Saturday, November 8, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge

The main reason this fits as well as it does with the era it's set in is that Paul Cornell really doesn't like the Seventh Doctor that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong; he's a Doctor Who fan and always will be. But he's a fan because he admires certain qualities in the Doctor--his sense of whimsy and magic, his essentially romatic nature, his irrepressible joy at the human spirit. The "sweet" side of the Doctor. He's deeply conflicted when he has to write the Seventh Doctor, that sinister manipulator and player of games with the darkest of monsters. It's not that he doesn't understand that they're two sides of the same person, and that the whimsical Romantic sometimes gives away to the terrifying monster-to-monsters that the Doctor can be...but he's not comfortable with it. Virtually all of his Seventh Doctor stories exist within that tension, and explore it like a scab that just won't heal.

And 'The Shadow of the Scourge' is no exception. The front half is mainly about the Doctor coming up with what Cornell thinks of as one of his "typical" plans...although it's really only typical for a Cornell Seventh Doctor story. When other authors describe the Seventh Doctor as doing something that will eventually come to be known as "timey-wimey", it's usually presented in the form of a benevolent predestination paradox; the Doctor discovers that events have already been arranged in a particular way, and ruefully assents to being history's puppet just one more time. Whereas Cornell always describes it as weeks of tedious stage-managing in order to make sure the latest caper goes off without a hitch.

It doesn't work, of course, because it never works. The halfway point of the audio marks the end of the first act as all of the Doctor's manipulations are undone, forcing him to improvise desperately and to rue and regret his manipulative ways. The former happens in most of the Seventh Doctor's stories--after all, it'd be a pretty poor piece of drama if the Doctor solved everything in the first fifteen minutes. But the second part, the Doctor confronting his personal flaws, is unique to Cornell. In that respect, 'Shadow of the Scourge' is a close cousin to 'Timewyrm: Revelation', to 'Love and War', to 'No Future' and to 'Human Nature'. It's an analysis of the fundamental contradiction within the Seventh Doctor, the dynamic between his callous and cruel manipulations of his friends and of strangers and the ultimate rightness of his actions when all is said and done.

So the back half is mostly about the Doctor beating himself up over being such a jerk to his friends, and because he wants to explore that theme, Cornell uses the Scourge as a villain precisely because they're using his own conscience as a weakness. The Scourge point out everything Cornell's thinking--that his overplanning and arrogance were used as a weakness against him, that he was used as the Scourge's weapon against humanity precisely because of his conceited belief that he could stage-manage one of the oldest and most powerful races in the universe to death with just a few parlor tricks. It overreaches, perhaps, in suggesting that everyone can defeat their own private Scourge simply by remembering the small and simple pleasures in life...not only does it weave unsteadily across the line between sentiment and schmaltz in places, it's also unfair to people to suggest that they always have the power to defeat their own private demons if they'd only think happy thoughts.

But ultimately, the point of the story is that optimism and hope are stronger than despair, that friendship and unconditional love can defeat the worst things in the depths of our souls if we'd only reach out and ask for it, and that people have an enormous capacity to forgive, if we only extend our sincere repentance. Oh, and that cute babies and long parties with tea are pretty damn awesome. Those are messages worth having around, even if they do come with a bit of schmaltz on them. (It brushes off.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge Part Two

I didn't care as much for the second half of this story, but when I say that it's because the first half was so very good. There are still so very many wonderful parts it feels a bit petty to complain.

For instance, Ace's sacrifice of her hearing was a lovely, inspired touch. Sophie Aldred plays that scene wonderfully, and while some of the jokes were predictable it would have been sad if they hadn't been made. She is violent when she needs to be, but it isn't her first choice of methods. (She does, however, still think confronting the enemy is the way to go. The minute she yells "Oi!" I start grinning.) Ace is back, and back to having faith. It's not the unreasoning faith of her youth, but the tested faith of someone who has made the choice to believe. 

Joining her in that faith we find Bennie, and she is fantastic. I particularly loved her comments about Eight, who doesn't play an active role but whose existence provides a plot point. Her partnership with Ace is beautiful and forms an important fulcrum on which the Doctor can move events. They have come to an understanding. Bennie is equally capable of snark, but she has an innate tenderness. Her intelligence gets them through multiple bad moments, and the aforementioned faith is pivotal in fixing the situation.

The Doctor is less a factor than normal as far as actions go. His primary role is to struggle with himself and the Scourge.  While this lets the humans play the most active part in events, it means we get a lot of what comes dangerously close to whining. On the plus side, McCoy gets some lovely lines and he does a great job when he's allowed to be reflective. The end, too, is well-acted.

Michael and Annie's story comes to a more-or-less satisfying end. So does the story as a whole. 

I would not advise listening to this story with a headache, by the way. The sound effects can get a bit harsh. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts One and Two

John: So the plan to seamlessly flow this off of the back of ‘Tragedy Day’, and thus see ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’ in the context of its era, seems to have gone a bit off the rails. On the other hand, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. I’ve seen a lot of posts where people do that, and they all seem to come down to, “Gee, it doesn’t fit in there all that well!” I hope that the delay means we can talk about more than just whether they recaptured the mid-90s feel.

Dee: I can’t say I felt like it was anything like ‘Tragedy Day,’ and if you hadn’t told me they were supposed to flow one from the other I wouldn’t have known it. On the other hand, the first two parts are a solid adventure and a fun one. Especially for me, as I said in my review post a few months back. Geeking plus mocking Newagers (which you should pronounce “newage” like “sewage”) plus cross-stitch. They had me at the concept.

John: The concept is great. But I have to say, as we sit at the halfway point, that it hasn’t really gotten going yet. It has a problem that was always one of the weaknesses of Paul Cornell’s Seventh Doctor material, which was that he never really liked the manipulative aspects of McCoy and so they tended to be a bit ham-fisted. The Seventh Doctor rarely did anything as clunky or blatant as nip back in time and stick a giant cylinder of sleeping gas in the ventilation ducts to foil the baddies’ plans, even during this era (which may be why it doesn’t feel like it fits in with ‘Tragedy Day’). He was always a subtle manipulator and a brilliant improviser and you could never tell where one ended and the other began. This part, where he’s just being really obvious about scamming the monsters, is the weakest bit of the story to me. Do you feel the same way?

Dee: It’s hard for me to say. Right now, having not heard the whole thing, my feeling is that he’s still playing them because Seven was never this, as you say, blatant. But there are lots of old Who episodes where the Doctor was, so I am inclined to give it a pass. Instead, I’m focusing on the lovely character grace notes and the humor, which is thrilling me no end. I don’t even want to specifically talk about the parts that made me laugh out loud in case I spoil it for someone else. Furthermore, with Cornell writing and Sophie Aldred reprising her part with clear joy and her usual talent, we’re back to an Ace I like. That goes a long way, in my heart, towards spackling over plot holes.

John: Oh, yes. Ace and Benny are the clear highlights of the first disc, what with her casually chatting about how she did her usual “storming off in shocked betrayal” bit, and Benny getting a rather terribly large number of good lines. I will avoid quoting most of them, for the reasons you mentioned, but I have to say that the exchange: “Are you pregnant?” “How did you know?” “I didn’t. I just ask that question to break the ice at parties,” is one of his better Benny moments, and this is the man who created the character. They were clearly having a ton of fun, and you totally forget that this is the first time that Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman have acted together as Ace and Benny. Which is why I’m glad they didn’t do a story set earlier--with chemistry this good, why waste it by having them act all tense and angry at each other?

Dee: Precisely. The bigger negative, to me, than the plot being hamfisted is that I just can’t tell the baddies apart. It’s one thing when you can see actors facing each other on screen, but in this case it’s just distracting because you’re never sure which baddie you’re hearing. It’s still minor, though. And it doesn’t hurt my anticipation of the next installment. I do want to address the nice bait-and-switch that was almost set up, which is that we hear the possession of the medium before we have the body in the elevator. I wish we could have had the body first, so it looked more like a murder mystery. But then I suppose the fandom gatekeepers would have been upset we didn’t get the monster first, so there’s no way to win on that one.

John: I know what you mean about the monster voices. The actors in question have some really good voices, but they’re so heavily modulated that you can’t tell them apart in monster form. I agree that the body would have been a better cold open in some ways...actually, I was going to say “but” when I realized there’s no “but” there. The body would have been a better open, it would have foregrounded the Doctor, and it’s not like they couldn’t have gotten to the other stuff later. Have you noticed, by the way, that we haven’t been talking much about themes? This feels so much like a nostalgia piece to me that it seems more concerned with being of this era than being about something. Or am I being too hard on it?

Dee: I don’t see that at all. I see it as being more of a throwback to a Hinchcliffe era, if you want to talk nostalgia, but that’s OK with me. To me, the themes are more about people needing something to believe in. Mary needs to believe in Brian and the medium. Michael needs to believe in Brian, then in these people who are (hopefully) saving his life. Ace and Benny need to believe in the Doctor and are almost desperately doing so.

John: I can see something of that, but it does feel sort of secondary at this point to the Doctor being smug about fooling aliens and the aliens being smug about fooling the Doctor. I do recall some people at the time being put out a bit about the Scourge, by the way. In terms of themes, there were people at the time who felt like putting clinical depression down to “evil aliens making you feel that way” was trivializing a very real thing. Speaking personally, I sometimes feel it’s helpful to externalize depression, to remind myself that it’s a brain chemistry thing affecting me and not an aspect of my feelings, but I can see how this might be taking it too far.

Dee: As someone who’s mentally ill myself, and sensitive to this, I didn’t hear the Doctor mention “clinical depression,” which can be seen as different from colloquial “depression,” so unless on a relisten I hear him use the word “clinical” I’m giving it a pass. I welcome others to feel differently, though, and there is a bit of ableism in there. I don’t think at the time this was made that was even a word, though, so again, giving Cornell slack. He always tries hard to be openminded and caring, and he’s a definite ally to many communities. Now, the smugness thing… yes, but holy cow, how many times did Baker do that schtick? It’s not new to the series, that’s for sure.

John: No, it’s not new at all. But I just feel like McCoy doesn’t quite know how to play it. He’s good at enigmatic, he’s good at knowing, but he always played that off in the past as distant and mysterious. I don’t think he likes having to be the one to explain all his own plans here. But as I said, he’s much better when he gets to be clever instead of smug and improvisational instead of all-knowing, so the next disc should be much more entertaining. Join us then!