Saturday, September 24, 2016

Catching up with The Prisoner and other Big Finish Productions

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about audio dramas from Big Finish Productions. The truth is, it’s because I hadn’t been exercising like I should. I get most of my Big Finishes listened to while walking on the treadmill, and until recently, that hadn’t been happening. But now I am back on the horse (or treadmill) and am listening to stuff again! In fact, just the other day, I finally finished listening to Big Finish’s revival of the classic 1960s existential spy drama, The Prisoner, and it was great.

Most of Big Finish’s audio revivals of classic television feature the original actors. That makes sense; an actor may show their age on the screen, making it difficult to convincingly revive a show picking up right where it left off. On audio, it’s a little easier. The Big Finish Prisoner, however, is a bit of an anomaly: while thoroughly respecting the original series, it completely starts fresh, with a mix of new episodes, audio adaptations of TV episodes, and an entirely new cast.

To be honest, I preordered this first box set of four stories plus a making-of feature before any details were available. I ordered it solely based on my affection for the original TV series, and for Big Finish’s track record at producing quality drama. I knew that the series would have to recast many of the characters, due to most of the original actors, including Patrick McGoohan, the original series creator and star, sadly no longer being with us. But I still expected that we’d get episodes that would somehow fit in between the TV series episodes, although that wouldn’t allow for much forward momentum.

When it was announced that three of the four episodes in this set would be audio remakes of TV episodes, I felt a bit hesitant. I’d seen those episodes; would there be enough in this set to keep me interested? Still, Big Finish has rarely disappointed me, so I decided to keep an open mind. And I’m glad I did, because it was great.

The opening episode, Departure and Arrival, follows the basic template of the original first episode, with an unnamed spy suddenly resigning, getting gassed in his apartment, and waking up in a small, weird village where people are numbered, not named. The episode fleshes out the days leading up to the resignation, including the spy’s final mission, but we don’t learn those crucial details of why the man we come to know as Number Six has been brought to the Village where he is being interrogated—sometimes subtly, sometimes less so—as to why he resigned. We do meet a new character (I think), Number Nine, who runs through the first three episodes, connecting them in a way that the original episodes never were.

The second episode, The Schizoid Man, adapts the television episode of the same name. However, while again the basic plot is the same, I feel like it gains a bit of dimension on audio. In the original episode, while we see Number Six confronted by a doppelgänger in an effort to cause him to doubt his sanity, it isn’t as disorienting as it is here. Because we can only hear actor Mark Elstob’s voice as he plays the two versions of Number Six, it gets increasingly confusing (deliberately), and that gives a little more insight into what Number Six may be going through.

The third episode, Your Beautiful Village, is original to this set, and it is tailor-made for audio. In it, Number Six is deprived of his sight, and can only experience the world through sound and his own memories of where things are. So the listener experiences the story exactly the way the character does, which is pretty cool. In this episode, Number Six comes closer to breaking down than I recall ever seeing in the series, and because we see what is happening through his eyes (or hear through his ears, anyway), we understand why he is brought to the brink. This episode also has quite the shock ending which neatly leads into the fourth and final episode for this set.

That fourth episode is another adaptation, this time of The Chimes of Big Ben. While very close to the original, where Six encounters a new resident of the Village who may know a way out, it has an interesting twist at the end that has me excited for the second box set, due out in January.

This series is very much a labor of love for writer/director/producer Nicholas Briggs; he has said as much on the behind the scenes disk, and it shows. While taking the bold step of retelling some of the classic show’s most classic episodes, he clearly understands the core of the show. The episodes all focus on the questions of identity, reality, and trust, just like the original. By taking things in a slightly different direction, while still remaining faithful to the spirit of the original, I feel that Briggs and Big Finish are giving us something much more interesting than something that would just fill in the gaps between episodes, without being able to affect the already-broadcast conclusion of the series.

One of Briggs’ innovations, I believe, is the character of Number Nine. While I may not be remembering a version of her in the original series, we certainly didn’t get anything like Number Six’s ongoing relationship with her across several episodes. To my mind, this increases the emotional stakes of the series; not only is Six trying to resist the persuasions of Number Two and the Village, but he sees Number Nine and his relationship with her as something that needs to be protected, something else he can lose. And while I don’t want to give away the cliffhanger ending of this version of The Chimes of Big Ben, it also promises to raise the emotional stakes in a way we didn’t see in the original series.

As with almost all Big Finish productions, the sound design and acting are fantastic. I particularly want to single out Mark Elstob as the new voice of Number Six. Elstob is a confessed fan of the original TV series, and while his picture is on the cover, it’s easy to picture Patrick McGoohan speaking when I hear him. He’s got a similar clipped, angry, metallic delivery. However, I feel that his performance conveys more emotion than McGoohan, because he’s got to do with his voice what McGoohan was able to do with his facial expressions. In some ways, this feels like a slightly more vulnerable version of Number Six, and that only increases the drama because you aren’t quite sure if he’s going to be able to resist, or if he might finally be broken down.

I’m glad I’m all caught up, and hopefully when the next box set comes out in January, I’ll be able to just listen to it without the long delays I imposed upon myself for this set.
On a recent car trip to San Diego, my wife and I listened to a number of other Big Finish productions. While I don’t want to go as in-depth about them—it’s been a few months, and I don’t remember the details well enough—I want to at least mention them.

In a previous blog post, I had raved about the special Jago & Litefoot release, Jago & Litefoot & Strax. This time, we listened to the latest Jago & Litefoot box set, Series 11. That there are 11 box sets of the adventures of these Victorian explorers of the weird, starring a pair of actors in their 80s, is incredible enough. That all eleven sets have been as thoroughly entertaining as they have been its fantastic. This particular release goes from fairly straightforward science fiction adventure to a truly strange and bizarre tale, to a comedic romp guest-starring Bram Stoker, and winding things up with our heroes versus the Doctor Who villain the Master, with a guest appearance by the Doctor himself, in the form of his sixth incarnation. It says something, I think, that Jago & Litefoot can bring in the Doctor for a guest appearance, and manage to keep him from overshadowing Jago and Litefoot, allowing them to maintain their status as stars of the show.

My wife is a huge fan of Dark Shadows, so we also listened to the Big Finish Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary special, Blood and Fire.. This special story picks up from recent Dark Shadows releases from Big Finish, but works as a self-contained story going back into the history of the series and its characters. Actors from the original TV series play the ancestors of their characters or other figures from the past, revealing the origins of some of the series’ enduring mythology. It really had us excited for the next Dark Shadows release.

We also finally found time to listen to the Big Finish adaptation of Frankenstein, starring Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill as Victor Frankenstein, and Nicholas Briggs (the aforementioned writer/director/producer of the Prisoner, and many other Big Finish audio productions) as the monster. It was suitably dramatic and creepy, with Darvill giving a much more subtle, nuanced performance than we’d seen in his recent TV appearances. To my recollection, it was very faithful to the novel, with some liberties taken with the framing sequence, but overall really enjoyable.

The nice surprise for me was my wife’s reaction to Vienna, a Big Finish series about a tough female assassin… IN SPAAAAAACE! Starring minor Star Trek/sci-fi celebrity and excellent actress Chase Masterson, Vienna first appeared in one of Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories, but was soon spun off into her own hour-long solo adventure. I had listened to that pilot, and the first three-episode box set myself, and I thought my wife would enjoy the combination of strong female character, action, and Phillip K. Dick-ian mind-fuckery. In its own way, Vienna is as much about reality and identity as the Prisoner. So, on a previous trip, my wife listened to the pilot adventure, and said that she wanted to hear more.

The way we handle audio selection on our long drives is that whoever is driving gets to choose what we listen to. Since I knew the first box set of Vienna would probably last us until the point where she took over the drive home, I figured that that’s all that we would get to hear, and the rest of the ride home would be me listening to her music while she drove. Imagine my surprise when, after we switched drivers in Barstow, my wife asked if we could listen to the second Vienna series! That’s how hooked she was.

The second series is a bit different from the first. While the first set presents Vienna in a series of—apparently—separate adventures, the second takes place in one location, and introduces a supporting cast. It doesn’t mess with the listeners’ heads any less, though. Thus far, we have not had a chance to listen to the third series of Vienna, but we’ve decided to listen to it at home, rather than wait for another road trip.

Now that I’m back walking on the treadmill, I’m going to try to get a little caught up on Big Finish. It’ll take a considerable amount of time for me to get through the older releases that I haven’t heard yet, but I can at least try to stay on top of the monthly Doctor Who releases for the time being. I’ll try to blog more about their stuff as I listen, because Big Finish Productions truly does make me happy.

No comments:

Post a Comment