Saturday, November 16, 2013

Doctor Who at 50: Storm Warning

Storm Warning cover and Big Finish link

One sour note in Doctor Who's long history is that Paul McGann's star turn as the Eighth Doctor in the 1996 TV movie was essentially a one-off (at least until very recently)- when the show finally did return, it was nine years later and time for a new Doctor.  Even the film's harshest critics tended to have nothing but praise for McGann's performance, and it took the fellows at Big Finish to let us see (or hear) what he was capable of in the long term. Storm Warning marked McGann's debut with the BF audio series, and it's still one of the best jumping on points they have, an adventure that not only tells a thrilling story and introduces a new companion, but shows off just what a Doctor Who story can be without the constraints of a visual effects budget.

The Doctor follows a bunch of temporal scavengers through the time-space vortex an onto a British airship, the R101, making its ill-fated voyage across Europe. (For those who don't know, and I didn't at first, the R101 was essentially Britain's equivalent of the Hindenburg.) On board the ship is Charley Pollard (India Fisher), free-spirited adventuress and stowaway, as well as British Minister of the Air Lord Tamworth (Gareth Thomas), the designer Lt. Col. Frayling (Nicholas Pegg), Tamworth's valet Rathbone (Barnaby Edwards), and a mysterious passenger in a diving suit. When the Doctor meets the passengers- and helps chase off a confused Vortisaur- he soon discovers the passenger's true identity, as the R101 makes an unscheduled rendezvous with a flying saucer, for a diplomatic meeting between humanity and the alien Triskele.

It's here that the story gets really interesting. The Triskele (who are all voiced by Helen Goldwyn, with various modulating effects) are a strictly regimented society built along three roles- the Engineers who build, the Lawgiver who dictates, and the Uncreators, the soldiers and destructive forces of the race, currently held in chains. It's a fascinating and delicate balance that can't last for very long, and much of the story is an exploration of this alternate culture, something Doctor Who rarely has the time to do outside of the novels. There's a certain parallel between the construction of the Triskele society and Freud's theory of the subconscious, but it's not confined to a psychological reading; we're left to work out the themes for ourselves.

It's remarkable how well the story conveys some of its central images, notably the tour of the Triskele spaceship, which actually rearranges itself around the stationary triskelion the passengers inhabit. True, at the very start of the story McGann has to deliver some labored descriptions of things he can see to nobody in particular (since it's important that he's on his own), but in later scenes the exposition is much more natural and the increasingly conceptual nature of the story lets them avoid having to do much physical description- when the Doctor and the boarding party are surrounded by increasingly unruly Uncreators, it doesn't really matter what they look like.

McGann didn't miss a beat in the five year gap between the TV movie and this audio. He's an actor with a very strong grasp on the character of the Doctor, portraying the eighth incarnation as an idealistic, wide-eyed explorer, someone whose knowledge and experience doesn't blunt his enthusiasm. India Fisher makes an excellent match as Charley, someone who's already started adventuring on her own and so doesn't have to think very hard about following the Doctor. But the plot of the story and of the doomed R101 voyage sets up an interesting character arc, setting up the Eighth Doctor's audio adventures to be more than isolated fill-ins.

I've recommended Storm Warning as a good first audio for people new to Big Finish's material, and I'm not the only one; it's an excellent season premiere for the series McGann should have gotten years earlier. Beyond that, it does some fascinating things with its medium and embraces audio theater's strength when it comes to rapidly shifting realities. The story is thoughtful, the acting superb, and overall there's just not much wrong with it. If you want to know why so many people were over the moon when "Night of the Doctor" was posted, this is a good place to start.

Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by Gary Russell

Grade: A-

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