Big Finish Productions
Gallifrey: Season Three
|Starring Lalla Ward, Louise Jameson and John Leeson|
|Synopsis: Gallifrey is a world at war with itself.|
A Review by Stephen Maslin 17/3/11
Spinoffs. Love 'em or hate 'em, Big Finish sure has made a lot of 'em. Nicholas Briggs' Dalek Empire, two series of Sarah Jane Smith, UNIT, Iris Wildthyme, Cyberman, I Davros and now Jago & Litefoot and Simon Guerrier's Graceless. Add to that Bernice Summerfield, the Eighth Doctor range, the stage plays, the lost stories, the eight Unbound stories and the Companion Chronicles, and it all adds up to a whole lot that one could spend one's money on. 2005/6 was the time when Big Finish were at their most productive (if that's the right word) and, not entirely coincidentally, was the time when the quality across all their ranges started to drop. Most of us have heard at least one or two of their bewildering array of extra-Who titles and I suspect many sooner or later had the same response: "Not another one!" Some ranges have their moments: a few of the Sarah Jane Smith stories are pretty good and the Bernice Summerfield range still has its flashes of brilliance. But look elsewhere and you will find monumental self-indulgence (Dalek Empire, Cyberman) alongside outright dross (the top prize for that has to go to the four-and-a-half excruciating UNIT stories). Taking advantage of Who fans' love of continuity and interconnection, this plethora of spinoffs just dilutes and cheapens the brand. If one perseveres and tries to keep up with it all, after a while one is less likely to bother with any of it, the more it is taken for granted that you will shell out for anything even vaguely Doctor Who related.
For the most part, Gallifrey seemed to have escaped the quality rift. Its first two series may have been camp and over-the-top at times, with some less-than-enthralling alien races and the odd annoying character or two, but in general the standard was high. That is, until that ending... The range as a whole would have been much more highly thought of if they'd called it quits about five minutes before the end of Imperiatrix. It is at this point that Gallifrey effectively ceases as entertainment, never to recover.
So, is there anything to salvage from Gallifrey Series Three? Well, however bad things get, David Darlington's music and sound design are first class, one of the constants of the Gallifrey stories as a whole, as are Lee Binding's gorgeous cover designs. They at least never lost their touch. Louise Jameson continued to give an impressive recreation of her performance as Leela (from 30 years ago, need I remind you) while John Leeson is impeccable as K9 (though Lalla Ward, with much the harder acting job, fares less well as the series progresses).
Gallifrey 3.1 Fractures
Okay, so a desperate civil war is now underway. As if the first few minutes weren't confusing enough (and not in a way that is resolved later, much of the dialogue being less than clear), the whole Gallifrey saga then spirals off into completely new territory. Instead of being thrilled at the prospect, there's much more a sense of 'Here we go again'. Nor does the plot really hold water. Why is Romana still free and how, if things are going so badly, is she able to ground all TARDISes? The Anomaly Vaults are a great idea, intriguing and strange, but just seem a tacked-on plot contrivance and don't sit well with everything else. On the plus side, Lalla Ward puts in her best performance of the series and the overall sound of Fractures is at times breathtaking. It isn't a bad story, just not good enough to get one excited about the new series. For all the new directions, one feels one has heard it all before.
Gallifrey 3.2 Warfare
First the good news: there are some effective moments in Warfare. Leela, given a new reckless bravado by her blindness, is even more gung-ho, even though she's adjusted to the practicalities of it rather too easily. The eventual resolution is quite elegant and makes good use of the assassin from Fractures. Now the bad news: the rest of the play is an endless succession of twists and double-crosses and more twists, concerning people in whom one has almost no interest, a pattern that will be repeated and repeated in future stories (and the more it happens, the more tedious it becomes). Nor is the internal struggle to which the title seems to allude that well done either. Warfare is clever, certainly, and, for all its faults, well-written but an interesting seventy minutes of your life, no. Oh, and apologies for the spoiler but at the end, the Matrix is totally destroyed. I'm not particularly anti-revisionist in this regard but it just seems to be done because they could. Like the Virgin New Adventures at their worst, this is one of those tiresome 'Look what we can do!' moments and impresses not a jot.
Gallifrey 3.3 Appropriation Even though another new war has begun, the legal mumbo-jumbo continues thick and fast. The pace is much slower than the two previous stories with longer stretches of music, at times amounting to a kind of audio collage. Actually, that's an improvement. The big problem here is that the respective infirmities of Romana and Leela have forced Lalla Ward and Louise Jameson into a corner in terms of acting. Leela comes off rather well here ("Post Boy!") whereas Romana resorts to sighing and groaning her way through most of the episode. A secondary problem carried over from former stories is that, in spite of a much better script, there is still a lot of clumsy exposition: "His must be the only electronic communication system still working on the planet!" or "You should lie still within the null field of the medi-dais!" or "This frequency is having to contend with the residual radiation from the techno virus!" or "She looks like a corpse! She's obviously suffering a great deal!" or "Poor K9! You are so battered and dented. Are you all right?" This is unfair as, generally, Paul Sutton's script is an improvement on both Fractures and Warfare. Yet there are odd inconsistencies, not least in response to what is no doubt intended to be a rather brutal invasion. (A lot of screaming one minute and no one being that bothered the next. Actually, the crowd sequences are generally pretty poor.) Another strand is that it is sometimes hard to keep up with who is who in the supporting cast. Charlie Ross's Jenartis is rather good but this may be that his more distinctive voice makes him the more noticeable. With Daniel Hogarth, an even more distinctive voice, the reverse is true. Nekistani = Slithergee = Kromon = Grel Mk II = Daniel Hogarth (again). The plot is more of the same constant twisting and turning, with the ending, Cardinal Matthias declaring "I am the future of Gallifrey!", no doubt supposed to be deeply portentous, making you shrug rather than gasp. (Colin Baker's brief reappearance as Maxil is a nice touch, though.)
Things were looking up. The third story of the series had been a definite improvement on the first two. With Justin Richards and Alan Barnes on hand to round things off, the series seemed set to end on a high...
Gallifrey 3.4 Mindbomb
Mindbomb feels like it's meant to be The Deadly Assassin revisited, beginning with a wry conversation between Surgeonmaster Elbon and Lord Delox as they watch the nominations for the election, the Time Lords cheering and jeering like drunkards. (So, more political satire on the way then. Later on, there's even a parody of the BBC's political forum 'Question Time' and the line "Gallifrey is the mother of all democracies.") Justin Richards does a good job of pressing the right fan buttons (Article 17, Morbius, etc.) but within five minutes we're into yet another lengthy discussion of political procedure. There's more K9 in this one which is very welcome and helps lighten the tone. Moreover, the script is a lot more polished but the fundamental problem remains: the rules of Gallifreyan political disputes are far too thick on the ground, made up as we go along and just plain dull. A rather obvious structural defect is the repeated mentioning of Braxiatel not being around anymore, thus guaranteeing that he will turn up later. Sure enough, he does. Pandora is inside him (but then it isn't, oh I don't know) and in an extremely similar ending to Appropriation, Matthias is offered the top job. One is left feeling that one has gone round in a loop, with precious little progression and nothing resolved.
Gallifrey 3.5 Panacea
Panacea suffers, even more than the rest of the series, from the attempt to make it 'relevant'. (How that is even possible, given that Time Lord society was pretty much invented on the hoof by Robert Holmes in 1977 is anyone's guess.) Essentially, Gallifrey and the society of the Time Lords are depicted as a more hi-tech version of early Twenty-First century Britain. In spite of being able to travel in time, simple things like tracking someone round the planet is beyond them and they have data recorders that sound like they use spooling tape, despite the millions of years' headstart. I would have like to have heard more of Heartshaven from the time when it was a timetots' idyll but its degraded status serves as a handy metaphor for a time when Time Lords were, shall we say, more respected by their absence. Instead of a glimpse of a lost elysian, all we get is... Oh no. Mephistopheles Arkadian is back.
The politics is as exciting as you think it's going to be; that is, it isn't: complaints about procedure, references to the constitution, points of order. Fortunately, Panacea actually has less of the politicking that smothers the rest of the series but a lot of the dialogue is not up to Alan Barnes usual high standard and the plot is a desperate rush to get everything tied up neatly by the end. The explanation for the whole Free Time business that's been running since the start of the series is no good either, designed, perhaps, to have you transfer your allegiance to the Bernice Summerfield range. But Panacea is at least quite fun and the ending ties it in with the Great Time War (either that of the BBC Eighth Doctor books or of the Eccleston/Tennant era or of both of them, take your pick). If only the rest of Series Three could have been as well-paced.
Panacea is as good a way as any to round off Gallifrey, even if that rounding off should have been done and dusted at the end of Series Two. If there is anyone, anyone at all, who knows all the links that exist between TV Doctor Who and Neverland/Zagreus and the Gallifrey range and the Bernice Summerfield and lord knows what else, then Gallifrey Series Three has not been a waste of everyone's time. That the single person who holds that dubious honour is probably Alan Barnes, surely implies the contrary. Impressive, just not that entertaining and certainly not in the ramshackle spirit that created Doctor Who in the first place.
Gallifrey was one series too long. One had the feeling that, inspired by their own triumphs over the first two series, the production team just couldn't allow themselves to let go. Series Three has much more in common with other failed spinoffs than it does with its own previous outings. As in so many other of Big Finish's extra-Who ranges, it felt like a small cadre of people spinning their own little worlds but caring little for the paying public.
Postscript. There's now an announcement of a fourth series. What on Gallifrey are they going to do with that?