Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, we are meeting bears, cat people, new humans and gay trees as Tibère and Scribbles grab their backpacks and explore New Earth. So why don’t grab a bottle of sap (and mind spoilers after the ‘read more’ tag) and follow them!
TIBERE: Well, this was a breath of fresh air, really. Big Finish is often summed up as being torn between a “odd, ambitious and experimental” poll and a “curating the tradition” one, but they have an entire branch of stories who don’t really fit these categories and instead just focus on being pure raw fun with loveable and precious characters. Jago & Litefoot is the one that springs to mind – and really, this feels a bit like a continuation of it in a way. Not exactly in tone and aesthetics – it’s bigger and brasher and queerer, as adapting Davies demands – but certainly in that it provides that wonderfully easy-listening feel of sliding into a familiar, fun setting. There are good politics, good characters, good representation, and a lot of really absurd ideas. It’s not the greatest thing ever, but it’s a joy to listen to – that’s certainly helped by a really slick and tight production, too. No, really, it’s just a really nice and enjoyable listen. Good stuff.
SCRIBBLES: I think the word for this set is “fun.” It takes the bombast, campy strangeness that Russell T Davies’ alien worlds were known for and fills it with heart and joy, while finding a few places to talk about the importance of diversity along the way. Does the world need “Tales of New Earth?” Probably not. But we’re very fortunate to have it, and I think it’s one of the freshest and most undemandingly enjoyable spinoff series Big Finish has had. I’d recommend it quite highly, and I think it’s something that should be encouraged and supported to continue into further series. It has, for a weird little corner series, shockingly high production value, with some of the finest music Big Finish has ever had, fine ideas, fine new characters, and some truly delightful weirdness to enjoy. And really, I think, no Doctor Who audio to come in 2018 will be able to match the pleasure of a polar bear strapped to a jetpack while the sickest guitar riff ever blares triumphantly.
TIBERE: I mean, if that image fills you with delight–
SCRIBBLES: And unless you’re a soulless, wonderless monster, it should.
TIBERE: –then yeah, you can go buy this set in all good conscience. It’s full of moments like that. Plus, I mean, bears. And otters. And cats. It’s cute. It appeals to the part of my brain that binge-watches cat videos at three in the morning.
1) “Escape From New New York”, by Roy Gill
TIBERE: And so our story begin, by stealing a title from John Carpenter and by telling a love story between a man and a bush. Insert your “he wants some wood” puns here. It’s a smart beginning, really – one that feels very in keeping with Russell T. Davies’ aesthetics. Having a couple of down to earth characters talk about their life together and doing daily ordinary things before being suddenly plunged into chaos.
SCRIBBLES: It’s an slight opening, really, but full of some very strong character establishment. The decision to spend the majority of the earliest section on Thorn and Devon’s school life pays off well, I think, making for oddly some of the most engaging material in the whole set. For a world where humans are a formerly oppressed minority, this story really fills out its material with a lot of humanity, particularly at the front end. Not that that’s a surprise, I think. Roy Gill previously wrote what I found to be the most emotional Dorian Gray I’ve heard, and did wonderful things with Kate and her team in the latest UNIT set. This isn’t able to dig quite as far into the characters due to having to establish new characters, a new plot arc, and a new world, more or less, but it manages an awful lot, particularly in making Devon go from requisite everyman antagonist to a properly lovable core for a new storyline.
TIBERE: He’s very good at handling that kind of stuff – even the way the plot eventually unfolds, which could have very easily fallen into pure “bury your gays” territory, is handled quite deftly, I thought. Yes, Thorn dies – but there’s first a long commentary about him risking to lose his identity, which felt like a very purposeful parallel to what the series 10 finale did with Bill (and really, it’s fundamentally relevant to the world we live in, so I’m glad they’re doing more of that kind of stories); and then, his death is an act of agency, something he alones decides, a heroic sacrifice. He’s not just carelessly thrown under the bus, there’s a lot of pathos and character and emotion here. I mean, they were cute together and I totally shipped them, but I can deal with their eventual separation.
[18/03 update: Roy Gill was kind enough to contact us on Twitter and correct our assumptions about the Thorn/Bill parallels – “Escape” was written in 2016, so it’s nothing more than an amusing coincidence]
SCRIBBLES: For me, I think, Thorn dying was an inevitable endpoint. My assumption would be that most of the arc was worked out in a vague direction, and I recall Roy Gill mentioning in Vortex that he decided to give Devon a boyfriend, so presumably Thorn is entirely his addition. Which means, rather than look at it as “bury your gays,” I see it as a pleasant fleeting moment of LGBT representation in general, which isn’t always something Big Finish has a lot of on offer outside Torchwood.
TIBERE: And I think actually making LGBT themes explicit within the narrative helps with what they’re trying to say – I mean, that’s the main throughline in the boxset, this idea of celebrating diversity, this variety of genders, orientations, and species, against an antagonist that wants to unify everything and erase all differences. It’s not what I’d call an especially inspired or ambitious narrative, but it’s efficient – it does the job well, and it’s a strong impetus to unify the two leads, Hame and Devon.
SCRIBBLES: I will say, however, I think Thorn’s death didn’t have as much of an emotional punch as I would have liked. I think if there’s a missed trick in this story, it’s that, by default, it is so hinged on Devon’s entry-level perspective that the experiences Thorn goes through are all off-screen. That works, but it means that we’re introduced to Thorn, then he vanishes, and then next time we see him, his fate is a foregone conclusion. And, again, we’re only just meeting the characters, expecting a tearjerker in an opener is unreasonable. It’s good at what it does.
TIBERE: I mean, more than that – Devon and Hame kind of narrate the stories, and if you read between the lines they pretty much tell you Thorn is a goner from the first couple of scenes. I like the formal conceit (there’s some nice interplay between the two characters) don’t get me wrong, but it might hinder the suspense and emotional stakes here.
SCRIBBLES: It’s very good, just could have been great. Speaking of great, I think there’s a lot of other highly successful subplots in this opener. I mean, for one thing, I admire the choice to make every couple in this story, both of them, gay, even if they do both end tragically. That little investigation Hame goes on is quite poignant; I loved the way the woman’s distraught loss of her partner was played. That, of course, pales in comparison to Hame’s amazing confidant…
TIBERE: I mean … here’s a man with an army of domesticated otters living in his beard. He’s in here for like two scenes but he steals the show, not only because he’s basically a living repository of gay jokes (so! many! possibilities!), but also because holy shit these otters are cute and do the cutest little squeaks and I want to adopt them.
SCRIBBLES: Do you think on New Earth grindr there’s a profile option to identify not as otter, but as “otter colony?” These are questions I hope a second series answers.
TIBERE: Let’s be fair – the first thing Scribs and I wanted after finishing this boxset was a story entirely devoted to the New Earth dating pool. Hire us Big Finish, we’ll totally write it. I HAVE SO MANY BEAR JOKES.
SCRIBBLES: I guess that goes to show what Roy Gill accomplishes with Devon here, and with sketching out the world of New Earth. We’re invested in uncovering the gay scene of New Earth now. That’s an odd concept, but the kind the world is better for having.
TIBERE: I mean, not only is the worldbuilding good, it’s also meaningful. I love the fact the entire first episode is devoted to elevators and transport, for instance. It reminded me a bit of “Zero Hour”, still one of my Torchwood faves, which also turned the movement and energy of people into a source of power in a system.
SCRIBBLES: More obviously, that’s inspired by “Gridlock,” and, as has been described a few times, the system of “vertical storytelling,” mapping plotting progression and social movement onto a landscape of ascension and descension. Doctor Who does that fairly frequently, be it “Paradise Towers,” “World Enough and Time,” or “The Beast Below,” but it’s frequently a strong base metaphor and system of structure.
TIBERE: And I mean, the entire story is based around these concepts – Thorn and Devon want to rise up in the world; the Lux offers people “ascension” of another kind … The entire episode is mapped around these displacements – and the find that the very process of moving has casualties. Which is true in a concrete sense, but also in a social one.
SCRIBBLES: On a serious note, this story gets quite political with the President subplot, which was quite pleasant an inclusion.
TIBERE: I like the stuff with her name. She’s called Grosseteste, which means in slightly archaic French “big head” – and as it turns out, her head has been filled of Lux technology she hides behind big ridiculous hats. There’s this sort of obvious symbolism, but quite nice nonetheless, about the monstrosity of power hiding behind a thin layer of glamour and charm, behind the signifiers of rank, richness and social status. The confrontation between her and Hame is a really interestingly-staged moment, too – the cuts back to Devon and Thorn are wonderfully arranged and make the exposition flow perfectly and in a really dynamic way. The editing in this is pretty wonderful – really, this is a impressively competent script if nothing else. It has to move a lot of pieces and can’t really soar, but as a pilot for a new range, it’s an impeccable outing.
SCRIBBLES: I think it’s a really great extrapolation of the New Earth stories of Russell T Davies in general, politically. All three stories in what I guess could be described as the Face of Boe trilogy have a constant eye on exploitation and class. With “The End of the World,” the blue people and their connection to Rose’s working class background is a crucial thread, as is Cassandra’s loss of humanity through selfish use of wealth in the pursuit of vanity. With “New Earth,” there’s both the exploitation of the new humans and of Chip held in juxtaposition. And in “Gridlock,” it’s all about how the people of an undercity with no mobility find a way to live through faith in each other. Going from that to a story like this, about a politician exploiting the those who won’t be missed, is quite a smooth turn. I like, too, how humanity is situated in this. Devon’s prejudice against Hame for the hospital incident is a delicious extension of worldbuilding that addresses the diversity themes of the set well. It’d probably land a bit better if Devon were played by something other than a white man, but the choice of giving him a boyfriend helps smooth that over a bit from the point of view of within our own imperfect society. Furthermore, the introduction of the Cat’s Cradle concept is fantastic and connects well to these themes (even if it does remind me of one particularly tedious book with that in the title), a great little setup of drama that goes on to become one of my favorite elements of the set.
TIBERE: It’s very Orphan Black, that – this idea of genetic ownership of a bunch of people. I mean – it makes sense, really: New Earth is this sort of cradle of diversity, of endless species and possibility, so of course eventually someone would try to slap their trademark over some of them. This set has some lovely politics, it really has – and there’s a lot of stuff introduced there that could and ought to be developed in later releases. I’m definitely intrigued.
2) “Death in the New Forest”, by Roland Moore
TIBERE: This story is notable for three things. First: it marks Ten’s grand entrance within the set’s narrative. Two: it reintroduces the tree people – complete with an identical cousin of Jabe, because of course. And three: it continues the political themes of the opener by introducing a religious aspect to the proceedings. Sadly, it’s also probably the weak link of the storyline.
SCRIBBLES: I confess, I was not a fan of this story. I’ve enjoyed the writer’s previous efforts for Doctor Who, but the political reach really extends far past its grasp. Telling a story about indigenous aliens within Doctor Who is frequently difficult territory. I mean, “Doctor Who and the Silurians” panicked and blew up the lot of them rather than find a way out, in a moment of severe cynicism. But this is probably my least favorite option of addressing that: making them straightforwardly monsters, despite political appeals to being oppressed and even some uncomfortably on-point parallels to real treatment of indigenous peoples by my own country. Termites vs trees is a delightful concept, but making that indigenous termites vs invasive trees, while it could have been successful, has a hard time succeeding when the narrative is largely invested in one side. The final beat executes it as well as can be expected with this choice, with a nice little hinted parallel to the Tenth Doctor’s Time War guilt that gets him spot on, but I’d have preferred not to veil a generic Who monster in real politics to begin with rather than just get some lip service like that, solid as it is. If there has to be a story about termites complaining about invasive trees, I’d prefer it to be from the position of the invaded.
TIBERE: It’s especially weird considering we really don’t need them within the narrative – exploring the land of the Trees, the emotional ramifications of Devon’s loss, the Lux and their problems with religion and introducing Ten, that’s more than enough content for one episode. But the audio seems really uninterested in the best elements of his narrative: Thorn’s parents that Devon was supposed to visit are dead when he arrives and are never brought up again, which is a damn shame because it deprives us of a lot of gay emotional content; and the religious problematiques of the episode are not nearly as developed as they could have been. I mean, I still enjoy the message – that imposing an unique, unified, enforced religion kills all diversity and beauty; but damn, it could have been executed better. Especially since it’s quite confused: the Trees are framed as the oppressed, when we’re talking about the Lux plotline, the natives who are going to be converted by force; but yet they are themselves oppressors of another class of natives! It’s … Odd. And muddled.
SCRIBBLES: It very much is. That’s not to say it’s bad. There’s a high level of competence in this set. Tree culture is pleasantly sketched out. The opening airplane satire sequence is an absolutely hilarious inclusion, the best part of this set that isn’t a jetpack polar bear, Sapling Vale, while ethically muddled, is a pleasant inclusion, and I really enjoyed all the discussion of foods of different species and those cultural differences. Devon mentioning what foods Thorn used to make for him, for example, was very sweet.
TIBERE: Roland Moore is really good at crafting individual memorable scenes, I can definitely give him that. Ten’s introduction, for instance, is a delight; and the conversations with the Tree elder around some sap juice are layered, interesting, and carrying a pleasant dignity and quiet. It’s just a shame that the audio spends so much runtime on the termites – they really aren’t very compelling. And it’s weird, because at the beginning they seem so obviously guilty you expect, and the story even kind of teases it, a twist – but no, they are indeed the antagonists. It’s … A bit dull.
SCRIBBLEs: The closest to a twist with the termitons is that they’re cheating on the Lux to initiate a plan of their own. I will grant, it’s a fresh take on the Lux. But the Lux are still more effective in this story than the Termitons. In particular, Xylem Maple Dorm, the tree elder, gets a magnificent little ending sequence at the hands of the Lux. The termitons just kind of exist for a fun aesthetic idea that’s entirely on the mind to imagine, rather than the story itself.
3) “The Skies of New Earth”, by Paul Morris
TIBERE: BEAR. JETPACK. BEAR. JETPACK. BEAR. JETPACK. GUITAR RIFF. BEAR. JETPACK. AWESOMENESS.
SCRIBBLES: You know, I feel kind of bad. The last story we covered by Paul Morris we were quite savage on. So I’m very, very pleased to say that was a one-off; “The Skies of New Earth” is magnificent, one of the best romps Big Finish has ever put out. More than any other story here, it really runs with the weird wonder of the New Earth setting as the basic joy of the exercise, bolstered by some very welcome politics.
TIBERE: I mean, it’s kind of very, very light on plot but I feel like you’re allowed to do that with New Earth – that’s one of the joys of this setting, you can just basically improvise with constant weird aesthetic ideas and just keep throwing them at the listener. And Paul Morris definitely does that here – it’s crazy in the most wonderful ways, while not being completely unfocused or sloppy either. I mean, that’s where we need to amend our previous statements and say that the JETPACK BEAR (no way I’m not writing this in something that isn’t capitals) is an anti-fracking activist. It’s a ridiculous concept, yes, but damn it, it’s the best way to do politics in that setting and it’s just a riot.
SCRIBBLES: The whole story is built on weird word-play and absurd concepts. For example, it’s not fracking, but the thinly-veiled and basically indistinguishable “fragging,” if my ears did not deceive me (though I have been wrong before). But better than that is the twist of the standout character of this story, and the entire set, and possibly 2018 Big Finish overall, Oscar McLeod. He’s magnificent. He’s full of imagination and life. I mean, political jetpack bear is already amazing, but he’s a political jetpack bear built around a pun. Solar bear! How delicious. A polar bear that lives in the sky and feeds through photosynthesis. Everything about him warms my heart and makes me smile, he’s just too gloriously absurd.
TIBERE: God yeah, Oscar is wonderful. Although I must correct you on the way you spelled JETPACK BEAR. It’s capitals or nothing, Scribs. I think that’s a really wonderful setting to dump the Tenth Doctor into, as well – by the way, I did not mention Kieron Hodgson’s Tennant impression, which is a mistake, because it’s really quite good. Not perfect, you can tell it’s not quite the real thing, but it’s endlessly listenable and it never pulls you away from the audio once, which is pretty damn enjoyable – the fact the writers really get the Tenth Doctor’s voice helps a lot, obviously. But yes, back to my original point – I feel like the characterization these audios really give Ten is the one of a sort of freedom fighter, or at least of an enabler of activism – it kind of draws inspiration from something like “Planet of the Ood”, I think. He’s just shining with light and energy and imagination – and as someone that, well, doesn’t really always enjoy that specific incarnation, I was surprised at how much I liked him, him and his ragtag team of humans, bears, and bird people.
SCRIBBLES: This episode, I think, is the clearest case for why the series should continue as a sustained range. It’s the sort of wild romp through strange imagery with wit and politics and emotion and joy that only comes from extrapolating off the side of Doctor Who. It’s the best kind of escapism.
4) “The Cats of New Cairo”, by Matt Fitton
SCRIBBLES: I think the title sort of gives away what this story is. After a set building up Devon as the focus, here the story swerves a bit. This isn’t his finale, but Hame’s. I think a lot of that is paid off quite well. The Exalted High Persian is a delicious antagonist, if tragically, despite our crack theories, not the Master after all. The selfish desire of a privileged old white man, erm, cat, to sell out every other race on the world to the Lux out of cowardice and belief in superiority is a great angle. I mean, one of his supporters even tells Hame she believes in feline superiority, it’s not a subtle racial parallel. Making the exploitation of Devon’s body the crux of the debate is a wildly successful dramatic choice, I think, and easily the highlight of both his character arc and of this finale. Again, it would work better if Devon were black or some other ethnicity, as even making him gay doesn’t entirely negate the oddness of telling a story about a white slave; the racial iconography of slavery is too far bound up in white men as the oppressive force for a story about one as the victim to be entirely successful in our society. But it comes close, within that. Other parts of the story, on the other hand, are not unanimously successful.
TIBERE: I have a certain number of issues with it, really – although I must definitely admit I enjoy the political focus. Matt Fitton is a good pick for something like that, he has that talent to tie really big and bombastic storytelling to powerful and simple political issues. It’s really a story about nationalism – well, in that case, maybe speciesalism? – and its evils. The tenants of authoritarianism handing the keys to the world to an eldritch all-powerful forced of destruction, risking to destroy a coalition of races and species living in perfect harmony – was I the only one to see some heavy, heavy Brexit parallels in this? You can kind of see New Earth as a fantasized version of the European Union (even if my leftist self can’t help by noticing the EU is far from being problem-free, note), and the cats are the Brexiteers about to unleash the apocalypse. It’s … A bit strange, then, that the cats are coded through a Middle-Eastern prism, though.
SCRIBBLES: I’d have to disagree on that. I think the cats in this set very much fit the white oppressor iconography, even if one is called a Persian! The oddest aspect, I think, of the racial politics here is the closest thing to a middle eastern analogue, the camel-like Dromedans. There feels like half an interesting commentary to be made in an oppressor getting a people to worship them, but it doesn’t land, and instead they feel like a stereotype out of most portrayals of Egypt. Which is a shame, mostly this story manages to dodge the orientalism of a science fiction story about Egypt, which was a pleasant surprise. Even the pyramids get brushed aside for a new, though loosely connected, image. There’s no talk of ancient gods or mummies or sphinxes, and only one sequence going on about what an “other” sort of place New Cairo is for Devon in what is best described as the bazaar. But the Dromedans drop the ball.
TIBERE: The stuff about them dancing with scimitars was a bit annoying. So was that really over-the-top bazaar scene at the beginning. But still, yeah, I would agree with you – Cat Culture feels very different from anything concrete and real (hell, their religion seems a lot closer to Christianity than Islam or polytheism), and it could have been way, way, worse. Still, I feel like avoiding that kind of implications altogether would have been an easy task, so I’m not entirely sure about how they went about it here – I mean, isn’t Cairo, our Cairo, a human city? Why would cat people have occupied the entire New Earth equivalent of it? Where are the Egyptian people – or rather, their New Earth descendants? It’s not bad and doesn’t really impact the quality of the audio, but, considering the overall quality of the world-building in the set, it’s a bit of a curious wobble.
SCRIBBLES: Fortunately, again, that is the set dressing. The main plot is very much about the cat vs human drama, and I do think that lands. The reflection on Thorn is very sweet, and Hame liberating Devon is a great beat. Plus, I feel like this is a weird thing to say, but I’m really, really grateful nothing connected the Lux and Lumen overtly to any mythological traditions. Doctor Who has stepped all over other faiths such as those of the ancient Egyptians, and as one Christian friend of ours pointed out, there’s not really much significantly different between saying one god is an alien or another. I’m not sure anyone out there in the world still practices worship of gods like Ra, Set, and Horus, but it still feels like a nice cliche to sidestep. It would have been painfully obvious to make this an Osiran story.
TIBERE: I think it hit a pretty nice balance, really – no direct involvement of any concrete faith, but a lot of pretty sweet imagery neatly woven with the plot. The birds leading the shuttle to crash, the scorpion people of desert – it feels relevant to the symbolical landscape of that era and culture without exactly being an exact replica of it. There’s a nice sci-fi twist here, there really is. Speaking of nice twists, I really do enjoy the resolution of sorts to the Devon and Thorn plot we do get here – I mean, it’s not surprising that we do, considering (if the back of the CD case is to be believed) that Roy Gill script edited that episode -. It’s a very simple instance of “gay love saves the day”, but you know, that’s the kind of tropes I’m never going to complain about seeing. It’s just quite sweet, and of course using one’s queerness and difference to fight against an unifying all-powerful force of consensus is efficient, if unsubtle, symbolism. The structural switcharoo where they try to make us believe Devon is dead … Doesn’t really work, though, and it the ending where he pops back along with the Doctor is really very quick, the pacing feels out of tune at this moment.
SCRIBBLES: I don’t think the point was to make Devon feel seriously dead, but rather to illustrate how Hame has changed in her prejudices toward humans and establish where their relationship has come. Yes, it is resolved quickly, but I think it’s just there to get the scene that’s needed, which is her talking about her friendship with an oppressed human to a world that hasn’t really treated them right. Her story here is about guilt, and that, to me, is a nice direction to take it; it was an emotional highlight of the set for me.
TIBERE: It does give an emotional grounding to her speech about Devon, yes, definitely. Which is a really good scene, too – I guess you could say it spells out the themes of the boxset a bit too loudly, but there’s a case to be made for loud, honest political declarations; it fits the mood and aesthetics of the boxset, really. I think that’s what I take out of that story in the end, even though I don’t enjoy everything it does: there’s just a really strong sense of unified aesthetics, of a political and narrative purpose to this entreprise, and Fitton really gets that. It’s a fairly minor script in his long, long Who writer career, but the seeds he and the other writers have sowed have the potential to give way to something truly spectacular. Or at least, long-lasting and damn entertaining, which, you know, I’d be fine with.
SCRIBBLES: I know there has not been any mentioned plans to continue this series, but I dearly, dearly hope Big Finish does. As this final story showed by making the wise choice to move the Doctor to the sidelines, this is a range with the potential to stand on its own and be a continual joy. Gay space content with sentient cats, birds, trees, otters, and bears (WITH JETPACKS). It’s just what you need in your life sometimes.
TIBERE: Here’s hoping!