Big Finish Productions
|Written by||Stephen Cole|
|Starring Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson|
|Synopsis: His hands are crushed, his tongue torn out, his mind destroyed. Is this broken man a victim of some terrible crime or part of a trap now primed and ready to spring? After this strange encounter, Romana and Leela may never be the same again.|
Spirits and lies... by Joe Ford 3/8/05
It was during the sixth chapter of the Gallifrey when I had a moment of inspiration. I treasure these as they don't happen very often. You should treasure this too because I rarely say anything worthy of note. So here it is... Why don't Big Finish stop releasing Doctor Who stories and just concentrate on the mini series they have so successfully created? In all honesty the interest in audio Doctor Who has waned seriously, just look at the Ratings Guide. Back at the beginning there were nine or ten people hungrily reviewing every story but these days you are lucky if three or four people can be bothered. Look at the polls online, all the stories from three years ago are topping those polls whilst anything brought out in the past two is languishing rather pathetically at the bottom. Is it because people have had their fill of audio Who? Is it because Big Finish has declined in quality? Is it because the interest of fandom has been transplanted over to the new TV series and to a certain extent the books which are dealing with the same set of regulars? Now I'm not saying that every single person on this Earth loathes Big Finish's Doctor Who stories but am going by the majority of the statistics and opinions I have read online.
What Big Finish has managed to achieve (and I would suggest perhaps even better than Virgin did when their Doctor Who licence was stripped away) is create a world outside of the usual Doctor Who confines, a universe where the Doctor could exist but can get along quite nicely without him. And it pains me to say it but going on the last two years' worth of releases the spin-off series have been of a much superior quality than the Doctor Who ones. The Dark Flame or Death and the Daleks? The Creed of the Kromon or Gallifrey: The Inquiry? The Next Life or A Masquerade of Death? Medicinal Purposes or A Storm of Angels? I know which I would rather listen to any day of the week. And that isn't even choosing that best of the spin off stuff!
Benny is flying high in her own series, Sarah Jane will be returning soon for another series of investigative fun and UNIT is holding the world together with their own recently successful series. There is more than enough potential in any of these to keep them going for a good while. And the crowning achievement of them all (aside from Benny, of course!) is the Gallifrey series. Big Finish has taken potentially the worst idea I have ever heard of; a series set on the dullest planet in existence and made it WORK. I mean really, really work. What's more with only five releases (until this one) there is an excellent cast of characters set up, so vivid that the stories are self perpetuating and plots from outside Gallifrey just an added bonus.
Spirit focuses on the primary strength of the series, the relationship between President Romana and her bodyguard Leela. When they travelled with Tom Baker's fourth Doctor they complimented him very well, one was the Eliza Doolittle to his Professor Higgins and the other was the Sherlock Holmes to his Watson (allowing the Doctor to take a back seat in the action and his companion do the investigating!). And yet when you put these two companions together they remind me of two sides of the Doctor's personality, Leela with the zest for life, the instincts, the questioning nature and Romana exemplifies the confidence, the intelligence and the responsibility. They are fascinating to listen to together because when they are written for well they compliment each other whilst coming at problems from opposing ends. Their personalities are so strong that they are ideal for audio, their characterisation comes from their dialogue and this is one area that audio seize upon with both hands and trump any other media.
Spirit is therapy for the two characters and for its first half I was astonished (but pleasantly surprised) that Stephen Cole was allowed to spend such a luxurious amount of time examining these two characters with zero plot to speak of. At the halfway point of the story a plot (or rather a plot device) makes itself known and an influences the remaining time but it was the initial half and its focus on strong dialogue and the Leela/Romana dynamic that impressed me the most. You don't need Timonic fusion devices or other such nonsense to make good drama, as many a programme has proven (notably DS9's Duet) all you need is two good actors and a powerful script.
This assessment of their relationship could not have come at a better time. Now the big issues of the TFD have been dealt with and Pandora has been shoved back in her box it is time for Leela and Romana to look at where they are in their lives and if they are where they should be. Leela thinks not and wants to be away from Gallifrey and its rules and politics and stuffy old men and so Romana brings her to Davidia, a paradise planet, so they can talk about it. It is nice that these characters are afforded some development away from the big plots; there is a genuine feeling that both characters understand the other much better after their holiday. Stephen Cole focuses on their individual strengths by having them each spend a day doing something of their choosing. Cue scenes of Romana traipsing through the wild and Leela experiencing a sensory depration unit. The dialogue between them is intelligent and instructive without trying to make them sound too different and in places it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. I particularly enjoyed their musings over the summer fruit, one of several excellent metaphors the play uses.
The idea of two characters getting their personalities mixed up is very old (in fact it was dealt with not so long ago in the super EDA Halflife) but I am willing to ignore the cliche because it further strengthens Romana and Leela's understanding of one another. It is also allows Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson to stretch themselves for a bit and whilst it might seem to you that playing their usual roles should be like second nature by now it is quite a shock to hear Leela recognising chemical formulas and technology so intimately and Romana being so in tune with her body. Louise plays Leela with a sharp tongue whilst Lalla is afforded the opportunity to make Romana far more vulnerable than usual. This experiment is validated by these superb performances and the bond between the two characters is stronger than ever.
I was less thrilled by the sudden appearance on the mysterious Time Lord who is on the brink of death but doesn't want to regenerate but that is only because this is pure setup for later instalments and we get no satisfying answers in Spirit. If you listen carefully you can hear the chess pieces being scraped across the board as they discuss this ominous stranger, Gary Russell and his cronies setting up the board for later stages in the great Gallifrey plan. That does actually make two setup episodes in a row now with both wrapping up their plots indefinitely and if this goes on until the climax I fear I will start to crave for standalone stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. However this is needless speculation AND we were all pre-warned that this series would be linked more strongly than last year. As long as these intriguing threads go somewhere worthwhile I'll be a very happy bunny.
Gary Russell and David Darlington have so far had total control over this mini series, finding their feet slowly but surely during the first year but far more confident in their second run. Despite some issues with revisionist continuity (Gah! What a horrific description!) both Lies and Spirit have been ably directed and scored. Both men seem much more relaxed here (and not relaxed in a Nekromanteia sort of way where the end result of their labours was a production that they weren't in the mood to do any work on that week), the story favours the performances over loud sound FX and music but those that we do get (especially on Dividia) have a welcome sense of calmness that enhances the production.
It would appear that Big Finish have got the formula just about right. Romana and Leela working together, Darkel plotting in the shadows, Braxiatel enigmatically playing both sides and Andred up to no good. With such rich characters as these, this is a series that could well push into a third run.
If you like both Leela and Romana I would suggest you give Spirit a listen. It might not have the fireworks of other releases but it has a damn sight more heart than most.