Sunday, 7 February 2016

Main Range 085. Red by Stewart Sheargold (August 2006)

Many of the Season 24 audio adventures have been a cut above the TV ones (or, at the very least, have been less hampered by shoddy production values); from Unregenerate! taking place moments after Time and the Rani to The Fires of Vulcan clearly bridging the gap between Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire as the Seventh Doctor slowly becomes more like his Season 25 self, Big Finish have consistently fleshed out this most reviled of seasons and given it a new lease of life. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Stewart Sheargold’s audio play Red, a bold story which takes the Season 24 aesthetic (definite shades of Paradise Towers) and gives us something that is in many ways much more serious – and nightmarishly different.

Three of the clearest influences on Red are Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Ridley Scott-directed 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner: the different classes, the chips and the brainwashing, the absolute surveillance, the interest in Artificial Intelligence…and the rain. If you’ve got dystopian rain, you are influenced by Blade Runner: it’s a known fact. While dystopias in Doctor Who turn up relatively frequently, and probably even more so in Seventh Doctor stories (look no further than LIVE 34 for the most recent), there are a number of ways that help Red to stand out. Though it lacks LIVE 34’s structural innovation, it more than makes up for it by setting the story in a very creatively written society and by blending it with some terrific psychological horror.

The Needle, ever-adapting to its inhabitants’ thoughts, is a world in which computers use us as a guide of reference to help run society, rather than the other way round. As Lyons did in Time Works, a thorough amount of world-building is going on here; see the effective nuance of the ubiquitous category “subject” being a word that denotes scientific monitoring and civilian fealty simultaneously (one of the sentences best illustrating this is “I constantly monitor my subjects for their wellbeing”). There is Sheargold’s fascinating use of synaesthesia and the symbolism of colours. Take the red/blue dualism: there is Chief Blue and various other “Blues” who police the violent colony and hold back the “Red”; that blue ship the TARDIS is highly uncomfortable landing in the colony; red in this story as a perversion of rubedo, the final stage in the alchemical Great Work of the Middle Ages, often paralleled with the colour blue in the new series; Mel’s red hair leads to her nickname “Red”; the parallel with Paradise Towers’ Red/Blue Kangs. The names themselves have a linguistic fascination to them (Celia Fortunaté is my favourite), as do infantilising terms to keep each subject in their place like “cradle room”, or indeed riffs on known phrases like “it opens up the synapses”, “friends in low places”, “a Red Tape”,  and “I wish some harm on you”. The 24-hour clock isn’t quite as we know it (only twenty hours in a day, but at least 80 minutes in an hour), and birds’ calls sound like bleeps and honks. There’s a drug called “Slow”, which allegedly helps you feel and slows your body clock right down, and while the upper-class are “irresponsible and hedonistic snobs”, the underclass regularly cut themselves to ensure they still feel pain. Easily digestible, populist, smile-on-your-face Who this is not. It’s cerebral, and engaged with the politics of our world, and angrily so.

Much like LIVE 34, this is a story obsessed with media information and the extent to which it consumes us – consumes us in white noise, a noise which both facilely blots out the violent atavism underneath and yet somehow feeds it. And this is a world made by our thoughts: so as always with any media, control our thoughts, and you quite literally control the world that reshape around them at will. One of the key elements to dystopia, as identified earlier, is surveillance. As in LIVE 34, Blue and Whitenoise observe the Doctor, Mel and various subjects on numerous occasions, playing and pausing their actions and indeed their deaths – just like we do. Blood sport simulations are viewed recreationally. Television, or even audio, becomes part of the dystopian media. Yulquen herself says it: “the art is so much more real than the real thing. I’d rather delude myself.” The signal itself can be at fault; indeed, the human capacity for anger or violent behaviour bleeds into the machines that help run their lives, until even your Facebook account (in effect) can kill you because killing is so intrinsic a part of human/primate behaviour. How often have you heard people say of their outrageous behaviour when drunk, “but that’s not me?!” But it is. It was within them, they were capable of it. People become violence-vessels that their latent anger, their susceptibility to see red, is able to harness to its own ends. It goes without saying that there is a lot of death in this story, with most inhabitants of the Needle massacred at the climax. These darker undertones mark the story out as an audacious and disturbing one; Red braves the difficult subject of domestic violence, and potentially sexual violence, on several occasions – particularly husbands abusing and murdering wives. Probably the scariest part is this: “I looked into her eyes. She was so frightened, and so surprised that someone she cared for was hurting her, had turned on her.” These scenes are as horrible as they should be, really straying into Stephen King territory (an author of whom I was also reminded by the red/“redrum” parallel from The Shining).

The performances in Red are great, right down to the mellifluous and velvety tones of Whitenoise, a sadistic computer to match BOSS or Xoanon. Elsewhere, Sandi Toksvig is quite the big name to have on board, and she delivers in spades as Vi Yulquen, a rogue element thrilled by the prospect of suffering violence, pushing the boundaries by feeling “a certain satisfying animalism” through her link to her pet bird and liaisons with “men from below”; Toksvig plays her with a suavity and a perversion that feels deliciously wrong. As you’d expect, Bonnie Langford delights in getting such meaty material: she’s our key eyes and ears with regard to exploring the proper horror of the Needle and the world below, getting to know how Slow works, and in all these scenarios she’s as solid as ever (plus this is another story which doesn’t forget about Mel’s computer expertise). My only niggle is that Denise Huey’s voice is quite similar to Langford’s, making some of their scenes together a little odd to listen to. And while I’m having a whinge, Gary Russell’s direction here is a bit off, with too many scenes dragging and the story overall feeling overlong (the worst crime in this regard is the bit where all the citizens are being massacred but nobody sounds all that urgent or panicky).

Sylvester McCoy is remarkable, given the opportunity to pitch one of his best performances; Sheargold beautifully positions the character not just as an anarchic, rebellious influence but as someone who is fully proud of the fact. But more than that, his psychological instabilities make him absolutely terrifying (and I have no doubt in saying it’s more effective than Baker was in The Sandman, or McCoy himself in Unregenerate!). McCoy has always had the kind of voice that can be extraordinarily warm one moment, and demonic the next (there’s a bit just like that in Master), and his range is put to great use in this story as he snarls his way through some of the most disturbing things we’ve ever heard the Doctor say. Usually his Doctor is the kind of figure we do not know whether we can trust because of his ambiguous nature; here, it is more that the redlining is such a powerful force we can never quite know if he will be taken by it again. It’s more akin to a disease than worrying morals, but it does see the Doctor more psychically and emotionally close to evil than he often is. At the end of the day, he remains the good angel on the killer’s shoulder, but that’s still a scary place to be. There is a part of him that wants to be violent.

We can never cure violence, this story tells us, because it is so latent inside us. It is the enemy within. So long as we are creatures of need, we are creatures of violence. To want things (food, land, rights, sex) is to worry about somebody else taking them from us, and so physical pleasure and passion will always be bound up with our capacity to see red. To live is to hurt others. You can’t take a single step without leaving the imprint of crushed blades of grass behind you. Yet in so much of our media and our culture, we exalt it as the “art” of Tarantino or war films or crime serials. So that’s who the villains in Red are: us. And it’s our fault for listening.

For all this, the story does not have to depress us. We do have more free will than the people of the Needle. Violence is not a given. We can know and avoid the worst parts of ourselves, which in the end leads to less harm than the falsehood of ‘switching them off’. We can choose not to harm. And when we choose that, perhaps, just perhaps, the rain will stop falling.

Other things:
Surely this is one of the most “new series”-sounding titles yet (a single, ominous word a la Gridlock, Blink, Hide, Listen or Flatline)?
“I don’t like what you’re wearing, my dear. It’s…so…red.”
“All machines break down one way or another.”
Sheargold does some nice work at making the Doctor and Mel sound guilty – their hush-hush infiltration looks suspicious on the authorities’ monitors, as indeed it would: “Best to assume we are guilty until proven innocent; I do have that rather unfortunate effect on people.”
“You cannot control me; I am always the random element, the spanner in the bonnet, the bee in the works.” (Lovely line, which works poetically even within its own mixed metaphors).
“I hate you, dear.”
“When he snapped her neck, he learned that from me…”
A dystopia where nobody walks? Now that’s too far.
“It’s not exactly legal.”/“Most special abilities aren’t…which doesn’t mean you can’t use them. It just means you can’t get caught using them.”
“I abhor violence and it is never the moral option. I’ve seen things that would make you curl into a stuttering ball of denial for the rest of your life. I’ve done those things. I’ve pulled the trigger, pressed the button, detonated the bomb. It doesn’t make you feel any better just because you win…I’ve seen it before. You remove and alter everything disagreeable to make yourself better. You cut and you cut but you cut too well but you find that the very thing you’ve rid yourself of, the very thing you are now denied, is the very thing you so desperately want. I understand you. You’re depraved on account of being deprived.” The Doctor, folks: toppling the world by quoting West Side Story’s ‘Gee Officer Krupke!’
Tiny complaint – the story’s first two cliff-hangers are almost identical. Something a bit more of a left-field swerve in the middle of the script might’ve been cool.
“Red never stops. Red wants to make more red. I’m your brother, Nuane. I’m his little seed of red. I’m the devil on the inside. I’m the gun. The knife. The strangling hands around her throat.”
“I’ve never been so close to death before. Usually I operate, finger poised on the button, two steps removed from the state of play. But not this time. This time I’m up close. I get to see. I get to feel his hate…but it’s not me. That will never be me.”
Mel, in the rainy undercity: “Typical. The one time I could use the Doctor’s umbrella and he’s not here!”
“I have returned from the ether, the dark space, the incomprehensible.”
“You always appreciate the things you need the most when you don’t have them.”
“You’ll just have to learn to become human again. You have your violence again. Learn to control it. After all, it’s a part of human nature. It’s a part of you.”
“I know you’re not the violent type.”/“I could be, Mel. I could be.”

Next: 086 The Reaping by Joseph Lidster.

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