A Big Finish A Week 9 : Jubilee
Sorry for the lower-than-normal number of posts recently – I’ve had writers’ block for a few days. Plenty of ideas, but when I come to write them out I’m completely lost for words. You can probably expect an absolute glut at the end of the week, when I suddenly get my flow back and can churn out the posts I’ve got planned (a look at the comic The Kingdom, a discussion of why I’m a Liberal Democrat, a review of the album & by Kristian Hoffmann and some more on All-Star Superman). But I always do my Big Finish A Week, so here goes…
Jubilee is probably best known among casual fans as the loose inspiration behind writer Rob Shearman’s Dalek, the best episode of the 2005 series of nuWho. However, the differences are so great that had we not been told of the connection I doubt many people would have noticed it. Both feature a Dalek locked up on its own and a companion who shows it a small amount of sympathy, and both end with the Dalek choosing to die rather than continue killing, but where the TV show is essentially just another base-under-siege story (except with a Doctor who is violent, rude and dismisses the idea of learning… ) Jubilee is actually rather special.
The plotline of Jubilee is relatively straightforward – the Doctor and Evelyn, through what appears at first to be a TARDIS glitch, arrive in 2003, but a 2003 where the ‘English Empire’ is in control of much of the world, where contracting words is banned, and where a Dalek is locked up in the Tower of London being tortured. It’s revealed that in 1903 the Doctor and Evelyn saved the Earth from a Dalek invasion (something that had not yet happened in their timeline) and this had caused these changes. There’s also a second prisoner in the Tower, who is very strongly hinted to be Davros (who hadn’t at the time yet appeared in a Big Finish adventure) but who turns out to be the Doctor, his legs removed to prevent his escape.
The TARDIS has glitched and created two parallel timelines and the Doctor and Evelyn must try to put things right, which is accomplished by handwave. (It’s actually a very tightly-plotted story with several plots and counterplots, but a day after relistening to it the resolution of the actual plot is only ‘handwave’ in my head).
Jubilee starts out by presenting itself as a comedy – it starts with an in-world trailer for a film called “Daleks: The Ultimate Adventure” with the Doctor saying ‘Daleks? I hate those guys” and Daleks shouting “Scar-per! Scar-per!” – but while it retains the humorous touches throughout, they quickly turn blacker, and the story itself becomes something very dark.
Unlike the previous stories I’ve reviewed here, which have not really been about anything much other than themselves – they’ve all been either adventure stories or comedies, purely for entertainment value, although the better ones also contained actual ideas – Jubilee is actually about things – about power, and responsibility, and about choice.
The writer Robert Anton Wilson coined the terms ‘burden of omniscience’ and ‘burden of nescience’, to describe why it is that absolute power does corrupt absolutely:
” But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what his target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger. The elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden of nescience, and receive only the feedback consistent with their own preconceived notions. The burden of omniscience becomes, in short, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact. “
In Jubilee the TARDIS, early on, gets scared (the TARDIS has a personality and intelligence of its own in some stories) and refuses to make a choice – refusing to take full responsibility. In doing this, it causes everyone in the story to have to make choices that they don’t want to make – in the altered timeline, nobody is in a role they want to be in. The President is someone who is deeply, deeply disturbed, and convinced that the entire population is under the control of the one surviving Dalek (in the end it’s proved that he is, sort of, right). Because of this, he’s convinced he has to act like a sadistic tyrant even though he claims not to want to be one, ordering people to be tortured to death because he thinks it’s the kind of thing he should do.
Every character in the story – with the exception of the Doctor – is looking for someone to take orders from, and because the President is not the strong leader they want (desperately wanting orders himself), even though he acts in a fascist enough manner, there’s a void at the centre of all the interactions (the President’s wife is attempting to arrange a coup because he hits her, as he should, but not hard enough to break the flesh). The Dalek personifies this – a soldier with no orders, he goes mad with indecision until Evelyn presents him with the option of true freedom.
The health of a nation being tied to the mind of its leader is a very Shakespearean notion, and while there were no direct references, the torture of the Dalek (and in particular the ‘injury to the eye motif’), and the ramblings of the maddened alternate Doctor, called King Lear to my mind, while the relationship between the President and his wife was strikingly similar to that of Terry Pratchett’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth parodies in Wyrd Sisters. There’s a real sense of darkness and oppression throughout the story.
Jubilee definitely rewards repeated listenings – my first impression of it wasn’t particularly favourable, as I concentrated too much on the dark humour and not enough on the meatier stuff within – and luckily the performances (with the exception of Kai Simmons’ stilted performance as the soldier Lamb) are excellent. Colin Baker does his usual superlative job as the Sixth Doctor, Maggie Stables shows once again why Evelyn is by far the best companion the Doctor ever had (though here she was still a new enough character that she’s not quite as fully-rounded as she would be a year later), and real-life couple Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres, who have had a long working relationship with Rob Shearman, are as excellent as ever (for those who don’t know, Jarvis is widely-regarded as the British voice actor) as the President and his wife.
If anything, Jubilee has gained relevance over the last few years, with its portrayal of the torture of an ‘enemy combatant’ (and some of the torture scenes are genuinely disturbing), and it contains many more ideas than I’ve been able to discuss here, about choice, about the rather disturbing bloodlust in British popular culture, about morality, and about the way historical tragedy is sanitised and turned into tourist fodder. Sometimes the more over-the-top humorous elements clash a little with the more serious-minded work (Shearman is clearly trying to do what Douglas Adams tried, but usually failed, to do with his tenure as script editor on the TV series, and bring in ridiculous elements to make the scary stuff scarier when you realise they mean it. It works better here than it did then, but it still makes it harder to suspend disbelief).
It’s easily one of the best Doctor Who stories in any medium, and it’s a shame that nuWho managed only to take the least interesting parts of it; and it’s a greater shame that even the watered-down TV bowdlerisation was still better than anything else in the new TV show…