Nobody does dystopia like the British.
Think back to the 1970’s, when the world was experiencing a new freedom of thought, action and expression not seen since the Jazz Age and the flapper era, if then. A legacy of the hippies, with self-determination, experimentation and self discovery and a much needed questioning of self appointed, irrational “authority”, the decade had more than its share of dark underbelly. Not least among them was a long and painful withdrawal from a ridiculous, micromanaged war halfway round the world serving no one’s interests but that of two rival “superpowers” whose governments insisted on playing a high level militaristic variant of chess on a global scale, with entire nations mere pawns and rooks in their playing field.
But overall, the mood and drive were positive enough, with any number of historical injustices seeing their final days and a communal drive towards change on both a personal and societal scale. Stateside horror could be quite dark (in fact the darkest it would ever prove to be in the lifespan of the medium). But it barely held a candle to the likes of Pete Walker, Michael Reeves, Jerry Warren or a more modern-day 70’s iteration of Hammer. Things may have turned sour in the States, but outside of the embittered, fatalistic horror cinema of a Spain just emerging from the fascist tyranny of Franco, few offerings proved even half so dark as those of the Isles.
Think back to the 1980’s, when the whole world seemed to make a huge swing towards the right, with sociosexual repression, the dawn of a rampant consumerism and revival of a phony public face of religiosity providing an obfuscating cover for a far more sinister repeal of societal and governmental controls on the cynical self interest of business which marked the dawn of the disastrous societal, financial and political circumstances of today. And yet, here in the states, the mainstream was positively joyous – think dayglo, aerobics culture, the New Romantics, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
There were certainly far darker undercurrents, with the hardcore punk, no wave, ‘deathrock’ and metal scenes and NYC style “transgressive” cinema and performance art scenes eschewing the rainbow colored denial of the average Joe to recognize and react to the omnipresent imminent threat of global nuclear holocaust represented by the political stance of a certain B-movie cowboy and hack actor ramping a long simmering Cold War to heights not seen since the days of John F Kennedy.
But yet and still, what could possibly be as dark as the British postpunk, misleadingly misnomered “positive punk” and gothic rock scenes? Even the fluffiest of new wave acts hailing from its shores bore a dark edge and underbelly – look no further than the ostensibly light and cheery Bananarama, whose “cruel summer” hinted at a far less positive toned genesis. Need we even tap into the likes of Morrissey, Robert Smith, Justin Sullivan and the 2-Tone movement? Even Doctor Who, then in its most color saturated pantomime era under John Nathan Turner, featured some of its blackest moments under Colin Baker (to say nothing of the latter Sylvester McCoy era).
One of the darkest areas of expression during this time (and going straight into the hopeless heroin-plagued nightmare era of the 90’s) fell in the realm of the postapocalyptic and cyberpunk movements in science fiction. Compared to the likes of the 2000 AD and Warrior crowd, not to mention forerunners like JG Ballard, more celebrated, ostensibly ‘trendsetting’ US (and Aussie) efforts like Mad Max and Blade Runner, not to mention their dozens of progeny from both the States and Italy, were positively camp, marked by a relative hopefulness and cheeriness utterly absent from their British compatriots.
And so we come to the Big Finish audio drama under discussion, Marc Platt’s Butcher of Brisbane.
Platt, author of the McCoy era Ghost Light and the oft-discussed Who novel Lungbarrow, brings that very postapocalyptic, Judge Dreddish vibe along with him, to a far greater degree than evinced in his prior Big Finish scripts such as Loups-Garoux, the Skull of Sobek and Cradle of the Snake. This is grimmer than grim, and darker than dark.
Tegan, who is desperate to rekindle her farmgirl roots and revisit the old home turf (her sheer delight at picturing Turlough shearing a sheep is pathetically amusing), gets the Doctor to steer the Tardis in that direction through sheer persistence of nagging.
Unfortunately, the Tardis console begins making “juddering noises, like when a car’s about to stall” and a mysterious “zygma beam” winds up whisking both Nyssa and Turlough away to destinations unknown…while still in flight.
With Tegan on the verge of a post traumatic stress disorder breakdown and the Doctor doing his best to hide his obviously heightened concern over just where in history they appear to have wound up, events begin to turn quickly to the worse.
Facing a hopeless situation on a resource depleted planet in the midst of a new ice age, a horribly totalitarian society steered by one of the worst war criminals in history and a mad, emotionless Mengele-like cyborg doctor using political prisoners and media dissenters for fodder in their unstable experiments in time travel, things couldn’t possibly get any more horrific…
The story devolves a bit into political intrigue, as Who is oft wont to do, with Nyssa again somewhat playing the victim (albeit one serving as a Mata Hari of sorts herein), but the power of those early scenes carries through to bolster the drama as a whole to a far stronger plateau of achievement than the latter episodes may perhaps intrinsically merit.
While partially attributable to a cross between Ken Bentley’s direction and the oft striking music and sound design (by the amusingly monikered “Fool Circle Productions”), Platt’s script boasts a surprising tactility of language and dialogue that both drive the story and build a tertiarily strong sense of setting. The sense of danger and underlying tension is unremittent throughout, and the quite visual and striking imagery of the first episode or so prove so palpable as to bring the serial to an unusual vividness, however grim and terrifying its milieu and implications.
John Banks is a particular standout as the mutant “hound” Chops, with his character and performance tapping into both Days of Future Past-era Chris Claremont and amusingly, Adrian Edmonson’s Vyvyan from the Young Ones(!) – fittingly enough, as a character who was 80’s dystopia personified!
“I rarely converse with anyone remotely approaching my level of inquiring intelligence.”
“I know the feeling.”
Rupert Frazer’s Findecker is sufficiently icy and callous for a character tapping into the subject areas of effective organ harvesting, stem cell research and cloning, as a “privileged” elitist metaphorical vampire artificially extending his own diseased existence at the expense of the masses.
Angus Wright suitably essays what amounts to a surprisingly minor role in the proceedings as Magnus Greel (soon to become the Weng-Chiang of televised yore), managing to convey both a semi-romantic vulnerability and the histrionic authoritarianism of the politician before descending into a paranoid incipient madness by the end of the whole affair. While hardly operating on that level, John Hurt’s take on Caligula comes to mind here, and merely by association offers high praise indeed.
While not nearly as independent media-as-resistance minded as the earlier Big Finish dystopian classic Live 34 (or even Max Headroom, to continue the 80’s analogy), it is clear that just as in real life, a free and un-sponsored media is our last bastion and only true defense against governmental, corporate and industrial malfeasance, propaganda and oppression.
And this alone is a very important message to stress in these days of corporations hiring private armies (Monsanto/Halliburton, anyone?), the virtualization of media and goods to allow direct control (can ‘punishment’ by revocation of same be far behind?), Fox News (a disturbingly influential 24/7 propaganda network), the NSA, CIPSA and internet 2.0… could any truly argue we are far removed from the preliminary setup for a Halo Jones by way of V for Vendettaesque Orwellian nightmare?
Is this really spun off from the Talons of Weng-Chiang? Platt’s intense and richly imagined futurescape bears little or no relation to the Hinchcliffe-era teleclassic, instead taking some vague ideas and concepts floated at the denouement of that serial and utilizing them as a jumping off point to build something new and entirely unrelated in any significant respect… yet simultaneously providing backstory that ties right in to its 1977 progenitor.
Where the template bore far closer relation to the victoriana of Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer and the eventual Jago & Litefoot series that emerged from it in more recent years, Butcher of Brisbane bears all the hallmarks of 1980’s British science fiction at its blackest.
No, what Butcher of Brisbane provides in sum is a far darker dystopia, suffused with hopelessness and a striking fatalism so far removed from the Tom Baker series high point as to be wholly unrecognizable… and yet proving all the stronger for it thereby.