Thursday, 3 November 2016

Big Finish Reviews+ 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men by Tony J Fyler

Fanfare For The Common Men

Tony’s feeling the beat. Or at least feeling beaten.

Be honest – if there’s an incarnation of the Doctor you’d expect to be a Beatles fan…it’s really not the Fifth, is it?

The first Three Doctors had at least vague connection to the Beatles – the Time/Space Visualiser, the haircut, ‘I am he and he is me and we are all together, coo coo ca choo.’ Doctors Four and Six might have appreciated various aspects of their music or philosophy too, and clearly the Seventh Doctor, while more of a jazz, blues and skiffle fan than a natural born rock and roller, had enough of a musical ear to understand them on a melodic and structural level.

But the Fifth?

Captain Cricket, with the wan English smile of an Edwardian summer afternoon – a Beatles fan?

That’s the premise of Eddie Robson’s script to kick off what’s thought of as ‘The 1963 series’ – three entirely unconnected stories for Doctors Five, Six and Seven, except inasmuch as they each take place in the seminal first year of real-life Doctor Who – the Fifth Doctor takes Nyssa to see the Beatles in concert, only to discover something’s gone terribly wrong with pop history.

The Beatles are nowhere to be seen – but the Common Men, an almost painfully similar group (though there are only three of them, Mark, James and Korky) are in screaming fangirl ascendance. The Doctor has to find out why established history’s gone skewiff, and if at all possible, put things right.

Fanfare For The Common Men is generally quite an odd story in terms of its tone – there’s humour there, but it would be wrong to describe it as a comedy. There’s music too, with the Common Men actors apparently both singing and playing their instruments (which will come as little surprise when you realise that Mark, the ‘Lennon’ of the group, is played by Mitch Benn, the Liverpudlian musical satirist and long-term Who-fan who regularly appears on Radio 4’s The Now Show playing topical comic songs), but it’s by no means a Buffy-style ‘Once More With Feeling’ musical episode (That would be Doctor Who and the Pirates you’re thinking of – the Sixth Doctor singing Gilbert and Sullivanesque doggerel. Oh, it’s trippy!). If there’s an easy way to explain the vibe of Fanfare For The Common Men, it’s to think of The Unicorn And The Wasp, the on-screen Agatha Christie story with the Tenth Doctor and Donna. There’s a conscious attempt to parallel the Beatles’ development and career, and the evolution of their sound into the bargain, and there’s some sort of serious plot underneath it all, but it’s by no means above going for the comedy jugular in the moment if it can – and it can, with ideas like a weaponised crowd of screaming fangirls, and a singer who feeds off attention, press and the regard of others and who might just possibly explode without it.

So…what? Beatles satire, with a time-twisting underplot, separating the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa at various points in the career of the Common Men, each trying to find out where and when it is that things go critical, where time becomes irrevocably set into its new pattern and the Common Men undo the career of the Beatles entirely?

Pretty much, yes. The reasons which are uncovered for the whole complicated business are less than entirely satisfactory, and there’s a whole space tourism sub-plot that if we’re absolutely honest feels like it was only added to pad out the mid-section (like a guitar solo, essentially), for all it leads to a fairly crucial moment in the whole unfolding of the main plot.
While it was only fair that Doctors Five, Six and Seven got a chance in Big Finish to individually pay tribute to the year of Doctor Who’s launch, there’s very little about the vibe of Fanfare For The Common Men that screams ‘obvious fit.’ Of the available Doctors, Common Men would have been a very different – and sadly much more engaging – story had it been written for the Sixth Doctor and Peri, who you can imagine roaring through the Sixties at the outrage of the Beatles being unwritten, and who, at the end, would have had a good bop and a scream as the Fab Four regain their place in the pop history of the world. Nyssa the aristocratic Trakenite and the Fifth, most stable and conflict-averse Doctor feel chronically unsuited for an adventure full of screaming teenyboppers and, shall we say, musical differences.

That leaves both of them somewhat resigned to peripheral roles, trying to make the Common Men see reason, when as far as they know, they’re just three lads from Liverpool trying to play their music. Hunting down the dark hand at work here is a process that has an underlying logic, though you may well find you’ve stopped caring some time before the villain is unmasked and apprehended.

Fanfare For The Common Men is, when all’s said and done, not bad. Mitch Benn, Andrew Knott and David Dobson as the Common Men themselves have a solid, naturalistic camaraderie that makes the ups and downs of the band’s dynamic feel believable. And it’s almost a given that the ending, which brings us absolutely full circle to 1963 Who with the Unearthly Child reference every fan will know in advance, brings a degree of satisfaction in hearing how we get to that point. It’s more in the oddly peripheral roles the Doctor and Nyssa actually play in the whole thing that the disconnect comes, leaving it hard to escape the idea that, mirroring the action of the story, what you end up with in the Common Men is a replacement for what could have been a much better, richer story with, in this case, a different Doctor and companion pairing on board.

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