Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 033. Neverland by Alan Barnes (June 2002)

Let’s deal with the more obvious aspects of Alan Barnes’ Eighth Doctor season finale first. Paul McGann gives a fantastically engaged, enthused and belligerent performance as the Doctor, clashing well with his own people in all manner of ways. Barnes writes the Eighth Doctor particularly well of all the authors who’ve contributed to his adventures so far (possibly the best, actually) – giving him a real verve and a superb array of great lines. Take this, for instance: “Important? The Time Lords? Oh no, no, no, it’s bound to be something really dreary. We, the dull men in big collars, have convened an inquiry into the matter of your involvement in the recent Nimon assault on Planet Earth and expect you to submit evidence of your actions in detail so stultifyingly unnecessary it’ll make your head bleed. Well, I won’t do it!” He’s always at his best when being sardonic about others’ foibles and joyously taking his own path, and this story is no exception. Barnes casts the Eighth Doctor into the rebellious mould while still every inch a gentleman: he’s the MP who quits because he’s sick of politics’ venality, the Oxbridge graduate who goes a bit nuts, the son and heir to landed gentry fleeing his title to do some good with his life. In a story that in part highlights the stuffiness of Time Lords (though it touches on other aspects as well, of course, which we’ll discuss), McGann’s slightly “cheeky aristocrat” character really shines.
While we’re talking Time Lords, Lalla Ward’s performance as Romana is interesting, another step forward from the imperious nature of President from The Apocalypse Element. She’s very much her own figure here, no second fiddle to the Doctor at all, unafraid to stick to her own path, and yet she still trusts him absolutely. I’m a bit uncertain how well she suits the “ruthless politician” vibe, and there are moments where it seems as though she bears little resemblance to the character who travelled with Tom Baker between 1978 and 1981. However, she and McGann share a truly wonderful scene together in Part Two where they swap a variety of tools with silly names (and to the scene’s extra credit, I can picture McGann’s tool cabinet from the TV movie absolutely crystal clear) while at the same time whispering about their future plans to escape: it’s an absolute hoot and very much in fitting with Season 17.

In fact this story is probably the most Time Lord-heavy so far, even topping The Sirens of Time and The Apocalypse Element. We get a clear look at the ugly side of Time Lord society; it’s pretty major to portray the Celestial Intervention Agency as an utterly ruthless, sinister secret police who have been erasing people for minimal crimes for centuries (“the non-execution of over 200 non-people”). That Sentris should herself turn up in Neverland, surrounded by her own victims, is unrelentingly grim, but adds to the story’s mythos-turned-sour tone which we’ll be coming back to. Part of this is of course bound up in the superb mid-story cliff-hanger, centring on the return of Rassilon. He’s a figure who has always represented the concept of “myth gone bad”. He’s the founder of Time Lord society, without whom much of what the Doctor holds dear would never have existed, without whom our hero would never have existed. And yet when he returns – in The Five Doctors, in The End of Time he is (generally speaking) cast in the mould of a villain.  “An old man, eternally sad and infinitely wise” – such is Rassilon, but “there are no gods, Doctor, Rassilon least of all.” I rather like that Rassilon and his battle against Zagreus features in the literature and nursery rhymes of other worlds, passed into myth (Ra – possibly even Egyptian myth?). It adds a nice dimension to Gallifrey’s past in my view, truly and utterly categorizing them as power-hungry; the Neverpeople view him as “that paranoid despot”. (And it’s well-done, too: Don Warrington’s first triumphant appearance over a bed of organ chords sent shivers down my spine, his velvety voice able to deliver sibilance and grandeur in equal measure. Like the best cliff-hangers, it doesn’t simply hinge on a monster attacking, but a properly game-changing moment that will have real repercussions for the rest of the story – which makes it a bit of a shame, then, that we are starved of Rassilon content in Part Two.)

So we have a fairly familiar critique of a society that to quite another story has had “ten million years of absolute power” which, as we all know, “what it takes to be really corrupt” – the myth has gone bad.  One fairy-tale is supplanted by another: the nightmare of Zagreus (leading us to the other phenomenally good cliff-hanger: to be continued…). I’m a big fan of the dystopia as presented in the Matrix – McGann’s desperate narrative of “A city, burning, and above it a vast black citadel, hulking over the landscape…” is ably complemented by Lalla Ward’s brilliant turn as the cruel and unfeeling Imperiatrix, and Don Warrington’s “Gallifrey, oh Gallifrey! Her forests are cracked and dead, the silver leaves of the cadenwood trees are withered and perished, the skies which once danced with lights purple and green and brilliant yellow now broil with the stinking exhalations of the charnel-house! Those of her people who are not beaten and cowed have grown cruel, their hearts hardened to ice. This is the Empire of Zagreus.”

And crucial in all this is the hitherto stock “support Time Lord” figure of Vansell, who comes out unexpectedly with a rallying cry for change in stultifying Gallifreyan society: “We have held ourselves back too long, bound by caution, tradition and deference! We’re a joke! We maintain the universe, oh yes, we preserve it in amber, its injustices uncorrected. Its aggressors go unpunished in the name of mediation!...We could work with our allies…to build a consensus for progress across all the galaxies, to be a radical force for the advancement of a common good!” It is then, of course, rather disappointing that this all fades away in a flurry of his own self-interest, desiring as he does to become Rassilon’s right-hand man in the New Gallifrey – although that, of course, is the point: the Time Lords are simultaneously powerful and noble yet capable of immense evil. Founding myths and the abuse of legacy are heartily condemned here, particularly the hero-worship of Rassilon to which Vansell and others are prone. The arc of their decadence is complete; their founder is rediscovered and is a despot; the figure who represents the cause of revolution is a charlatan; Zagreus, the legend that supplants them, is even worse.

But that’s not the end of the story: Vansell sacrifices himself to save Romana in the moment of need. It’s a good, fitting scene – he dies for the President whose loyalty he was earlier so keen to betray. But Romana isn’t any old President. She was a Doctor Who companion. She is in every respect textually associated with the show’s mythos and values, as opposed to Gallifrey’s, where Vansell is not. Vansell dies to allow Doctor Who stories to continue. It’s difficult to overstate this; it’s the first such moment we’ve seen Big Finish do, and it feels like a new series finale in many ways. Neverland must have been a hit with Davies and Moffat, because this really sets the template for their future work. Everything spirals out of control; civilisation is going to collapse, okay, scratch that, the universe is going to collapse; the characters are at death’s door and the story is about to end; the death of an old order allows Doctor Who stories to voyage on.

There is, of course, something we haven’t talked about yet, and it’s probably the key element which binds this story to the new series approach, whether it’s the Impossible Girl, or DoctorDonna, or Bad Wolf Rose. Here, it’s Charley Pollard, about whom the Tenth Doctor could easily have been talking when he used the phrase “the most important woman in all creation”. Let’s talk about Charley, then, a pretty landmark character in many ways. She represents the fluidity of narrative possibility: the life that was destined to be cut short. “It isn’t my birthday because I’m not supposed to have any birthdays…No more birthdays because I’m supposed to be dead, dead and burned on the wreck of an airship.” Reliably, India Fisher delivers this stuff powerfully. And it gets at the heart of why she’s interesting (I have zero interest in quibbling the number of survivors on board the R101, which one could naturally do. But it’s just petty). Charley Pollard is impossible. She’s been snatched from the death she was always meant to die. In our world, we know all too well that no one materialises on board planes that go crashing into the ocean and saves one young woman because it’s unbearable to let her die.

And the story actually goes quite some way to acknowledge this. India Fisher gets her best material yet here, and one of the indisputable highlights of the McGann era so far, as she is forced into the corner of accepting the immutable fact of her death. And like a lot of Doctor Who’s best stuff, it is couched in the lexis of Faerie: “You’re Peter Pan, the little boy who never grew up, who lived in Never-never-land, who fought with pirates and pixies…And I’m Wendy Darling, having adventures in fairyland with the boy who never grew old. But you see, Wendy grew up in the end. That’s what’s so sad… You’re so sweet. So kind, so caring. Too good to be true, like a dream. And all this is just dreaming. These adventures we’ve had, these scrapes and japes in Neverland, with monsters and ray guns and magic, they’ve been wonderful, better than my wildest dreams! But you can’t hide in dreams. Everyone wakes up in the end. It’s time to stop dreaming, Doctor. Time to grow up… It’s been a fantastic ride but now it’s time to get off. There is no alternative.” The Doctor is a fantasy. Of course he is. This is the real world. She has to leave it all behind. It has all the (potential) hallmarks of Last Doctor Who Story Ever. It’s this elegantly elegiac, funereal tone that lifts Neverland above a merely competent apocalypse story: after all, the entire thing hinges on one person being alive when they shouldn’t be, and in Barnes’ script that’s more important than all manner of dimension-hopping locations.

The beautiful thing is of course this phrase “there is no alternative”. Pinter discusses how the words we say are almost always both true and false. This is a perfect example. The phrase is actually woven throughout the story – in Charley’s speech above; Rassilon questions it, “you have considered every alternative?”; and the Doctor himself turns it into a phrase of nobility toward the end of the story, here stating, “You know what they say: there is no alternative.” And there isn’t. Charley has to grow up: she must accept it’s a fiction. She must accept the consequences of her fiction. That is that.

“It’s like I said in the TARDIS. My time is up; there is no alternative. Oh, Doctor, you rescued me from the R101, you gave me these last few wonderful months. The things that I’ve seen, the places I’ve been. I’ve lived more than I could ever have dreamed of – and all thanks to you. And you’re the sweetest, the kindest, the most wonderful man I’ve ever met. And I’m sorry it’s come to this, and I’m sorry it has to end like this, but if the Web of Time is destroyed then all the time I’ve had, everywhere I’ve been, all those fabulous, fantastic things I’ve done won’t ever have happened at all. Don’t let those times be taken away. Don’t let it all go to waste. I know it’s an awful, terrible thing, but I want you to do it.”

There is no alternative, and yet there is:

“Charley, I can’t. You’re my friend and I love you.”

The impossible becomes possible. Imagination trumps death, which has always been “the tyrant of the imagination” (Brian Proctor). It does not matter whether Charley’s imaginary friend is real, nor Amy Pond’s. It calls to mind the best thing JK Rowling ever wrote – “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” The legend carries on, our legend, the one whose stories we follow. We don’t have to grow out of it. Growing out of such stories is a childish thing to do, and as the Doctor tells us, “I can fix that.”

With this in mind, it’s almost a shame it ends on a cliff-hanger, even as good a one as it does, since it means Neverland will never be a complete story: only Part 1 of 2. But even so it’s one of the greats, in my view. A story that asserts in the face of all narrative odds that Doctor Who stories can continue past its 2002 wilderness; a story that tells us imagination really does beat mortality. Not that it can, but that it does. “We measure our lives in love and I’ve loved every minute…We’re born into love, not anger, and love never dies, however brief our lives may be.” To be frank, there is no alternative.

Other thoughts:
The return of the Humanian Era, eh? What I like about this is the fact that the story it’s nicked from is itself Eighth Doctor continuity and Eighth Doctor alone. It lends the term a real feel of “something that can only be a part of the McGann era”, alas a rare achievement.
It may not make a great deal of sense, but the Inforarium-style opening with the recorders of history is splendidly evocative. “I…can’t…remember!”
“I’ll just stand here at the back, quiet as a mouse, looking pretty and pouting. I said, I’ll just stand here at the back, quiet as a mouse, looking-”/ “Great idea.”
The opening scene with the Doctor excitably ignoring Charley, and her embittered attempts to distract him, is great; his faux-enthusiasm regarding Charley’s birthday and inviting her to a party in the “Jovian Fold” is both amusing and rather desperate (a “party the Time Lords know nothing about… it’s the party to end all parties and we don’t want killjoys in the kitchen”). But of course, this is Charley Pollard we’re talking about: she sees through his façade with a pleasing ease, and reaches the conclusion that it’s all about her unintended survival of the R101 crash.
The way in which Neverland tied back to The Apocalypse Element is a nice way of lending this a sense of “larger” continuity than just the adventures of the Eighth Doctor – in the way 80s adventures would tip their hat to 60s ones. But it does weave in many threads from this current Eighth Doctor season (known by some as “Season 28”, apparently), particularly the paradoxes present in 3 of the other 5 stories (of these 8, only Invaders from Mars and Embrace the Darkness haven’t involved paradox in any way).
Time-warp silos, time-torpedoes, time slippages, anti-time… this story sets the highest record yet for its impressive reliance on mystical technobabble. I’m half-bothered by this, half-not. I mean, none of it really makes a lick of sense (anti-time isn’t really the “lack of time” in any meaningful way, it’s just “frozen time”). The time-torpedoes have a pretty cool function though, freezing the TARDIS in perpetuity.
“I’m the Doctor and whatever happens, whatever the odds, I never ever ever give up.” Great mission statement.
“Well I may be none the wiser but I daresay I’m better informed,” says Charley of one of the Doctor’s baffling explanations.
“You don’t want a neurotic 950-something cramping your style!” McGann always feels a little more of a modern Doctor in these sorts of scenes.
“I won’t give up, Charley, not now, not after all this time! Please, Charley, let me help you! Let me face this for you.”
The Doctor is “dressed like a retrograde” – that’s how the Time Lords recognise him. And of course Eight’s first words would be something along the lines of “I tell you, Lord Byron, you’re meddling in forces you don’t understand…”
“This is an Earth colloquialism?”/ “It usually is.”
“Doctor, tell us how you first escaped the time-torpedoes?”/“Er, well, you know, improvisation, genius, a well-turned trouser, a rapier wit…”
“Oh, you’ve brought me here to talk about time distortion? Well, I’m your man; I’ve been warped and flipped and slipped and spun through more temporal phenomena than a Mexonian Dragon has had hot dinners.”
Nice to see a bit of a nod to the Academia of the Time Lords as they refer to researching Anti-Time.
Positive time is finite time, and so Anti-Time is negative time, destroying all notion of causality, a “perpetuity of meaningless chaos, a Now with no beginning or end…Nowhere, nowhen.” Neverland itself is a fascinating soundscape, powerfully rendered. The ghostly India Fisher voice as “Never-Charley” is terrific, as is the revelation of all the people who never were; the strange world of acid rain, iron filings, metal forests, caves and an ex-TARDIS planetoid makes for a superbly “Other” environment, as indeed is Barnes’ intention.
“History is leaking like a sieve.”
Even amid universal catastrophe, we get little touches like the Doctor referring to his brain as resembling “spiral staircase” which is so wonderfully apt.
The story asserts (casually, in a little aside) that Daleks are needed for the universe, that their presence is correct and justified. For without them, there is no more Doctor Who. There can be no more Doctor Who stories.
“I stand by my mistakes, and by my promises too. If you destroy Charley, rightly or wrongly, I won’t let you do it with a clean conscience. There must be another way, and while my hearts are still beating, I will find it.”
“You know me, Romana. I like long odds.”
For all the abstract ideas this is one of the more fast-moving and action-packed stories. There’s a heck of a lot going on, anyway, and the pace runs at a fair clip.
“You made us, Time Lord. We can unmake you.”
Continuing the gag from Minuet in Hell: “Romana, this is Charley, one of my best ever friends. Charley, this is Romana, one of my best friends ever!”
“this coal, fallen from infinity’s grate” – by God, that’s poetic.
“Doctor, one day you’ll fail to keep one of your promises. It will come to you as a terrible shock when it happens.” – in hindsight, this ends up rather true in the form of the War Doctor, does it not?
Romana’s “This was a terrible chapter in Gallifrey’s history” is justifiably undermined by Sentris. “WAS? This WAS a terrible chapter in Gallifrey’s history?”
The Anti-Time switcheroo in the casket is quite clever, and an ingenious way for the Neverpeople to break through into “our” universe.
“It will be as if the Time Lords had never existed.” As Romana says, “This cannot be allowed” and the Doctor himself says, “this terrible revenge on the living cannot be justified”.
“Cheating death is a very dreary habit, Doctor.”
“Ah, Vansell, enjoying your time as despot-in-waiting, are you?”
“You megalomaniacs are the same! Rush, rush, rush! Never put off today what you can put off tomorrow, that’s what I say!”
“Madam, I will serve you until the stars decay and the cosmos is naught but a dying ember in eternity’s fire.”/ “Well, the next five minutes will do.”
The story is also about being grateful for life over and above being bitter because one hasn’t had enough life, being “fixated on what one might have missed out on”, such that they “have forgotten what living was like”.
“I’m just looking after my own,” is Sentris’ defence of her actions. “You see, once in a while, you have to pick sides, and if you don’t stand with your own kind, well, you’re a traitor. So hang your head, Doctor. You’ve betrayed the whole Web of Time because you can’t bear to bloody your hands. How does that feel?” He is not Jack Harkness, sacrificing one child to save billions; he can’t make that kind of calculation.
Even decadent Rassilon salutes the Doctor: “I have watched you these many long years. I have seen you in all your adventures, seen the many things you have done in the service of your beliefs… Some I can hardly be seen to approve of, but for the most part, Doctor, you have made me proud. You have enriched the lives of more people and more worlds than I suspect you will ever know. You have made a difference, and I come here simply to tell you that, before everything is ended, before it is too late…You have honoured me.”
The Doctor materialising his TARDIS around the Time Station, jeering “Yes, it’s that man again!” as he thwarts Sentris, is a great moment.
Romana’s tribute to the Doctor: “objectionable, irrational, block-headed, impetuous, magnificent you.”
The Doctor is “a favourite son” of Gallifrey.
“Behold the last vestiges of the most awesome power ever imagined. Imagined, yes. How much better if I should take my title from the work of imagination, a creature willed to power by the undying anger of an unreal race?...I am not the Doctor! I am become he who sits inside your head, he who lives among the dead, he who sees you in your bed, and eats you when you’re sleeping. I – am – become – Zagreus!”

Additional: The 8th Doctor Era

We’ve had 10 stories of McGann so far, which is a bit like a full year of him playing the Doctor (or possibly two) – so it’s maybe time to ponder what kind of era his is. As I touch on above, it’s an era fascinated by paradox, by the idea of narrative gaps and spaces, as is bound up in the figure of Charley. It’s there in Storm Warning, sort of in Minuet in Hell, The Chimes of Midnight, Seasons of Fear, The Time of the Daleks and of course Neverland. This is in itself a bit new, toying with and carrying on from the narrative experimentation of the McCoy era and the novels. It’s an era that isn’t afraid to bring back the old classics – Daleks, Cybermen, Romana, Gallifrey, Rassilon, even the Nimon – but that also does a lot of new things and forges its own chronology, giving us Vortisaurs, Cimmerians, Neverpeople... The Eighth Doctor seems to suit sepia-tinted, nostalgic locations – the plucky spirit of the R101, the catacombs and gondolas of Venice, the gloom of an Edwardian cellar. He’s brave, adventurous, a free wild spirit, a show-off and a name-dropper, absent-minded, but fiercely loyal perhaps to a fault and very protective of his best friend. In short, Paul McGann is the Doctor, and his era is as solidly and reliably Doctor Whoish as any other.

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