Sunday 20 September 2015

The Highest Science

Think of contentious topics among fandom. Apart from the “classic v new” or “my favourite Doctor is better than yours” one that really gets fandom all hot under the collar is the topic of CANONICITY.
Before becoming involved in organised fandom in the early 1990′s I had no idea what was and wasn’t considered “canon”. Doctor Who stories were just that – Doctor Who stories, the format was irrelevant. I had no idea how wrong my opinion was…
You see, at the time I was enjoying the continuing adventures of Doctor Who in its brave new format – books, stories too broad or deep for the small screen – Virgin’s New Adventures. It was June 1993 that I went to my first meeting of the (now defunct) North Wales local group armed with my copy of David A McIntee’s White Darkness, I was going to meet other fans and discuss the seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice’s latest adventure, or so I thought…
It started badly, I was a new member and was quizzed on “who’s your favourite Doctor?” – without realising I was committing a cardinal sin, I piped up “Sylvester McCoy”  – silence, a few sidelong glances, smirks and one look of outright horror, but I made it worse – “I absolutely love the New Adventures, way better than the TV series, so much depth and Bernice Summerfield is my favourite companion”. I’m not sure if the looks I got were pitying or contemptuous or that I may be some sort of Star Trek fan double agent trying to undermine the group, but the conversation stopped dead, and then a voice said “but they’re not canon”. “Not Canon” the first, but definitely not the last time I would hear this, apparently everything on TV was “canon” and not TV = not canon and by definition lower than a cockroach!
I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, the New Adventures were and are the continuing adventures of the Seventh Doctor, and Bernice Summerfield is one of the greatest companions.
So imagine my joy when Big Finish started to adapt the New Adventures for audio, Love and War was a classic, it introduces Bernice, loses Ace and sets the Doctor on a new path. The latest release is an adaptation of The Highest Science. It has the distinction of being the first story written by TV writer Gareth Roberts and contains many “Robertsisms” that have become staples of his TV stories.
So the plot – on the planet Sakkrat, the Doctor, the Chelonians, Sheldukhur and the survivors of the 08:12 are embroiled in a search for The Highest Science. The Doctor has been led here by a Fortean flicker, a sort of coincidence generator, (think the improbability drive in Hitch Hikers and you will be on the right track). The Chelonians are inept, warlike bionic tortoises intent on wiping out humanity, Sheldukhur is a master criminal, the most evil man in the universe and he wants The Highest Science for his own means.
It’s part quest story told from different angles, part buddy movie, part mind bending sci-fi romp and has the best use of an Argentinean telephone directory ever, and the line “reports of my breath have been greatly exaggerated”, it’s very funny, Benny gets all the best lines including the aforementioned phone directory joke.
The most interesting character is “Cell” a single cell organism which has been grown over 300 years, developed vocal chords and attempted to grow human organs and is key to the whole mystery. The problem I have with this adaptation is one of tone, it’s silly – nothing wrong with silly, I LOVE silly, but it isn’t silly enough. It has its dark and serious moments that seem at odds with the tone of the story.  Sheldukhur is an odd character, not quite camp enough to be a super-villain, but not serious enough to be a threat.  Yes he does some awful things but they seem an afterthought.
It works well as an adaptation , however, I wonder why the Bubbkeshake addiction Benny suffered in the novel has been cut?
It’s quite a complex story, driven by coincidences and all wrapped up quite nicely.  Unfortunately the whole thing feels like froth, more of a Masque of Mandragora than a Talons of Weng Chiang – perfectly serviceable but not that memorable.  It has some great lines and fab larger than life characters including comedy aliens that pre-date Strax by 18 years, but not quite a classic.
So more of a GCSE Science than Highest Science 7/10.

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