Friday, 24 December 2010

Audio Review 2: Farewell Great Macedon, by Moris Farhi (2010) – 8/10

Released: November 2010

Main Production Credits

Producer and Script Editor - David Richardson

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS arrives in the city of Babylon, amongst the famous Hanging Gardens, in the year 323 BC. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are soon welcomed as visitors to the camp of the legendary Alexander the Great, who is also visiting the great city. Over time, the time travellers befriend the Macedonian King and his loyal generals, revelling in each other’s company. However, the rest and enjoyment is short-lived, as Alexander’s loyal friends are mysteriously murdered one-by-one. A plot is afoot to bring down Alexander the Great, but Barbara realises that this History has already been written, and there is nothing that they can do to change it.

Story Placement
Between The Reign of Terror and The Witch Hunters

The Lost Stories have been a fascinating side project for Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios. Each successive series of lost stories seems to be even more ambitious than the last. First, they started with the abandoned Season 23 for Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor, which itself was a gamble because many Doctor Who fans (not me I hasten to add) seem to have a supreme dislike of Season 22, the 6th Doctor’s first season on Television. Despite this challenge though, I feel Big Finish succeeded admirably, so it was interesting to see them raise their heights even further with the second series, by recreating a few stories dropped in the 1960’s, and by recreating the original Season 27 if the TV Show had not been cancelled in 1989. The big feat with the 1960’s stories however, is that most would have to be produced similarly to one of Big Finish’s other successful Doctor Who ranges – the Companion Chronicles, because of the obvious absence of some of the original cast, particularly the long since departed William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton.
The First Doctor Boxset is the first couple of audio Lost Stories in this series, and although I have yet to listen to the aforementioned Companion Chronicles range, if they are all as well produced as these ‘Lost Stories’, then they will be a joy to visit in future. The aural atmosphere and background are delivered with Big Finish’s typical aplomb, and immediately transport you into the stories with ease. The regular and supporting characters are all well portrayed by William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, who clearly have fun acting out all the different characterisations, both the unfamiliar as well the characters they know and love. William Russell gives a cracking impersonation of William Hartnell in particular, and if you just close your eyes, sometimes you can almost imagine its Hartnell talking. Although the narration, particularly in Farewell, Great Macedon is slightly marred by the fact that it couldn’t decide what tense it should be in, moving from past to present tenses on numerous occasions.
For the purposes of story and plot review though, I have decided to examine the two stories separately.
Farewell, Great Macedon was one of the few rejected Doctor Who stories that nearly made it onto the small screen. Written by Moris Farhi for David Whitaker, it was only rejected because of outside criticism of featuring key historical characters in Doctor Who after the transmission of Marco Polo. Teachers had complained about Doctor Who distorting children’s views of real historical events, and for the time that Farhi was pitching his script for production, the BBC were reluctant to commit to any creative risk. Moris Farhi decided to abandon the idea altogether after he was asked to dramatically change the emphasis of his scripts by the BBC, and Doctor Who lost another potential classic. Thanks to both Farhi and Big Finish we can now at last experience Farewell, Great Macedon as a production.
Farewell, Great Macedon is a highly enjoyable, but simple adventure, where in the style of many an early Doctor Who historical, the 1st Doctor and his companions come across the legendary Greek leader, Alexander the Great, amongst the equally legendary backdrop of the city of Babylon. In fact the travellers arrive in the fabled Hanging Gardens, no less. The story that pans out seems to be an expertly-written mix of two of Doctor Who’s most successful historical – Marco Polo and The Aztecs. A plot has been hatched to kill Alexander and his closest allies in a bid for both power and wealth, however the Doctor and his companions are helpless to prevent it, because these events have already been recorded and determined by history. In an additional entertaining subplot, the Time Travellers have to prove themselves in challenging sporting events, after they have been falsely accused of being at the centre of the conspiracy.
As historical Doctor Who adventures go, we have experienced a lot of these ideas and plots before, not least in Marco Polo and The Aztecs, but to Moris Farhi’s credit, nothing ever feels tired or derivative. In fact it’s a delight to experience a brand new adventure that revisits a much neglected style of storytelling in Doctor Who, and feels all the better for it. Instead of being traditional (which it isn’t in comparison to Doctor Who over the last 30 years), it comes across as fresh and vibrant both in terms of the suggested imagery, as well as the raw characterisation that I do so miss from early 1960’s Doctor Who. It is also worth noting at this point, that I was lucky enough to read a copy of the reproduced script of Farewell, Great Macedon when it was lovingly reprinted back in 2009, and even then the creative potential just leapt off the pages. Sure some of the dialogue was a bit rusty and dull, but even that has been respectfully adapted by writer Nigel Robinson. And on audio, the quality off the source material is even more obvious. This is perhaps illustrated best by the beautiful realising of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens and the wonderful characterisation of Alexander the Great.
Moris Farhi paints an interesting portrait of Alexander the Great. He is portrayed as a visionary, a man before his time, who wants to join the World into one peaceful collective of kingdoms that co-exist together in support of each other – a global community living and working in harmony. Of course Alexander is still the brave and learned warrior leader that history teaches us of, but Farhi creates a fascinating new slant and dimension to his character, that perhaps you could argue makes him an amoral leader if he genuinely believes his past battles are a worthy means to a peaceful end. Of course there is a flipside to Alexander seemingly being the ultimate humanitarian of the Ancient World. He is in danger of becoming purely an audience identification character to serve the needs of the story, instead of a believable historical figure that the audience can relate to, which does actually occur a few times in the story. The best example of this is that for most (95%) of the story he is unswervingly strong in his support for the Time Travellers. With the listener (or supposed viewer) he fervently cheers Ian on in the sporting challenges, and even once ‘our heroes’ have been accused of engineering murder, doesn’t take much persuading that they are innocent. Although they do undoubtedly deserve some of Alexander’s loyalty, it seems a little contrived that he is so dedicated to people he only could have known for up to two weeks. However, this is only a small complaint given how interesting the character is to explore. After all, it makes a welcome change to have a key historical figure from early Doctor Who that is both kind and open-minded as opposed to the various tyrannies of Nero, Robespierre and British Colonialism.
The other supporting characters are also of merit, particularly the real conspirators of the story, as they are an interesting variation on a centuries old standard. Seleucus maybe your typical bloodthirsty power-grabber, but he is also a self-serving weasel-like character who ducks and dives away from active participation merely to save himself from possible outside accusations if they are discovered. The other three conspirators are using Seleucus as a figure head, as their motive is not power, but wealth and greed to acquire Alexander’s riches. However, they also seek revenge on Alexander for his global campaigns which they see as costly an unnecessary when they are just as happy back in Greece. Iolla, a priest, and Glaucias, are perhaps the two conspirators who desire for this revenge the most, as they take the most joy out of murdering Alexander’s loyal friends, but it is Antipater who is the most interesting of them all. Antipater is the strategist, the thinker, and although wishes for Alexander’s death as much as the others, he is much more of a devious politician than a bloodthirsty killer. Antipater reveals his cold-blooded nature in other ways, as unlike the other three conspirators, he has a heartfelt desire to humiliate and dishonour Alexander and his friends as well as murder them.
However, characterisation is not always a strong point in this story. As interesting as the four conspirators are, ultimately they are still just conspirators and little dimension reveals itself. What surprises the most though is how slightly irregular some of the characterisation of the regulars are. Susan in particular, has an extremely odd panic attack at the beginning of the story, bizarrely fearing they have all gone to heaven when she first hears the music of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the TARDIS. The Doctor himself is also surprisingly disrespectful and ignorant of the local customs of the Greek people in Babylon, unlike in Marco Polo and The Aztecs. Even if this is the first time the Doctor has encountered the Greeks, you’d think after spending a week or two with the natives, he would seek to maintain the wise, respectful and dignified image that he always seeks to maintain in all the other historical outings of his era. He even seems to forget his previous stance about non-interference in historical events. Happily, Ian and Barbara do remain true to their original characters. Ian has a great moment in particular when he nobly reproaches himself for Cleitus’ death, even when it was not his fault. Barbara also shines, cleverly talking Alexander round at a time of mourning, and defending all of the Time Travellers against the false accusation of murder, as does Ian. Also, rather interestingly, it is Barbara who knows that history, and Alexander’s inevitable death cannot be changed, and wants to leave as soon as possible, after working out the real date of their arrival in Babylon. Therefore, because of Barbara’s newfound wisdom, this story can only happen after The Aztecs, and because Ian and Susan have yet to truly learn this wisdom of non-interference in history; it has to take place before The Witch Hunters novel.
Of course, I’m guessing that had Farewell, Great Macedon gone into production, David Whitaker would have edited out many of the erroneous aspects of characterisation so the regulars would more closely feel like the ones portrayed on-screen, but Nigel Robinson obviously must have decided to leave many of these curious oddities in his script adaption so others could also note these interesting diversions. Although to be fair, when comparing to the original script, you can tell Robinson has taken out a lot of the clunky dialogue that would have made the audio production less enjoyable to listen too. What Nigel Robinson did edit out though was the interesting sequence where the Time Travellers try out a language-learning machine, which I’m guessing was taken out due to the established continuity that the TARDIS automatically translates different languages telepathically. Other notable oddities include the suggestion that the Doctor and Susan believe in God. Although this of course goes against what many other later Doctors and writers for the show tell us, it is interestingly (and perhaps fortunately) left ambiguous. Also of note is the amusing fact that the TARDIS requires petrol (or raw hydrogen as the Doctor tells us) to function. Again, none of these developments need to be taken as gospel in Doctor Who continuity, but they’re fun to deliberate on.
I’ve already mentioned how great the performances of William Russell and Carole Ann Ford were throughout this production, but they were both eclipsed by the consummate portrayal of Alexander by recent Big Finish regular John Dorney. Dorney’s plays the Greek leader with great energy and emotion, investing the character with authority and humility. However, what made the character stand out for me was the wonderful sense of pathos that John Dorney imbues him with, particularly at the climax of second episode, in what is surely the best scene of the entire story – the death of Cleitus.
However, despite how fascinating and enjoyable this production has been, there’s no getting past how simple the story is. The imaginative wonders of Babylon only really last till the end of episode one, so it is up to the murder plot to carry the story. Although the conspiracy is just as interesting and well-written as that of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (and probably based upon it too), it was never going to have the momentum to last all of the six episodes of the story, and does in fact run out of steam at the end of episode four. Thoughtfully, Moris Farhi did introduce the tried and tested subplot of putting the Time Travellers through a ‘Trial by Fire’ (which was more literal then you may think), but this still doesn’t get past the sense that the story is just passing the time for another couple of episodes till Alexander’s inevitable death. And since we (the audience) have already known all the details of the plot since episode one, the story ends up having a feeling of predictability about it. Still, that doesn’t stop some brilliant drama being made. Although the story peaks early at the end of episode two, the dramatic climax it gives, produces one of Doctor Who’s best ever cliff-hangers, as Alexander prepares to commit suicide and impale himself on his sword after the supposed ‘accidental’ death of Cleitus only moments earlier. This scene grabbed me more than any other in the whole production, and is definitely a true example of Big Finish at their best. I just wish the rest the story lived up to the brilliance it had achieved up to this point. Alexander’s death was also very poignant, but I feel its impact would’ve been much stronger had the story been an episode shorter, or if the conspiracy had been given more mystery and depth than it had.
In short then, Farewell, Great Macedon is a fabulous and great recreation of a genuine lost Doctor Who classic. Sure it may be simple and perhaps overlong too, but it is definitely another strong entry in Big Finish’s impressive Doctor Who range and I recommend all fans to give it a try, as there’s always something to enjoy in this ambitious production.

Score: 8/10