I thought the crossover that the DWM Comic Strip - The Nightmare Game - was unique. I had reconciled the fact that Doctor Who and Football were not linked in any way whatsoever. All my Football mates don't like Who. All my DW mates don't like Football. I was different liking them both, but I reckon there's probably quite a lot actually (though I would put Football 3rd on my list of Favourite Sports after Snooker and Cricket). Nightmare Game brought a crossover, and The Game further brings these 2 faraway hobbies together. Football is not specifically mentioned in The Game, but the insipiration is pretty apparent.
The Game is Naxy - a vicious version of hockey/lacrosse by the sounds of it. The sides are Gora and Lineen, and they've been at this Sport/War for years. Darin Henry has a great time bringing in as many Football references as possible in the opening few episodes. The play fairly drips with Saturday afternoon atmosphere. I loved it for that, as trips with my Dad to the game (he's hates Doctor Who by the way, but I did inherit his Football Fan gene) were brought back to my memory. I'm quite heartened though with the fact that Football haters also seem to enjoy this play - it appeals on so many levels.
With its snappy 6 part structure, The Game stands out from the crowd. After listening to this I much prefer the shorter episode lengths - which this play revels in. There's more natural cut-offs for the listener, and it feels more like the original TV show. Longer episodes often make you eager for an episode finish, and the focus as to when the episode ends is more paramount than the subject matter of the episode. I was taught ages ago, when taking some exam or another, that 20 minutes is the optimum time for attention to be fixed on revision - then have a break. To get the maximum attention from the listener this must also apply to the audio story. 20-25 minutes is ideal (in spite of the new DW series, which I suspect will be a different and faster running beast altogether). Big Finish probably need to tighten up the editing process on most releases, or give them more episodes. But back to The Game, which has episodes that fairly fly by, and never lag at all.
How brilliant is Peter Davison in this? Colin Baker receives great plaudits for his Audio Doctor (rightly so), but Peter Davison must run him close. He's never any worse than excellent, and in The Game he simply excels even further. He is ably supported by the impressive cast around him. Sarah Sutton is delightful as the only companion. I believe Janet Fieldings decision to skip on Big Finish audios has been to Sarah Suttons advantage - and what we have is a better 5th Doctor era than on TV (even though it was pretty brilliant on TV). As Big Finish alternates between Nyssa, and Peri and Erimem - so this Doctor further enhances his stellar reputation.
The supporting players here impress too. Top of the list must be Jonathan Pearce as Garny Diblick, further enforcing the Football link. He's quite clearly having a blast here, and revels in the excesses he is allowed to commentate on. There are dozens of glory moments for this character, ably assisted by Gregory Donaldson as Destry, but his demise is sufficiently blackly comedic. Negotiators Faye and Carlisle impress too. The hapless Carlisle is wonderfully doddery, and his future connection with the Doctor intriguing. It's only as a near the end of this review that I've just remembered that William Russell plays Carlisle! I listened to the whole of it and I had completely forgotten! Well, he was great - and the character massively different than Ian (obviously, or else I would have made a connection listening to it). I'm quite pleased, due to glorious forgetfulness I was spoiler free!
I also work for a bookies, so I really appreciated the gambling connection as the play progressed - an integral part of many sports lovers world.
Everything about this audio story is excellent, from its structure through to the performances of the main cast. 9/10
Big Finish’s decision to commission nearly all new writers for their Doctor Who audio range during 2004 and 2005 was a risky gamble, and it has so far resulted in a couple of rather poor stories. It has also produced some unexpected highlights however, and Darin Henry’s ‘The Game’ is one of them.
I wasn’t aware before I actually came to listen to it that ‘The Game’ is a six-part story, and when I found out it smacked of novelty rather than necessity. However, drawing on the lessons learned during the Hinchcliffe and Holmes, Henry makes use of the six-part structure to pull a rabbit of a hat for the last two episodes and change the direction of the story, and it’s highly effective. The basic premise of ‘The Game’ concerns Naxi, a ritualized civil war disguised as a lethal sport in which opposing teams of players hack each other to bits with euphemistically named “wands”. The obvious swipe at violence in sport, especially football, is obvious, and the allusion is enhanced by the casting of real life football pundit Jonathan Pearce as Naxi commentator Garny Diblick, and he brings all the witless enthusiasm familiar to anyone who has ever heard any “Colemanballs” to the role. So enthusiastic is Diblick in fact, that in Episode Five he excitedly discusses the rampaging Vornoxes, right up to the point when one of the kills him. Diblick automatically adds an air of realism to the proceedings, which is further enhanced by Gareth Jenkins’ hugely impressive sound design, which makes it sound like the Naxi matches were actually recorded in a stadium. This realism adds to the impact of the sheer brutality of life on Cray, for as we are reminded, “Every day thousands of athletes walk into that arena to play Naxi to the death.” Diblick also provides one of the best-realised examples of expository dialogue thus far heard in a Big Finish production, since his role in the story is to commentate on the action on the pitch.
The sheer savagery of Naxi is conveyed incredibly well throughout the story, tapping into some of the awful splendour associated with the Gladiators of the Roman Empire. This is most effectively demonstrated when the Fifth Doctor finds himself inevitably but unwittingly thrust into the game in Episode Two, and agitatedly cries out, “This man has just been murdered” when the first player is slain; he’s sternly corrected, “Not murdered, eliminated, retired.” Placing the especially gentle, anguished Fifth Doctor into such a situation is highly effective, and he spends the entire match pleading with everyone to stop, but uses his traditional sword skills to fight everyone off, whilst declaring, “I will not be a part of this! Stay back!” He’s forced to continue; as Nyssa learns in Episode One, “the game is the war” and it is so much a part of life on Cray that Coach Destry can’t stop the match even if he wants to. Despite the monstrous slaughter involved, few people think to question it because as Lord Carlisle tells Nyssa, “The game is everything to these people.” Since I remain utterly unable to see the appeal of football to vast swathes of the population, I found this especially ironic, although of course the metaphor doesn’t stretch very far, since in general football doesn’t encourage people to hack each other to bits. Henry does however touch on an interesting point about the influence of commercialism and sponsors on sport, as Destry tells Nyssa about the Balance Statute, explaining, “Each team handles the other side’s marketing and promotion.” Again, this is only satire in a very general, non-specific sense, but it works very well. By profiting from one’s opponent, the Game remains competitive, as the losing team gains the resources to buy better resources and facilities, until they start to win and the pattern reverses. Of course, as the Doctor notes, since Naxi drives the whole economy on Cray, the wives and children of the players make the wands that kill their husbands and fathers, and in a solemn reminder of this, Sharz recalls that there used to be half a dozen Naxi teams some five hundred years ago, but that most of them folded due to a lack of surviving players… Overall then, Naxi provides a rich backdrop to the story as a whole, although having worked out a fairly detailed society for his characters to live in, Henry gets a point deducted for the line, “Due to its geography, Cray only has one major city” which is a major world building shortcut!
The plot of ‘The Game’ twists and turns more than enough to maintain interest throughout its six episodes. Coach Bela Destry has summoned legendary peace negotiator Lord Carlisle to Cray to try and end Naxi, but with the Gora close to a final victory over the Lineen, this prompts the Doctor to wonder, “Why should Destri end Naxi when he’s so close to victory?” Thus, the plot thickens, and it thickens even further when half way through the story we suddenly get a monster attacking Nyssa at Terrace Diva. Hollis provides further fuel for the plot, as he talks of his father’s death, explaining, “Dad’s blade attachment came loose. Sharz took advantage of it.” This makes one of the twists rather predictable, as Morian inevitably reveals to Hollis that Destry sabotaged his father’s equipment as part of his ongoing policy of rigging the matches against the Gora by ensuring that they get substandard equipment. Morian doesn’t actually enter the story until the end of Episode Four, nicely heralding a change in direction for the last third of the story. He’s a traditional gangster, with hotels and gambling interests and is head of the “Morian Crime Family” and he’s the villain behind virtually everything here. Not only has he been rigging Naxi matches for profit, but he’s been using his genetically modified ability to make himself irresistible to exert control over Ambassador Faye and in turn over the unsuspecting Lord Carlisle. The reason? He knows that Carlisle is helped by the Doctor, finds out the Doctor is a Time Lord, and organizes the Naxi peace talks specifically to snare the Doctor and his TARDIS.
These various plot strands easily fill the six-part format without allowing time for the listener to the get bored, and they are fleshed out further by Henry’s use of his characters. Ironically, the principle villain Morian is such a clichéd gangster type that he isn’t especially interesting in his own right, and certainly not interesting enough to justify the return appearance that his escape at the end leaves open, but he works very well in the context of the story because of his effect on the other characters. It also helps that Big Finish have assembled a tough sounding and impressive cast of actors with regional actors to add further grit to the story, and Christopher Ellison makes Morian sound utterly repellent. The fact that he’s so loathsome makes his treatment of Faye all the more appalling; she’s basically a drug addict, addicted to Morian and willing to do anything to get more of him. She’s a brainwashed sex-slave, and unhappily is still with Morian when he escapes; perhaps a return appearance is justified after all. Essentially, Morian corrupts people. As he tells the Doctor, “It’s a little hobby of mine to find moral loopholes in people.” Destry is a prime example, a man who has always striven to win Naxi with honour persuaded to sell out by the promise of money and glory. It isn’t until Morian orders the Gora players to be executed, because his financial investments favour a Lineen win, that Destry realises his folly and tries to redeem himself.
But the character that steals the show here is Lord Carlisle. Original Doctor Who companion William Russell returns to the series after nearly four decades, and puts in a magnificent performance as the old peace negotiator. Henry exploits the time travel aspect of Doctor Who to great effect as the Doctor tells Nyssa that Lord Carlisle is one of his heroes, only to find out that in fact Carlisle considers the Doctor to be his best friend and that it is the Time Lord who is actually responsible for all of Carlisle’s successes. Admittedly, the Doctor as ultimate peace negotiator isn’t entirely convincing (he even says, “Interference on that scale is almost beyond comprehension… do you how many wars that means I’ve ended?”), but Henry just about gets away with it. We are misled in the first two episodes into being suspicious of Carlisle, through such minor details as his general harshness when he tells Destry that he’s “seen worse” when Destri gives him a list of the millions of dead, and abruptly snapping, “Nothing I can do will bring those men back!” In Episode Two, Carlisle sounds aghast when Nyssa tells him that the Doctor wants to meet him, hinting at their relationship for the first time implying that he knows the Doctor but not explaining how, and of course Nyssa finds his papers, with notes on ways to extend the fighting rather than ending it. As such, the twist works extremely well, and it doesn’t hurt that Carlisle is extremely likeable, especially when he indignantly notes, “He’s made a ruddy great mess of my life!” and explains that he was a good musician before the Doctor co-opted him. Henry uses Carlisle to bring out the best in Nyssa too, as she announces, “I’ve decided to stay on. With Lord Carlisle. It just occurred to me that I might do more good as his aide.” She quickly forms a deep bond with him, although since we know that she ends up on leaving the Doctor in ‘Terminus’ her strength of conviction makes it rather obvious that she won’t be able to join Carlisle because he won’t survive the story.
In a nod to the complexities of time travel, Carlisle believes that the Doctor is quite safe since they haven’t met yet in the Doctor’s time line and therefore he must survive his Naxi duel, but Nyssa has doubts, asking him, “Have you considered that he only survives because we take action to save him now?” It’s a nice touch, and it makes a refreshing change for Big Finish to explore such issues without resorting to paradoxes or alternate time lines. Henry also manages to convey the past/future friendship between Carlisle and the Doctor simply through Carlisle’s regard for the Time Lord, and again Russell’s warm performance enhances this. When Carlisle dies saving the Doctor by, stepping in front of Morian’s gun shot, the result is an extremely touching final scene, as the old man tiredly notes, “Whenever you visited me, you always had that sad stare. Always. Now I know why.”
The regulars generally do very well out of ‘The Game’ too, from the amusing opening scene in which Nyssa tells her friend, “I’ve never seen you this excited before Doctor.” He replies, “That’s because you’ve never seen me on holiday!” and tells her that he wants to meet Carlisle, which makes a suddenly indignant Nyssa realise, “But if he’s a peace negotiator, that must mean, we’re going to a war for a holiday!” Nyssa gets plenty to do here, realizing that Faye is a traitor, and even getting a proposal from Hollis, whom she diplomatically rejects by telling him, “I’ve learned that when I try and get close to someone, things don’t work out very well for them.” Sarah Sutton continues to perform well for Big Finish, making Nyssa sound suitably flattered, and also conveying her increasing fondness for Lord Carlisle, and her sadness when he dies. Peter Davison meanwhile is superb here, conveying great fury in Episode Two, when the Doctor yells, “hundreds have people have just been slaughtered” and “Naxi is sanctioned genocide.”
In summary, ‘The Game’ has turned out to be an unexpected highlight and a promising start to the 2005 schedule. As Darin Henry points out in his sleeve notes, six part Doctor Who stories can go horribly wrong; he’s proved that he is more than capable of taming the format.
“I don’t suppose one game will kill me…”
Darin Henry’s debut script for Big Finish’s Doctor Who range features at its heart the very familiar idea of violence as a spectator sport where the only rule is kill or be killed. The Game in question is “naxy” where each match consists of the two sides, the Gora and Lineen, battling for the most fatal eliminations in a competition that has lasted for years. While the population of Cray view it as brutal entertainment, their recently-twinned world of Earth sees it from a different perspective. They believe the game is a war and have dispatched their greatest peacekeeper to end the slaughter. That man, Lord Carlisle, is someone the Doctor has longed to meet and as Cray is his last chance he decides to bring Nyssa onto Cray for a holiday…
On the rare occasions when sport and Doctor Who cross-over its almost always about killing for fun or entertainment, and it’s the latter that Henry goes for. Initially he takes a very wry satirical look at contemporary competitions by using naxy as an extreme version of the way that team sports can instil a tribal mentality bordering on fanaticism in its supporters. How naxy became the killing game its fans know and love today is merely part of this as Henry explains how the game moved from a civilised sport when the organised fan fights outside stadiums became more popular than the original spectacle, and became synthesised together in a lethal combination.
Perhaps the biggest “gimmick” of this play is that it’s structured in six parts, rather than the conventional four. While The Game has had its thunder stolen somewhat by The Next Life adopting this formation (not to mention the earlier adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Shada), Henry’s script is the first original play to use the extra episodes within the standard two disc format. He talks in his author’s notes about how in the past the inherent danger of the traditional six part Doctor Who adventure was “repetition, padding and tedium” – which the Eighth Doctor’s recent escape from the Divergents’ universe ably proved – and the solution used in here is rather novel, for The Game is a six part story that runs to the length of what has become a standard Big Finish Doctor Who at just under two hours. This gives the play plenty of pace, but it leaves some of the episodes feeling shallow and insubstantial as the plot doesn’t move forward with enough momentum.
While Henry is right that the extra episodes often weren’t beneficial in the original series, the most successful examples used their broader canvases to tell stories on a grander scale, lending the drama an epic feel that isn’t really present here as it feels much like a regular story that just happens to have more divisions than usual. While Big Finish has stuck steadfastly to the episodic structure, the flexibility of how long those episodes could be has been one of the best aspects of their approach. Rather than be constrained by the arbitrary demands of the 1963 television schedulers, by allowing each episode to last for as long as it needed stories of real depth have emerged. While it’s true to say that sometimes this open-endedness has led to massively inflated stories which would have benefited considerably from judicious pruning, it also means we’ve already had stories that have been the equivalent of six part stories. That is why the actually releasing a story such as The Game in that number of instalments feels like a gimmick as it is unnecessary, particularly when Henry’s cliffhangers are so unimaginative. With four of them consisting of the archetypal – and inherently predictable – “Doctor/Companion in danger” scenario, this story really gives credence to the idea of dropping the episodic structure altogether rather than increasing the variety of the number of episodes per story.
Henry’s plotting is conventional and straightforward, which ensures the play makes sense and flows naturally, but the lack of any real risk-taking makes The Game seem rather uninspired. This is typified by the introduction of a new villain in the last couple of episodes, which was a tactic often used in six part stories to prolong the storyline and inject new life when they began to run out of steam. While this works to a degree here, as Christopher Ellison’s Morian is quite entertaining, it does bring the dreary notion that much of what has happened on Cray has been the influence of an outside agent, making it all too clear how the conflict of naxy is likely to be settled. At times too Henry’s writing lacks subtlety as some incidents are spelled out far too precisely as Important Plot Points, such as when Nyssa just happens to knock off papers which contain the suggestion that the peace talks might not be all they seem or when the Doctor just stumbles across an alien coin that doesn’t belong on Cray. The explanation behind what Nyssa finds in the former is actually quite clever, but by making them seem more important than they should, Henry telegraphs his intent through conspicuous presentation.
While the story that The Game tells is unsurprising and unadventurous, it is redeemed by the script’s energetic tone that allows director Gary Russell to get the best out of his cast. Henry’s writing credentials are impressive, boasting such noted American comedy series as Seinfeld and Futurama, and while that doesn’t make him a good dramatist his comedic background does allow him to impart some wit and banter into how the characters relate to each other that helps to retain the audience’s interest in what’s going to happen to them.
The Game puts the Fifth Doctor into some interesting situations such as becoming one naxy’s teams new hero after his plan to stop the slaughter unwittingly leads to the Gora’s greatest victory for sometime. Peter Davison’s Doctor has always been reflective, using violence only as a last resort, and so it’s intriguing to place him in a lethal game where killing is the only option for survival. Alas, co-star Sarah Sutton gets a bit short changed as Nyssa, who seems very anonymous here. This is a particular shame because the outings for this team have become increasing rare – this is their first appearance together for almost two years – particularly since both Spare Parts and Creatures Of Beauty used Nyssa’s compassion to give her character a new impetus. Henry captures the blandness of her television characterisation rather too well which ensures that the plotline of her developing a friendship with Lord Carlisle can’t do quite the same thing. Nyssa’s peripheral state isn’t helped by some acts of supreme naivety, such as realising the traitor must be someone just like the person she’s talking to and then being surprised when that person admits it and attacks her.
Making a return to Doctor Who with this story is William Russell, who needs little introduction after memorably portraying one of the Doctor’s first companions back in 1963. His character, Darzil Carlisle, is built up as one of the greatest forces for peace throughout the galaxy as a noble negotiator who has successfully concluded over thirty separate peace treaties throughout his time as a diplomat. That sounds like a promising role for an actor of Russell’s ability, but the reality is somewhat different as Carlisle is merely a frightened old man who’s relied on the assistance of another throughout his career to achieve his goals and when faced with a situation where that person is unavailable finds himself totally out of his depth. Christopher Ellison is a big, colourful villain but he perhaps shows a little too much glee in his role as crime boss Morian, which lessens the character’s impact. He’s not quite psychotic enough to be a truly crazed madman but not suave enough to bring any sinister side to his actions, leaving him feeling like a two-bit conman rather than a universally renown villain.
Perhaps the most inspired casting is Jonathan Pearce as the naxy commentator Garny Diblick, who – like Tony Blackburn before him in The Rapture – brings a real authenticity which impersonators, such as Daniel Hogath’s unconvincing football commentator in The Grel Escape, just can’t hope to capture. Pearce, who can frequently be heard on Match Of The Day and Radio 5 Live, is in particular an excellent choice for the part as he has such a distinctively manic style that’s just perfect for the intense brutality of Cray’s favourite past-time. It’s his performance and Henry’s use of Diblick to describe the flow of the game, and not simply describe what’s happening in the game, that makes the naxy action sequences as memorable and believable as they are.
On the technical side, Gareth Jenkins’ sound design is dependable as ever with his work during the battle scenes in particularly evoking the frantic fury of the fight. This is slightly undermined by some intrusive music during these naxy games from Andy Hardwick as it disrupts the realism the script and direction tries to build during these confrontations, making it too clear that this is just a drama after all.
The Game is certainly a mixed success. Aside from the satire of sport at its core, there is no real originality or innovation as to the development of neither the plot nor the actions of the characters which makes it rather predictable. But the play is performed energetically and has plenty of smart, funny moments that ensure it’s never dull which is certainly a first for (full length) Big Finish Doctor Who stories released in six parts. The Game is decent enough entertainment, but is far too conventional for its own good which makes it seem like just another story rather than something distinct in its own right.
“Yes folks its time to catch up with the Doctor and Nyssa and their adventures in time and space! Its been a pretty fantastic season for the pair after taking on a primeval God from Traken, kick starting the genesis of the Cybermen, accidentally causing the genocide of an entire race and now embroiling themselves in the peace talks of the planet Cray! Proving a popular pair with Big Finish’s support it would appear that their critics may have to eat their words and that there’s life in the old dog yet…Joe, it’s over to you…”
Thank you announcer. And thank you Peter Davison for proving to me that he really did have a damn good idea of what made the series tick. You see he has commented in the past that his Doctor should have travelled with only one companion and his companion of choice was Nyssa. It sounds like a terminally dull concept but Arc of Infinity aside they make a surprisingly engaging pair (just go and watch Snakedance, with Tegan out of the action the pair shine) with little of the hysterical angst that plagued so many fifth Doctor stories and a lot of mutual respect and intelligence between them. They remind me of the fourth Doctor and Romana and the third Doctor and Liz, two equals with very different personalities complimenting each other very well indeed.
And Peter Davison rocks in this story! At times it feels as though the story belongs to the sixth Doctor (and the production notes inside the sleeve confirm this was the case initially) because of the risqué idea of putting the Doctor on a battlefield with a weapon in his hand and all the shouting and bluster he has to perform once in the midst of the battle. But I’ll stick my neck out and say it works so much better because it is such an unusual and brave thing to do with the fifth Doctor. He is so often relegated to the sidelines of a story or left to do all the pleasantries but here the Doctor is carrying a blade amidst carnage, people dying all around him and there is nothing he can do but shout at them to stop. Davison’s portrays his mortal terror painfully well and once he is free from the battle lets rip an angry response to the slaughter he was duped into taking part in.
The Doctor remains confident throughout the story but never loses any of that quiet charm that others seem to find so appealing. When he criticises Carlisle for his pathetic negotiating skills he does it in a most polite manner typical of a Jane Austen drama. When he hears how complicated and devious the latest villains scheme has been he sounds as if he has heard it all before. Like all the fifth Doctor’s best stories (Earthshock, Snakedance, Frontios, Caves of Androzani, Spare Parts) Davison sounds as though he is really enjoying the material and his textured performance here is another for fans of his work to cherish.
Once again Nyssa is allowed some independence and strength that was almost absent from her TV appearances. Audio/novels suit her character much more because she isn’t about rushing around with a gun or tripping over rocks, Nyssa’s strengths are her knowledge and her ability to handle herself. So it is entirely plausible for her to threaten to leave the Doctor for a much worthier cause and it doesn’t sound callous or threatening (like say Tegan’s angry departure) but is fully understood by both parties. Nyssa has clearly become more resistant to the horrors they face as she ingratiates herself into a society that thrives on death with surprising ease. Her relationship with Hollis is quite sweet, especially his impromptu marriage proposal (which is just the sort of thing a big kid like Hollis would do on a whim). What impressed me the most was her willingness to sacrifice her freedom to help one man bring peace to so many other planets. Its an entirely selfless choice and like her eventual decision to leave the Doctor, very Nyssa.
So the Doctor and his companion are given some great material but is the story actually any good? The name Gary Russell emblazoned on the back of the CD did not inspire much confidence after last months perfectly interesting Juggernauts sabotaged by some frustratingly weak direction. But this had to be one of Russell’s most dynamic productions yet and with a plot that centres around a bloodthirsty sport it is a story that flaunts its loud and wild atmosphere. The music helps a lot, a fantastic blood pumping score that plays over the matches but it is the structure of the story that raises this above so many other recent BF productions. The story is 115 minutes long, a reasonable length considering some of last years ten year long ‘epics’ (he exaggerates, but not by much…) but brilliantly cut into six episodes so the action can rest on a dramatic high every twenty minutes or so. Plus the early episodes consist of lots of short scenes which benefits this story no end, it races from one POV to another much like a real footie match and kept me on the edge of my seat. This is an experiment that is worth repeating, such was the quality storytelling and the pace it was told at I listened to the whole thing in one go without a thought of turning it off until I had reached the end. Mighty cliffhangers help of course but Gary Russell’s direction has to be complimented, I have spent too much time coming down on the man and when he whips up a story of this quality it should be applauded.
I thought the idea of a war brewing from sports related violence was very imaginative. I am not the biggest sports fan, football and rugby are only good for watching man running about in tight shorts in my book but should a match be as exciting as this story I would certainly give them a try! The roar of the crowd, the pressing feeling of a thousand fans waiting to explode…it is easy to see how fan violence erupts and the idea of it blowing out of all proportion is not such a ludicrous one. When England played in the world cup Eastbourne became alive with gleeful, happy people and when they lost the feeling of depression in the air was palpable. Like it or not sports do affect society and The Game is a welcome exploration of that.
Of course where there is a war there are people who want it to end and in this case the representatives for peace are the famous Lord Carlisle and Ambassador Davis. Two characters who influence the story in very different ways, branching off the plot into the touching and the mundane. The former is a fascinating character for his implications on the Doctor’s future. Paradoxical meetings such as the Doctor’s and Carlisle are always rather fun and his knowledge of the Doctor’s future leads to some very moving moments especially when it comes to saying their goodbyes. Davis’ story takes a disappointingly predictable path; obvious from the second episode and never interesting when her allegiances are revealed.
Most of the other characters are pretty faceless but they perform their functions adequately. You’ve got the team players, the coaches and the commentators. All the performances are enthusiastic and their boldness drags you into the story effortlessly. Hollis stands out because of his duel with the Doctor (which is tremendously exciting!) and his friendship with Nyssa.
It is a shame that Morian was included. I can still remember being hooked by Christopher Ellison’s performances in The Bill when I was a wee youth but his extremely expressive and (dare I say it…) camp turn as the arch criminal here takes the story into familiar territory and robs it of some of its uniqueness. Once it becomes clear the machinations are all the work of one man there is someone for both sides in the war to join up and fight against and when he is gone, a reason to patch things up. This is such a depressingly easy path to take and after the freshness of the first four episodes I was expected something…more. The dialogue is still cracking but the climax is hardly the thrill I was expecting. Still there was still a number of unexpected character twists and turns that helped the story limp home (especially involving Lord Carlisle).
I refuse to finish this critique on a bad note though because this story was the most involving to spring from Big Finish in a year. I was genuinely excited about what was going on and rushed through the whole thing in one go. The script is fantastic and the plot isn’t far behind (despite that ending) and there are a handful of scenes that demonstrate Big Finish’s ability to create magic out of words and music.
Very, very good and heartily recommended.
It’s a fair while since we last saw/heard Nyssa, having been through not one but two McGann seasons and much more besides since Creatures of Beauty. Feel free to make up your own exciting sentence to replace this one, but it must include the words, Chair, Nyssa, Comfortable and Old. Still, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – actually, in the world of BF, where “Doctor-companion dynamics” are frequently being made more “interesting”, it’s quite refreshing to return to a situation where you know exactly what’s going on. Hopefully, the newer combinations aren’t going to be to the detriment of the older pairings like this one. Now that there are to be no more ‘seasons’ as such, we can hopefully look forward to seeing some characters a bit more regularly?
Anyway, quick plot summary: Naxy is a game played by the inhabitants of the planet Cray. Except that it happens to bear a striking resemblance to a battle. The players hack each other up with hockey sticks with blades on (at least, the hints as to what it is that we are actually hearing lead us to believe roughly this). Having killed off entirely all but two teams, the sport has become a deeply felt grudge match between the Gora and the Lineen. It has grown so out of control that famed peace negotiator Lord Carlisle has been sent to sort it all out. Cray has just been twinned with Earth (rather oddly, but never mind), and it’s rather embarrassing for the Federation (or whatever) to have, to all intents and purposes, a civil war going on there. The Doctor is a big fan of Lord Carlisle, and turns up to watch what he knows will be his last negotiation. So that’s the situation. I won’t go through the whole plot, but suffice it to say that the Doctor ends up playing a game, a few people turn out to have been deceiving everyone, and the game is ended by the end of the story. Marvellous.
One thing I would just say: The author’s note and the production notes both go out of their way to point out that the story has six parts. Whilst it’s very nice to see BF trying to stretch the way things were on TV, it does feel slightly deceptive to claim this. BF aren’t constrained to any particular time scale anyway, and since these episodes all fit onto two discs like all the four part stories, they are in a way no different to some of the rather more extended four parters that there have been. The only differences are a) quite a big cast and b) two more cliffhangers. It has to be said, the cliffhangers are not the strongest we’ve ever seen (as has frequently been the case with six-parters), so to be honest this is a bit of a gimmick.
Having said that, Darin Henry seems to have felt obliged to write the thing in the style of a six-part adventure, so in spirit it is one. Whether that is a good thing is up for debate: On the one hand you have more time to develop the relationships between characters (at one stage Nyssa considers staying behind to help Lord Carlisle) and to give the story a greater scope, on the other the story is not without padding. Not as blatant or as tedious as, say, Frontier in Space, but padding nonetheless. It’s kind of halfway to the Baker era approach to a six part story; the first two episodes have the Doctor go and get involved in a Naxi match by way of an extended introduction to the plot, whilst Nyssa goes and sort of blunders into meeting everyone else. Apart from a few clues being laid down, the main plot doesn’t really get going until part three. It is testament to Henry’s writing that it’s not at all dull to get through the first two parts, then. Listening to the BF CDs as I do last thing at night, in bed, it is not uncommon for me to nod off during most of them. I got through the first CD (eps 1-3) in one go, no mean achievement on the part of the story. The second faired only slightly worse; episode 4 was a slight weak link (some things never change), but 5 and 6 again sustained my attention.
The sound design is good, calling for several epic battle sequences that manage not to sound silly on audio. The crowd sound suitably large, the sounds of battle are ever present in the background, etc. As ever, there’s the problem of describing to the listener what’s going on, but this play has the brilliant opportunity of shoving in a designated commentator for the vast majority of scenes that call for it. Jonathan Pearce turns in a strong performance that will be instantly recognizable to many UK fans, perhaps less so to others. His death is particularly good, turning the traditional problem audios have into a little joke; the commentator continues to detail to viewers his being shot twice and dying. When he’s not there, Henry fares less well, with this cringe-worthy example being definitely the worst:
MORIAN: I told you to keep back! Maybe you’ll listen to this!
Sound of a gunshot.
SHARZ: I’m fine, it just grazed my shoulder, thanks to Nyssa mucking up his shot.
NYSSA: My pleasure, your distraction allowed me to get free.
HOLLIS: But look, they’re getting away!
Another issue I had with the writing is that it gives the actors playing the Naxy players very little to distinguish their characters from one another. Neither their acting nor Gary Russell’s direction is inventive enough to find a way to do this, and the result is that the characters of several members of the cast all seem to merge into one stereotyped thuggish sportsman at times, making it harder to follow exactly the ins and outs of the plot. On the whole, though, the writing is good, with strong dialogue most of the way through.
One of the things I often find myself wondering is where the writer got the idea for the story. In this case, the answer is fairly obvious. At one point, the history of Naxy is briefly told, and we discover that what pushed Naxy in the violent direction it took was the hooligan behaviour of its fans outside matches. It looks initially as if the story might spin some sort of parable about soccer-hooliganism (as I rather suspect Mr. Henry, who I am assuming from his resumé is American, would have it) out of its resolution, but the parallels are soon dropped, either because the writer got bored of them and found there was plenty to explore about his own world, or because he feared it would turn out a bit preachy that way. Either way, he’s right, though the latter is somewhat let down by his nonetheless slipping in some rather incongruous women’s lib.
OK, then, spoilers approaching. Not very exciting ones, but, hey.
William Russell makes a welcome appearance in this story, as Lord Carlisle. My previous experience of his more recent involvement with Who did not make me terribly optimistic about his performance. Don’t get me wrong, he’s terrific, but he’s very slow and grandfatherly on The Crusades video, and elsewhere, which indeed he has every right to be. My concern was that it might slow down the story, but not a bit of it. His performance is never less than brilliantly judged, portraying in a way that makes it look easy the complex mix of vulnerability, guilt and fear of discovery that go with his fraudulent career, as well as the blustery veneer over the top of all this to hide it all. His eventual death is delicately done, and he and Davison (as good as ever) make the situation really rather touching, bringing to life some cracking writing. Nyssa’s unease at the thought of the Doctor proceeding to play out his role in the rest of Lord Carlisle’s life is equally understated and moving.
BF have created a range where we are increasingly often presented with plays where plot arcs get developed, companions undergo real changes, the Doctor does likewise, famous enemies pop up, and so on. They thereby set themselves the challenge of making plays where none of those things happen seem equally interesting and important. This play certainly succeeds in feeling that way as you listen to it. An accomplished performance from all concerned, but it could have been improved in a few areas.
Parts One and Two. One of these days I really must stop reading the back cover blurbs entirely before listening. I say this because the whole point of part one of this story is to let it slowly dawn on the listener just what the connection between the "missing" war and the game of Naxy is, and then finally confirm at the end that the Game is the war, and that the Doctor's therefore in big trouble since he's about to be in the middle of all the slaughter. Unfortunately, the back cover blurb gives all that way in advance, and I spent part one wondering if anything else was going to be laid in to the plot here as well. (It wasn't a long wait, mind you.)
Part two really didn't advance things in any unexpected directions either, since all it does is get the Doctor through to the end of the game, while he inadvertently becomes the hero of the hour for the team he's playing for while he was trying to get everyone to stop playing. I'm also left wondering just how he even got that far since I can't see why his teammates would even think of following a rookie's directions on the field even given the desperate situation they'd got themselves into towards the end of the time.
All that having been said, I still did quite enjoy these first two episodes, for the following reasons...
--- Very entertaining acting from the entire cast. Peter Davison gets to act more outraged than he ever has before, Sarah Sutton gets to act more nonplussed than usual (always a forte of Nyssa's), and not only does William Russell get to act alongside them as he should've done 22 years ago, but he's got a very juicy part as this senior negotiator. Carlisle (sp?) is a wonderful character who steals every scene he's in, with a curious mix of having seen it all before, being seemingly bored by it all, and yet caring and kind at the same time. He also has a very interesting turn of character when he suddenly becomes afraid of this situation when he learns that the Doctor hasn't met him yet. This hints that he will do in the Doctor's future, of course, but I'll get to that in more detail when the story does.
--- The game participants all sound quite authentic as well, especially the man calling the action, who I gather is a famous sports presenter over there in the UK. I'm sure I probably would've got a lot more out of all these performances if I was even partly familiar with English football, but even though I'm not at all, the enthusiasm of all concerned carried me over very well. There are also some sports cliches that transcend all nationalities and planets that I was amused to see replicated here, such as the sponsors' messages and the post-game show where the losing team mouths the usual "we failed to execute" cliches (though of course that one has a sinister double meaning in this context. ).
--- There are also some hints of deeper things to come during part two, when Nyssa stumbles on some incriminating evidence in Carlisle's papers, and the aforementioned possible temporal anamoly in the order of the Doctor and Carlisle's meeting of each other. With the first dramatic act of the story clearly over at the end of part two, I'm very much looking forward to seeing where these things take us next.
So... some problems due to spoilers, but still very entertaining due largely to the great work of the cast.
Parts Three and Four.
You know, it's pretty cool to have "Seinfeld" on in the background as I write this and see Darin Henry's name pop up on the credits. (It's the one where Jerry's uncle is shoplifting.) OK, work to do...
The most interesting part of the story for me so far is the continuing almost-comic conundrum of Carlisle's not knowing what he's doing because the Doctor's always done it for him, only the Doctor doesn't know yet that he's always done it for him. That's fun enough in itself (especially in the bits where Carlisle tries to verbalize it and just winds up confusing himself), but what's really interesting about it is Nyssa's reaction. At first she starts to try to tell the Doctor everything, but when she keeps getting cut off before she can and sees the peace talks fall flat on their face, she takes a very interesting decision; she decides to help Carlisle herself in the way the Doctor normally would for him, even if that means staying behind when the Doctor leaves. Hearing this is like hearing her "graduate" from Nyssa-level companion to Romana-level companion... it's a bit of character development for her that is surprising to hear and yet consistent with the TV stories that follow this point in the series. (If anything, it helps boost her actions in "Arc of Infinity" and "Terminus.")
Just when the Naxy situation is starting to bog down, some good kinks are thrown into that plotline where we start to learn that even for the most ardent players there are some lingering doubts about the future. Also, Ambassador Davis suddenly starts fainting all over the place and being ill, until a new mystery man suddenly turns up and cheers her up... hmm. And then there's the mystery messages being relayed through a place called Arena Bells (I like that name), which turns out to have a monster lurking! Yay! Monster! Well, we don't know anything much about it yet because it runs away when that one coach fights it off, but where there's one there's bound to be more soon.
Actually, I think that about sums up my major thoughts for today, so I'll leave it there, except to point out something I just noticed... Jac Rayner is now in the "thank you" list in the CD jacket, and her "Executive Producer for BBC Worldwide" credit is no longer present. It's not in "Dreamtime" either. I take it she's either moved or been moved on? And do BBC Worldwide now trust Big Finish enough to not have an Exec. Producer looking over their shoulder anymore?
So... still very good, and the plot's getting more interesting as it goes.
I think it's finally time to comment on the 6-part structure of this story. Timing-wise, it is of course, nonsensical, since the total running time of these CDs is no greater than the average 4-part audio, and there are in fact quite a few normal 4-part audios that are longer than this turned out to be. Still, I do think it was the right decision when, after they recorded it and everything ran really short, that they left it in 6 parts because the structure of the story is like that of a Tom Baker-era 6-parter, where for 4 episodes the story is about one thing and about something very different in the other 2 episodes. The first 4 of this one was all about the game of Naxy and the effect on the population. Starting today it's turned into the effect outside influence has had on the planet and the game, in the form of illegal sports betting run by a mob boss by the name of Morian, played by Christopher Ellison ( I wonder if he'll quit before I get to part 6 ).
There have been hints all along that there was something behind everything else, manipulating the situation, the most obvious one being the monster that went after Nyssa who today along with several chums attacks the whole area and takes control of things directly. The clever bit was that this manipulation on the part of Morian was all in aid of him getting at another manipulator, the Doctor, and putting the TARDIS to work for his gambling cartel. You may recall I raised several eyebrows at the villain from "Medicinal Purposes" doing what he did just to make money, and at first glance you might think this is the same idea, but Morian's wealth isn't about the plain acquisition but rather the accumulation of power, which he clearly gets a kick out of as we plainly see by the way he treats Ambassador Davis. (That's another touch I like, that he can control her with an addictive pheromone. True, that reduces to her going all wobbly at the knees whenever he kisses her, but it's not without reason or consequence... and it's the sort of thing a bad guy like Morian would get up to.)
If I have one complaint about the episode, it comes at the very start, when Hollis, who has the Doctor at his mercy, suddenly stops playing the game and announces to one and all that he agrees with what the Doctor's been saying. That idea in itself isn't the bad thing, it's that it didn't feel built up enough before we got to it. Perhaps in the earlier drafts there was more of a foundation to his change of heart here, but in this version it just seems to come too fast, and isn't very credible as a result.
Like all of these episodes, part six is very short, so this shouldn't take me too long. The way the plot wraps up is straightforward enough... the two Naxy teams join forces to defeat the alien invaders and in so doing become allies and peace is brought to the planet. Morian escapes to fix games another day, and there's the suggestion of a possible rematch between him and the Doctor in the future. The subplot about the fixing of previous matches ends with a penitent self-sacrifice... it's all by the numbers really, but it was all executed very well.
The reason why today's episode is special is the wonderful, wonderful moving death scene given to William Russell to play as Lord Carlisle, as he tries to say goodbye to an old friend who in a sense doesn't exist yet in the form of the Doctor. It's written very beautifully, but acted even more beautifully by William Russell (and Peter Davison does very well here too). I might even hazard to say this was the most moving scene I've heard in a Big Finish since "Spare Parts." This more than made "The Game" completely worthwhile. I also love the way this is set-up where we can hear the Davison Doctor in the future doing more stories with Carlisle even though we've just had Carlisle's "final" scene. I for one would love to hear more from this team-up. Anyone else?
All in all then, I really enjoyed "The Game". It's not perfect, but it's certainly very, very good. Well done to all involved.