Friday, 30 June 2017

Gallifrey 2.3: Pandora by Justin Richards (June 2005)

[I'm writing this on a plane from Bangkok to Auckland, so if it's all nonsense I would like to blame air pressure or oxygen deficiency or lack of sleep or something.]

If we can view Gallifrey Series 2 as a traditional five-act structure, then its third part - Justin Richards' Pandora - is The One Where Things Escalate. After the 'breather' that was episode 2, Spirit, this instalment sees events ramping up fairly significantly. The idea of a villainous embodiment of Time Lords' worst thoughts developing sentience and breaking through into the present is a tantalising one, if only because it emphasises the Time Lords' more despotic nature. While they have never exactly been presented in the televisions series as unambiguously good, some portrayals have lacked the bite of tackling just how oppressive, fascistic and corrupt the Time Lords really are. Here, Richards embraces their propensity for Gothic, chthonic underworlds of forbidden secrets and terrible deeds, of the kind we glimpse in Hell Bent - "not all our thoughts are pure and innocent. The Pandora partition is how the Matrix deals with the darker thoughts of the departed Time Lords: ambition, greed, lust for power... all these are siphoned off and stored separately." Even the words signifying the concepts over which they would claim to be Lords ("past", "present", "future") are echoed by the spirit of Pandora as she watches over her world's future.

Pandora is also a necessarily quite abstract threat, at least at the moment, but such an approach - while a bit limiting on television in some respects - works rather better on audio, Brenda Longman's shadowy voice quickly becoming reasonably memorable. An inversion of the traditional Pandora myth (she who opened the box is now the embodiment of all evil that was in it, as it were), the idea that she can feed on Time Lords' darkest thoughts is a great one, used most chillingly in probably the play's best conceit and standout scene. I'm speaking, of course, of the audio playback which reveals the true fate of Castellan Wynter, destined to become the broken man. It's a truly nasty idea - the idea that he did shot himself, crushing his own hands and biting out his own tongue, and that it was all done for ultimately good reasons - which elevates Wynter to a rather noble, tragic figure trying to atone for a betrayal and warn Romana. "You won't get my hands" is dark, while K9's "the rest is silence" is not just a highlight Gallifrey beat, it's not just probably K9's best-ever line, it's also more affecting than pretty much the entirety of Richards' Shakespeare-centric The Time of the Daleks. It's haunting all three times we hear it - in part, then in full both with and without Pandora's lines intact. A triumph.

The threat Pandora poses is stirring, engrossing stuff, and to my mind a more satisfying and coherent Series Arc Threat than Gallifrey I's Free Time "terrorist" offworlders. There, I felt the Free Time movement had a pretty solid leg to stand on, but I wasn't always confident the stories themselves gestured in that direction; here we are much more likely to side with the Time Lords against the horrors of their own past, in a manner which both justifies presenting Romana and so on as broadly in the right, but which often places their whole civilisation's history in the wrong. It feels like a more satisfying thematic fit, in other words.

Free Time does pop up again here too, in the form of the subversive student Gillestes - one of the play's more predictable aspects. It's no great leap from 'Pandora might escape out again into the present day and take someone else's mind' to 'oh, she's probably taken over this student who's trying to poison the Capitol's water supply' (her Free Time links turn out to be mostly a perfunctory nod to the first series). It doesn't help that Lucy Beresford's performance is a bit self-consciously whispery and hokey, either.

Romana continues to berate her bickering diplomats and advisers as "children"; the still-learning, enthusiastic, willing-to-dress-like-a-schoolgirl Romana of City of Death is almost completely gone by this point, having been replaced by a stern headmistress. The scenes of squabbling over "demarcation of powers" are initially not especially engrossing; it's hard to care whether Narvin or Wynter gets to handle a particular matter when the real drama lies elsewhere, but as the story goes on it becomes clearer that this feeds into some of that drama... such as the ongoing intrigues regarding Braxiatel, whose voice is beautifully warm, fruity, and unctuous - practically avuncular - whilst at the same time with this undercurrent that means you never quite know whether to trust him ("unless it's my double bluff," he intones at one point, "have you considered that?"). This uncertainty remains by the story's end; it seems he is planning to become President after Romana (though it does not sound like he wanted to be complicit in her downfall - it's more that he would be too canny not to use the inevitable power vacuum in which it would result), but the access code business wasn't his fault, and although it's a bit of a McGuffin that necessitates his leaving Gallifrey and eschewing contact with other Time Lords, it does engender a bit of sympathy for him. The fact that he can more freely carry on his shady past-and-future-selves art dealings means he won't be too unhappy, I should think.

Darkel, too, becomes a stronger, more Iago-esque, and more pivotal character with every new release. Like Iago, indeed, she's perfected how to flatter people's egos, play the innocent, and prompt people into her conclusions and let them think they are their own. I spent much of the play, in fact, debating with myself whether it might be Darkel of whose mind Pandora's mind had seized control, but that no longer seemed likely once the revelation hit that it was Darkel knows of Pandora and released Andred - I think her manipulative ability is simply part of his nature. Her most deliciously Machiavellian line yet is "Oh, I'm completely apolitical", though I also quite like "the President might assume I'm out for myself - like so many other people!" Mind you, I'm not sure Romana would be so easily manipulated by Darkel, despite Bellingham doing her utmost to make relatively brief dialogues feel weighty, and it's also hard not to find the plot point of "Braxiatel becomes Chancellor" pretty rushed once Romana does decide in favour of it; the ceremony is arranged incredibly quickly!

There's a nice moment, as Wynter arrives to take charge of the inquest into the broken corpse, when his dull officiousness is undermined by the fact that Leela is there simply to mourn and respect the dead man - once again, her allegedly simple 'barbarism' possesses a greater nobility and compassion than the sophistication of the Time Lords. This takes on a rather smart and poignant air once you realise that the broken man is Wynter: the story feels probably the most tautly plotted of any Gallifrey entry so far. As is quickly becoming standard, Leela's apparently innocent nature is a breath of fresh air among everybody else's machinations ("so much confusion; everyone trying to be in charge") - it's remarkable how important Leela is for the balance of these Gallifrey stories to work. The fact that she is not a natural fit here makes her one of the most necessary and interesting figures on the entire canvas.

This comes up in her scenes with Andred, which are movingly done, with a Time Lord's arrogance lack of feeling being smartly put down to their gift of having so more many chances than other species. His praise for the way she expanded his horizons and showed him how much life there is outside Gallifrey - how fleeting, how precious life is for others - is a nice parallel of what the Doctor sees in humans ("when you see it, I see it", he once told Amy Pond), and rings emotionally true, in that sharing something of one's own with somebody else (a place, a possession, something one has grown used to and no longer thinks important) often helps you appreciate it again, because they see it from a different perspective, one less inured to it. Though perhaps she is becoming more and more Gallifreyan - more and more Time Lord, rather - than she was when Andred first met her; her rate of aging artificially altered, she too now suffers from "the curse of living long enough to experiences the consequences of our own actions down through the centuries". It is not just plot convenience that sees Leela promoted to the significant role of the Capitol's Acting Castellan, after all (though Andred is deliciously annoyed about it), and the same can be said of Leela lecturing students at the Academy about how to fit in with Time Lords, for all that she still claims not to understand it.

Tl;dr? Pandora definitely shouldn't be kept locked away in a box.

Other things:
Such a Time Lord philosophy: "If we're all going to die, we might as well do it in peace."
"This unit does not have opinions, mistress - merely extrapolations from known data."
"All students are subversive."
"Before coma, subject could have communicated in a variety of ways. These include: writing in sand with toes, gesticulation with remains of arms, picking words from a list, Morse or similar code transmitted by tapping feet, nodding head..."
"Fragmentary artron print recovered."/"Well done, K9!.. What does that mean?"
"Well, well, well... how very lax of Brax."
"You have lived your life behind a mask for so long that now that mask is your own face...you have two hearts, just as you have two faces, and neither speaks the truth."
"the K9 computer"?! I really, really hope this is a nod to the manic Anthony Ainley singing it in the Doctor In Distress music video.
Some nice music here, particularly the organ and eerie vocals during the Chancellorship ceremony, and Pandora's echoey vocals are effective and very Doctor Whoish.
To give Nicholas Briggs his due, it's quite hard to tell that he's voicing the Gold Usher, IMO - his "poshed-up grandee" shtick is quite good.
"Like the President, loyalty is a particularly annoying trait of his."
A great example of what Leela's voice adds to Time Lord discourse: "Are you sure?"/"He was burned, his hands were pulverised, his wrists were still dripping blood as if his hands were freshly crushed."/"A simple 'yes I'm sure' would have sufficed."
K9 only recorded audio input and not visuals? How convenient for an audio play! (I'm not really annoyed by this, particularly not as it leads to a great scene; I'm just mildly amused).
"You can't just give important jobs to the people best able to do them!"/"Why not?"/"Because!"

Next: Gallifrey 2.4: Insurgency by Steve Lyons (July 2005)

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