It’s December of 2003. Will Young is at number one with “Leave Right Now,” which lasts for half the month at which point Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne take over with “Changes” for a week. The Christmas number one goes to Michael Andrews’s version of “Mad World.” Girls Aloud, Westlife, Michael Jackson, Ja Rule, Outkast, the Black Eyed Peas, Dido, Evanescence, Christina Aguilera, and Darkness also chart.
It’s been a bit news-wise. Switzerland joined the United Nations, Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, SARS and the Iraq War broke out, the Human Genme Project was completed, Rowan Williams was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury, and Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea. This mont, meanwhile, the M6 opened a toll branch to relieve congestion, and Mick Jagger became a knight.
While in specialty shops, the first story of the Divergent Universe arc, Rob Shearman’s Scherzo. Scherzo takes Rob Shearman’s approach to its natural endpoint. All of Shearman’s stories are about self-made prisons: the worlds we cannot bring ourselves to fall out of. Over his first three he steadily expanded the scope of these prisons: the individual psychic hell of The Holy Terror into the indictment of the class system and its victims in The Chimes of Midnight out into a sprawling but incisive critique of the entire notion of collective mythology in Jubilee. He’s steadily gone larger and larger, and here, with his last full-out original Doctor Who story, he takes the last road open to this approach: he goes very, very small.
Scherzo is a two-hander. It cheats a little bit – it does actually have a third character – but that character consists entirely out of sounds made by the Doctor and Charley for most of the story, and when it does start speaking for itself it’s still played by McGann and Fisher. But virtually the entire audio consists of the Doctor and Charley talking. This makes it a profoundly intimate story – character driven in a way that no story since The Edge of Destruction possibly could have been. (And its debt to The Edge of Destruction is as profound an influence on Scherzo as The Power of the Daleks is on Jubilee.)
But the story goes considerably further than just the intimacy of scale. It’s not just that this is an audio with only two people, it’s an audio where the world is as small as it can possibly be. Scherzo, for virtually its entire length, features the Doctor and Charley making their way through a featureless void. But what’s really notable is the way in which the world collapses inwards: the Doctor and Charley lose all of their senses save for hearing, such that the phrase “walking” takes on a strange meaning. Eventually their physical bodies merge, rendering their very corporeality suspect.
What happens, in other words, is that their world collapses to be as small as it can possibly be – for much of the audio there is nothing to their world but what is in the audio. We’ve talked a few times about the idea of diegesis. The term usually refers to sound and music, distinguishing between diegetic music – music the characters can hear – and non-diegetic music – music the audience can hear but the characters can’t. We can extend this reasonably sensibly to talk about anything in a story, and create all sorts of nifty-terms like “meta-diegetic” – something that exists within the realm of the story but can effect the audience directly. And Scherzo, as I promised to talk about way back in the Vengeance on Varos entry nearly a year ago, introduces a new concept: hyper-diegesis. That is, not only is the sound in Scherzo part of the characters’ world, for large swaths of Scherzo it is the entirety of the characters’ world.
This is something that isn’t possible, or, at least, isn’t easy with television. The existence of the screen as a frame mitigates against this. The entire conceptual apparatus of the Albertian window and camera motion mean that the grammar of television and film continually implies the existence of things that the characters can see that we can’t. But audio works differently. Yes, it still implies the existence of things that the characters can see that we can’t, but it does this by discarding the screen entirely. Where film and television allow access to two of the five senses the characters have, audio goes down to one. But audio is un-framed. Instead of showing us a portion of the world (and typically one that is not co-extensive with any given character’s vision), it simply gives us the soundscape, which is not confined within the space of a screen but emitted out to expand and fill whatever space the audio is being listened to in.
Which means that when, as Shearman does, you engineer a situation where there is no visual, olfactory, tactile, or gustatory sensation whatsoever for characters, and then do away with any non-diegetic sound, you effectively collapse it so that the auditory medium is, in a literal sense, the world of the characters. There’s not a meaningful difference between the space the Doctor and Charley inhabit and the sound that vibrates your eardrum. Far from showing us a portion of a large world, Scherzo collapses and shrinks the world of the story to where it can fit through the membrane of media that separates fiction from reality and enter our world. I am well-documented as having little patience for or belief in the rhetoric of immersion and realism, but Scherzo, by dint of its extremely stylized and conceptual conceit, manages to break through all of my objections. Despite being about a space alien trapped in an alternate dimension and eaten repeatedly and continually by a creature of pure sound, Scherzo is in a very literal sense more realistic than any other Doctor Who story ever simply because it can be accurately and meaningfully said that it causes the Doctor to genuinely exist in our world for a time.
All of this makes the prison that the Doctor and Charley spend the story in ferociously small – as small as the human eardrum at times. This is a high stakes game, to say the least. Shearman, thankfully, is well-suited to the task. As a playwright with a clear love of absurdism, he’s more than familiar with an entire tradition of things like The Chairs and Waiting for Godot where what is on stage is, in a meaningful sense, the entirety of the universe. There is, in other words, a familiar structure to this sort of thing, and Shearman knows it well.
The heart of this sort of story is the character interaction. This can’t be called a surprise: obviously with only two characters you need the characters to be quite strong. Impressively, Shearman manages to rescue this strength of character out of the previously disastrous handling of the Charlie/Doctor love plot. And this is worth expanding on, since Doctor/companion romance is something of an issue for the new series. Really, it has been since the TV movie, which tediously followed the American insistence that any film must have a romantic interest for its male and female lead. Which made an abrupt about face on what had previously been an iron-clad maxim: no hanky-panky in the TARDIS.
That maxim was always problematic, of course. John Nathan-Turner’s zeal in making sure that there were never any hints that the Doctor might have romantic feelings about his female companions led to no shortage of homoeroticism, particularly in the Davison era when there was almost always a male companion around that the Doctor was allowed to actually, you know, come within five feet of. But it also meant that the Doctor was largely depicted as an asexual being. Then the TV movie came along and casually reversed it. But even if it hadn’t, frankly, it would have been something that someone got to eventually. This is clear enough from how it’s handled in Neverland and Zagreus, which is to say, barely at all and clearly with no serious thought beyond “you know what will be edgy? Hanky panky in the TARDIS.” Needless to say, this went poorly.
Equally, the new series has made Doctor/companion romances standard issue, to the point where it’s a subject that has to be tackled at least in brief for any new companion. So clearly this is not nearly so controversial as people thought it was in early 2004. Part of this is the disparity of audience. It was controversial among Doctor Who fans because we all knew the phrase “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS” and knew that a previously iron-clad rule was being changed. For anyone outside the cult, however, it was just something like Daleks climbing stairs that was an obvious question to ask about Doctor Who. And so the new series tackling it was straightforward – a case of admitting to a subtext that had always been there.
But it’s also true that the new series, to say the least, handles romance a bit better than Big Finish did in Neverland and Zagreus. The problem that Big Finish has is that their conception of having a love plot is to decide that Charley is the “in love” one in the same way that Ace is the punkish one and Tegan is the Australian one. It’s love plot by fiat – there’s nothing to it save for the declaration that Charley is in love with the Doctor. It’s too early to discuss how the new series handles this, but suffice it to say that with the arguable exception of Martha (and this is much of what’s wrong with Martha as a character) none of the romance plots have ever been quite so reductive. Which makes sense because, whatever might be said about Doctor/Rose shipping, Russell T Davies clearly did not do it for shock value.
Shearman, however, ends up in a strange position that can’t quite be replicated outside the odd context of the latter days of the wilderness years. He’s one of the writers good enough to work for television, and one of the writers who fits in with Davies’s vision for the series. But he’s in a structure that doesn’t support it and where romance is being played mostly for shock value. He knows full well that nobody is ever going to adequately deal with the Doctor/Charley romance, but that it’s the elephant in the room right now. And he has a story that requires him to not only deal with it, but deal with it in a way that is rich in characterization.
Shearman’s solution is clever, and could only really work in the context Scherzo came out in. Since Charley’s view on the situation – she loves the Doctor – is at least well-defined if, ultimately, hollow, Shearman turns to the other possibility: the Doctor. The Doctor’s view on the situation is altogether more ambiguous, having done “I love you” in Neverland and largely turned on that in Zagreus. So Shearman focuses on the Doctor’s view of love, constructing an alien view of it that both allows for the Doctor to genuinely love Charley, and to express it with a directness that Davies could never quite bring his Doctor to offer.
The result is the first time in the Eighth Doctor audios, and thus in Paul McGann’s tenure as the Doctor where he has actually gotten the chance to use his acting skills on good material. McGann gets to play familiar emotions with complex and strange reasoning behind them, and he clearly revels in the space between the familiar and the alien that he gets to inhabit. He’s never been better served by a Doctor Who script.
In every regard, of course, Scherzo is a one-off. But what great Doctor Who story isn’t, in some fashion, a case of going in an odd direction that can only be done once. That’s the heart of the flexible premise: you don’t need to build a lasting idea in Doctor Who, since the idea will be abandoned after one story anyway. But what’s more important is that Scherzo is a one-off that works within the context it came out in. It’s a one-off that works as the story after Zagreus. It’s a wonder – the perfect platform on which to serve Shearman’s big Doctor Who idea in its purest expression. But it’s also, thus, the story that brings that idea to a close. It shows Shearman’s ideas beautifully, but there’s nowhere to go from it. Once you’ve done it you’re back into the same fundamental problems that the Big Finish line has.
It’s not the last great Big Finish story by any measure. But it does, in a real way, mark a symbolic end of Big Finish: the point where one of their best ideas runs its course. It can go on longer, and even be quite charming. But this is, if you will, the end of its necessity. The end of the point where it was crucial to the continual nursing of Doctor Who’s flame. Scherzo, even though it leads directly into the next audio, would have done as an endpoint. That it wasn’t doesn’t mean Big Finish overstayed its welcome. But it does mean that it becomes, after this, a pleasant bonus to Doctor Who as opposed to a credible contender for what Doctor Who is.