Zagreus” right now (as if I needed any more prodding – I’ve seen the cast list for “Zagreus” and I’m surprised I took the time to sit down and write this instead of popping it in).

“Neverland” was absolutely wonderful, and there are a number of scenes that I plan to go back and listen to again, because they were so wonderful and meaningful. One other thing: this isn’t a fair reaction, because it only came about because I’ve seen the modern show before listening to “Neverland,” but the Rassilon scene brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful in the first place, because the Time Lords have rarely appreciated the Doctor but Rassilon himself displayed his approval of the Doctor’s beliefs and his constant fight to uphold them. But Rassilon’s depiction here, as a wise and benevolent figure, only underscores the corruption of the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War, as you compare him here to his character in The End of Time. It was heartbreaking.