Archive for June, 2009

Doctor Who: The Sirens of Time (1999)
Nicholas Briggs
Starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy
Big Finish Audio Play #1

When Doctor Who finished on British television in 1989 fans of the show were distraught. The BBC had cancelled a British institution that had been running since 1963. The show, it is true, had its ups and its down, but one thing remained, the sheer excitement caused by its central character, a time traveller from the planet Gallifrey known only as The Doctor, and his encounters with a myriad display of aliens, monsters and megalomaniacs. Designed as a children’s programme with an education slant: historical episodes would teach children history and space stories science, the show quickly took over the public consciousness, especially over Christmas 1963 when the Doctor’s main nemesis was introduced: the fearsome Daleks. That it ran for twenty-six years is testament to its love from the British public. In 1996 the BBC and American TV tried to relaunch the show with a new Doctor but it failed, despite its popularity in Britain. In 2005 the BBC launched it again, with another new Doctor, and once again this character has enthralled the British public, with children again cowering at the sight of the Daleks, the Cybermen and even the Macra!

The sixteen years where Doctor Who was off British screens were not quiet ones for the character. Fans of the show had always been creating unofficial tales for the Doctor, with Nicholas Briggs being one of the foremost – with his friends he created audio tapes for the Doctor solely for his friends enjoyment, but which the BBC were aware of and chose to ignore, under the name Audio Visuals. When in 1998 Big Finish was inaugurated and gained licence to officially record new Doctor Who adventures with the actors Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy voicing the 5th, 6th, and 7th Doctors respectively, Nicolas Briggs wrote a story that combined all three to launch the range.

The Sirens of Time features three Doctors (not an uncommon occurrence). Later stories are single Doctor adventures, with a companion from the original TV series, voiced again by the original actor. While Gallifrey is threatened by a fleet of alien vessels with technology far superior to the Time Lord’s own, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh incarnations of the Doctor are in trouble of their own. The Seventh Doctor is on an alien world where he saves a girl from drowning, but a hag tells him he and she will die. The Fifth Doctor is on a submarine which is about to fire on another vessel, whilst the Sixth Doctor is on a luxury space liner which is viewing something known as the Kurgon Wonder. This four part story devotes the first of its three parts to a single Doctor, and only in the last part do they all meet to help defeat the Knights of Velyshaa and stop the threat to Gallifrey.

This story suffers in the same manner that all stories involving multiple Doctors do: it becomes about the Doctor and not about the story. I found the first part very uninteresting, whilst the second was a marked improvement, with the confined location providing much tension and a story that was less about the Doctor and more about the events. The third part had an interesting hook, and the best introduction of all the Doctors, but suffers as all three parts do with an unresolved cliff hanger. The final part becomes a run-around, with the story not quite congealing in a satisfying manner.

If Sirens of Time is a weak debut for this new range of Doctor Who audio plays, there are a few things that do work well: the three Doctors all invest their roles with the same enthusiasm and wit that marked their TV work (Peter Davison in this range has even made me appreciate his Doctor all the more), and Sarah Mowatt in multiple roles is superb.

I am glad that Big Finish stuck with Doctor Who, and more that the fans continued to support it, for from this rather dull beginning a series of better stories were about to emerge. Big Finish productions are now in their tenth year of making audio plays about the Doctor, and their storytelling ability shines through. If you are a fan of Doctor Who these tales prove an excellent antidote to the absence of the character on our television screens, and though I would suggest skipping this particular tale, the Big Finish range is superb and well worth a listen.



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La Recherche de l’Absolu (The Quest of the Absolute) (1834)
Honoré de Balzac
Thompson Publishing Company, 210pp
Translation by Ellen Marriage

“La Recherche de l’Absolu is, as has been said, a novel in itself. Taking minor points only, it is a masterpiece.” So said George Saintsbury in his introduction to the Complete La Comédie Humaine. After reading this short but powerful novel it is not hard to agree – contained in this story is the essence of Balzac, the purest of his writing, some of his most powerful. I had heard La Recherche de l’Absolu called his finest novel and it indeed maybe which makes it all the more surprising that there is no definitive edition out there – Penguin, Wordsworth Classics, none of them has seen fit to release this work. The copy I have read is from the out of copyright Ellen Marriage translation from 1901.

La Recherche de l’Absolu forms part of the Études Philosophiques, Balzac’s subversion of the roman noirs, a popular literary movement in France in the first quarter of the nineteenth century (as the English Gothic works were being translated and released there, it seemed imitation was the sincerest form of flattery). Balzac is an intuitive writer and it would be beneath him to simply create his own roman noir. Instead he uses the form to explore the fragility of human emotion and the lengths to which a ‘genius’ must be allowed to go to achieve their aim.

La Recherche de l’Absolu’s plot is simple. Balthazar Claes is a chemist, married to a beautiful woman, Josephine, and they live in the Mansion Claes with their children. Balthazar Claes is seeking the philosophers stone and because of his genius he is supported emotionally and financially by his family but as the years pass and no Absolute seems to have been found and their money is dwindling Josephine falls ills and dies and the mantle of supporting Balthazar passes to his daughter, Marguerite. The family’s wealth is squandered in this quest, and Mansion Claes is gutted of its treasures.

“A woman’s power is limited by nature; how can she engage in a struggle with an Idea, with the infinite delights of thought and charms that are always renewed? What could she attempt in the face of the coquetries of ideas which take new forms and grow fairer amid difficulties, which beckon to the seeker, and lure him on so far from the world that he grows forgetful of all things else, and human love and human ties are as nothing to him?”

The obsessions becomes overwhelming, and it drives a wedge between the Claes family and the rest of the world. When Josephine dies her death is barely mourned:

“On the evening of the day when Mme. Claes died her friends discussed her over their whist, dropped flowers on her tomb in a pause while the cards were dealing, and paid their tribute to her noble character while sorting hearts and spades.”

Nobody but those invested in the quest can understand it, but a question must be asked: How much money and time can be dedicated to a cause until time should be called on it?

Balzac’s novels have sometimes been attacked for their unnecessary descriptions and longuers designed to increase the word-count, and therefore his payment for he was often paid by the word, and La Recherche de l’Absolu does have a little of that, but in this case almost every word is necessary and it contains some of Balzac’s finest and most taut writing. The emotional argument at the heart of this novel is heartbreaking and wonderfully realised. His portrait of Josephine and Marguerite reveal some of his finest writing about women and their lives.

This story can be found in Volume 1 of the Complete La Comédie Humaine at the Internet Archive, beginning on page 443. It is worth your time.

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