Doctor Who: The Dispossessed

Doctor Who: The Dispossessed – Starring Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred, Morgan Watkins, Ann Mitcham, Stirling Gallacher & Nick Ellsworth. Written by Mark Morris & Directed by Jamie Anderson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)

“You can’t deny though, Doctor, that some pretty nasty things have crawled from under the stones you’ve turned over.” —Mel

Some of the best Doctor Who stories begin as complete enigmas. The story opens as a collection of seemingly unrelated events, and it’s left up to the viewer (or listener, as the case may be) to gradually piece things together. I remember loving this aspect of stories like Mawdryn Undead, Revelation of the Daleks and Planet of Fire. The best writers are able to take even the most distant events and gradually twist them together in a series of seamless transitions, all the while leaving the audience to ask itself, “What the HELL do these different storylines have to do with one another?”

This month’s Main Range story, The Dispossessed, very much begins as this kind of story. Its opening scenes quickly flip-flop from the bridge of an interstellar battle cruiser to a condemned apartment complex in Manchester, immediately presenting the listener with the task of trying to connect these seemingly unrelated storylines. On one hand, we have the detonation of a devastating weapon, one that we later learn has slaughtered literally billions of sentient beings. On the other hand, we have Ruck and Jan, two young lovers on the run from Jan’s ex, “a nasty piece of work called Carl” (as Ruck later tells the Doctor). In search of safety, Ruck and Jan have holed themselves up in the previously mentioned tenement, an old building where some of the last tenants have yet to be evicted.

It’s not long, however, before Carl becomes the least of their problems, as a massive explosion not only knocks out all the power in the complex but also seems to destroy daylight entirely. Indeed, following the bizarre flash of light, Ruck and Jan find themselves, their neighbours and their whole block of flats in an eerie landscape where the sun never rises.

The arrival of the Doctor, Mel and Ace onto the scene reveals some other oddities about the building’s surroundings. Not only have most of the tenants been converted into mindless zombies (with a penchant for chanting “hungry!” wherever they go), there is also a powerful energy barrier with a built-in perception filter that has been erected nearby. On top of all that, the elevators seem to defy the laws of physics, transporting their occupants to the top floor, where the landscape of an alien planet awaits.

As if these disparate events weren’t enough, also arriving on the scene around the same time as the Doctor and his companions is an alien soldier who  takes the form (and monicker) of Isabel, one of the building’s tenants. Accompanied by “Droney”, her faithful robotic sidekick, Isobel is in search of Arkallax, who (we are told) has some fairly serious war crimes to answer for.

Writer Mark Morris is no stranger to Doctor Who or to stories that challenge listeners’ ability to connect the dots; his 2011 masterpiece, House of Blue Fire, was also very much a puzzle box of a serial. In The Dispossessed, he again weaves a delightfully convoluted tale, one that sees the consequences of a devastating interstellar war played out on the streets of mundane, modern-day Manchester. With its familiar setting of a tower block, one immediately worries about comparisons to Season 24’s Paradise Towers (Melanie even comments about “mad caretakers” and “old ladies that eat people”). However, the two stories could not be further apart in terms of both plot and mood. The Dispossessed is very much a claustrophobic story; even though large parts of it take place in the street outside, or even on the surface of an alien world, it maintains its oppressive, confined tone. A large part of this feeling is conveyed in the performances; the regular team of Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred really seems to “click” in this one. They all very much seem to be on the same wavelength and their performances complement one another in a way they haven’t quite been able to until now. In a way, this is to be expected – the trio only ever did one story together on television, as Dragonfire was both Mel’s “leaving” story and Ace’s “joining” story. Now that Big Finish has had Mel rejoin the TARDIS crew, they are in the process of establishing a new dynamic. It’s been nice to see Sophie and Bonnie develop sister-like characteristics for their respective characters. It’s something new for both of them, as Melanie has pretty much always been alone with the Doctor and Ace’s relationship with Hex, though wonderful, was often too damn serious.

The guest stars also bring quite a bit to this production: Morgan Watkins as Ruck and and Anna Mitcham as Jan are both excellent as the “companions who might-have-been”, and perfectly convey the fear and loneliness of those living in a zombie-infested block of flats for the past three weeks. And Nick Ellsworth is quite brilliant as the menacing, manipulative despot Arkallax. But the one who really steals the show is Stirling Gallacher as the alien soldier who goes by the human name of Isobel. With her thick Manchester accent, Isobel is basically half of a double-act, the other half played by the robot “Droney”. Despite the fact that she has absorbed all of her host’s memories, Isobel never quite gets everything right when she is speaking, and the results are often hilarious. She is a wonderful bit of comic relief in an otherwise fairly dark tale.

The Dispossessed oozes with a creepiness just below its surface, and yet showcases just enough action and humour to keep its audience on its toes. It’s a delightful hybrid of a tale that is familiar enough to feel like 1980s Doctor Who, and yet distinct enough to often feel like something completely different. Director Jamie Anderson seems to intuitively understand the nuances of his cast members, and guides them from strength to strength in this compelling story. A definite winner this month. Peter McAlpine

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