Thursday, 13 July 2017

Gallifrey 2.5: Imperiatrix by Stewart Sheargold (August 2005)

The finale of Gallifrey II, the 100-minute-long epic Imperiatrix, is assigned to Stewart Sheargold, so far responsible for the delightfully trippy Seventh Doctor story Red. The result is clearly the range's most ambitious story to date, as the major strands running throughout this second series - and even further back to Gallifrey I and Neverland, the first instances in which Romana was referred to as 'Imperiatrix' - are all woven into a heady cocktail. There is no messing around in Imperiatrix, which kicks off energetically right from the off with an explosion in the heart of the Time Lord Academy, follows up with all manner of consequences and ramifications, and pits Romana against Darkel in a gripping battle of wits - all before we've reached 15 minutes in. The stakes remain high throughout, with another almighty explosion at the story's midpoint, one which kills off K9-I, no less - and we get a few more such moments before the end. This structure strongly recalls The Deadly Assassin in my view: starting early on with a climactic event, then letting the investigation spool out whilst building up other threats alongside it. Unsurprisingly, given his good work on Red, Sheargold acquits himself well with a story full of twists and turns; Imperiatrix sees this second season back on solid form after last time's weaker effort.


Lalla Ward is excellent here on all fronts, allowing glimmers of flippant irony in amidst the urgency here and there, and delivering on the righteous anger front, particularly against Commander Hallan, but also the way she falls into despair once she is alone with Leela. Most of Imperiatrix sees her at her lowest ebb, with her Presidency at risk, as she contemplates extreme action to safeguard her power base and ensure Gallifrey continues on what she believes to be the right track - but this extreme action is by necessity of an almost dictatorial bent, since it involves taking on the mantle of 'Imperiatrix'. One thing I didn't really talk about in Insurgency is that the concerns of the alien students on Gallifrey more or less represent a continuation of the Free Time movement, in that though they may not be demanding access to time travel to everybody, it's still a scenario which lets non-Time Lords into the secret. Thus in one sense we can position the Romana of Series 2 as supporting the anti-Time Lord-monopoly faction in Series 1, and this puts her yet more at odds with Time Lord ethics (and, I would argue, speaks more favourably of her own). To bring this about, though, she more or less turns Gallifrey into a dictatorship: an agreeably complex turn of events that means we don't quite know whether to support her or not. In this sense, it's thematically apt that she 'splits' at the story's close, even though that isn't really what happened - that is to say, that Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward are pitted against one another, as a civil war builds, feels like an appropriate note to close on, given we've already witnessed the rending personal conflicts inside Romana as a character. I'll quote Chistopher Hitchens: "the most intense wars are civil wars, just as the most vivid and rending personal conflicts are internal ones". Gallifrey III looks like it will continue to explore this.

Elsewhere, Ward also plays the unease of her first scene with Leela especially well. It's a cracking scene in general, in fact, as Leela is torn by conflicting feelings for both Andred and Romana, whilst what Romana thinks of either Leela and Andred has to be in some sense subject to the bigger picture of what Darkel is up to, all of it overshadowed by our knowledge that it was Romana herself who killed him in the last instalment. "It's so hard to tell what an alien mind thinks," Romana says, where 'alien' might as well mean 'belonging to a second or other person' (or even 'a part of oneself', given what I've just been saying about personal conflict) rather than its broader sense of 'from another country or planet'. This all builds to the terrific moment where Leela accuses Romana II of killing Andred, with doubt in the air about whether she was under Romana I's influence at the time. Oh yes, the two have minds alien to one another alright.

They get more great material as they discuss whether covering up corpses is "a mark of respect" or "to hide the crude fact of death", providing the insight that Time Lords cannot face the reality of death because they are so used to cheating it - an insincerity which is, naturally, anathema to Leela. Their reactions to the death of K9-I ("the last part [Leela] had of the Doctor") echo the dichotomies of Spirit, with Leela's apparently more irrational words - the simple yet moving "there can be no other K9" - nonetheless true. Once again, Leela is pressganged by necessity into an awkward role in Time Lord society, here working alongside Narvin (who is no happier about it than she is) on analysing footage of the explosion in the Academy, and Jameson and Carlsen make a strong pairing, successful precisely because they're so unlikely. Narvin's morality hasn't come under a lot of scrutiny, but it's more interesting here than he has been: both distasteful (using innocent students as bait), yet well-motivated (trying to track down the bomber). I really like Gary Russell's take in the extras on how Narvin is one of the only characters in the series who's not out for himself, too.

"Knowing completely the law enables one to break it without repercussions," says Romana of Darkel, quoting the still regrettably absent Brax, and it's a solid and pithy critique of how our favourite Inquisitor operates. Exploiting the deaths of innocent students for her own gain, always staying on the right side of courteous even when she's speaking venomous untruths, Darkel's Machiavellian machinations have been an absolute highlight of Gallifrey II, and I look forward to hearing them continue in Gallifrey III. As if in support of the Le Pen/Enoch Powell reading mentioned in the last review (see also "Gallifrey is once more solidly Gallifreyan"), here Darkel comes right out and calls herself  "a patriot", the implication being that this is what makes her unlike Romana (who would be what? a saboteur? enemy of the people?). Darkel's warmongering, belligerent nationalism makes her the real villain of the season, a more concrete threat than the whispering Pandora. Perhaps we might say Pandora represents the embodiment of Gallifrey's evil past whilst Darkel is the present risk of fashioning the future into that past.

Speaking of Pandora, however, it's not long before we hear from her again, and her shadowy presence continues to haunt Romana's dreams. Dreams have in fact been a fairly recurring aspect of Gallifrey II, dating back even to a vision of Romana as Imperiatrix in Neverland; in fact I think the opening dream here is nearly word-for-word identical to said vision. The dreams are used here as the inevitable endpoint to which the whole story has been building: Romana as Imperiatrix, a woman with ultimate control of one of the most powerful civilisations the universe knows. It's worth mentioning that this series' major players are, by this point: Romana, Leela, Darkel, Narvin, Pandora, and the K9s. It's as female-led as Doctor Who material gets, isn't it, and thus a pretty fascinating playing-against-type of how we might perceive the stuffy and elitist atmosphere of Gallifrey, particularly in its Robert Holmes conception as an Old Boys' Network of Oxbridge/House of Commons duffers. As I suggested last week, perhaps this implies that the establishment is willing to allow the appearance of diversity while maintaining a fairly rigid structural status quo underneath.

Ultimately, the unmasking of Antimon the journalist as the terrorist (which, I have to confess, I slightly saw coming, if only because he was the archetypal 'quiet-guy-in-the-background': it's the same trick Agatha Christie pulls off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss pull off in The Sign of Three, an episode of Sherlock) sees blame laid not just at Darkel the nationalist's door, not just at the door of the establishment, but at the door of the press. Sheargold makes good use of Antimon's Public Video Registry broadcasts in the early part of the story, a pretty common staple in Doctor Who audios but as yet unused in Gallifrey, so it's even smarter that he weaves such a medium into being part of the threat itself. Some of the politics of this final detail gets a bit muddled, however. I don't mind Antimon being a bit of a cartoon villain, particularly because I love that the power of propaganda - the power of the cameras - becomes the greatest evil within a civilisation as corrupt and self-serving as the Time Lords', in a story which takes Holmes' idea of the Panopticon and really runs with Jeremy Bentham's original conception of permanent surveillance. And the embodiment of this iniquity is toppled by a woman that the establishment think a "savage", whether you wish to read her as a member of an oppressed minority or an oppressed class. It's one of the best bits of Gallifrey. All I can say to it is: yes.

What is a bit harder to stomach, I think, is that Free Time are still being presented as regressive terrorists*, when really there isn't a great deal wrong I can see with their goals, even if their methods are undeniably blood-soaked. My big complaint about Gallifrey is that we inherently support the status quo of a corrupt quorum of Time Lords and their monopoly on time travel, by dint of their stories being the ones that we continue to follow. Perhaps the truth I must accept is that a series about Gallifrey must needs be inherently pro-establishment, in the end.

Other things:
"Surely, Madame, if the people do not agree with you, you are not acting in their best interests...?"
"Unlike you, Romana, I am a patriot."/"Then we shall certainly have to save Gallifrey from you!"
"Never trust the CIA: that's practically a tenet of the Presidency."
"You've asked me to dance, you can't step back now."
Another off-screen Maxil cameo (with Darkel's cheeky meta gag addressing him, "understand I am not to be seen", working on multiple levels given Colin Baker's theatricality of voice and colourful coat).
"K9, you are thinking like a Time Lord now!"/"Compliments are unnecessary, Mistress."
"You can't let her stab me, K9, it's not legal!"
"It is a graveyard of ash and metal."/"There, Commander, that ash you're walking on, that's clinging to your boots, that's getting into your mouth, your nose, that's someone who could be alive now!"
"The President's the one with the least power here - it's just a fancy title."
"Vengeance is so much easier than justice."
"You past selves always want more life, always blame the successive regeneration - it's such a typical bad grace engrained in all Time Lords!"/"Like wanting more time in office when really your time has come?"
*There's a suggestion that Free Time is a front for something even more evil (the Daleks? Are we building to the Time War, or is it unrealistic to expect that BF knew about that idea at the time Imperiatrix was being made? Probably), and this is something I'm even less sure about.

Bonus Feature - The Making of Gallifrey II: it didn't occur to me until listening to the Making Of that, as Gary Russell points out, Gallifrey I didn't set the majority of any of its stories on Gallifrey, a fact which Gallifrey II was sure to rectify. It's also cool to hear that the idea of a political thriller series set on Gallifrey was first suggested in a fanzine by Tim Robins shortly after The Invasion of Time, which I certainly didn't know. The rest of it is fairly fun, mostly inessential stuff, about how the Romana/Leela duo works, though I did like hearing Lalla Ward talk about Romana's loneliness and Louise Jameson saying she bases Leela on a dog and a child, while Lynda Bellingham's interview and the note about the Thatcher influences is also rather good. Good to hear that Gallifrey III will deal with the Romana/Leela relationship and the way it's becoming more fractious.

Next: Gallifrey 3.1: Fractures by Stephen Cole (May 2006).

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