Tuesday 21 April 2015

The Audio Visual Experience #1: The Space Wail

The Space Wail
written by Warren Martyn
directed by Gary Russell
featuring Stephen Payne as the Doctor with Richard Marson as Greg Holmes and Sally Baggs as Nadia

So I guess I finally understand how fandom felt in 1994, then. The Audio Visuals, to me, had a similar legendary stature to the one The Tomb of the Cybermen had to the average fan back then: great reputation, huge influence on the series as I knew it, and I'd never be able to see it. Tomb was junked by the BBC, the AVs were just plain unavailable since they were fan made cassettes long out of print and with no clear way to bring them out again. A couple have been adapted by Big Finish, a company run by several AV alumni, but that was about all I could hope for.

Then I remembered that I have the internet and nothing is ever out of print if you have the internet!

Oh, shut up, its not like I'm cheating anyone. These things are twenty years out of print and were not-for-profit in the first place. If they ever get re-released I'll pay (mainly because an official release would be remastered a bit and be less scratchy and vague than these audio tape rips) but that's likely never going to happen. I really wanted to experience them because they're a bit of an influence on the new series, even if only through a slightly roundabout way. The AVs were a bit of a proving ground for several later “professional fans”, among them Nick Briggs, Bill Baggs, Jim Mortimore and Gary Russell so this is very much the birth of Big Finish (and BBV but that's less significant). So, having listened to the first story, what did I think?

I've probably given the game away with my comparison to fans watching Tomb back in '94. Tomb was, by fan legend, extraordinary. It was a wonderfully dark and atmospheric horror story, perhaps the greatest loss of the BBC archive junkings, the absolute pinnacle of the base under siege format. Then in 1994 pristine copies of all four episodes were found at a TV station in Hong Kong and it was rush out on video. To say the least it didn't match expectations: production values were as low as the rest of Season Five, the Cybermen's plan was as crap as all their other plans and the plot really doesn't stand up to examination. Also, the villains are colour coded for your convenience by comprising the only black man in the cast (who is a mostly mute strongman) and his two bosses in blackface.

Blackface aside, listening to The Space Wail was a surprisingly similar lesson in managing expectations. Of course Tomb wasn't on par with the best of Hammer horror and of course The Space Wail was not as good an audio as Damaged Goods. Big Finish have a proper studio while parts of The Space Wail were recorded in people's bedrooms and gardens.

The acting is... clearly amateur with some painful exposition early on as a character refers to people he is speaking to as “my daughter” and “my other daughter” in a way that's as natural as a formica table. This is not actually the worst aspect of the dialogue in this story, that's the fact that Stephen Payne as the Doctor and Richard Marson as new companion Greg have unfortunately similar voices so sometimes it gets a little unclear who's speaking when they're together. This is, as it happens, the one and only outing for Stephen Payne's Doctor as he'll be replaced by Nick Briggs in the next story and he really doesn't get much to establish himself. Maybe that's another influence this series had on the show: perhaps Philip Segal listened to this and thought it was a good pattern to follow with McGann? Payne doesn't get many strong character traits, playing a quite generic Doctor: an eccentric line here, a chummy note there but nothing defining.

There's also the way in which the Doctor picks up his first new companion, Greg Holmes, which is curiously... I don't want to use the term “sex offender” but he does wander onto school grounds, start a conversation with a schoolboy that ends with the schoolboy walking off with him to see his spaceship. You can see where I'm coming from with this, I'm sure. Still, these scenes do their job: establishing the voices, if not the personalities, of our two leads at a leisurely pace before diving into the story. Its not great but its not the meat of the story, either.

At the end of the day, though, this is a pilot and pilots are meant to be ropey and not entirely representative of how things evolve. This series became legendary for a reason and I'm sure it'll improve. Why am I sure of this? Well, apart from the series' general reputation this story does have one thing going for it: the plot.

Having picked up Greg, the Doctor takes a trip to the future and lands on an execution ship that's moving into deep space where the crew will abandon it and leave it to explode with some condemned convicts aboard. What works is that we spend the better part of the story's first half switching between the Doctor lounging about the school field and the spaceship getting to know the prisoners and guards. It's far from flawlessly executed, the exposition is terribly heavy handed and the delivery defines the term “amateur” but its at least interesting watching the world form and waiting for the Doctor and Greg to land in it and shake things up.

The most interesting thing about the execution ship is its computer, BABE (no, seriously, and its voice is female, too) who operates a “mind drain” which is like a (no not the) mind probe except the computer absorbs the knowledge and personalities of its victims, leaving the computer more than a little crazy since mostly the mind drain is used on convicted criminals. Again, the actual use of this device leaves a lot to be desired and a lot to the imagination but its at least interesting. The result is an interesting but anaemic setting where you can see what could be great but the gaps leave it being average. We get few details of what Niton and his family have been convicted of even though the dialogue goes to enormous pains to make sure we understand how everyone is related to one another. We're told that the BABE system on the ship is linked to a larger system back on Homeworld but not how its insanity might effect the world. Homeworld's government is obviously meant to unsympathetic since the guards massacre some prisoners, seemingly acting on orders.

This might not actually have been a problem but for one thing: from this setting comes our second companion, Nadia, youngest daughter of convicted family. Whilst the Doctor and Greg might be generic they're at least easy to grasp: paint by numbers Doctor and standard template modern teenager companion, stock types anyone listening to this thing will be fairly familiar with. Nadia, on the other hand, is from the underdeveloped Homeworld. We only understand what we're told of her and we're told... naff all, frankly.

The only hook she seems to have is a strange emotionlessness. Her family are killed and she has very little reaction to it. Earlier in the play she seemed very close to her parents but after their deaths she calls her father a fool and her mother evil, both assertions we have very little context for.

And then there's her reaction to the destruction of Homeworld. Actually, everyone's reaction to this shattering final event is bizarrely muted. Maybe its the delivery but neither the Doctor, who caused the planet's destruction as a consequence of how he stops BABE, or Nadia who is from there, seem that fussed. Greg even makes a joke at Nadia, moments after the destruction of her planet, about the destruction of her planet. Then they go off to have a holiday. Its really that abrupt an ending.

Being as reasonable as I can about my expectations it at least has potential. The basic premise is interesting even if everything interesting about it is painfully under-explored. Any issues I have with Payne's Doctor have to be taken in the light that this is the only story he did and he'll be replaced by Nick Briggs in the next one (this also goes for the problem I have telling the Doctor and Greg apart). So, not exactly a good start but a promising one.

Still, next up are Nick Briggs and Daleks, usually a winning combination.

(This post is indebted to the AV fan site Justyce.org for technical and background details.)

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