Doctor Who – “Red”

Subject 2660 – Celia Fortunatè, designated citizen of the needle. Subject experiencing traumatic, violent delusions during waking moments. Subject remains pacified and under control of Whitenoise. Medication has been prescribed.

Subject 0357 – Vi Yulquen, designated Matriarch of the needle. Subject is under constant surveillance due to her wish to experience harm. This is in direct contravention of Whitenoise’s programming. Also supplier of the drug classified as Slow. Editing is required.

Subject 0841 – Chief Blue. Technician in symbiotic relationship with this Whitenoise system. Knowledgeable in human psychological evaluation. Subject has been diagnosed a voyeur, and has a dangerous obsession with the Red Tape. Machine augmentation is favoured to curb this defect.

Subject [error] – Melanie Bush, designated companion of subject 3999. Subject [error] is not chipped and is a threat. Her ability to harm has not been checked, compromising the continued security programming of this Whitenoise system. She must be inhibited.

Subject 3999 – the Doctor. Subject has committed homicide. This subject now in constant redline. His propensity for violence remains unchecked. Analysis suggests synchronisation with the killer. The Doctor will attempt to kill again. He must be stopped.

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in Red.

X X X X X

Cast
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Bonnie Langford (Mel)
Denise Hoey (Nuane)
Sean Oliver (Chief Blue)
Peter Rae (Draun)
Kellie Ryan (Celia Fortunaté)
Sandi Toksvig(Vi Yulquen)
John Stahl (Whitenoise)
Steven Wickham (Uviol)

Written By: Stewart Sheargold
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer – http://redirect.state.sbu/?url=http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/red-251

X X X X X

The removal of violence from human society is a common topic in science fiction.  From the abolition of natural urges through drugs and technology (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Stephen King’s The End of the Whole Mess) to mental conditioning (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) to precognition (Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report) to computer control (Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day) to large metal robots duking it out in lieu of national armies (Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox), to even going so far as to removing anyone considered a criminal from society entirely (John Carpenter’s Escape from New York).

On the other hand, sometimes mankind embraces the concept of violence wholeheartedly.  Human history is filled with conflict, struggle, wars, destruction, all brought about solely by the decisions of those eagerly carried by those who rule and carried out by those who are ruled.  And such violence is often met, and can only be dissuaded, by equal or superior violence.

Sometimes, though…we get lucky.  Jesus Christ.  William Penn.  Martin Luther King.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Jose Ferrer.  It’s people like these, who turned away and shunned violence, that gives me hope for my stepdaughter’s future.  After all, mankind’s capacity for infinite evil is exceeded only by his capacity for infinite good…

Red is a tale about two halves of a society; one half that has embraced all things sensual and sensational, and another who have voluntarily given up their capacity for violence, or so their memories have been edited to believe.  Red fails to fully flesh out both the world and the secondary characters, providing the barest hint of backstory for the sole purpose of a momentary scene or action.  But what makes this story truly memorable is some great acting by all involved, including an absolutely killer performance form Sylvester McCoy, as well as an amazing effort by the production staff that ranks among the best sound work Big Finish has ever produced!

The Needle is where the upper class lives – a living bio-structure that reconstructs and grows itself to meet their every whim.  In return, all residents of the Needle have agreed to be chipped.  red.  A small device in their heads regulates their emotions, controlling them and cutting off any fits of violence or rage that might occur before even a finger can twitch in anger, along with any necessary brain editing to remove the lingering mental residue of the potential outburst.  Red.  All monitored by the all-knowing, all-seeing computer known as Whitenoise.  Having their emotions dulled is a small price to pay to live in safety and security, Red!, as opposed to the wild and untamed city as the base of the Needle.  But in a city where one’s own memories can be rewritten at a moment’s notice, if violence and murder did occur, would anyone even noticed?  RED!
The Doctor is about to find out, RED!, as he finds himself under the “care” of Whitenoise, RED!  RED!  RED!, chipped against this will, RED!  RED!  RED! and somehow connected to a murder who is using the chipped to commit the most heinous of crimes.  For a Time Lord who abhors but commits violence when necessary, feeling the raw emotion and hatred of the murderer is nothing less than actually committing the murder itself…

RED! RED! RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED!

Stewart Sheargold has written for several Big Finish ranges, including Bernice Summerfield, Gallifrey, and the Companion Chronicle The Darkening Eye. Red is the first of three main range stories that Sheargold has penned. It’s a solid effort by Sheargold, specifically the interesting premise of the Doctor being mentally linked with a serial killer to the extent that the Doctor sees AND feels everything that’s happening as if he was the murderer himself. The suppression of a society’s anger leading to that anger slowly digitizing itself inside a network of chips is unique as well, as well as the characterization and choices of the characters as the story progresses. However, Red is nothing that science fiction fans haven’t seen, read, or heard before. A society separated into haves and haves not, anarchy and freedom on one side, decadence and control on the other, which members of both sides dabbling in the affairs of the other to taste forbidden pleasures. A controlled society slowly crumbling as the machine meant to watch over them tries to maintain order by any means necessary. These are standard science fiction concepts, and Sheargold does little within the script to differentiate the society of the Needle. Very little is even hinted – where did Whitenoise come from? Where did the chipping process come from, for that matter? How come passersby to the planet are captured and chipped without anyone else in the galaxy…or in the Needle…complaining? Is outside the Needle really that unsafe? Is the Needle just one building on a planet, or is it another case of one city representing the entire planet? How did Celia end up on the planet? Within Sheargold’s script, information is only revealed for the purpose of that scene, even that moment within a scene, and rarely brought up again. By perhaps going for stripped down, bare bones story telling, Red veers a bit too far in that direction. It barely meets the legal muster of the famous case “Show vs. Tell.”

Red’s high points lie within its actors. The cast of Red all give solid performances, with a few hitting absolute standout territory. Brother and sister Druan and Nuane, played by Peter Rae and Denise Hoey, play the “ruffians” who introduce Mel to the seedy side of the Needle, including the existence of a drug known as “Slow” that halts the perception of time’s passage as well as rebuilds a subject’s nervous system. They’re good in their parts, as they realize Mel is capable of truly hurting them and consistently urge her to do so in order for them to feel true pain, with Druan giving just the amount of bravado to give his final fate some emotional heft. Sean Oliver, who played Stuart in the final televised story of the classic series, Survival, plays Chief Blue, the operator of Whitehouse who is thrilled that Whitenoise can track and stop Red’s violence. He steadfastly refuses to be further augmented by Whitehouse, stating being chipped is good enough for him, trying to balance maintaining his humanity with suppressing his emotions. It’s refresher to have an overseer-type is a story like this who isn’t crazy or attempting to completely throw away his humanity. Noted writer and broadcaster (she hates the word “comedienne”) Sandi Toksvig is a delight as Vi Yulquen, chipped tenant of the needle who nonetheless craves any and all things sensational, especially the rumors of a tape laying out the last moments of Red’s victims. Her accent is instantly memorable, with an underlying aura of desire as she talks about violence, threatening and begging Mel at the same time to hurt her.

This the last story to date that Bonnie Langford has done with Sylvester McCoy, and indeed the last Langford will do with McCoy for NINE years until 2015’s We Are The Daleks. Apparently, there was a mix up between Langford and Big Finish, where Langford thought Big Finish didn’t want to work with her anymore and Big Finish thought Langford didn’t want to work with them anymore! From her audio debut in The Fires of Vulcan through Thicker Than Water, Langford has been a delight as computer programmer Melanie Bush. She’s overcome any stigma that may have existed from her time on television (for the record, I always liked her – there are no bad Doctor or companions, only bad writers. Proof? Paradise Towers). For her last story, Mel is once again seperated from the Doctor, in a world where everyone realizes Mel is capable of violence and requesting her to hurt them. Langford channels both Mel’s disgust with the society and its people, talking about how humans aren’t supposed to cut off their emotions while doing her best to control hers, with mixed results as she gives in, as lightly as she can, when Yulquen threatens her. It’s a fine sendoff for Mel, although for a staunch vegetarian, the ease at which she is convinced to take Slow seems just a bit out of character for her.

Veteran John Stahl, known for his recent work as Rickard Karstark on Game of Thrones, plays the all-seeing
computer Whitenoise. I was warned before listening to this audio that the melodious sounds of his voice would risk putting me to sleep, and they were right. Stahl, though the aid of voice modulation, absolutely nails the cadence of a computer given voice, speaking evenly, without emotion, without emphasis, but with pure, 100% rationality. Much like how Chief Blue doesn’t throw away his humanity, as the story progresses Whitenoise doesn’t turn evil and his programming doesn’t decay. Everything Whitenoise does is exactly what his programmed parameters allow him to do. Sheargold’s script shows what happens if a computer, devoid of human emotion, takes control, and doesn’t rely on the standard cliches of conflicting orders or mechanical insanity to do so, and Stahl’s even keeled, emotionless performance is perfect to convey this.

Put simply, Red is one of Sylvester McCoy’s finest performances for Big Finish, hands down. Coming immediately on the heels of Unregenerate!, McCoy embraces the concept of the Doctor being forced to experience violence on the most primal level. The Doctor has always been opposed to violence unless no other option presents itself, and even then he dives in with the greatest reluctance (or regret after the fact). But what happens in the forced absence of violence, when the most basic of urges becomes verboten, when the CHOICE is forbidden? It’s incredibly off-putting to hear the Doctor argue for violence, until one realizes he’s arguing for the chance, for someone to chose NOT to be violent, and McCoy runs with it. But it’s not just the Doctor’s defense of the moral high ground that makes his performance. When the Doctor is joined with the Red, McCoy gives listeners both the Doctor’s fear and a hint of the Doctor’s embrace of the violence against his will. McCoy bounces back and forth between the raw emotion of impending murder and over 900 years of fighting against the very thing, and when the time comes to confront Red head-on, the Doctor dives right into the moment with the same wisdom and disdain that listeners have come to expect from the Seventh Doctor. Red, at its core, is a story that shows just how violent the Doctor COULD be if he ever decided to truly become the Valeyard or the Time Lord Victorious.

Although, let’s be honest. The highlight of McCoy’s performance in this story is every time he says the word “Red” and rolls the living heck out of those “R’s.” Honestly, any time Sylvester McCoy speaks under the influence of Red, it’s a virtual feast for one’s ears. There’s no describing just how amazing these moments are.

There are two nearly universal truths when it comes to Big Finish. One, Colin Baker will always give a great performance. Two, the sound design and music will always be top notch. Red is an incredible peace of work from ERS, aka Andy Hardwick and Gareth Jenkins. The voice modulation works alone is worth the price of purchasing this story, as the voices of those under the influence of Red speed up, digitize, and merge together into a cacophony of crimson. But that’s not all. The sounds of dirigibles, the videos of violence in Yulquen’s apartment, the experiences of those under the effect of Slow, and the overall presentation of Whitenoise; it all adds up, all of it, to some of the best post-production work Big Finish has ever put together. ERS deserves full credit and praise for their efforts. And also, whoever game up with that CD cover deserves a pat on the back. It’s absolutely stunning.

After writing this review, I’ve found myself convinced Red is a much better story that I thought upon initially finishing it. The setting and moments might be underdeveloped, but the work of the cast and crew more than make up for those shortcomings, and the message about having the capability to make the right choice is one that stands out after some thought or a second listen. Red is a solid effort by all involved, and definitely a story worth giving a chance.

Pros
+ Great performances, especially by Sylvester McCoy and John Stahl
+ Top notch sound work by Andy Hardwick and Gareth Jenkins
+ An interesting take on free will – having the ability to CHOSE not to do something.

Cons
– Underdeveloped setting

Synopsis – Red‘s standard plot and underdeveloped setting are more than redeemed by some fantastic acting and astonishing sound work.

Next up – Peri’s friend, Katherine Chambers, mourns her father while Peri finds herself meeting some other familiar faces…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in…The Reaping.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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