Friday, 6 February 2015

Big Finish Strikes Back: The 'Doctor Who' Audio Trilogy Inspired By Star Wars

by Shannon Lush

Big Finish Productions, the audio play specialists who create dazzling new adventures for classic Doctors, have for many years now squeezed every last penny out of their licensing agreement with BBC, cranking out excellent stories that rival, and in many ways surpass, the current television series. Taking full advantage of the 'Doctor Who' actors under contract to them, they have produced so many stories for the Eighth Doctor that it makes a mockery of the fact that incarnation has only appeared on screen twice in almost twenty years. The much-maligned Sixth Doctor has, under Big Finish's careful guidance and with the benefit of simply superior scripting, become a jewel in their audio range crown. Fans who have worn out their copies of multi-Doctor team-up stories have been given the gift of stories featuring several Doctors together, and in the case of the recent release of 'The Light At The End', all classic Doctors together. Simply put, Big Finish produces material that demonstrates what love and passion for 'Doctor Who' can, when focused and determined, accomplish.

However, with such a bevy of excellent stories released monthly, it is perhaps inevitable that, once in a while, Big Finish is subject to fatigue, and like the TV series before it, requires to dip into the realm of other fictional franchises in order to pilfer material, spinning already-extent straw into new audio gold. The release of a loose trilogy of stories essentially serves to jumpstart their 'Doctor Who' getting a creative boost from 'Star Wars'.

Unofficially, the selling point of these three individual yet linked tales is that the Doctors who star in them are not accompanied by any companions; that fact alone would be enough to draw in a fan back in the day, for novelty purposes if nothing else. Now, however, with the expanded universe of books, comics, audio plays, and even iPhone video games, the concept of The Doctor journeying solo no longer holds that special appeal; he's done it for years in various mediums, and certainly has before within the confines of several Big Finish stories. Besides, when traveling solo, The Doctor for narrative purposes is still required at some point to befriend another character, simply to allow the character to serve the traditional role of sounding-board. This is especially a requirement within these audio plays, as it is distinctly odd to hear The Doctor talk to much so, that on those occasions when he does, he even remarks upon how odd it is! In all the stories, an ersatz companion or two is introduced as needed.

The first story of the trilogy, 'The Burning Prince', a Fifth Doctor tale, concerns The Doctor randomly materializing the TARDIS inside a diplomatic envoy ship en route to a special wedding. Warring factions of different Houses have sought to patch up the cracks by arranging a marriage between Prince Kylo and Princess Ariona, in an effort to reinforce a galaxy-spanning Empire on the decline due to the constant fighting. Naturally, political enemies to this marriage seek to scuttle the proceedings, and The Doctor helps to save the crew of the ship when it is stricken by sabotage. In true Fifth Doctor fashion, he's a bit slow on the uptake and takes the duration of the story to really piece the clues together, but in the end he is left with promising a dying man that he will check in on the man's niece, which he does...just not in this incarnation.

'The Burning Prince' is certainly well done, and captures the interest of the listener from the very start. It moves along at a great pace, there is no padding, and within a short period of time, the secondary characters grow on the listener, so much so that a sense of real loss is evoked when some of them are killed. All the hallmarks of the Davison Era are there...bodies pile up, The Doctor is yelled at by a few military officers, and he breathlessly describes the 'bad news' scenarios just in time for the cliffhangers. It's a slice of the Davison Era and the actor sounds comfortable and at home recreating his particular Doctor.

When next we learn of the final fate of Prince Kylo and his Empire, it is within the Sixth Doctor story 'The Archeron Pulse'. A planet of barbarians is home to a new base, thanks to a treaty signed between the Empire and the barbarians. The only problem is that when a new enemy of the Empire ruthlessly cuts a swath through space itself with an incredibly powerful beam of pure destruction called the Archeron Pulse, The Doctor must ascertain the identity of the madman behind the Pulse...and why is he determined to destroy the Empire, even if innocent lives are caught in the middle of his vendetta?
'The Archeron Pulse' continues the trend of flat-out excellent Colin Baker Big Finish audio stories. The script is overfilling with witty one-liners and The Sixth Doctor gets all the best lines. The barbarian leaders are mostly played for laughs, though their savage bravery in protecting their homeworld from this mysterious villain and his all-powerful beam, armed with only primitive weapons is touching and really makes them memorable. The Doctor's verbal jousting with the hidden enemy is a definite highlight that evokes that of The Fourth Doctor and Davros' conversation regarding the limits to which one would go to prove a point in 'Genesis Of The Daleks'. Though it is definitely telegraphed as to the identity of the hidden enemy, the revelation is played for maximum effect and as usual the voice acting is of the highest caliber. At the story's conclusion, The Doctor pats himself on the back for his mercy towards the villain, seemingly re-purposes the enemy's soldiers into 'justice machines' for the good of the universe, and merrily goes on his way....

In the final story in the trilogy, 'The Shadow Heart', The Seventh Doctor is on the run from a bounty hunter...and he hides in a bar, where he meets smugglers. He doesn't know the smugglers, but he will. He doesn't know the bounty hunter, but he will. 'The Shadow Heart', more than the previous entries, evokes the television era in which it's Doctor hails from, as the Doctor spends the majority of the story meeting people that he is sure he will know soon, and it works backwards from there, in the jigsaw puzzle of the web of time that the Seventh Doctor was adept at weaving his way through. It clues up the outstanding plot threads adequately, though it does feel as if they were grafted onto an already existing story and not a lot of time is spent on them...for example, the 'Justice Machines' that the Sixth Doctor inadvertently turned into pitiless killing machines that blast people to dust due to the slightest perceived infraction of the law is really something that ought to horrify even the jaded Seventh Doctor...he is certainly called to task for it, yet barely acknowledges his error in judgment, and corrects it almost as an afterthought. Not to mention, Chase Masterton, from 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine', is one of the more tone-deficient guest voice actors in Big Finish history. She delivers her line in a flat tone that betrays the fact she is reading them in a sound booth. A drinking game could be created on the number of times she says the word 'Doctor' and always delivers it in an annoying bray of a whine. Her performance is a real detriment to the story.

Taken individually, these three stories are, for the most part, enjoyable and well produced tales of their respective Doctors. Taken as one long, multi-generational story, however, there are some issues. To begin with, the motivations of those characters that continue through the three stories are ever-shifting...seemingly, the fate of Prince Kylo at the conclusion of 'The Archeron Pulse' was quite fitting, and listeners can be forgiven for believing that it is the perfect end to the character's tortured wanderings. Yet he re-appears in 'The Shadow Heart' and his explanation for why simply doesn't ring true, especially when these three stories are heard back-to-back. 'The Shadow Heart' especially feels copious, and that is perhaps why the majority of the plot doesn't involve the Empire much at all and it is padded out with humorous (and in the case of Chase Masteron, hopeless) bounty hunters. 'The Shadow Heart' serves as 'The Return Of The Jedi', with its silliness and nonsensical plot elements, after 'The Archeron Pulse' doubles as 'The Empire Strikes Back'. No other description would be as apt, once the comparisons to 'Star Wars' are made to these three 'Doctor Who' stories, which will commence now.

(Spoiler alert: I have attempted to be vague regarding the plot and revelations in these three Big Finish stories so that you, dear reader, can listen to all three and enjoy them together as one long epic story. However, in order to make my points regarding the liberal 'borrowing' of 'Star Wars' elements, I must reveal much detail now regarding the characters in the stories, so if you intend on enjoying them on  your own, don't continue to read this blog...and if you do, then don't send me hate mail, because I warned you!).

As science fiction properties, 'Star Wars' and 'Doctor Who' could not be any more different; one is a space opera, the other is heroic adventure series. Though behind the scenes they have shared writers and actors, in the fictional narrative contained within each, they are oil and water. The Doctor is a scientist, Luke Skywalker is a wizard. Yet, in the case of this Big Finish trilogy, 'Doctor Who' has borrowed so heavily from 'Star Wars' that it is a surprise George Lucas didn't make a cameo somewhere in one of the audio plays!

Beginning with 'The Burning Prince', the character of Prince Kylo, who re-occurs throughout the trilogy itself, is very much patterned after the Anikin Skywalker character as depicted in the prequel trilogy of 'Star Wars'. In fact, is it safe to say that this unnamed Big Finish trilogy primarily depicts Prince Kylo at various stages of his life very much as 'Star Wars' is the unfolding story of Anakin Skywalker. The cover art to 'The Burning Prince' even goes so far as to depict a blonde-haired young man, scowling in pain and rage, dressed in black, and the cover model very much resembles Hayden Christenson in 'Revenge Of The Sith'.

Kylo in 'The Burning Prince' is quick-tempered, arrogant, and his literary father before him. He also is powerful; a pyro-kinetic, he lashes out in fits of rage, igniting those around him in flame. Over the course of the story, he shakes free of the constraints his superiors place upon him and taps into his terrible potential for destruction in order to get what he wants. He feels betrayed by those he thought were his friends and he experiences the highest highs and the lowest lows as he wields his terrible power. In these ways and many more to come, Kylo is patterned after Anakin Skywalker, down to feeling betrayed by his mentors and undergoing a strained and ultimately doomed relationship with his beloved.

Other elements of 'The Burning Prince' also harken back to 'Star Wars'. As a fictional universe renowned for its lived-in feeling, 'Star Wars' is heavily populated by monsters of all shapes and sizes. While 'Doctor Who' of course has its own monsters, aliens, and unearthly creatures, in this audio drama The Doctor is appalled that the Empire has captured sentient, man-like beasts who growl, speak in garbled tones, and are depicted as being giant and furry...much like the Galactic Empire of 'Star Wars' captured Wookies as slaves. Wookies are, of course, man-like beasts who growl and speak in garbled tones, and are giant, furry creatures. Through the course of the story, The Doctor and the small band of survivors from the crashed diplomatic envoy ship are pursued and harassed by these creatures, as the ship has crashed on their home world. The creatures display resourcefulness in hunting the survivors and enacting justice for their enslaved brethren that would do Chewbacca proud.

The space-opera elements of 'The Burning Prince' extend the 'Star Wars' comparisons. It involves a   galaxy-spanning Empire with an imperialistic agenda, fronted by duplicitous beings. At the conclusion of the story, in homage to The Emperor's General Order 66 which causes the end of the Jedi Knights, Princess Ariona reveals that she has been manipulating Kylo, and her House will become the sole leadership of the Empire once she orders the death of every member of his House. Thus, Kylo the 'Doctor Who' equivalent of Anakin Skywalker the Jedi Knight, becomes an accessory to the murder of his own people, as Anakin surely did.

However, this is certainly not the end for Kylo. For, as Anakin Skywalker is wounded so terribly that he is left for dead by those he once trusted and loved, so too is Kylo. As Anakin Skywalker is encased in a life-saving containment suit complete with a breathing apparatus that changes his voice, so too does Kylo. As Skywalker is reborn as Darth Vader, a new name and identity, so too is Kylo. Both figures yearn to seek revenge on those they feel betrayed them. Both figures speak in tortured tones that reveal the machinery behind the man. Both figures wield great power over subordinates, command armies, and amass fleets of ships that attack and invade planets. Kylo as depicted on the cover art of 'The Archeron Pulse' is clearly modeled after Darth Vader; his face is covered in a mask, he is wearing a long, flowing cape, gauntlets on his hands and arms, and he is posed very similar to classic Darth Vader depictions.

As Darth Vader had at his command the power of the Death Star to terrorize the galaxy, so too does Kylo have at his command the Archeron Pulse, a weapon of pure destruction that turns planets into barren wastelands. He unleashes it often enough in the audio play that the comparisons to the destruction of Alderaan seen in 'A New Hope' are impossible to ignore. There are even lines of dialogue that evoke Grand Moff Tarkin's line of 'you may fire when ready'.

'The Archeron Pulse' also features Kylo's troops, which are ruthless, incapable of being reasoned with, and single-minded in their desire to follow Kylo's orders of murder and mayhem. They serve as the storm troopers of 'Doctor Who', and the comparisons are brought into even sharper relief when the Sixth Doctor reprograms the lot of them into 'Justice Machines'.  In this story, much as in 'The Empire Strikes Back', Kylo descends upon the heroes after an absence of many years, shocking them and bringing death in his new guise as the raspy-voice reaper of pure evil. As Luke Skywalker tries to reason with Darth Vader, attempting to come to an emotional understanding that may quell the rage within, so too does the Sixth Doctor attempt this with Kylo, sparing him from death at the hands of his own troops.

It is not merely the character of Kylo and his choice of weaponry and troops that echo 'Star Wars', nor is it the notion of planet-destroying machines alone. In each episode of the trilogy, the sound effects of the weapons used are closely matched to blasters and lasers, the ships fly through space with great whooshing gusts as they do in 'Star Wars', there are dogfights in space that cannot help but summon up comparisons, and by the time of 'The Shadow Heart' there is even a space-going giant alien snail; oversized versions of common Earth creatures are a classic trope of the 'Star Wars' universe. This of course also fails to mention the numerous bounty hunters that populate 'The Shadow Heart'. Along with smugglers, bounty hunters are so prevalent in this story that one essentially becomes both the pursuer and later the companion of sorts to The Doctor. A post-credits sequence in 'The Archeron Pulse' set within a seedy off-world bar populated by all manner of creatures establishes a bartender character. One who sounds exactly like Sebulba from 'The Phantom Menace'. Much later in 'The Shadow Heart', the bartender's fate is sealed in a moment that very much homage to the final fate of Greedo in 'A New Hope'.

On the production side, all three stories are filled to bursting with excellent sound effects that truly open the mind's eye to a wondrous universe filled with strange creatures. It is, quite simply, impossible to miss the numerous and specific antecedents to 'Star Wars' on display in these stories. However, far from being a detriment to the unfolding tale that these stories tell in three individual yet linked chapters, the mere fact that the comparisons are so unapologetically blatant that they serve to enhance the experience; 'Star Wars' is such a recognizable part of the pop culture and holds such special meaning to so many people that it feels like visiting an old friend when listening to these stories. The universe of 'Star Wars' and its tech, weapons, vistas and costumes are so recognizable that they are easily adopted by the listener in populating this story in their mind's eye. It feels like walking down a street from one's childhood; some elements may change, but it is intimately familiar nonetheless.

While Whovians may never be able to revel in a fully licensed crossover between 'Doctor Who' and 'Star Wars', these stories serve to scratch that particular itch as best they can. They also stand on their own as good, compelling stories with just enough elements of their own not borrowed from 'Star Wars' that they can be enjoyed by anyone who likes good stories, well told. Big Finish Productions are the finest producers of spin off material for 'Doctor Who', and it is clear that even when they need to sometimes pop around the neighbors and borrow a cup of creative sugar from other franchises to sprinkle on their output, they still produce....dare we say...forceful work?

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