Big Finish Productions
A Storm of Angels
|Written by||Marc Platt|
|What if...||The Doctor really had changed history?|
|Starring Geoffrey Bayldon and Carole Ann Ford|
|Also featuring Cameron Stewart, Ivor Danvers, Ian Hallard, Nicholas Deal, Shiv Grewal, Kate Brown, Ian Brooker|
|Synopsis: The Doctor was really enjoying his freedom. But now there's a Temporal Agent on his tail. Gloriana and the President of Gallifrey are not amused. And Susan's none too well either. Possibilities, like the Doctor, have a habit of running away with themselves. But who cares, when the jewels are so dazzling...|
Stunning... by Joe Ford 31/3/05
When you're ankle deep in tears and blood you can't let people suffer because it's history!" Susan to Susan.
Breathtaking... this is what Doctor Who on audio is all about. Forget overblown tripe like The Next Life, this is the level of quality every Big Finish release should be! And no hint of the name Gary Russell on any of it, I don't know about you but I am starting to see a disturbing pattern emerging (cough, cough this is the best release since ...the Pirates).
I want to start by discussing the postproduction work, which is absolutely stunning and makes this one of the most distinctive Big Finish releases yet. I have absolutely no idea who or what ERS is (they are credited for the music and post production) but this is a superb achievement, one that takes you from the humdrum of everyday life (I spent a week listening to this on the interminable walk to work and back) to a magical, dazzling world of magic, drama and wonder.
The sound effects were far more dramatic than usual from the powerful shots echoing from the canons of The Hind, the instant transportation of the time rings and the sharp, tingling force of the sentient crystals. The ideas give the story its heart but John Ainsworth's unique interpretation of the story is what kept me listening so avidly, hanging on every scene. The music was a delight too and did a marvellous job of capturing the poetic, supernatural atmosphere of the story. Early episodes are awash with an epic score to accompany the timeless travel through space and as events move onto Earth the music takes on a more cultural style, a pleasing mix of Chinese and Indian fashions.
Marc Platt has now won me over completely and I would now suggest he is far more suited to writing for audio than novels and television. His ideas always feel a bit heavy for television and novels afford him too much chance to explore and take ideas too far beyond their potential and exhausting their power. Audio traps Platt in a comfortable middle zone, where he has to keep the plot moving to keep his audience interested but also affords the opportunity to capture his ideas raw without the disappointment of visuals to drag them down. His dialogue is absolutely beautiful; you cannot listen to one track on this CD without being blown away by the strength of his language.
Platt had already won over the audience with his touching re-interpretation of the first Doctor in Auld Mortality, one who was trapped on Gallifrey and lost in his fictional adventures. That play ended with the glorious re-establishment of the Doctor out in the universe with his granddaughter by his side. A Storm of Angels continues their adventures some time later with the Time Lords on their tail and Susan growing sicker by the minute. To make it matters worse it would appear that the Doctor is starting to have a profound impact on timelines. Things aren't quite as he remembers... surely humans weren't exploring the stars in the 1500's?
What a fabulous idea to hook a story on especially considering the Hartnell Doctor's reaction to Barbara attempting to change history in The Aztecs. A Storm of Angels cheekily namechecks that story (and the Doctor still can't get the High Priest's name right!) but in this reality the forgetful Doctor warns the Aztecs of their impending fate. He also takes Leonardo Da Vinci for a trip to the stars to reward his imagination. But what influence can one harmless old man really have on the timelines...? A Storm of Angels takes the brave outlook of having the Doctor being one of the greatest threats to Earth's (and the rest of the universe's) history. A prod here, a poke there and suddenly Leonardo is inventing spacecraft and Elisabeth is ruling England in a giant floating palace above the Earth.
These ideas have all been flirted with before (Inferno for example) but A Storm of Angels takes the braver route by having this as the REAL timeline, buggered beyond recognition and the playing field of the story. I loved how little we are reminded that this is all wrong and that a secondary story is allowed to play out so we can except this reality with no fuss. Francis Drake flying around the galaxy in his ship The Hind collecting tribute for Gloriana, the Queen of England who is in desperate need of funds thanks to the space programme. There are some absurd details scattered about the story, genuine historical details that are given a little tweaking.
What surprises even more is just how traditional this story really is when you take away the trappings of the Unbound Doctor and Susan and the screwed up timelines. This is actually a very simple tale of alien conquest, jewel-like creatures inhabiting human bodies to get their mother stone to Earth and thereby attracting their home ground (an asteroid belt) to attack and conquer. What makes this superior to a depressing yawnathon invasion like The Apocalypse Element (the Daleks attempting to invade Gallifrey!) is the confidence of the writing and the commitment of the actors involved. There is grace and beauty to the writing that makes this far more memorable than your standard invasion.
Some of the "visuals" could only have come from Platt's mind... a storm of angels flocking past the ship and pushing it back to Earth, crystals growing through the eyes and skin of people, Gloriana descending on his subjects in a floating throne, the asteroids chasing the ship as it departs from the Earth... the story shoots from one distinctive image to another (which is doubly impressive considering there are no images to see!).
Had Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke turned up earlier this could have been how the Hartnell era turned out with the Doctor and Susan constantly running from the Time Lords, threats through the audio systems forcing them to make one shock materialisation after another. The gorgeous Ian Hallad makes an impressive lead as their devious pursuer Zeuro; one who will stop at nothing to halt the old man's pollution of the timeline. There are several exceptional scenes between the two Time Lords, discussing the implications of the Doctor's interference where the Doctor's hatred of the Time Lord's impotence and their frustration at his meddling shines through. In a cruel twist of fate Zeuro takes a far bigger role in the action than he desired and is stripped of his identity and life as the alien jewels infect his body and use him as their envoy. This faltering, snarling amalgamation of Time Lord and alien intelligence is truly frightening and provides the story with a fantastic cliff-hanger to episode two. His relationship with the Queen is sweet and disturbing and their scenes together dancing sent chills down my spine.
Geoffrey Bayldon makes a much stronger impact here, his throaty voice threatening to undermine the Doctor's authority, but Bayldon delivers his lines with a forcefulness that would have knocked Hartnell for six. It is wonderful how he gleefully defends his travels and interference and the script takes the time to sum up his morals and feelings on a very profound level. Bayldon's chemistry with Carole Ann Ford is extraordinary and they make a very believable team both as family and fellow explorers. His quiet pleading at her bedside when she falls exhausted with another bout of sickness captures his love for his granddaughter with genuine sentiment and I found this tears on the cheeks stuff.
The final twist, that Susan is not in fact real but a fake the Doctor knocked up in the possibility generator, comes right out of the blue and makes perfect sense of the Sliding Doors-esque scene at the end of Auld Mortality where Susan both accepts and declines the Doctor's invitation of a jaunt around the universe. This leads to further introspection, this time of Susan who has the obligatory conversation with her other self and comes to realise that resting on her laurels and accepting the ideals of the Time Lords is not so easy when people are dying all around you. Sometimes you have to get involved. In one of the best scenes of the play the real Susan makes a choice, that sees her exiled from Gallifrey, forcing Gloriana to take action. In a twist that is bound to leave a lump in your throat the two Susans give the Doctor a gift that he can never admit to knowing about.
I have lavished plenty of praise on A Storm of Angels but it deserves it. A beautiful, triumphant story that knocks pretty much every one of the regular Doctor Who releases into the second league. Awesome stuff and not just recommended but essential listening.
Unbound Consequences by Matthew Kresal 6/11/19
Back in 2003, when the idea of Doctor Who coming back on television seemed unlikely, Big Finish engaged in a rather interesting experiment. They created a series of audio dramas "unbound" from the constraints of the show's regular continuity, asking "what if?" a fair number of scenarios had taken place. The first of which, penned by Marc Platt and titled Auld Mortality, explored what might have happened if the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan had never left Gallifrey. Then, in early 2005 just as New Who was getting ready to air, Big Finish returned to that Doctor and Susan with a sequel, one that took the tropes of the First Doctor era and turned them on their head.
Auld Mortality was as much a celebration of Doctor Who as it was a "what if?" story, something I noted in my 2013 review of it, which might make a sequel to it all the odder given the ambiguous nature of its conclusion. Platt, returning to pen the sequel, uses that ambiguity as part of his starting point. If Auld Mortality asked the question of what might have happened if the Doctor never left Gallifrey, then A Storm of Angels asks what might happen if the Doctor changed history, even just one line. It's a premise the Unbound series had explored in a way with the victorious Valeyard in He Jests At Scars..., but what Platt does goes above and beyond the continuity fest of that story.
Both on TV and in spin-off media subsequently, the early years of Doctor Who have been defined by two story archetypes: purely historical adventures and high-concept science fiction tales. Platt's story is equally high concept, almost Space: 1889-like in its notions of taking a moment of Britain's historical past and extending it out into the stars. The Doctor and Susan get to meet historical figures such as Sir Francis Drake, John Dee and Elizabeth I, and Platt works details about them into the plot (indeed, having watched a documentary on Drake and the Golden Hind before listening to the audio again gave me a whole new appreciation for how much he put into the story). What he does is take them well and truly beyond the sceptred isle of Britain, taking imperial ambitions and folly out into the stars. A Storm of Angels takes the tropes of the First Doctor era and mashes them together, creating something epic in scope that only the Unbound range could accomplish.
There's also a story to go along with that high concept. If Auld Mortality was about possibilities, A Storm of Angels is about consequences. What might happen if the First Doctor, let loose upon the universe after a long delay, wasn't the cautious traveler of the TV series, reluctant to get involved at times, but a willing participant in the altering of history? Platt goes further than that, using his world-building and meshing of tropes to make this version of the First Doctor confront something that New Series Doctors, in particular, have had to face: one's past catching up with you. Platt's imagery and even use of characters echo much of what was to come in New Who from the titular angels to Elizabeth I, a conclusion that brings to mind the imagery of the Toclafane descending in Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, and the references of things out of time along the lines of The Wedding of River Song. Plus, Platt has returned to the Elizabethan era at Big Finish with stories such as The Flames of Cadiz for the Companion Chronicles range and The Devil's Armada in the first Philip Hinchcliffe Presents boxset. In many ways, it's a story that was ahead of its time in 2005, something which has only become apparent in the fifteen years since its release.
Doctor Who's history though is full of well-written scripts that were, shall we say, less than well realized. Thankfully, this does not fall into that category. That's partly down to the performances starting with Geoffrey Bayldon's alternate First Doctor. Bayldon channeled Hartnell nicely in Auld Mortality and, just a couple of years later, he's doing so again with a take on the character that captures Hartnell's spirit while also bringing something else to the part. For all of the grandfatherly figure present, there's also that sense of unpredictable danger that was in those early Hartnell outings here as well. For all the friendliness that Bayldon's Doctor puts on, there's a man who is capable of being quite dark and ruthless should he need to be underneath.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Carole Ann Ford returns once again as Susan and, like with Bayldon, her performance builds on the earlier tale to do new things with the character as she faces a new slew of situations and even gets to be at the center of a couple of plot twists. Indeed, it might well be Ford's best performance as the Doctor's granddaughter. Beyond her is a slew of historical figures re-imagined from Cameron Stewart's swashbuckling Drake to Ivor Danvers' Dee and Kate Brown as Elizabeth I. Rounding out the cast are Ian Hallard as the Doctor's Time Lord pursuer, Shiv Grewal as Elizabeth's Indian secretary Mr. Raju and Big Finish stalwart Ian Brooker (who appeared as Surus in Auld Mortality) in a number of roles. Combined with the sound design and music score (which apparently delayed its release back in the day), the result is a well-written story superbly brought to life.
With hindsight, the Unbound range feels like one of the last great flourishings of the Wilderness Years. Once New Who came onto the scene, Cardiff would need to sign off on their output as the focus returned to family-friendly storytelling and putting what was airing on TV at the forefront. A Storm of Angels is as select an example of that as I can think of, an overlooked gem even amongst one of the best series that Big Finish has ever produced.