Monday, August 11, 2014

Doctor Who and the Pirates

This one is among my favorite Doctor Who stories ever. If you've never heard this before, then I strongly advise you to check it out for yourself so (like me the first time I heard it) you listen to it without any warning of what's coming. Suffice it to say that it is unique, funny, tragic, and brilliant. I am somewhat amazed that the TV show has never ripped it off (or adapted it). So, if you have never heard this story, just stop reading now, order the story and enjoy. Feel free to yell at me if you don't like it. (Seriously, stop now.)

Of course this story is famous (or infamous) for being "the musical one", but as completely delightful as the 3rd part is (and I love it), it's really so much more. This is really a story within a story. The heart of the story is Evelyn telling a suicidal student a story in a desperate attempt to convince her to change her mind. The genius of the story is that having the Doctor and Evelyn recount a genuine recent adventure in a way that allows for embellishment by both characters, makes this story simply hilarious at times, but doesn't undermine the tragedy and how deeply it affected Evelyn.

The humor is really sublime here. Evelyn's insertion of every pirate cliche is nearly as funny as Sally's complete annoyance at it. Having a character narrate a story is not a unique convention, but I can't ever remember it being used so appropriately and brilliantly as in this story. It's not just a literary device for getting the story told, it's essential for the story's pace and humor. I also love the way Evelyn (and later the Doctor) just barge into Sally's apartment and begin regaling her with this outrageous story. The first half of the story is full of laugh out loud moments. The episode two cliffhanger is one of the funniest ever. I was both amused and aghast to think of what was to come in episode three when I first heard it. Little did I know that episode three would be the one I would listen to the most out of all of the entire catalog of Big Finish!

The songs are just superb. Adapted from various Gilbert and Sullivan songs, the lyrics are both genius and hilarious. Colin Baker's performance of Gallifreyan Buccaneer is simply spectacular. I can't imagine any other Doctor pulling it off, and he just knocks it out of the park. I doubt there will ever be so many Doctor Who continuity references crammed into a few minutes ever again. Die hard Who fans will be dazzled by the sheer volume of stories, characters, and villains mentioned, but be too busy laughing to bother trying to remember them all. The other songs are wonderful too, and are used as a brilliant segue into letting you know what the story is actually about and why The Doctor and Evelyn barged into Sally's apartment. The singing performance of the cast is heroic. Special mention to Helen Goldwyn (Sally) whose voice is simply gorgeous. The work of music director Tim Sutton is amazing here. While some of the music is a little too obviously synthesized, the fact that Big Finish could pull off a production like this at all is a near miracle given the time they had to do it and the budget they operate with.

It's quite a shock when things turn violent. When Jasper has a crewman's tongue cut out, the sound effects are quite over the top, and they need to be to put across the change in tone. The beginning of Jem's death is quite disturbing too, and it establishes how traumatized Evelyn was by it, despite most of it happening "off camera". These two horrific events are the crux of the story, since they establish why Evelyn is in the state she is in, and why the Doctor was willing to help her with Sally. But, more on that later... Oddly enough, this is the start of a mini-arc for Evelyn where she is put through the emotional and physical ringer.

Things get back on their mostly silly track after this. The two funniest characters in the story are the villainous Red Jasper, and the incompetent Captain Swan. Both are performed admirably by Bill Oddie and Nicholas Pegg. Being a Yank, I am unfamiliar with Oddie (or The Goodies) but his performance is just the right mix of silly and scary. Oddie is so over the top he almost, but never quite, goes too far.

Despite all of the fun to be had on this (mostly) silly romp, my favorite part is the end. When Evelyn leaves we are left with a quiet scene between the Doctor and Sally. Colin Baker is magnificent here. This is another one of those stories where Big Finish makes me weep for what could have been for the Sixth Doctor on TV, if the planned arc for the character could have been completed. Colin's quiet performance here is so lovely. He lets on how he is bending the rules here, allowing Evelyn to offer Sally one chance to change her mind. He is doing it because Evelyn is so sad, and he can't bear to have his best friend deal with another tragic death so soon. This is another one of those scenes that makes Colin Baker my favorite Doctor. I love the brash, angry, arrogant, blustery side of the Sixth Doctor, but in Big Finish he also gets scenes like these, and he is simply magnificent.

So, in case you can't tell, I really like "Doctor Who and The Pirates". Writer, Jacqueline Raynor recently tweeted that this was the best thing she ever wrote. While I can't claim to have read nearly enough of her work to truly know whether she's right or wrong, I do not hesitate in the slightest in agreeing with her. It's a masterpiece of comedy and drama. It's a uniquely told, original tale, and pushes the boundaries of what Doctor Who can be. This story is right around the peak of a lot of great Sixth Doctor and Evelyn stories, and now that those stories appear to be over, I already have great feelings of nostalgia for this classic pairing.


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