Sunday 23 August 2015

WHO REVIEW: The Sixth Doctor - The Last Adventure





Colin Baker's made himself something of a controversial figure in the last month or so, predominantly with comments made in an interview intended to publicise this very release. Frankly, this isn't terribly important, and will be forgotten about soon enough. Mr C. Baker has never been shy when voicing his opinion, and more power to him. It's something he has in common with the incarnation of the Doctor he portrayed. The Last Adventure is a celebration of Baker and Doctor, a combination of actor and character that have stood against disproportionate criticism since their debut, over thirty years ago. It's time to celebrate all that's loved about Doctor no. 6, from his not-so-humble beginnings to his domination of Big Finish's audio series today.

A box set comprising four hour-long stories, The Last Adventure is rather like BF's earlier celebratory anthology releases, writ large. The stories span the Doctor's post-Trial period of adventures, which is entirely appropriate – it's this part of his history that is wholly missing from the TV series. The only problem with this is that Peri has no part to play, which is a pity, seeing that she was the sixth Doctor's main companion on TV. Still, we have a broad array of adventures here with many of the Doctor's friends from his sixth life taking part, in a series of adventures that are linked by the presence of the Valeyard. Caution – by necessity, this review contains significant SPOILERS.

The set kicks off with The End of the Line, a script by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, which is, for me, the strongest of the four stories. It's an intelligent script that begins as an extended moan about the state of British rail services (something I can empathise with all too readily), before heading into horror territory with an unnerving tale of overlapping realities. A station becomes embroiled in an otherworldly fog, its spatial dimensions distorting as multiple histories encroach upon one point in space. The effect on the unfortunate humans caught up in the anomaly is drastic, as every individual's worst possible self is out there somewhere, bleeding into this universe. It's an atmospheric play, evoking Sapphire & Steel in its approach. It's also highly entertaining, softening the horrific aspects with some well-judged humour. Baker is on fine form here, his Doctor in a more pensive mood as he explores this mystery. He's joined by the excellent Miranda Raison as Constance Clarke, the latest in a long line of audio original companions for the sixth Doctor. An odd side-effect of this release's being brought forward is that Mrs Clarke appears here before her actual debut story. This doesn't pose any problems, though; the sixth Doctor's era is full of oddities like this, and Constance is a strong and easily graspable character. Raison has a good rapport with Baker and I look forward to hearing more of them together.

Where this story finds its sense of fun is in its choice of villain. Keith Potter, train spotter, an unassuming member of the ensemble of characters played Chris Finney, turns out to be an avatar of the Master, something the Doctor takes pleasure in mocking. It's a wonderfully clever move – apart from the humour involved in having such a nebbish character turn out to be the Doctor's most persistent enemy, it allows the production to involve the Ainley Master, otherwise impossible to include, by simply never having him drop his disguise. The story makes me ponder whether the Parallel Sect that are alluded to here are the Dimensioneers that inspire the Master's later/earlier scheme in UNIT: Dominion. However, the Master's lunatic plan – domination of the all of reality, from a train station – is shown up for the farce it is when another character drops his disguise, revealing himself to be the Valeyard. The history between the Master and the Valeyard is one of the great untold stories of the series, but judging from his horrified reaction here, the Master wouldn't stand a chance.

The Red House, although another horror story in its content, is more frivolous and excitable in its style. We jump forward in the Doctor's timeline to when he was travelling with Charley Pollard, and it's wonderful to have India Fisher back. Her short tenure with Colin Baker was a particular pleasure, and their adventuring duo work so well together. The story, by the entertaining Alan Barnes, sees the travellers arrive on a world where the populace face an extraordinary transformation. Doctor Who, has done werewolf stories before, on screen and audio, but this is a rather different take on the trope. With curfews at dawn and troglodyte humans, it's an inverse werewolf story, with a hefty sci-fi set-up that leaves the Doctor with a major moral dilemma. The Valeyard is far more prominent in this story. He's still in disguise, but in this case it's Michael Jayston all the way. The technology he acquires in this episode is essential to his ongoing plan, not that the Doctor will discover this for a long time. A nice touch is the Valeyard's tete-a-tete with Charley, threatening her with the revelation to the Doctor of her true origins. It's another clever moment in the production; the Valeyard, of course, remembers his travels with Charley in his eighth incarnation and knows that she shouldn't be here with his sixth. It ties the many, many adventures of the characters together neatly.

Michael Jayston gets a meatier role in the third instalment, Stage Fright. This is, of all the stories, the one that is most straightforward fun, although it also has a darker element. It's another clever script, utilising a set-up that not only provides a perfect excuse to get Victorian duo Jago and Litefoot to get involved, but also acts as a love letter to long tradition of regeneration stories, of which this is but the latest. The Doctor brings wee Londoner Flip Jackson to Victorian times to experience the history of her city, whereupon they go for a drink with the 19th century amateur sleuths. It's a joyful little ensemble, with Baker, Lisa Greenwood, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter sounding like they've worked together since the dawn of radio. Baker and Jackson make for a very sweet Doctor/companion team, with the Doctor coming across as very paternal towards Flip.Once upon a time Jago and Litefoot were associated with the fourth Doctor, but since they've swapped Baker One for Baker Two as their audio Doctor of choice, they really have gelled with him. Their theatricality compliments one another, and theatricality is what this story is all about.

The Valeyard – outdoing the Master once again with a truly hopeless pseudonym – has set up his own private stage production where he is, of all things, re-enacting his many past regenerations. He's also draining people of their energies, but rather than a Magnus Greel-like life vampire, he's after emotional energy. It's also part of his long-gestating plot, which culminates in his forcing the Doctor to relive his own deaths for maximum emotional trauma. It's quite monstrous, but also unashamedly fanwanky. It also goes on to highlight the big difference between the Doctor and the Valeyard (and also, really, why the latter is more like the Master): the Doctor has people who care about him and who will fight for him, while the Valeyard has no one. It's a tremendous performance from Jayston, allowing us to enjoy his rich, cultures, occasionally venomous tones at length before the finale brings the focus back onto Baker.

And so then, to the grand finale, the last adventure of the sixth Doctor. The Brink of Death is all the work of Nicholas “Workaholic” Briggs, taking the responsibility for crafting Sixie's regeneration story. I understand that to begin with, he was quite reluctant to approach this, as the regeneration had, in its briefest possible form, been shown on television. However, listener demand clearly convinced him that the story needed to be told, and so here it is. To be brutally honest, after three such enjoyable stories, The Brink of Death was a tiny bit of an anticlimax. However, there's nothing wrong with focussing on character over spectacle, and the story is told with admirable economy, very unlike the overblown regeneration stories of recent years. Finally, the Valeyard achieves his goal, subsuming the Doctor's life and replacing him, the Doctor's sixth incarnation remade in the Valeyard's image. We hear brief snapshots of the Valeyard's adventures with Mel, and while he has his own agenda still to pursue, he actually sounds like a most charming travelling companion. Of course, it's all part of his grand plan – his master plan, if you will, because there's something very Masterly in his design. He only wants to take his grandiose plan to the nth degree and transfer himself into the guise of every Time Lord.

Although Bonnie Langford returns as Mel, who of course was the Doctor's companion through his sixth regeneration, Big Finish have made an odd decision to give him a one-off companion for this story. However, it really works very well, primarily because Genesta is played by the excellent Liz White. Genesta is an infectiously enthusiastic and likeable character, a very young Gallifreyan who once travelled to Earth and came back as a brassy northern Time Lady. She makes a pretty perfect companion for the sixth Doctor, who recognises his own youthful desire to run away and explore in her. Really, though, in spite of the great performances from White, Jayston et al, this one belongs to Baker, as it should. Reduced to a virtual ghost by the Valeyard's actions, the Doctor goes from fighting to get his own life back, to willingly sacrificing it in order to stop the Valeyard from endangering his entire society. After all his angry tirades against the Time Lords for their corruption and ignobility, he's still prepared to give his life to save them, rewriting his own recent past to push events onto a different track. His final scenes are, at once, righteous and powerful, as he rages against his “diminished, shrunken parody” of a future self, and then quietly goes to his death, his possible final death, with dignity. McCoy's even there for the handover, in a very nicely handled moment. It segues perfectly into Time and the Rani, but is approximately 193 times better.

It was quite right that the sixth Doctor should go down fighting the Valeyard, the being who represented all the worst aspects of his character, proving that he was far greater than the sum of his parts. The sixth Doctor's final episode on TV saw him sign over his lives to the Valeyard; finally we hear that followed up, and finally we hear the villain defeated. Colin Baker goes out with pride, and he deserved nothing less.

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