Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Gallifrey 3.1: Fractures by Stephen Cole (May 2006)

The third season of Gallifrey brings to an end the opening phase of the spinoff's existence (and, for a good few years, it was thought that after Gallifrey III, that was it - no more). Stephen Cole's season opener, Fractures, is thus in some ways 'the beginning of the end' - we'll forget about anything from Gallifrey IV onwards for now. Fractures sees Gallifrey plunged into the civil war which the Season 2 finale promised, both a large-scale conflict of different factions and a more interpersonal war between Romana II and 'Romana I', or at least the latter's body as worn by Pandora, the embodiment of all future Time Lord evil. K9 serving on Pandora's side is another indication of how split and, well, fractious everything is. This is a war over what kind of society Gallifrey would like to be, perhaps even over what kind of series Gallifrey would like to be. Unsurprisingly, then, there's a bit of a struggle in Fractures with regard to what kind of season opener it would like to be. Following up the series' most self-consciously "epic" tale so far, Imperiatrix, is a tough ask. Trying to one-up its grandeur is tricky, but so is going too small and introspective (which turned out to be Cole's strength in his contribution to the previous season).

For the most part Cole goes for big and technobabble, in the manner of his very early Gallifreyan war epic, The Apocalypse Element. There's action sequences aplenty, from skimmer chases to explosions, and lots of location-hopping. A good old time jump allows for plenty of discussion of cataclysmic events and massacres that have happened off-stage, as it were, without actually having to show any of that, while the rival temporal powers who have been a part of the backdrop to Gallifrey since the very first story (and some of them since The Apocalypse Element, in fact, a story which Cole makes sure to briefly reference) circle the Time Lord world like vultures, waiting for the outcome (I would, incidentally, like to see a bit more of these guys. Flesh their cultures out a little).

One welcome result of this new sense of scale - the whole planet has been plunged into civil war, after all, so it's no longer merely a case of the elite's shadowy machinations - is that Gallifrey feels more and more fleshed-out as a place. Even minor characters like the gloriously, horribly cynical medic* and simple things like greater willingness to name-drop high-concept ideas or places (the Archive Banks, the Artron Microforum, the Anomaly Vaults, and the Maelstrom and Pazithi Cloisters, each of which sounds more RTD than the last) add to the world-building. It feels like it has, to steal a word from every drama teacher ever, ... levels. On the same note, one of the play's freshest and most interesting aspects is the immortal assassin Aesino (Lisa Bowerman). A new player in the game is always fun, and Aesino is a genuinely great idea: a host of multitudes comprising a single figure, an endless fractured recursion of clones, each a second ahead of the last. When one version of her dies, the next simply takes her place. No wonder it drags on; no wonder she longs for "release" from being her tormenter's plaything. The promise of an even bigger threat, a time-twisting, reality-warping Sentience, is appropriately tantalising.

It looks like Gary Russell and Alan Barnes have twigged that Narvin and Leela make a great double-act, because here they are thrown together by circumstance once more (one such highlight: "You're really loving this, aren't you?"/"Bringing fire to these old, dead places? Yes. It pleases me"). As the situation has worsened on Gallifrey and war has broken out, so Leela has felt more in her element (it is not so much that she enjoys "battle, slaughter, [and] the running of blood", as she puts it, but that she knows how to deal with such things). Meanwhile, blinding Leela isn't just an opportunity for referencing Horror of Fang Rock, it's an interesting way of paralleling her inner sight - she's a creature of instinct and sharper senses than everyone else, after all - with her outer (we might recall Tiresias, Seer of Thebes, blind and yet clairvoyant...). Jameson plays the scenes in which Leela realises her sight is permanently gone very well indeed, breaking down and weeping once she is alone; most of the successful emotional beats in Gallifrey are hers, and the underplayed simplicity of this one is no exception. Leela weeps not so much because she is blind, but because she has just dissembled in order to save face, and she knows how much Gallifrey there is in her now, and she can't bear it.

"To support Pandora and her followers is to advocate anarchy. To do nothing at all gives her your tacit approval to bring ruination upon our world. The only just cause is that of Romanadvoratrelundar." These early lines appear to establish the dichotomy of Gallifrey III's moral position, i.e. that Pandora's machinations are fundamentally bad and destructive whilst Romana's are ultimately for the greater good. We might argue about whether this is true or not, but I certainly approve of the condemnation of fence-sitting as being, essentially, a status quo vote. But the shade of grey that shrouds our favourite President is still there. It's surely deliberate, not to mention clever and playful, to open this play with a vidcast that's, essentially, pro-Romana propaganda (however true it might be, and however much she is anti-"spin"), given that the villain of Imperiatrix was a broadcaster and its key threat was his exploitation of propaganda and the media. "I sought to win the hearts and minds of the people, while Pandora simply takes them," Romana protests at one point, a little disingenuously - she did declare a dictatorship!

One aspect I am in two minds about at the moment is "Romana I as Pandora". It's not that the idea of Romana's former incarnation's body being stolen by an embodiment of all future Time Lord evil is a bad fit thematically, because that's untrue (and I'm generally up for that concept). What doesn't work for me so well is Mary Tamm's performance, with its odd disconnect between playing it as Romana, her '78 character, having 'gone bad', or playing it as a completely different character who's simply using her (Mary Tamm's) voice (that happens to be Romana's voice in-story) as a mouthpiece. The former would be more engaging but makes less sense; the latter is closer to what's going on but ends up oddly bland. Tamm sounded like she didn't quite know what was going on when interviewed for the previous season's Making Of..., and I similarly can't quite get traction on the concept of how Cole, Russell, Tamm, et al. want Pandora-Romana to work, with regard to the nitty-gritty details rather than the overarching idea (which, as I've said, is lovely). At this stage it feels a little like the old "let's get a Doctor Who actor back but not playing their actual part" gambit of Zagreus. The story isn't quite about the clash of two diametrically opposed aspects of Romana's personality - as a multi-Romana story might be - but it isn't quite not about that either, given the aforementioned ways in which Romana's weaknesses and limitations have been brought to the fore and set against the earlier incarnation, both in this and earlier stories in the series. It's a little fragmentary.

But then that's the point: Romana is split into a billion cells, splintered through time just like Aesino was, and those haunting scenes in the hallucinations of her head, overwhelmed by voices. I am reminded of TS Eliot's original title for "The Waste Land", stolen from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend: - "He Do The Police In Different Voices". An expression of the polyphonic shattered whole of his age. Perhaps Gallifrey itself is crumbling, and Pandora's narrative role in past, present, and future is to show that this world of ancient, solid pillars, that longs to be so united, so fixed, is in fact irredeemably fractured by the darkness at its core. Things fall apart, after all.

Other things:
*Another good thing about this character is we get to see what a really awful Doctor is like, another classic instance of the Doctor haunting the narrative ("what kind of Doctor are you?", Elbon is asked, to which he replies, "a tired Doctor").
Lovely lovely organ music. It's a great instrument because it can sound awe-inspiring and comically pretentious at the same time.
A brief glimpse of how the Time War worked? - "You would prefer this war was fought with a fleet of Timeships, each side going back and forth in time to seek out the best advantage? To change defeats into victory? The timelines would stretch and snap around us!"
"A time when reason seemed possible" echoes Francisco Goya's 1799 etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The idea of the absence of "reason" pops up a few times, in fact, as though Gallifrey is sliding towards madness.
Smart use of Castellan Wynter's TARDIS from Spirit as the only working TARDIS on Gallifrey.
"All that was long ago, as the vortisaur flies..." Ha!
The dog/dogma virus jokes are low-hanging fruit, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't smile.
Very little Darkel here, but when she does pop up Lynda Bellingham is good as ever, with her obsession of the halcyon "strong Gallifrey" and need to "foster lions, not sheep" (very Mussolini). John Leeson must have been pleased to get slightly fresher material than usual to deliver in this one, too. K9 as sleeper agent is a great idea.
"I'm afraid that if the physiognomy is out of this world, so is the fee. I'm a medic, not a vet."
"Each act of destruction was sweet to me. The fall of each ancient monument was like a wound in the flesh of an old and bitter enemy, but it is I who have grown old and bitter, and your world rejoices at it."

Next: Gallifrey 3.2: Warfare by Stewart Sheargold (June 2006).

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