Monday, April 29, 2013

Spare Parts

So here we are, a few weeks after the listen, and I'm still pondering how I feel about Spare Parts.

I will say right up front that it's an incredible audio. The actors and the crew were clearly enjoying themselves. The production values are very high. Fans of audio dramas, even ones who may like other audios more than they like Doctor Who, should check these out. They make great background for doing all kinds of things - I highly recommend them for airports and public transit, for instance.

The thing I most like about this one, oddly enough, is that the Doctor doesn't win. He decides this time he is going to try to change what would later be called a fixed point, and he blows it - and the depth of his blowing it isn't clear till the last second. In fact, there's no telling if the Doctor *ever* finds out how much he failed. It's entirely possible he goes on through the rest of his existence and doesn't clue in.

I also like the way Doctor and Nyssa are still working out their relationship post-Adric and Tegan. Despite the fact that it's been decades since the relevant events in real time, in the story it's been... weeks? Months, maybe, and they have been dancing around it? The cast brings their years of additional experience and wisdom to the scene, portraying the relationship with finesse and wistful remorse. It's quite frankly beautiful.

It's not perfect. A few weeks out the imperfections melt away, though, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. I really recommend this one. Give it a listen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spare Parts

'Spare Parts' is one of those stories that's almost, almost, almost legendary. It's very good, don't get me wrong, and certainly quite well-remembered; Marc Platt is one of my favorite 'Doctor Who' authors, and this is one of his better works. But you can feel the story pulling back just a little at the end, because it has to risk being hated to be perfect. And it's just a little bit too afraid of not being loved to do what it needs to do to be legendary.

The story is, in structure, similar to 'The Aztecs'; the Doctor and his companions travel to a historical civilization that straddles the line between brutality and glory, and must choose whether to use their power to change that civilization to eliminate the brutality, or to keep history on its established course...only to discover that they don't have quite as much choice in the matter as they thought. The only difference is that here, the "historical" civilization exists in Doctor Who's history, not the textbooks; this is Mondas just before it became the home of the Cybermen, monsters who've been a part of Doctor Who almost since the beginning.

Like 'The Aztecs', 'Spare Parts' gives us a well-grounded, sympathetic portrayal of the society the Doctor and his companions enter; we meet the Hartley family, some of the most charming and likeable characters in the history of Doctor Who, and Doctorman Allen, who has to be the most likeable and sympathetic total bastard Doctor Who has ever given us. (She's not quite Bester, but she's damned close.) We see how a pre-Cybermen Mondas might work, and for the first time we're really given to understand the dilemma that led the Mondasians to become Cybermen. Doctorman Allen at one point challenges the Doctor to come up with a solution to their problems, if he's so willing to sit in judgment on the one they came up with themselves, and his silence is telling.

Every character is great, really. Dodd is the kind of character who would be the villain of any other story, but here he's almost decent; he might be a literal organ-stealing mercenary serial killer, but even he's horrified by what Mondas is becoming. Sisterman Constant is a zealot and a prude, but you see her enough to know that she genuinely cares about her charges and believes that she's doing what's right. Even Zheng, the chilling harbinger of Mondas-To-Come, is doing the best he can to save his homeworld and its people. It's just that when you look at it in the cold light of logic, well...the only way to save everyone is to convert them. Nobody has ever shown the Cybermen's side of things before, and it's surprising how easy it is to agree with their methods even as you shy away from the ultimate extension of those methods.

Which is, unfortunately, the problem with 'Spare Parts'. Unlike 'The Aztecs', this story tries to have its cake and eat it too. It doesn't take its story to the ultimate conclusion we know is coming, the tragic ending that we saw from the beginning as the Doctor realizes he can't avert Mondas' horrible destiny. It's understandable, really; taking the story to its logical extension would mean sitting through a chilling, brual ending with the deaths of pretty much every character we've grown to care about. (As opposed to the deaths of pretty much every character we've grown to care about except's hard to tell why they try so hard, given how bleak everything's been up until Part Four.)

As a result, the ending feels hollow. We all know the fragile peace won't last. We all know that the Cybermen are right from their perspective, and their perspective is the only one that matters to them. The stinger ending feels like it should have been the real ending, or else the Doctor should have been allowed to make a difference. Trying to do both doesn't quite achieve either. That's not to say the story isn't very, very good; every actor is amazing, the worldbuilding is fantastic, the dialogue is note-perfect. It's only at the very end that you feel the difference between the tragedy the story wanted to be and the adventure mold Doctor Who usually fits into.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chat Two: Spare Parts

John: And we’re back, from the back half of ‘Spare Parts’, and I have to say...I’m not sure whether listening to the second disc in isolation revealed that it’s not nearly as good as the first, or whether on some level I knew that and that was why it took us so long to get around to listening to Parts Three and Four. What do you think?

Dee: It was a revelation for me, but I’m cutting it lots of slack. For one thing, it’s still really good. For another, “not nearly as good as the first” is a fair statement, but the bar was set really high in the first place. The big problem I have is that the vocal processing to make the voice of the Committee was just too overdone, and so parts of the episode were nearly indecipherable. As a whole, the characterization was sound and consistent and the plot worked.

John: Well, the plot worked except for the fact that really, the ending is delayed until after the Doctor and Nyssa leave so we can get a hollow, fake uplifting ending with the surviving Hartleys. That was my big problem with Part Four; it’s a lot of time spent on various schemes to defeat the Committee/Cyber-Planner, none of which feel like they should work because the story is a tragedy and up until now, it’s known it. The tone has been “bleak but poetic” the whole time, and then it tries to pretend that everything’s going to turn out fine when we all know it won’t. Or maybe it really is that the schemes don’t feel like they should work because they’re kind of silly. “Quick, let’s get the cyber-gestalt drunk!”

Dee: That’s not how I heard it, on reflection. There had to be a reason for the Doctor to leave. The reason was that he thought he’d changed history a little. I agree it’s thin, but I can understand why they did that. And it’s even harsher, in a way, because the hope they thought they had comes crashing down and it’s even more of a tragedy. I can understand you disagreeing, though. It’s up in the air whether they succeeded in what they aimed for there.

John: I do get that part of it, too; like you say, there has to be a reason for the Doctor to leave, and the only options at this point are either “The Doctor thinks he’s limited the damage” or “Every single person on Mondas has been killed or converted and if he stays, he or Nyssa will be next.” And that’s a pretty freaking bleak story, and I can get why they weren’t willing to go that far. It’s just that to me, what they replaced that bleak part with feels more like, “We’re postponing the really depressing stuff until after the Doctor’s gone,” and less like, “The Doctor’s achieved something.” I think they should have really gone with one or the other. That said, even when this story is at its worst, it’s still got a lot going for it. Davison loves his dialogue. He’s always a professional, he gives every story a good effort--heck, he gave ‘Time-Flight’ a good effort!--but you can tell when he gets a speech he absolutely relishes, and he got several here.

Dee: Oh yeah. Even the little things: “Hmm. Genuine anise-seed.” Hee. And you can imagine how it looks when he’s losing his cool. In fact, except for the Committee, I really liked the production. The sound work is good, and the scripting is fantastic for an audio drama. I forgive the missteps.

John: Which means, to come back to the question I asked at the beginning, that it probably is the former for me--with only Part Four fresh in my mind, the absolutely glorious Parts One through Three don’t make up for the slightly weak Part Four nearly as much as they usually do. And totally apropos of nothing I just said, by the way, but totally in line with what you just said, I love the fact that they had the nerve to use the original Sixties sing-song voices for the Cybermen. They’re a little bit silly in the way that the booming, macho Eighties voices weren’t, but they have a lovely tonal quality, and the Cybermen here aren’t trying to be scary. They’re trying to survive. In their own way, they’re tragic figures just like the humans, maybe even moreso.

Dee: And they work so well in an audio drama, where you can’t see the jerky movements.  And the actress who played DoctorMan Allen did such a wonderful job portraying world-weary,cynical exasperation.

John: The scene where she’s waiting in line, having collapsed into utter fatalism, is so great that it totally makes me forgive her previous random changes of heart over the Committee. Actually, I’d forgive the random changes of heart even without that, because Sally Knyvette puts such total passion into them. She sells that character. Everyone sells their part, sells the world, and sells the story so well that it’s easy to overlook the flaws and appreciate the virtues.