Thursday, 1 December 2016

Big Finish Reviews+ The Memory Bank and Other Stories by Tony J Fyler



The Memory Bank and Other Stories

Tony talks Turlough.

Turlough is difficult.

If you wanted to sum him up in one word, difficult would probably be it – the orange-haired alien with the spiky temperament and the predilection to self-interest has always been an unusual fit for the Tardis. In fact, that’s part of the pleasure, part of the point, and quite a lot of the challenge of having him on board in the first place. During his TV time, he was a solo companion for all of a couple of episodes of Planet of Fire, and there was a good reason for that – Turlough as a solo companion is even more difficult than usual, because one thing he definitely isn’t is your average omnicompanion – the ‘What’s that, Doctor?’ kind who need the universe explaining to them. Much like the previous male companion, Adric, his being an alien presupposes he knows a bit about the advanced technology across which he’s likely to stumble at the Doctor’s side, and so new ways – new, spiky, Turlough ways – of getting him to do the companion’s job need to be found if he’s not to be reduced to a blank template with Mark Strickson’s voice.

Big Finish has fallen into that trap before – in Phantasmagoria, for instance, he’s very much the ‘What’s that, Doctor?’ helper that the Fifth Doctor needs, but the result is that while it sounds like solid companionwork, it absolutely doesn’t sound like Turlough.

So what can The Memory Bank and Other Stories offer in terms of getting the balance right between Turlough’s difficulty and the Fifth Doctor’s need for a companion.

Firstly, the four unconnected single-shot stories benefit from their size, meaning Turlough at no point has to keep up his companionship, so across the course of these stories, he never has to be too nice or accommodating. But beyond that, the four writers who put together The Memory Bank and Other Stories have each done something Very Interesting, allowing Turlough to be true to himself without ever wobbling over the line into being a true cosmic pain.

Chris Chapman, writer of the titular tale here, forces responsibility onto Turlough, as he accidentally becomes the Archivist on a world where to be forgotten is to cease to exist. That’s called having your cake and eating it too, because on the one hand, Turlough gets to be as entirely whiny about the responsibility forced on him as you’d expect – ‘Who’s looking after me?!’ – and on the other, the Doctor gets to pick up a single-story companion who can do all the ‘What’s that, Doctoring’ that simply wouldn’t work coming out of Turlough’s mouth.

The story’s an interesting one – the ‘forgotten and you die’ idea must have seemed quite engaging when Chapman began to write it, but the actual mechanics of why, and how, such a world could exist take a bit of explanation. Whether you feel the explanation we’re given is quite good enough is entirely subjective, but what seems inarguable is that while the Doctor runs around trying to get to the bottom of things, Turlough has little alternative but to knuckle down under the pressure of the Archivist’s role, and we learn at least a couple of snippets of his personal history in the process, both from his days on Trion, and his hated incarceration at Brendon School. Does the story of what happens when Turlough’s forced to save people from disappearing convince? Actually, yes, because he’s allowed to be both grudging and whiny about it, but also to see that he can do something to help – he’s always been difficult, but never a monster. That makes The Memory Bank a solid kickstart to this latest collection of big Finish shorts.

The Last Fairy Tale, from Paul Magrs, is an inversion of formula – going to medieval Europe, a world of soaring castles and smelly peasants and wandering tellers of mystical tales, the Doctor and Turlough find themselves on the wrong side of a case of stale fairy tales, with a bunch of characters in search of a re-write from a fabled teller of tall tales. Magrs is never knowingly undercomical, without ever letting his fun become more important than the realism and storytelling in his tales. While the same is true of The Memory Bank, it’s in The Last Fairy Tale that you begin to sense that the single-episode stories here all actually have the potential to be longer: given a different timescale, there’s no reason why they each couldn’t have been full four-parters, and Magrs’ medieval world is replete enough with dubious taverns, cross-eyed crones, angry mobs with torches and pitchforks and alien goings-on to have stretched to fit the distance. Here, if anything, the ending comes a little too easily given the build-up of tension, and relies of a single character setting right that which is wrong, and then swiftly disappearing into the ether. It’s all good Magrsian fun with peasants though, and satisfies all the way along, delivering an environmental and character richness along with a moral all writers would do well to heed.

Repeat Offender by Eddie Robson would be an ideal New Who story, confined for the most part to one set, with a small cast that never tries to seem larger than it is, and a taut story – the Doctor and Turlough have tracked a thing called a Bratanian Shroud to a housing estate in 22nd century Reykjavik. Partly a story of winning the trust of the locals, partly a treatise on over-strict, overly connected technology-dependent laws, it’s a rattling good story with a villain that’s barely seen but casts (as its name suggests) a long shadow over both the episode and the memory of the listener. Another good use of Turlough is seen here – he disappears to the bathroom and…well, does something very Turloughish, which not only allows the Doctor to spend the majority of the episode adopting another single-story companion, but also brings in some vital information that raises the stakes incalculably. In a nod to character consistency, Robson has a secret up his storytelling sleeve here that allows Repeat Offender to be bigger than the single room set on which it technically takes place, escalating the drama in both personal terms for the Doctor and public terms for the people of 22nd century Earth. Robson and director Helen Goldwyn pull off something of a coup too, keeping the tension tight and the emotion mostly in the room, while expanding its consequences into a big world-ending drama outside the walls of the apartment. All in all, Repeat Offender, simply by pulling the one set wonder trick (and perhaps unfairly) seems like a step up from the first two stories, challenging Peter Davison to do his Doctor’s ‘quiet persuasion’ thing, rather than all the dashing about of the first two instalments.

Having said which, Ian Potter’s story, The Becoming, is practically all dashing about, but it manages to be bracing in its freshness and its delivery of some real differences of perspective, such as you’d find on alien worlds. Not for Potter the cookie-cutter simplicity of ‘people who live in quarries.’ No, here the world is built in a complex way, with life cycles we have to work to understand. The Doctor and Turlough gain another friend for this story, and she’s so different that any ‘What’s that, Doctoring’ seems entirely natural in her mouth, though in a neat inversion, she’s also the font of knowledge for our Tardis travellers, allowing Davison to add a dash of his ‘old man in a young body’ curiosity to the mix, finding things legitimately fascinating, because we as listeners agree with him entirely, Potter’s script giving us more than enough meat to pull us along, clue by clue and revelation by revelation.

It’s also in Potter’s story that Turlough is most Turlough in this collection – he’s good and whiny but shoulders responsibility in The Memory Bank, he’s almost like the Doctor’s PR agent-cum-parent in The Last Fairy Tale, and he’s the loveable rat-fink he was originally written to be in Repeat Offender, but Potter gives him a blistering, exasperated rant against the Doctor’s terminal do-gooder instincts in The Becoming that hits you with the same force as, say, the Doctor’s speech in The Zygon Inversion, while also reaching right back to some of the other strong male companions like Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor, taking the Doctor to task for his instincts and his decisions that are born from good motives, but poorly, if at all, thought-through. It’s a punchy, triumphant, heartbreaking end to a set that fundamentally proves Turlough can work as a solo companion (even if, for the most part, getting him to do so means adopting single-story additions to the Tardis crew).

Big Finish’s annual collection of single-episode stories have sometimes been hit and miss, and at other times have been positively superb (such as Circular Time). This is one to firmly push into the Superb column, and will reward many return listens.

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