Saturday, November 30, 2013

Doctor Who at 50: The Sword of Orion

CD cover and link to Big Finish

While the Big Finish Audios have frequently played with the boundaries of the traditional Doctor Who story, both in order to better serve the audio medium and experiment with storytelling in general, they're still aiming for the same basic giddy thrill that the TV show inspires. "The Sword of Orion" gives us a traditional Cyberman story, a siege by a relentless force of silver giants with overtones of cosmic war that are never fully defined. The story has a few rough patches, which might be explained by excessive adherence to tradition, but the results are suitably atmospheric, and it's good to see McGann's Doctor face off against some classic villains.

The Doctor (Paul McGann) and Charley (India Fisher) have a problem. Ramsey, the Vortisaur they have been looking after since the events of last story, is too ill to return to the wilds of the time-space vortex, and neither of them know about the proper care and feeding of Vortisaurs. So they head to a bazaar in the middle of a space station, where the TARDIS ends up loaded onto a space barge, forcing them to follow along with a crew of low-rent spacehands (and one very disciplined captain) out to salvage what they can from a giant derelict space cruiser. However, it turns out to be a Cyber-warship with several living Cybermen on board, reawakening just in time to try and take over the crew.

In keeping with a tradition of Cyber-epics, the actual Cyberman reawakening and attack does not take place until halfway through the serial; there's a crazed rogue running about as foreshadowing, but most of the first half is spent establishing the characters and their world, a desperate group of people on the fringe of civilization. There's nothing special to this setup- it's largely the Firefly/Traveller tradition of tramp freighter commerce- but it's well drawn and a suitable backdrop for an invasion of emotionless, bloodless drones who are, paradoxically, motivated by the same desire to survive.  By acting as both writer and director of this installment, Nicholas Briggs manages to realize a consistently believable environment with nothing standing out as particularly awkward.

Brigg's involvement, according to Big Finish's page at least, extends as far as the music, an excellent evocation of the oppressive, dissonant metallic marches of "The Moonbase" and "Tomb of the Cybermen." In their first real appearance since their job as cannon fodder in the TV story "Silver Nemesis", the Cybermen come off as a legitimate and chilling threat, able to quickly enslave crewmembers and send Cybermats to sabotage ships' systems. The idea that audio plays can afford unlimited special effects, while not strictly true, is reinforced by this story not being limited in the number of costumes that can be built or how they can show people spacewalking between ships- the Cybermen are simply an overwhelming force, possibly moreso than they've ever been.

The story's slow pacing does bring about one major problem, there, in that a central plot twist is not revealed until the fourth and final chapter, meaning all of the information needed to put it in context has to be delivered just then. The story is a bit longer than usual, coming in at over two hours, and this is readily apparent in the final episode which drags more than it should considering how the rest of it has moved. It's an interesting story in itself but might have been better presented over the course of the main plot.

The selling point of this story is really seeing- or at least hearing- Paul McGann's Doctor battle the Cybermen, something he didn't get the chance to do on screen due to the vagaries of American television. To this extent Briggs really delivers, with a solid storyline and a genuinely atmospheric production. It doesn't do much more than this, but it's good enough just as a traditional monster story that a lack of ambition isn't much of a problem. Doctor Who need not always be formulaic, but there's a certain ritual value to the familiar, at least when it's done properly. In this case the magic works, and that's enough.

Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs

Grade: B+

No comments: