Sorry for the lack of posts this week so far. Not only am I staying with my in-laws, with only dial-up internet access on Windows XP, but a combination of jetlag and a sinus infection has made me basically unable to think for a few days (an unfortunate thing about my wife working at a hospital is that even though I can get rid of most infections the same day I get them, there’s always another one coming along…)
We did, however, get to visit a few friends on Tuesday, and Prince Mu-Chao very kindly lent me several old Target novelisations, so I’ve spent the last few days journeying back to my childhood, counting the number of synonyms for ‘said’ that Ian Marter can use in a single page, and generally engaging in intellectual comfort-eating (as well as physical comfort-eating – I always put on weight in the US…)
More RIP/FC stuff tonight/tomorrow (I’m not entirely sure of what day it is any more…) but for now, I’ll be looking (briefly) at another example of intellectual comfort-eating, Mike Tucker’s The Genocide Machine.
Previously when looking at Big Finish audios I have mostly concentrated on those that contained some actual original ideas – one of the things I like most about Big Finish’s Doctor Who range is that at least a third of them or so have genuinely strong central ideas, and both plot and characterisation are arranged around these ideas – Rob Shearman’s better work, for example, is far better summed up by discussing its themes than by recounting its plot. The Holy Terror isn’t ‘about’ a castle created to torture an old man, but rather is about the obligations of a creator to the creation. Other times the idea is a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) one, or a counterfactual history, or just a neat way of structuring a plot. Even when these ideas aren’t fully integrated (as in The Council Of Nicea, which appears to be written by someone who can’t take the ideas under discussion terribly seriously) they’re there.
One gets the impression that the favourite Doctor Who era of the Big Finish producers was probably Christopher Bidmead’s short tenure as script editor – while Bidmead’s stories didn’t always make as much sense as they should (there is a gaping hole in Logopolis for example – why use the Earth technology?) they’re about ideas – recursion, entropy and so on – and when they work (they didn’t always) they’re remarkably successful at getting those ideas across.
However, it took time for Big Finish to really find a unique voice, which probably didn’t happen for the first year, and in those first dozen or so stories, while some new things were done (the introduction of Evelyn being the most important), they were essentially pastiching the old show, either in terms of genre (a historical, a multi-Doctor story and so on) or by bringing back old villains like the Ice Warriors and the Daleks.
The Genocide Machine is one of the latter, a straightforward ‘old-school’ Doctor Who story, with even a title that you can imagine the announcer in Toby Hadoke’s Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf reading out – “And now, The Genocide Machine. In which there is a machine. And some genocide.” – the only surprising thing is that, given that it features the Daleks, it’s not called Resolution Of The Daleks or something.
But even here, in one of the most generic Doctor Who stories Big Finish have ever done (The Daleks attack a gigantic repository of all knowledge, which hides a deadly secret… that’s it) you can still see the audios starting to diverge from the TV programme.
The Big Finish audios are unique in my experience of spin-off media in that they manage to straddle a number of lines. They retain the feel of the original show for the most part ( odd exceptions like Master and Flip Flop aside – and note here that I’m not talking about the McGann audios, which are a slightly different beast) but still have their own unique identity. They also are generally of a far higher quality than the TV series itself was during the time of the Big Finish Doctors (my opinion of the Nathan-Turner era is higher than many people’s, but even I would argue that there was never a Davison story as good as The Kingmaker or Spare Parts, and the Sixth Doctor was never as good on TV as in Jubilee or Davros). Here we see the very first stirrings of this, in the decision to do the first Dalek story without Davros in it for 25 years.
I remember as a kid being quite surprised when reading novelisations of old Doctor Who stories to find that Davros didn’t always appear with the Daleks – I thought the whole point of a Dalek story was for the bit where the Doctor confronts Davros – and so Big Finish’s decision to go back to the stories of the first three Doctors, and tell most of their Dalek stories without Davros, was quite a brave one. It’s both a strength and a weakness in this case – without their distinctive appearance the Daleks could be Anymonster, and they could easily be replaced in this story with, say, the Cybermen, without any major plot changes. But on the other hand, they don’t look anything like as clunky in the imagination as they did in some of the TV adventures…
Everything’s done competently enough here – the story is a fun romp, with nothing more to it than that – but it’s nowhere near as good as Big Finish later became capable of, and still shows a conservatism that is perhaps understandable in a company that was just starting out and had to persuade the fanbase of its legitimacy.