Reviewed By: Eiphel
Review Date: 6/26/12 3:59 am
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(Contains a spoiler for the Emerald Tiger.)
This was quite a peculiar experience. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it wasn't quite this. Magnus Greel is a memorable character in the Who canon who nonetheless got less a backstory, more an allusion, upon his first appearance is the Talons of Weng-Chiang. On those merits, an exploration of his history seems worthy enough a concept for a sequel or prequel - and this tale does feel more like a prequel than a sequel, being fittingly about Greel, and how he ended up where he ended up in Talons. A kind of 'I, Greel' that happens to feature the Doctor. It's really quite peculiar in how it uses the Doctor, who essentially acts a different role for the purposes of this story (not unlike Colin Baker in the recent run of Jago and Litefoot). It could just as easily have been a standalone spinoff story like I, Davros, with a world that seems well built enough to support further material. All this is a testament to Platt's commitment to making a story that is really about Greel, and makes use of him, but it does feel slightly peculiar as a Doctor Who story (in the same way that I, Davros would if it came up in the middle of the Main Range), and that feeling was compounded by a central narrative that I definitely wasn't anticipating.
The title might be a tad misleading, as Brisbane is not the central setting at all. The vast majority of the action, and the origin of the conflicts and backstory of Greek, comes from Peking. Platt's 51st Century Peking is a rich tapestry, with its political troubles, alliances and superpowers, shady courts and rebellious press, not to mention the shades of a scientific revolution on the horizon. Each aspect is wrapped up in the others, knock on effects shuttling back and forth, with Greel the spider at the center of the web.
What's interesting about that title, then, is that where Brisbane does figure predominately is in the scenes featuring alien scientist Findecker. An ally of Greel, one comes to wonder which of the two is really the Butcher of Brisbane. And here's the gambit that really justifies Platt's story as more than a retread. Findecker is cut from whole cloth, a new creation whose presence owes nothing to nostalgia and back reference. And Findecker is a deeply integral part of this whole plot. He probably doesn't have as much screentime as Greel, but I'd say he actually spends more time being the antagonist. Rupert Frazer sells the character as interesting and engaging in his own right, even when he has to stand alongside a returning fan-favourite character. Being Greel's story, Findecker's whole background and drive can't be dug into, but we do see a real personality in those aspects that are illuminated by their connection to Greel.
Prequel stories, and especially prequel stories which involve a hefty dose of time-travel and predestination, naturally possess a certain inevitability. The joy of the origin story is not wondering what the end goal will be, but discovering how the end we already know came to be. Platt subtly reinforces this with a little extra twisting of the timeline, which doesn't feel gratuitous, fitting as it does themes and plotline. Once again, I point to Findecker as an innovation of the story, because he too seems to embody some of Greel's inevitability. As we see more of Findecker, so too do we see more of Greel.
Greel himself is a triumph. Platt creates an unexpected but engrossing character which Angus Wright realises wonderfully. We've already seen him in Talons, and carry that first impression with us, only to encounter him in an utterly different light in the first scene of this play. And then when we see him in another context, he's the same, yet subtly different again. As the story goes on, we soon learn that Magnus Greel possesses many faces (a little ironic, considering). Which goes to suggest, and as we already know from Talons, he might not be entirely stable. Between this and the glimpses of the inevitable in Findecker, Platt crafts a perfect storm that we can see taking shape by the end of episode three. My only sadness is that we weren't afforded a coda to more directly marry these events to Talons. Not because I need to be shown everything, but because in this case I feel it was needed. Platt surprises us by delivering Greel in a way we wouldn't expect, and I think the impact of the ending would be tightened up by one last beat to reinforce the continuity of his character in light of this.
On a slightly less positive note, I did feel like the story tried a little too hard to make everything neat and pat with Talons in other areas. One particular little twist is clever and amusing, until you consider that it opposes the wonderful world building going on by diminishing the delightful allusions that gave rise to it in the first place.
More gratuitous is the inclusion of Mr. Sin. He's the one element of the story that does feel bolted on. A nostalgic boondoggle, rather than an organic aspect of the plot. I feel like Sin belongs in the story, being pretty well wrapped up with Greel, but in this one area Platt's execution feels rather perfunctory.
One oddity of all this inevitability and ascendant villains and fates known or unknown is that the Butcher of Brisbane feels at times to have the atmosphere of a Seventh Doctor story. Particularly so when the Doctor himself is present, in fact. Perhaps it would have worked even better as such. I do enjoy the Doctor here, mind you. Davison is dark and brooding without losing sight of the innate Fifth Doctor's qualities. It's an entertaining mix, which I also enjoyed in (the popularly maligned) Winter for the Adept, another story with Seventh Doctor overtones. I quite enjoy the occasional story where the Doctor is more a background figure.
Meanwhile, Nyssa is very much in the fore. Hers is a major plot thread that I really wouldn't have predicted for this story, one which calls to mind certain other fifth Doctor audios. It gives Nyssa a chance to be strong and independent, and demonstrate skills beyond what we usually see of her. I'm all for this, as I usually find Nyssa to be a little bit of a damp squib. Sarah Sutton turns in a really great performance, and I heartily enjoyed her scenes. My only criticism would be that she and Turlough are a little slow on the uptake in episode one given their experience with time travel, and that the two of them head off in the TARDIS at the end without any real sign they've been affected by their adventures. On a series-wide note, I'm sad to say there's no development of Nyssa's story arc at all here. It feels ever more vestigial, and her rejuvenation in the Emerald Tiger starts to feel simply like the production team regretted ever going with the 'old Nyssa' notion.
Having mentioned Turlough, I'm sad to say he doesn't really get much to do here. There's just not enough room for him. Tegan gets to stretch her legs and squeeze in a few good lines in the earlier parts, especially hanging around Brisbane, but by the latter half of the story Nyssa, Greel and Findecker pretty much need the stage to themselves.
The rest of the cast are well performed and generally better than average supporting parts. Daniel Weyman's Crezzen gets a little overwrought but largely succeeds in making his important moments memorable, and Felicity Duncan's small part enriches the political climate of the story pleasingly.
There's really only one big misstep in the cast, but it is a hefty one. Somehow Platt decided that an Australian accented cyborg-coyote-man-mutant with dog joke gimmicks would be a solid inclusion to the cast and not horrendously atonal. If 'Chops' (That's his name, really) and his brethren had been portrayed more bleakly as the horrible products of wrong science, they'd have fit right in, but I can only assume Platt was worried about making his script too po-faced, and felt the need to lighten things up. It doesn't work, though. Chops is really out of place, and it's huge credit to John Banks that he succeeds in overcoming this and making many of his scenes listenable.
On a very trivial point, I just want to point out that this is the second audio in a month to use the trite old clich? '...But at what cost!?' (The other was Guardians of Prophecy.)
Production side, what great music! Peculiar and exciting. Some admirable subtlety in the sound design really kicks things up a notch too. At one point, sat with my eyes shut (and a little drowsy I admit), I briefly forgot that I wasn't watching a TV program, and fleetingly thought about the picture I was missing not looking at the screen. That said, I found things a little hazy on the direction, lacking strong cues to the different locations and time periods. I occaisionally felt I was having to jog to keep up with where we were at the start of a scene. Maybe the sound design could have helped there too, or maybe I was just a bit sleepy.
It's a funny thing, when I finished listening to Butcher, I was mostly conscious of the flaws I'd picked out, and debating whether it warranted a 6 or a 7 rating. Now I've come to write my thoughts down, I find I have heaps to say about it, and I actually enjoyed it more than I realised. It's not quite a Spare Parts for Magnus Greel - it's a tad patchy, marred by a few flaws and missteps, and honestly it feels like its depth and breadth needed a longer run - but it is a worthy origin story that justifies its revisiting of the past whilst also adding new depth to the canon. I'm going to call it a strong 7 out of 10, but in the right mood it could achieve an 8.