Big Finish Productions
Doctor Who and the Pirates
|Written by||Jacqueline Rayner|
|Continuity||Between Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani.|
|Starring Colin Baker and Maggie Stables|
|Also featuring Bill Oddie, Dan Barratt, Helen Goldwyn, Nicholas Pegg, Mark Siney, Timothy Sutton|
|Synopsis: All aboard, me hearties, for a rip-roaring tale of adventure on the high seas! There'll be rum for all and sea shanties galore as we travel back in time to join the valiant crew of the good ship Sea Eagle, braving perils, pirates and a peripatetic old sea-dog known only as the Doctor!|
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 26/5/03
Billed mostly as a musical this was to be the "Big Finish stretching of the format" story, and it was one I was eagerly anticipating. I love delving into Earth's past, particularly when the lighter side of history is on show. The previous 2 dramas involved space battles, far away planets - I enjoyed them, but it was this pirate story that really whet my appetite. It was time for some sea-faring derring-do - with some surprising twists and turns along the way. I like adventure stories, and treasure hunts were amongst my favourites when I was younger. The promise of Goodie Bill Oddie as the Pirate King, Colin Baker and Maggie Stables adventuring, and Gilbert and Sullivan - I couldn't wait!
It was quite excellent then that my Big Finish subs arrived earlier than expected, just in time for the Easter Holidays. When I remember the Easter Break of 2003, it will always be associated with this pirate adventure. One that I listened to in the splendid April sunshine, whilst walking along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. A glorious day, and a glorious production all round, a wonderful memory.
I expected a musical from the off, such were the previews focus on that side of the production. In fact most of the story isn't a musical at all. The music becomes a way of embellishing the story that Evelyn and the Doctor are telling. And it all works extremely well. As the story begins it's clear that this is a story that allows for some flowering, some tall telling. Evelyn is the great elaborator at first, and the Doctor joins in later, both show they can mix it with the best storytellers.
The 6th Doctor and Evelyn here show why they are the best partnership that current DW has. The enthusiasm with which they enter into every aspect of this production is totally wonderful. This is a story that would have fallen flat if any of the actors weren't at the top of their game - thankfully all, especially the leads, are - and what results is one of the most entertaining 2 hours I can recall.
It is not just the Doctor and Evelyn who carry the plaudits here. Bill Oddie is magnificent as Red Jasper. As he switches between madness, sadism and stupidity - this is star casting at its best. He could very well have the best villain of 2003 award sewn up already. Excellent too are all the other supporting players. Helen Goldwyn is wonderful as story-listener, Sally. Not only is she a great actress, able to run the whole range of emotion that her character goes through, but she can sing like an angel. Daniel Barratt, Mark Siney, Nicholas Pegg and Timothy Sutton are also excellent in their respective roles.
Jacqueline Rayner proves too that Marian Conspiracy was not a one-off. The play is constantly interesting, with a script of the highest quality. She is equally adept whether writing the lyrics for songs, lighter moments, or the deeper, more emotional ones. This story does have its tearful scenes, which quite surprised me after the riotous adventure yarn that preceded it - but it works beautifully. The whole script is laced with humour, with dozens of quotable lines.
It is the music which will undoubtedly place this story apart from the rest though - despite the fact that only Episode 3 is a musical episode (and how about that for a cliffhanger for Part 2 - poor Colin Baker - his singing is not that scary!). Due to the story-telling nature of the production, this musical episode fits in brilliantly. I am a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan - and as their greatest hits are used, this inevitably produces a fantastically entertaining episode. I originally thought the music would be in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, not actual songs by them. What actually happens is that Sullivan's music is there intact. It is Gilbert's words that are changed. Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals often contained pirates, and tales of the high seas - it's yet another reason why Dr Who and the Pirates works so fantastically well, the music is totally in keeping with the nature of the story that is being told.
The standard of the music on offer is very good indeed. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are not naturally brilliant singers, but they can carry a tune pretty well. Their enthusiastic renditions were great appreciated. The deliberate casting of actors who can sing makes the music excellent, as does the musical director's assured arrangements. Everything is done professionally, they make the most of these wonderful tunes that are likely to last far into the future. I really doubt whether Big Finish will top Episode 3 this year, I don't think they ever have - an episode poll winner in my opinion.
What Big Finish, Jacqueline Rayner, and the cast have produced here is something that pleases the senses. I positively bounced along that canal towpath as I listened to it. I really thought it was fantastic. As a comedy historical it works. As an adventuring, swashbuckling tale it works. As an emotional drama it works. As a musical it works. As an example of how entertaining Doctor Who can be, it stands amongst the very best. 10/10
A Review by Bob Aylward 10/6/03
I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure. My first thought upon the conclusion was "Wow!" I am not usually a fan of musicals, but I must say that I didn't mind the singing that occurs in the second part of the story.
This story is really a story within a story. You find both stories to be compelling and are eager to hear what happens next. Just when you thought that the folks at Big Finish have done everything they possibly can with a Doctor Who story they produce something completely unexpected and incredible. I don't know that the BBC could have produced a Doctor Who musical and lived to tell about it.
As always, Colin Baker and Maggie Stables were outstanding and the supporting cast was superb. In particular, Dan Barratt turned in a very moving performance of Jem, the cabin boy. However, the part of Red Jasper, played by Bill Oddie reminded me of the pirate Mr. Smee from Disney's Peter Pan (played by Bill Thompson). Unfortunately, Red Jasper was supposed to be cunning and ruthless and not Smee, the bungling buffoon. I found myself struggling to erase the likeable, but bad Mr. Smee from my mind when Red Jasper was speaking.
The production is what we've come to expect from Big Finish, first class. The listener knows exactly what is happening in this story. The sound and music were well done.
If you are new to Big Finish's New Audio Adventures of Doctor Who you may want to start with another, more traditional tale. This story is for the seasoned Who fan who is willing to explore new boundaries within the audio series. I highly recommend this story, even to the musically disinclined (like myself). A 9/10.
I REALLY tried to like it... by Mekel Rogers 20/6/03
Considering the recent run of Big Finish Audios using experimental formats, I'm beginning to think that CDs such as this should come with a warning label (something like: CAUTION: THIS CD ONLY SLIGHTLY RESEMBLES ANYTHING REMOTELY RELATED TO DOCTOR WHO). I give Big Finish credit for trying something different but this was simply awful.
The plot (I use the term loosely) lacks any suspense or climax, and uses every cheesy, historically inaccurate pirate cliche and catch-phrase throughout this so-called adventure. I'm sorry, but my Doctor doesn't guzzle rum and search for buried treasure.
The characters are one dimensional and pantomime in style. Captain Swan is just annoying with his constant whining, and the unconvincingly evil pirate Red Jasper sounds more like Captain Feathersword from the Wiggles, sadly delivering tired pirate lines such as "Shiver me timbers," and "Where have you hidden the treasure map?"
The musical episode (episode 3) was a near miss attempt to pay tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, but the singing although good, wasn't great and the musical accompaniment was obviously artificial, giving the whole thing the same feel as a high school drama club production. The ONLY highlight is Colin Baker's rendition of Model of a Gallifreyian Buccaneer (at the beginning of the episode). It's a two-minute oasis in this VERY large desert.
It's hard to believe that the same person who gave us the beautiful, moving, and wonderful Marian Conspiracy, came out with this amateurish pseudo musical. I'm sure there's somebody out there that will get into this adventure, and if you can, more power to you. For me this is a travesty of a Doctor Who story that I cannot take seriously.
Bottom Line: So pathetic it shivered my timbers.
Colin to the rescue! by Joe Ford 21/7/03
A release so good I cannot search out enough words to praise on it! The year 2003 as far as Big Finish are concerned goes as follows: Colin: 2, Davison and McCoy :0. What this means in laments terms is the two releases in between Jubilee and The Pirates have been such utter nonsense, boring, badly scripted and very forgettable. Fortunately both Jubilee and The Pirates are on hand to prove Big Finish haven't bought the farm just yet.
You might think I only like this because its another Colin Baker story but nothing could be further from the truth. It's easily the most entertaining release so far being both very witty and genuinely emotional. Plus it has the added bonus of having the most inspired third episode ever (give this is where the average Doctor Who sags under the usual escape/capture routine) making this a successful experiment too.
The first two episodes immediately show promise. I am a huge fan of Jac Rayner's work (c'mon Earthworld and The Glass Prison were superb!) and she once again proves what an excellent writer she is and how well she understands the show and its unique storytelling possibilities. The whole story is told from the point of view of the Doctor and Evelyn and quite hysterically they get all the details wrong as they tell and the story adjusts itself respectively. I loved the bit where Evelyn is trying to name the pirates and she starts getting desperate calling one Oliver Twist! The student, Sally, is clearly unimpressed by their storytelling talents!
The actual pirate story is a real joy with excellent hot blooded performances from all concerned. Colin Baker certainly throws himself into all the fun with his usual relish, if he had had a chance to be as funny, clever and charismatic as he is here on the television so many more fans would declare him the best Doctor ever! It has all the rip roaring cliches you would expect from such a story, an insane pirate, a motley crew, a treasure map... but it's all told with such energy you would think the show had never touched the subject before.
Performances are flawless. The biggest draw is obviously Bill Oddie as the evil pirate Red Jasper and he is so hysterical you almost forget you're supposed to be booing him! He played the role with the perfect dose of eye rolling campness, a real "ooo-arrgh!" of fun. However he is only just aced by the brilliant Nicholas Pegg as the feckless, camp as hell Captain Swan. His scenes with the Doctor on the island in episode four are laugh out loud hilarious. Honestly every time this guy opens his mouth there will be a grin on your face! Dan Barratt was very memorable too as the sweet voiced boy Jem who wanted to go out to sea all his life. His fate is shocking in the extreme.
And despite Colin's continuing run of ace performances this story belongs to Maggie Stables who gets to show just why she is so loved by so many fans. As far as companion actresses go, she is one of the very best. She displays such a range of emotions from comedy (her terrible storytelling) to high drama (the ending) to firm authority (where she wonderfully takes command and saves the lives of Swan and Jem). Maggie deserves a lot of praise for her continuing energy and drive, she really does make these audios of hers a pleasure to listen to.
The third episode is of course the one everybody was a bit nervous about. No need, it's wonderful and not the OTT farce people were expecting. The Gilbert and Sullivan steals are inspired and the familiar tunes with witty new words work a treat. I have had some of the songs rattling around in my head all day. Colin has a peculiar singing voice but once you get used to it he's terrific, his hyper version of "I am the very model of a Gallfreyan Buccaneer" is very, very funny. The medleys are both catchy especially "Evil Evelyn"!!! The songs melt into the plot perfectly, instead of being a half hour distraction from the main plot it carries the story fast and furiously. It's probably my favourite Big Finish episode yet. Helen Goldwyn has a beautiful voice, I had goosbumps as she sung her solo.
Shockingly the third episode wasn't my favourite point of the story though. That was left to the end which ripped my heart out and stamped. With one scene I was able to appreciate just how much the Doctor and Evelyn care for each other and understand the horror of death all in one go. Never before has a death been given such gravity, Evelyn's horrified, angry tearful reaction brings it all home in a heart breaking manner. The last scene also carries a lot of weight especially after all the comedy antics earlier. Jac Rayner knows how to shift moods in a most shocking way and it works superbly.
Of course the music is all important in a story like this and the cheeky, joyful score matches the score perfectly. Plus the stronger moments are accompanied by some stunning piano tunes that really gripped me.
A brilliant release, I don't see topping this one is quite a while. Colin and Maggie continue to be the heroes of the company.
Booty and the Beast by Andrew Wixon 29/7/03
Dearie me, what mercenary souls BF have revealed themselves to be, pitching this one straight at the famously-lucrative Doctor Who/Gilbert & Sullivan crossover market. Quite what else one is to make of this rather, er, experimental (not to say wildly eccentric) offering is difficult to decide.
At times it seems like the rapidly-becoming-traditional jokey Xmas special has arrived extremely early (or, and with all due respect to Bang Bang-A-Boom!, a few months late). That would be one's immediate response to a story told with its tongue so far into its cheek, using the same kind of narrative conceits as Tomb of Valdemar (or even, broadly speaking and looking outside of the DW ghetto, the movie Adaptation.)
But this is only part of a story that is wildly inconsistent and unpredictable in its tone and atmosphere. There are at least four different styles of story here, clashing violent for the listener's attention. There's the jokey story-within-a-story, the serious, grown-up subplot about guilt and grief and Evelyn's visit home, the grisly, violent historical, and... the musical.
Novelty value and verve make the musical interlude a treat rather than an ordeal, more than compensating for the rather variable vocal performances (with the exception of Helen Goldwyn, who turns in a killer rendition of 'The Sun Whose Rays'), and it's a measure of BF's shrewdness that something that would be risible with any other Doctor comes across here as a bit of fun (although why they didn't make it a Doctor/Mel story I've no idea, Langford can reputedly sing a bit, after all). But it suffers from the same problem as the rest of the story - it has, narratively speaking, a very short attention span. So just as the gag about the pirates praising the Doctor's dress sense (when he's narrating) withers on the vine after episode one, and the revelation that Bill Oddie's ludicrous comedy villain really is a dangerous sadistic maniac is similarly abandoned in favour of a feeble joke about party games, so a concept begun with the witty and inventive 'Gallifreyan Buccaneer' song runs out of steam and concludes with straightforward choruses of 'I am a pirate king'.
...and the Pirates really suffers from one fundamental flaw - it tries to be a comedy romp and serious drama at the same time. So, in the middle of a jolly musical number, we have a character being horribly mutilated, and later on a character is brutally beaten to death by that very same comedy villain. Not that this is allowed to interfere with the fun and games. It leaves a very sour taste in the mouth - the jokes and conceits are so central to the story that the attempts at emotion and realism are the elements that come across as gratuitous and glib.
I never thought I'd be so critical of story that features Colin Baker defeating an enemy through song, let alone one so laid back as to let the Doctor openly muse as to which of his adventures count as canonical - but there you go, you never can tell. The individual bits of ...and the Pirates are uniformly quite impressive, it's just the manner of their assembly that grates rather. For all it uses the Trial theme tune, and features Evelyn, with its mixture of sadism and whimsy this is actually much closer in tone to Season 22. Quite good fun, but wildly inconsistent.
Storyville by Matthew Harris 10/9/03
"Just what is the point of this?...You're doing the same voice for all the sailors, and the dialogue is totally over-the-top, as well as anachronistic - you're just rehashing a load of fictional pirate clich?, but for some reason, you've stuck yourself in the middle of them, with this Doctor... not that either of you have played a part in the story yet, and in fact, is there a story at all? Because I'm not seeing one!"Here's a story.
Imagine if you will a crowded street in Plymouth. I am walking in the general direction of the car park in which is stationed my own vehicle. As I do so, I'm clutching a paper bag containing my newly-purchased copy of Doctor Who And The Pirates, Or The Lass That Lost A Sailor. Presently I come to a pedestrian crossing, and wait with many others for the man to turn green. But before he does so, the next car decides to stop early and let us through. And as the crowd of people do so, I alone of all of them turn and raise my hand in gratitude. It is such a beautiful moment that both I and the driver break down in tears.
Now this story may seem a little far-fetched to you, but I assure you that it happened. Except... alright, I will admit that the tears are an embellishment, for the sake of effect - without it, what would it be? A story about me crossing the road. Not very interesting, not very exciting. Just me crossing the road. But that's the thing about stories. They depend as much on how they're told as on the text itself. And if you want to hear ...And The Pirates in the way it was intended, it's best to keep that in mind. That, and the fact that it's a masterpiece.
Mekel Rogers is a perfect example of someone who didn't. S\he (good name Mekel, but terribly gender-unspecific) states in the title of their review "I REALLY Tried To Like It"... but it doesn't seem that s\he tried very hard. Criticising Red Jasper's spouting of pirate clich?, for example. If Rogers had been listening hard, or at all, s\he must have heard Sally complaining at length about exactly the same things. I've even quoted her at the start of this review. In fact, she says so many of the same things that Mekel Rogers says, that I wonder if Rogers' review isn't just a clever post-modern joke.
Of course, it's not as clever as the play itself. The whole thing is a brilliantly post-modern - wait, come back! I know everyone hates the term post-modern. Lance Parkin's interesting DWM article about it a while back was shouted down completely basically because of the subject matter. But post-modern is what it is. In fact, by Parkin's definition, it's almost violently post-modern: "The replacing of 'realistic' forms of art with more playful, subversive and self-aware forms." he called it. Check. Playful? That'll be the music. Subversive and self-aware? That'll, er, be the music, but also the structure: a Doctor Who story actively being told in front of your ears.
I've been gabbling a little there, and I do apologise. What I'm trying to say is... well, it's a favourite concept of your man Mike Morris (cf his reviews of Greatest Show In The Galaxy and Warriors' Gate). He called those two stories "pure television" in the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey is "pure cinema". This is best characterised by that one quote: "it's not about things, it is things". In other words, the medium - and the use of the medium - is the message. 2001, it's been noticed, doesn't really have a story particularly. It's a succession of images, situations, moments. It's cinema for the sake of cinema. It really isn't about things, it is things. It's true of 2001, it's true of Warriors' Gate, and oh-my-gosh it's true of Doctor Who And The Pirates too. I didn't think it possible, but here's an example of "pure audio".
Take a look at the first episode. As Evelyn works out the rudiments of the story even as she tells it, and Sally points out all the anachronisms and clich? she hears, ("He might have had two wooden legs!" "He couldn't balance!") it sounds like nothing so much as Jac Rayner giving voice to the wheels in her own head. She even has Evelyn killing the Doctor off after getting over-excited. Nearly twice. And Sally here can be said to be the archetypal non-fan - like the anti-Whizzkid - missing the point completely, finding fault everywhere, not letting herself enjoy it for what it is, because she's too busy looking at the details. Not unlike Mekel Rogers, I might argue. Oh, yes, Jac Rayner's a clever lady: she's pre-empted the critics within the first episode.
Now, the actual acting (I'll get to the music in a moment). Performances are perhaps more important here than usual. Colin and Maggie are, well, the Doctor and Evelyn - it would take an enormous effort to bugger them up by now. Helen Goldwyn is everything Ling in Sympathy For The Devil should have been and wasn't (though I must reiterate that IT'S NOT LIZ SUTHERLAND'S FAULT) - because she's brittle for a reason, and Goldwyn knows it. There's Dan Barratt, whose role is much more important than it could have been - Lovable Cabin Boy - and who could have ruined the play altogether if he'd overplayed or underplayed Jem. Luckily, he doesn't. There's Timothy Sutton as Basically Everyone, in a neat reference to actors doubling up for audio purposes (and one of the funniest scenes in the play). There's the hilarious Nick Pegg, having more fun than is healthy in playing the magnificently, ridiculously, almost horrifyingly foppish Captain Emmanuel Hubert Clerihew St John Swan. There's Mark Siney doing sterling work in the thankless, Chellakesque role of Mr Merryweather. Oh, and some little bloke with a beard, on whom more later.
But what about the music? Well, as soon as I heard about the musical aspect, I was sort of expecting the Doctor Who equivalent of Buffy's magnificent "Once More With Feeling" from the outset. But the songs are just confined to part three. In the real world, this is (apparently) because Rayner was having trouble with the story and thought that songs would help things like the grog-swilling contest go down better. In the play, it's because the Doctor and Evelyn are having trouble with the story and think that songs would help things like the grog-swilling contest go down better. Again, Rayner saves time by writing the story writing the story. So to speak. Oh, and the episode 2 cliffhanger is completely brilliant. My heart sank when I heard that they were going with the poxy Dominic Glynn Bontempi version of the theme after the switch to era-specific tunes. They should have just used the Howell version, historical accuracy be damned. But somehow Rayner and Barnaby Edwards between them contrive a brilliant cliffhanger ending to the first disc which actually succeeds in making that sodding Bontempi-bird-calls noise exciting. Never would have believed it.
Anyway, the songs. I'm not a Gilbert And Sullivan fan, particularly - I couldn't sit through an entire operetta, it's all a bit too twee for my taste - but I don't mind them in small doses. And for the most part, this is what we get: only six songs - seven, if you count the one which changes song halfway through as two - spread out mostly very nicely in the twenty-five minutes we have. It goes a bit mad at the start, with three songs in quick succession threatening to clog the thing up a bit, but since the songs are so good - and so well performed - it doesn't matter.
Good? Absolutely. The best, I think, is probably the brilliant "I Am The Very Model Of A Gallifreyan Buccaneer", setting possibly the most ludicrously catchy, defy-you-not-to-sing-along music Sir Arthur Sullivan ever wrote to lyrics referencing Meglos, The Ark, the Voord and The Five Doctors. It all comes dangerously close to Enthusiast-Onanism but luckily doesn't quite make it... at least I don't think it does, but I have a high threshold. But you have to love a song with the lyrics "I've overthrown dictators from Tobias Vaughn to Mavic Chen". Don't you? Alright, maybe not written down, but sung it's the most brilliant thing ever, possibly.
Anyway, from "Very Model" to "An Assassin's Lot Is Not A Happy One" and the verbal duel between Red Jasper and Evil Evelyn - it's all completely great and (assuming you're not a miserable git) is as guaranteed to plaster a great big daft smile on your face as the first half of Once More With Feeling (and if you haven't any context for that, it's your problem - I firmly believe that everyone in the entire universe should be forced to watch Once More With Feeling, possibly at gunpoint). Someone, somewhere, has to know where to get the lyrics. Oh, and the performances are uniformly excellent; Sutton, Siney and so on are hampered by having to sing their songs in character, but that doesn't mean they're sung badly; just slightly strangely. But then, just as you're getting comfortable, a couple of things happen that wipe that smile right off your face.
First, we find out what Sally's problem is in the three-melody I Am So Proud skit, where it is also revealed that Helen Goldwyn has a wonderful voice, not unlike that of the estimable Amber "Tara" Benson (watch the show, and you'll find out). Incredibly, one person (elsewhere) has criticised her wonderful operatics as being banshee-like. I wish I had that person's address, that I may punch them in the face. Goldwyn is superb. Again: Goldwyn Is Superb. And I will fight anyone who says otherwise. With fists. Anyway, after these revelations, she gets a solo to herself, a heartbreaking rendition of The Sun, Whose Rays, which doesn't last anything like long enough. If you can get through it without descending into a teary blob, I hope I never meet you.
Things pick up after that, a little; there's the introduction of Evil Evelyn, and that brilliant trio between Col, Maggie and Bill Oddie about the pros and cons of being Piratical Royalty. Suddenly, that daft smile's back again. But once again, something happens. And this time, the smile doesn't disappear so much as get brutally smashed off...and it's here that the controversy rears its head. It's also here that we discover the true bedfellow of this story is not Warriors' Gate or Greatest Show, but The Two Doctors. Only better.
Bill Oddie's performance - in fact, his character - is the one that really requires you to step back and examine the play itself. He gives the role something that Dave Owen called "short man's gusto" - he's the Pirate King di tutti Pirate Kings, Long John Silver crossed with Bluebeard and the DemonZombieGhost Pirate LeChuck, all turned up to eleven. Oh, and like most of the real pirates, he happens to be a criminally insane, sadistic maniac. The collision between jolly stereotype and brutal reality is pretty much central to the play.
A lot of people - as for example Mr Andrew Wixon - have criticised the character of Red Jasper, calling it an example of the play's schizophrenia. They have a point. Red Jasper does some horrid, horrid things in this story, then there's a funny joke (or a song). It's disconcerting to say the least. But consider. Is it the play's flaw, or its style? Take the moment in question, toward the end of episode three. Now, there's been a lot of complaints about violence directed at BF of late, after the nonchalant bloodletting of Nekromanteia, the amorality of Creatures Of Beauty, and the wholesale lobbing off of extraneous bodyparts in Jubilee. Not heard those three myself, but I doubt that the violent points in those episodes can claim the shock value of this one brief moment.
After John Johnson protests at Red Jasper's cruelty, Jasper, having looked for all the world like letting the comment slide, suddenly jumps on the former comedy stooge, cuts out his tongue, and forces him to eat it covered in chocolate. Then he bursts into a reprise of the chorus of the jolly "I Am A Pirate King". The musical accompaniment is jarring this time, hesitant. So are the backing singers. It's disturbing. It is in fact a front-runner in the race for "Most Disturbing Reprise In Musical History". It's anything but straightforward, in other words. Later on, he brutally tortures young Jem the Lovable Cabin-Boy - the sort of character who always survives these things - to death. And it happens offstage, as well. The effect is similar to that for which the death of Oscar Botcherby reached but which it did not catch (not for me anyway) - sudden moments of black comedy and surreal horror. The difference is that in The Two Doctors, the story seemed to go out of its way to kill Oscar, which sort of subverted the "sudden" motif. Here it really is sudden, and the switch from horrible to jolly (at least, Red Jasper is jolly) is the perfect way to illustrate the theme of the play.
What theme would that be? It's a bloody good message, actually. The moral of ...And The Pirates is that life is very different from stories: bad things will happen in real life, and covering them up, running from them, even dying for them, doesn't change the fact that good things happen too. Remember, the songs are there because the story was so upsetting that the Doctor thought it best to make it a musical: he says himself, "No-one ever dies in musicals". But Jem did die, and a few songs won't change that. Nor will casting Red Jasper as a thousand walking clich? in one. I don't mean Big Finish, I mean Evelyn. She's co-telling the story we're hearing, don't forget, and it softens the blow of Jem's death to make Red Jasper a stereotype, because stereotypes aren't dangerous. Which is why Bill Oddie's performance is completely brilliant, and exactly right (even if it doesn't often seem like he's in on the joke).
Jem's death, by the way, goes by exactly the same principle that guided Oscar's death. Oscar was a Robert Holmes Comedy Creation, and, just like the Lovable Cabin Boy, they never die - but he did. The difference is twofold: first, you find out about Jem's fate before you even meet him, and second, the story doesn't go out of its way to kill him. In fact, it seems to regret it as much as Evelyn did.
This principle won't work for everyone, of course, as both moments are horribly shocking and brutal, especially the first: deliberately out of step with the rest of the play, as reality intercedes with the shield of fiction Evelyn's built - but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. That, right there, is what they should write on the cover, actually: "THIS PLAY WON'T WORK FOR EVERYONE, BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT DOESN'T WORK".
And there's the rub. I said it was a masterpiece. It is. I'm no great authority (CDs are expensive, dammit) but I'd hazard a guess that this is one of Big Finish's ten best plays, ever, ever, and thrice ever. Because for what it's trying to do, and trying to be, it doesn't just succeed, it exceeds (even the packaging is neat - I defy you not to read the inner sleeve and not think of Henry Gordon Jago). Yet some people will hate it. And they'll be justified in hating it. It changes tone more times and less predictably than Madonna - it has some very nasty moments, and even knowing why they're there won't make them any more palatable than they are, or any less likely to ruin the emotional bits as it did for Wixon. But that'll be your problem more than the play's.
But you have to stick around, whatever you think, for the coda. The best stories have brilliant scenes after they've finished. There was a nice one in Kinda, a creepy one in Spare Parts, a lovely one in Curse of Fenric, a great one in Genesis of the Daleks, and I could go on through the history of Doctor Who (not to mention a whole litany of classic Buffy episodes). But I won't (Lie To Me, anyone?). ...And The Pirates' coda rivals any of them, and beats quite a few. In "The Sun, Whose Rays", we finally learnt exactly why Sally's so desperate to be left alone; what she's planning to do. In the coda, we learn that - in a manner of speaking - she's already done it. And it's devastating. It's a beautiful ending, moving, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting, and quite brilliantly performed by both Helen Goldwyn and Our Colin Baker. If only his Doctor was more like this in 1985, we wouldn't be here now.
On the subject of the Doctor, I'd like briefly to address the "controversial" grog-swilling, rigging-climbing and plank-walkingscapades of episode three, which led Dave Owen to accurately compare it with Feast Of Steven. "Some people," quoth he, "will refuse to believe it ever happened." Well, that's their loss: it's not as if the Doctor's doing it for fun; it is of course all part of an elaborate deception (it certainly makes more sense than the one in Mindwarp), and besides, since he's telling the story, he's probably exaggerating. It's a very Sixth Doctor sort of a thing to do - he always was a bit of a Munchausen. Can you imagine this working with Pete 'n' Nic 'n' Erimem? No, of course not.
It sounds like I have no problems whatsoever with this play. But I do. A couple. Mostly superficial - why is that heartbreaking version of The Sun, Whose Rays so short, why doesn't the rather neat piratical version of the theme sound more like the theme, why didn't they provide a lyrics sheet, why is the sky blue, etc - but one rather big one: Red Jasper doesn't get his comeuppance. Last we see of him, he's playing Pin The Bloody Tail On The Sodding Donkey of all things, when he should be feeding the sharks or something. Shockeye's death in The Two Doctors is appropriate because the character was so thoroughly vile, because he'd killed so many others for no reason at all. Red Jasper is worse even than him, but he winds up playing party games. He doesn't have to meet his fate at the Doctor's hands or anything; he could have been killed in a freak tropical storm, for example - bringing the shit-happens side of the play's theme full circle. But nope; instead we get a stupid joke about party games. It's just unfortunate that a play that goes to such lengths to prove that, despite the comedy veneer, Jasper is pure evil, gives way to the comedy and just dumps him on an island, almost fatally undermining its own authority. It's fortunate that the rest of the play is so thematically consistent, otherwise the ending could have ruined everything.
Despite this, despite the lack of a lyrics sheet, despite the lame-ass "Doctor\Who" joke halfway through the I Am So Proud medley, it's a masterpiece; a brilliant, hilarious, moving, uplifting, brutal masterpiece. It's not going to be everyone's cup of char, but tough: everyone should hear this. At least once anyway. Whatever you think of it, it is what it is, and what it is needs no excuses. It doesn't get Jac Rayner off the hook for her disparaging comments about Inferno, but it's a start. She, Barnaby Edwards, Stables, Colin et al have created a piece of work that doesn't care what people expect; something which sets out to be something wildly different from the norm: a cheerfully pointless momentary wiggins, a rumination on the horror and joy of life, and an emotional human drama at exactly the same time, which as a bonus is completely brilliant. Guess what: they've managed it. And it's surely to their credit.
A Review by Rob Matthews 5/11/03
I read a review of Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho once that described the movie as 'an experimental failure that's more interesting than some conservative successes'. That's was more or less my initial feeling about DW and the Pirates, I think. But I've gone on a bit of a journey with this one...
There are a number of very good, nay outstanding, things about this play - Nice tinkering with narrative, adept, honed use of the audio medium, marvellous performances from Colin Baker and Maggie Stables, and an oddly inevitable but nonetheless highly enjoyable venture into musical territory come episode 3. An awful lot of stuff to like, and definitely worth splashing out on if you're an irregular Big Finisher like me.
Yet! Enjoyable as each of these aspects are in their own right, they never really come together into a cohesive whole. Perhaps they're not meant to, I'm not really sure.
It's an odd experience, probably best comparable in Who terms to Paul Magrs' The Blue Angel, and like that story, I have a sneaking suspicion it'll grow on me more and more over time. Indeed, it's done so somewhat already, after a couple of months and about three listens.
What it has most in common with the aforementioned Blue Angel is that sketchy, cheerfully deconstructive work-in-progress feel, like we're being let in on the storytelling process and seeing some of the nuts and bolts behind it. No, that's wrong; we're seeing the absence of the nuts and bolts of storytelling; it's like all the component parts are present but they aren't yet neatly slotted together, they're just lying around, tipped out of the box and awaiting assembly.
With The Blue Angel, this putative box was the mad mind of Magrs - I think County Durham's premier magical realist was trying to capture the energy, the sheer lightning flash of creativity - leaps of imagination stripped of any attempt at naturalistic groundwork or rationalised explanation - thinking 'Ooh, wouldn't this be cool! Wouldn't that be cool too!', getting drunk on possibilities without having to face the troublesome hangover of sculpting it all into something linear and sensible.
With Pirates the approach is similiar but precisley inverted - here it's like the storytellers (the Doctor, Evelyn, dear Jackie Rayner) are trying to paper over the cracks of ugly reality with a tissue of storytelling trickery and cliche - that is, there's a sense that the murkiness of the real world is being shut out, by stories, rather than the sense in Magrs' work that the glory of the imaginative world is being unveiled. By stories. Two sides of the same coin, though.
Both Blue Angel and Pirates are wide open to yells of 'indulgence!' and 'laziness!', the latter for its reliance on piratical cliche, and both feel frustrating as stories because they keep undermining their own narrative flow, and interrupting audience engagement. For me, by far the most jarring thing about DW & the Pirates, the biggest obstacle to getting into the story, was the consistent references the Doctor and Evelyn kept making to Jem's shocking, unexpected death. Because of course this meant that it wasn't shocking and unexpected by the time I got to it, I'd been hearing about it for bloody ages - in fact, more or less from the moment the character made his entrance. And the effect of that is akin to having someone who's already seen the movie sitting in the row behind you, chattering away about how Darth Vader is really Luke's father while you're still watching him get hung out to dry in the Wampa's cave. It's odd, and distracting.
Listening to it a couple more times - well, it's still odd and distracting, but not quite as much. In a way, I think this is an audio designed better for a second or third listen than for a first. Nowt wrong with that, but it hasn't entirely gelled for me thus far. Actually, I'm not sure whether Jem's story is a kind of emotional pornography or not - there's a feeling of 'Aww bless, look at this sweet boy. He's going to die tragically, you know. Isn't that horrible?'. And they really do pull out all the stops to make the character unbelievably nice and innocent (he certainly floats my boat, haha), but because you know what's going to happen to him It feels like blatant manipulation, like grooming a cute puppy for destruction. And yet in a sense, we're being let in on the manipulation, and what is very probably an idealisation by Evelyn of Jem (in much the same way as the Captain is performed as what can only be a caricature of the man the Doc and Evelyn - ahem - really met). Like I say, this doesn't really make for satisfying narrative. But it gets you listening more intently on the next try, and it gets you thinking. That can't be a bad thing.
Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are on board. That can't be a bad thing either - this pair are certainly one of the great Doctor-companion teams now and, more than that, they're simply two of the finest actors ever to be involved with Doctor Who in any way, shape or form - hell, Maggie Stables even made the very ho-hum Project: Lazarus worth the money, her performance making one particular scene there a lot more distressing than I'd have imagined.
Ultimately I think that's what DW & the Pirates is about too: Evelyn. How she cares desperately. And how the Doctor cares about her. And, they're wonderful enough actors to make that believable, to ensure there's an emotional core there. It's entirely because of their believability that this play doesn't come across as merely facile and wanky - or a rip-off of that Buffsy the Zombie Whacker thingy - as the CD spins to a close.
The framing device - Evelyn telling her story to Sally in Sally's student digs - is awkward. I mentioned Paul Magrs; I think he could have done something like this more smoothly. Perhaps have Sally standing close to a cliff edge, psyching herself up to jumping but looking out to sea, the vast moonlit sea, and then being 'chanced upon' by Evelyn, who takes her into a nearby tavern and starts her story. Obviously it's easy for a git like me to pick faults, and I shouldn't really because Jacqueline Rayner has a lot more talent than I ever will, but with a setup like that, the atmosphere would, I think, have seemed more 'natural' and conducive to storytelling. You know, huddled around a navy rum in a nice warm pub, what better place place for telling silly stories and having your listener's doubts about veracity being gradually worn down by the steady flow of booze. Also of course, summat like that would be more appropriate to the story's milieu. I'm sure this just looks like I'm moaning now, but the point I'm trying to make is that it did seem odd and a bit unconvincing to me that Sally was obviously frustrated at having to sit through Evelyn's barking mad story, and yet never just got up and buggered off or made any real effort to get rid of her visitors.
Still, like I say, it's easy to nitpick.
The talked-about bit, the gimmick, the musical episode? It's a very good way of pepping up audience attention in what's (apparently) traditionally the weakest episode of a four-part serial. (side note: why not just make 3-parters then?) And it strikingly heightens the theme of the artificiality, the misrememberedness of Stories. It's especially ingenious how it's here, right in the middle of a big song and dance, where the revelation comes of what Sally has done, and what she means to do next - exactly at the point where this is most discordant, most at odds with the seeming tone of the thing. Superb structuring there, Ms Rayner, and don't think no-one noticed. The Doctor's Gilbert & Sullivan song is the biggest piece of fun of course, with references plucked from a nice range of stories - the 'Tobias Vaughan to Mavic Chen' lyric in particular brings a big smile to my face - and it must be something of a tribute to Kevin Stoney's acting skills that I didn't immediately realise there was a joke there!
Oh, but as for the 'Hmm, not sure that's canonical' line - oh no no no, hate it. Extract your crania from your posteriors, Big Finish, at once.
Oh, haven't even mentioned Red Jasper. Well see, this is what I meant in my Pyramids of Mars review when I suggested the best stories used their villains as superior ciphers. If you can go on and on about the story and yet not mention the villain once, well someone has created a pretty impressive story. I don't know if I've always been of this opinion, but for me, right now, the story is always more important than the monster. That's why, even though I enjoy it, I don't consider Spearhead From Space a bona fide 'classic' - it's script is essentially an incredibly convoluted way of setting up a single scene (the shop window dummies coming to life), and doesn't have much depth beyond that.
Anyway, I was on about Red Jasper. Well, he's a psychotic thug pure and simple, effectively and scarily played. A small-scale villain for the Doctor, but the archetypal Who bad guy in a way. I mean, going back to Pyramids - sorry about the referential whiplash here -, it's easy for an all-powerful Osiran behemoth like Sutekh to believe the universe revolves around him. But a nutter floating around on the ocean who also thinks that the universe revolves around him, well, that's real madness, real selfishness and real villainy. People who are cruel and murderous aren't 'big' and godlike like Sutekh, they're small and pathetic like Red Jasper. I can take 'glamorised' evil in some things - Star Wars, for instance - but I just don't feel that's where Doctor Who's at. It's a different playing field, a more thoughtful and responsible one.
Still, that's just me. To summarise - Red Jasper: a success.
Actually, DW & the Pirates itself is looking like more of a success than it did when I started writing this. If you're like me and you don't buy audios that often, stick it on your list of possibles. Not in the top five but definitely in the top ten.
As for me, well perhaps one more listen will bring it ashore...
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 31/8/04
Doctor Who And The Pirates (Or The Lass That Lost A Sailor - if you want to be pedantic) is a a rare breed amongst Doctor Who stories in that it is very much a tale of human drama. Instead of fighting aliens and overthrowing dictators the Doctor and Evelyn are helping someone come to terms with a loss and this is where the tale is at its most powerful. Jacqueline Raynor thankfully combines this by setting this story within another story resulting in a largely entertaining and enjoyable tale.
Of course this audio will always be remembered as the musical tale, but there is much more to it than this. On the acting front Colin Baker is excellent(his musical renditions being a high point) and once more he is ably supported by Maggie Stables. The big draw in the guest cast is Bill Oddie who excels as the OTT Red Jasper. There is much to commend with this tale; it's refreshing in its simplicity and for trying to be different. In short it isn`t hard to see why the Sixth Doctor/Evelyn partnership is one of the most enduring and enjoyable that the show has to offer.
A Review by Ron Mallett 14/7/05
Jacqueline Rayner's story Doctor Who and the Pirates is a total departure from everything that has come before it. It is in essence a musical and does not try in any way to be a substitute for the lack of television stories. It is a story that is told by both Evelyn and the Doctor to a suicidal university student. In that way we notice that they both mould the story to suit their own purposes. Evelyn desperately wants to help her student but finds it difficult to face the recent death of a young man she had witnessed. The Doctor forces both Evelyn and Sally to face their respective grief.
The story in itself is a very straight-forward one, much like a musical. It is the performances that make it what it is. While Colin and Maggie are in fine form, Bill Oddie's Red Jasper and Nicholas Pegg's Captain Emmanuel Swan are the highlights of the production. Forget Oddie's lovable character in The Goodies, his portrayal of Red Jasper is, at times, bone-chilling. Pegg's more than slightly effeminate Captain Swann instead provides the laughs.
Taking material from numerous musicals, Doctor Who and the Pirates is a joy to listen to and shamelessly takes advantage of one facet that allowed the show to survive 27 years or more: the ability to draw on other material and adapt it. In this case it is not only the pirate genre itself but also the rich vein of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The 6th Doctor's rendition of "I am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer is a scream. Colin does seem a little strained in the role but one must remember that it must have been terribly difficult to sing all those lines and maintain breathing and rhythm etc. Colin goes on to prove that he does indeed have quite a voice. "
This is a wonderful tale that can be taken as casually or as seriously as one might wish. Underneath the subjective narrative and operatic embellishment there is a real, tragic story - held together with just the right amount of coincidence to make it believable. The fact that the actual title is Doctor Who and the Pirates immediately signals that it is a story that does not fit neatly into any preordained box. It is a jewel that is quite unique and I'm sure it is something that people will be talking about for years in the Who domain. While well directed by Baranaby Edwards, the technical musical skills of sound designer David Darlington and the musical adapatations of the classic Sullivan music by Timothy Sutton, must be applauded. It could have all so easily have come across as being rather forced and self-aware. It is certainly well worth investing a couple of hours in. Enjoy!
A Review by John Seavey 7/10/05
The comedy in this worked a bit better, I think, than the drama and emotional heart; it might have been a better idea to jettison the attempts to be serious and just turn this into a light-hearted romp. The light-hearted romp bits work great, though; I particularly love it when Evelyn inadvertently describes the Doctor getting shot through the heart because she'd gone a bit overboard in her narrative vigour, and the bits the Doctor narrates where everyone describes him in flowery, complimentary terms. The songs are fun, but should probably have been sprinkled a bit more evenly through the narrative.
A Review by Leslie McMurtry 30/6/12
The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn face (semi-)historical terrors, this time with the addition of some very clever meta-fictional techniques, and Gilbert and Sullivan. I think it works wonderfully.
The Marian Conspiracy is Dr. Evelyn Smythe's debut adventure, and any discerning listener quickly realizes that Colin Baker and Maggie Stables are pure joy to listen to. It's difficult not to like this fifty-five-year-old Tudor historian and professor who loves to bake cakes; plus she's more than a match for the sometimes-irascible Sixth Doctor. I've never needed any convincing that the Sixth Doctor was a lot more fun than most people made him out to be, but Big Finish has gone a long way, in stories like this one, to improve the Sixth Doctor's image. Now, I love Doctor Who and I love musicals, but you need not be a musical buff to enjoy Doctor Who and the Pirates (strictly speaking, Gilbert and Sullivan is light opera). It's not a precise Hartnell historical like The Marian Conspiracy, but rather a multi-layered story that at one point boasts three layers of plot! Also, though it's very funny, it's not a straight comedy either.
There's the story of Evelyn's former student Sally (played by Helen Goldwyn), whose frustration is only slowly and artfully revealed, and Evelyn and the Doctor's story of confronting mad pirate Red Jasper (played waaaaaaaaaaay over the top by Bill Oddie) on the Adventurer's Fancy. What is amazing is that, with Evelyn and the Doctor relating the story, there's room for all kinds of jiggery-pokery in terms of narration. For example as Evelyn begins narrating, the Doctor's voice comes in. "Who's that?" Sally asks. "That's the Doctor." There's a great fake-out with the Doctor apparently getting shot and then coming back to life. Doctor Who and the Pirates may know it's an audio drama, but it exploits the genre to its fullest: there's a wickedly adept reference to the limitations of small drama casts: "I'm a history lecturer, not an impressionist!" (Looking at the cast list reminds you that Timothy Sutton plays the Mate/A Sailor/A Pirate.) The Doctor also gets to insist that Red Jasper notes his, the Doctor's outfit, is "stylish". I also happen to be a pirate aficionado, so Sally's annoyance with pirate cliches (if all pirates were cooks, perhaps they would all have peg legs) and Captain Swan's insistence "it's a ship!" bring chuckles, too.
Evelyn desperately "wants it to have a happy ending", which is when the Doctor comes to the rescue with a musical performance. "No one ever dies in musicals," he declares, though Sally quickly provides a slew of counter-examples. Thus we get the best cliffhanger of all time, with Evelyn declaring, "You're not going to sing?!" as Colin Baker bursts into song. Of all the choice Gilbert and Sullivan songs on this inspired recording, "I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer" is my favorite. Much of the lyrical extravagance is quite amusing, such as "when homicidal duty's to be done / an assassin's lot is not a happy one." It helps that everyone can sing (more or less). I first listened to this story on the National Express between London and Swansea, and it took all of my self-control not to sing along.
However, Doctor Who and the Pirates has a grim vein of reality running through it. Despite the Sixth Doctor's long-standing association with violence, he is just as appalled with piratical ruthlessness as the listener here: "Well, excuse me for not killing people for fun!" However, despite their best efforts, he and Evelyn are no match against Red Jasper's bloodthirstiness and greed. While Nicholas Pegg as the poncy Captain Swan is almost cartoonishly helpless, Dan Barratt balances him out as a cabin boy who's a good person to whom bad things happen. The Doctor may be flashy here, a bit self-absorbed, perhaps, but he is the compassionate hero we all look up to. And if that's not to your taste, well, there's a burning ship, Dairy Milk, buried treasure, and Evelyn taking her cue from Captain Wrack in Enlightenment as a Pirate Queen.
If there was one thing I could find to criticize in Doctor Who and the Pirates, it's that the Doctor taking Evelyn back in time to see Sally, ergo setting in motion the action of the play, seems a bit contradictory to Father's Day. Why doesn't he, by that logic, go back and save Adric or Sara Kingdom or Katarina? That's a niggle, though. At the end is an extra-special treat, the Grainer theme a la Gilbert and Sullivan. May I say, too, that the booklet and packaging of this particular release is magnificent, especially the "playbill" that could be at home in Talons of Weng-Chiang. Jacqueline Rayner is one of my favorite writers for Who, and this is one reason why. Doctor Who doesn't get much better than this. Yo ho ho.