Tuesday, 27 December 2016
Shifting from the Sarah Jane of 2002 to the Sarah Jane of 1976 - just between the start of Season 14’s opening story The Masque of Mandragora and her departure in The Hand of Fear - is a disorientating move in one sense, but entirely apposite in another: this is a time travel show, after all. Exploration Earth: The Time Machine is, nonetheless, a real oddity - firstly, because like Doctor Who and the Pescatons and the subsequent 1980s release Slipback, it is a chance to hear what audio dramas would have been like if they were made alongside the television series, as opposed to several years afterwards. But it is also an oddity because it was made specifically to fit within the BBC Schools radio series Exploration Earth - a study module about geography (and geology in particular). In other words, the characters of the Doctor and Sarah become a vehicle for Bernard Venables to inform the audience about how the Earth was created 4.5 million years ago. Bernard Venables must be one of the most unlikely figures to ever contribute to Doctor Who, but that’s part and parcel of this story’s odd genesis. A conservationist, angler, journalist, cartoonist and author of 18 books about fishing, he was obviously a keen geographer, which must be why he was picked to write this segment; he’s good at the geology but less so the sci-fi (“I’ll just atmosphere-inject it”, the Doctor says of an atmosphere-less capsule).
If the first thing to note about Ghost Town is how little it used its Romanian setting, the first thing to say about Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre (apart from finally encouraging me to make some effort to spell ‘manoeuvre’ correctly) is that it makes good use of conjuring up strong visuals in the imagination -- whisking its audience off to the Lakshadweep and Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, all palm trees, snorkelling and surly fishermen awaiting bribes, and then on to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state. My father grew up in India, as did his siblings and his mother; my uncle regularly shoots documentaries there (particularly in the Western Ghats, visible from Coimbatore), and my brother’s in Rajasthan at the moment, so that part of the world has an extensive set of family connections; I’ve always wanted to see more Doctor Who stories on the Indian subcontinent and Peter Anghelides and Gary Russell do some good work in bringing this exotic location to life, with plenty of local colour and some strong tabla and sitar music. That said, it still suffers a little bit from “Brits swanning around in the tropics” syndrome, however much it’s made with an English-speaking audience in mind; you’d think an undercover investigative journalist arriving on the Chagos Islands would have been the perfect vehicle for Anghelides to explore, say, the massive injustice that the British government kicked out all the native Chagossians purely for US-UK naval military bases, and still denies them access to their homeland to this day. That’s the kind of crusade I could easily picture Sarah Jane taking up. Still, ‘tis bad form to criticise a piece of fiction for what it wasn’t rather than what it was, so I’ll desist -- and, in fairness, Anghelides does at least go halfway there in that it’s a Western megacorporation that plans to exploit the locals and indeed poison swathes of the Tamil Nadu population, which is sort of the Chagossians’ tale writ large, so the story’s heart is in the right place.