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1963 The Space Race cover

Well, it’s been quite some time since we’ve heard Colin and Nicola together.

Discounting for the moment the “event” 50th anniversary special of The Light at the End, you have to go all the way back to the summer of 2011 for Recorded Time, or a full seven years before that to 2006’s bizarre Year of the Pig (and the same year’s rather grim ‘you can never go home again’ tale, The Reaping).

Hell, keep a track of it – it was a full four years earlier where they got together for the excellent …ish, and all the way back to 1999 for the  third Big Finish Doctor Who release ever, Whispers of Terror.

In point of fact, however bizarre it seems given her whopping two serials alongside the televised version, the bulk of Peri’s appearances with Big Finish have been alongside the Peter Davison Doctor, either solo or alongside the likeable but short lived Egyptian pharaoh Erimem – and honestly, given the wonderful interplay between Peter, Nicola and Caroline Morris, who could fault the writers for that?

Even so, for the companion best associated with “old Sixie”, it’s a bit unusual that there have been so few Big Finish Doctor Who stories featuring the two working together.  Of course, they did eventually join forces for a number of entertaining “Lost Stories” originally slated for the 1985-86 season, so it all evens out in the end – but that took some time to get around to.  Any way you slice it, the Colin/Nicola audios have been surprisingly few and far between.

And so it is that we come to what is merely the sixth Big Finish Doctor Who monthly pairing of the 1984-1986 (interrupted) duo of Colin Baker’s Doctor and Nicola Bryant’s Peri since the inauguration of the line back in 1999, the middle eight of the three part suite begun with the entertaining Peter Davison/Sarah Sutton ‘meet the Beatles’ story 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men.

“If a President can be shot down in the street in broad daylight, how can any of us ever feel safe again?”

This time around, we tap into the Kennedy Assassination and the manned space mission of civilian female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in the immediately post-Bay of Pigs/Cuban missile crisis era.

Further playing a major part is the early Space Race practice, particularly on the part of the Russians, of launching dogs into space, starting but by no means ending with Laika back in 1957.  While the US and other nations similarly sent animal-populated test missions spaceward, the Soviets seemed to have a particular predilection for launching canines (as opposed to the monkeys and varied species favored by the States) heavenward.  God only knows what that specificity of focus may signify about the Slavic mindset…

The Tardis lands in Soviet Kazakhstan at the site of a car stranded on a lonely desert straightway.  It turns out to contain the bodies of an astrophysicist and physician, whose coats they liberate for warmth and whose identities they thereby adopt.  To punctuate the gravity of the affair, the car explodes shortly thereafter…

And so the Doctor and Peri become involved all too closely in the Cold War “space race” as the two “consulting scientists” are brought in to assist with the current situation.  Apparently mission control has lost contact with their current female cosmonaut Marinka Talanov, who found herself in complete systems shutdown while orbiting the dark side of the moon.

What happened while she was out of contact with home base?  And how does this all tie in with Laika…and a most unusual proletariat revolution taking place behind the Iron Curtain?

Sabotage, Mata Hari types and international spies…it’s all very appopriately early Sixties in the end, with a quite unexpected Who style twist to enliven matters a bit and conveniently strike the incident from the annals of historical record.

Having grown up during the latter end of the Cold War, this whole CCCP milieu is a tad unappealing to my own personal tastes.

Like sticking a bottle of castor oil and bitters in front of you, this is the sort of thing many of us had all too much of in our younger days and have a hard time relating to now.  It just brings back too many bad memories of SALT talks, fallout shelters and Reagan-era emphasis on how close that suitcase with the red button was to our cowboy of a President.  In the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s, the prospect of nuclear disaster was just too close, too omnipresent, too real to just laugh off and forget.

As such, this was something of a mixed bag for me, and necessitated more than a dash of tuning out the more instinctive, knee jerk reaction towards Soviet militarism to appreciate or care much about the story beneath.

While it’s easy enough to switch off and tackle things on a purely logical level, that act in itself limits the experiential aspect to an overly fine band of discourse – a Jack Webb-like “just the facts, ma’am” that fails to take into account the wholistic nature of any given event, much less an artistic or creative endeavor.  One cannot truly appreciate what is coldly analyzed – in losing the human element, the relational aspect, the entire picture is lost in the process.

And so I am forced to admit to a strong level of discomfort when it comes to all things behind the Iron Curtain, and indeed most things bearing the designation of ‘red’ (whether in the sense of world communism or its apparent ‘opposite’ pole of right wing politics, which the intelligent among us realize are two nearly indistiguishable aspects of an effectively identical extremism and totalitarian, exclusionist, anti-personal freedom bent).

In sum, while not incredibly Tom Clancy or what have you, this was not the easiest or most lovable of Who adventures for this reviewer to approach.

That said, the focus here is far more on the standard “isolated location under siege” milieu dating back to the hoary old dark house plays and talkies of the late 1920’s and early 30’s, which has been a major subsector of Who teleplay and audioplay throughout the years.  In fact, in a general and abstracted sense, this sort of setting and style of writing tends to be my personal favorite and most comfortable of settings both structurally and atmospherically.

And taken in that respect, it is possible to gloss over the historical and political trappings concomitant to a story set in this part of the world during the early 1960’s, and just enjoy the tale for what it is – a bit of intellectually stimulating, idea-based science fiction fantasy well crafted for the entertainment of its audience.

While I certainly prefer Nicola’s own deeper, throatier and far sexier native Briton tones, her Peri has always been one hell of a con job.

Apparently taking her cues from a former college roommate, Bryant’s Americanese is so perfect in inflection and idiom as to fool not only John Nathan Turner into giving her the role back in 1984, but to continue to pull the wool over on native speakers (ye author inclusive) to this very day.

One major improvement appears to have come naturally with time, as the expected lengthening of the vocal cords with age has brought the more high pitched nasal tones of the televised Who era into a more innocuous, even pleasant tonality throughout the Big Finish audio era.

Further, as with her successor Mel, much of the screaming and panic (if not enforced dopiness) of her televised companion role has calmed and been modulated to display far more of an emphasis on her intelligence (remember, she was supposed to be a studied botanist).

With an engaging sassiness and pronounced sense of absurdist humor, even without the visuals (and one would have to be blind to fail to notice Ms. Bryant’s charms in that arena – beyond the more obvious assets she’s oft been noted for, she has been and remains a strikingly attractive woman in every respect) it becomes entirely understandable why so many incidental characters over the years wind up smitten with her, as is the case herein.

And while she has always meshed quite well with the Peter Davison iteration of the Doctor (much less the aforementioned Erimem – putting the two of them together in a room was a surefire recipe for pure listening delight), her longstanding personal rapport with Colin Baker is quite evident, resulting in a true warmth of tone to their banter and interactions throughout.

What can I say about Colin Baker that I haven’t already tapped into?  Well spoken, taking the sort of delight in the vagaries of language that only the true philologist would, this story plays to his sideline interest in the revival of the historical (which has been more or less absent from Who since its overuse in the William Hartnell era, but a major part of Colin’s Big Finish run to date).

Perhaps the most professorial of Doctors, his is among the most impatient of regenerations, particularly when faced with the threats and bluster of officialdom…which makes his the perfect (surviving) Doctor to face off with the chest beating swagger of the Russian communist state.

That said, if anything, he proves quite calm and unconcerned here, pooh poohing both Peri’s fears and Ms. Petrov’s barely veiled threats with an effective shrug of the shoulders – which may in fact be the wisest course, given the volatility of the global situation in 1963.

Samantha Béart (one wonders if she bears any relation to the lovely Emmanuelle Béart of La Belle Noiseuse and Un Coeur in Hiver fame?) stands out amid the small cast for her dual role as Talanov and…well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?  Her angst and atavistic reactions are quite believable, and the quality of her performance here raises the bar somewhat above the expected standard.

Howard Carter is back with music and sound design, though the former proves far less notable than the latter this time at bat.  With a greater prominence given (perhaps appropriately, given that we’re talking about the haughty, histrionic Soviet Russia here) to an overly bombastic John Williams-like score, things move out of the more subtle and inobtrusive enhancement most Big Finish scores are marked by to get a bit too on the nose and in the listener’s face.  Even in the more comparatively “subtle” string adagio sequences, it’s competing quite noticeably with the voice acting and practically screaming “NOTICE ME!!!  NOTICE ME!!!!” throughout.

Aside from that, the sound design is quite well done, with a strong sense of atmosphere predominating the windy, dusty desert the serial starts off on, some quite evocative space to mission control sequences and so forth.

While it necessarily lacks the good time, upbeat vibe of last month’s 1963 take on Beatlemania, Jonathan Morris certainly does a more than respectable job of bringing Who into the uncomfortable world of recognizable political intrigue and a postwar situation requiring a delicate balancing act of power politics which lasted for at least four full decades between two global “superpowers”.

It’s neither as recognizably politicized as Vietnam or the more recent Middle Eastern conflicts or as clearcut as the war against the fascist Axis a decade or so earlier, but still too grim and present for those of us who lived through any portion thereof.

And thus, 1963: The Space Race proves a bit of a hard sell for Classic Who veterans looking for a rollicking good time.  That said, this is hardly the sort of bleak take on sociopolitics we were privy to in film, print and news headlines throughout the 70’s and 80’s…so feel free to take that with an appropriate grain of SALT.

Ahem.

If the historical bits don’t bug or jog ugly memories from you at all, this “Space Race” is well worth the listen.

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/1963-the-space-race-717

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