The fact that the safe she is cracking, in a much heralded set piece, contains the Doctor waiting to be let out reveals two things about this play: (1) he is very much the Machiavellian Seventh Doc in this, and (2) the question “But… why? Why on earth would he…?” is going to enter your head a fair bit.
Because this is very much a piece of the Cartmel master-plan, it feels – with the Doctor manipulating events and people to achieve the appropriate ends all over the shop. But one wonders why. It’s almost the old free-will versus predestination debate – and predestination, as that debate tends to reveal, can take all the fun out of it.
Thing is, Machiavelli was Machiavellian in a rather clever way, predicting actions and reactions, and setting people against each other in complex pieces of strategy based on insight into the human condition and individuals’ needs, desires and weaknesses. The Doctor, on the other hand, just knows what’s going to happen cos he’s got a time machine.
For example, at one point the Doctor, being told about something that was patently set up by him in a character’s past, says, “Ah yes! I must remember to go and do that!” Didn’t really take that much manipulative strategy – he’d just been told exactly what to do. If you use stealth and guile with foreknowledge rather than a cunning hyper-intelligent predictive ability, you’re not being Machiavellian so much as Encyclopediabritannican – which slightly undermines the conceit, at least for me.
So, on to the rest of this. I know I do this every time, but the sound design is lovely. Especially the background music by Simon Robinson, evoking not so much the 80s as European movies from the 60s featuring the Cote D’Azur and jewel thieves. Which is entirely appropriate, and a clever and brave choice. And it does it really well, too.
The cast are fine throughout, with Sophie Aldred providing a bit of a tour de force as Ace, Ricky Groves reprising his role as Markus Creevy and as mentioned, Beth Chalmers coming in as Raine.
The writing, it has to be said, is slightly strange. The first three episodes are somewhat bleak, with death and destruction abounding in a pointless war of attrition between the Russians and Kafiristanis, nasty grasping men profiting from it, and wanton destruction heaped on top from the unassailable Metatraxi.
And then comes episode four, where all of this is brought together and resolved… through the medium of comedy! A completely different tone! The erstwhile almost omnipotent aliens are suddenly given comedy accents – posh chinless bloke interchanging with surf dude – during the fight scenes. And the Doc’s whole plan nearly falls apart when the Metatraxi general realises it’s been fighting – gasp! – a woman! Cue comedic apoplexy from Ace: “Come back and fight like an insect! Come back and fight, you sexist Metatraxi!”
The fight scene preceding this, in which Ace challenges the previously unbeatable Metatraxi general to single combat with swords and wins, is not terribly convincing, I’m afraid to say. Not because Ace wins – that’s a given. Rather, it was obviously originally written for a visual medium, and I don’t think it’s translated well to audio, sadly, with dialogue having to explain each feint and dodge since the choreographied visuals are not available.
Having said that, though, other the fight scenes work particularly well, not least the one in the government bunker on the Scottish borders, in which Raine’s terror at the carnage going on around her is palpable. Gold star Ms Chalmers.
One thing that this play really has done superbly, though, is achieve a sense of scale that I truly think would have been impossible if filmed as part of the 80s TV series. Big Finish have managed to give Crime of the Century the feel of a far bigger landscape than would have been possible on the BBC budget of the time, and one really is transported to remote parts of the USSR, and British government clubs, and east-end gangland, and the back seat of a helicopter piloted by a slip of a gel. The direction and production values are high, and have obviously been focussed on this aspect – and it pays off.
As ever, I would say it’s an honour and a privilege to have been allowed this insight into a story that otherwise would be lost to the mists of time, so many thanks to BF for that. For all that, though, this is a little uneven, and the rationale behind the Doctor’s omniscience not yet revealed enough to justify it, I’m afraid.
Looking forward to Animal – hope it’s not set in Russia this time. The steppes are killing me.