Jun.05, 2011, filed under Reviews
I’ve already sung the praises of the first episode of the Minister of Chance. Having waited for quite some time for the release of the second episode — it was delayed by negotiations with iTunes — I was right there at the download button as soon as it was available. I then had to wait until I had enough free time to listen to it, because MoC isn’t like an audio book, where all the work is done for you; and it’s not like television, where the combination of audio and visual data lay on a veritable smörgåsbord of story. The soundscape is rich and detailed and requires active listening to pick up all of the audio clues to what is going on.
But don’t let that put you off. It’s an effort well rewarded.
The first episode saw Kitty follow the Minister through a door to another world. Although this is part of the extended Whoiverse, there has been no mention of Time Lords or Gallifrey and certainly no TARDIS. The Minister gets around by creating doors between worlds and crossing the ice-bridges between them — those of you who have seen Thor might ponder the parallels with their take on Bifrost being an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. He’s not the only one, either. He is searching for a character called the Horseman, and all we know so far is that it’s vitally important that he find him.
As the episode starts the Minister and Kitty have been captured and are being held prisoner in the dark; a nice touch, as thus both the world of the listener and their world are sightless. Their captors intend feeding them to a monster as an entertainment spectacle. Here they find someone else from Kitty’s world: a man called Sutu who describes himself as “a simple farmer” and says he was gathering mushrooms when he saw a light and followed it then found himself on a very similar-sounding bridge to the one Kitty and the Minister used. Kitty sees him as someone to talk to who isn’t condescending and annoying; the Minister apparently sees him as another asset to help them escape.
In the meantime Professor Cantha is hard at work as a prisoner scientist. Although she’s supposed to making weapons — they may claim that science is ineffective, but magic doesn’t build rockets — she is not too busy to engage in philosophical debate about relative morality with her guards.
Thus the two strands of story weave in and out of one another, and I shall leave discussions of the plot aside at this point for fear of spoilers.
Once more the audio is immersive and evocative. One of the many moments that stood out was a scene in which they were wading through deep water: the sound was spot on. The character development is incredibly clever. Kitty is loquacious almost to the point of verbal diarrhoea, while the Minister is reserved and absorbed. He can be very dismissive of Kitty — “When I want your opinion I’ll shoot myself” — but she has the confidence and self-belief to stand up to this. This uneven relationship reflects the relationship of the listener to the storytellers. Kitty’s character is that of someone who is constantly asking questions, in an almost childish manner, and is hardly ever quiet. This method of explanation compensates for the lack of visual information without any need for forced exposition. She is depicted as being utterly confrontational, as if she knows no other way to be. She is, fundamentally, a pest, and so the badgering for answers does not come across as being contrived.
The Minister, on the other hand, being reticent and obviously highly capable and intelligent, offers the sense of there being a bigger picture yet to be revealed. For instance, he demonstrates Holmes-like deduction in the opening scene to determine where they are, what’s going to happen, and how to escape. This he feeds to Kitty, and therefore the listener, in bite-sized chunks, ordering her about and telling her and Sutu to do things on the pretext that they need distracting to give him time to think, but when in fact they are making escape possible. By the time the escape plot has borne fruit it is clear that he worked out all of this before the episode started. We are then left wondering what he was so busy thinking about while they were supposedly distracted from bothering him.
The Minister has a capacity to treat terrifying situations logically that will be familiar to Doctor Who fans, and a similarly dismissive attitude towards the prospect of a horrible fate. At one point he says to Kitty “Try to die quietly,” suggesting that if she is eaten by a monster the worst thing that could happen would be for her to continue bothering him with incessant chatter. He also has the same trait of seeming more than willing to sacrifice himself for others, only for a later reveal to show he had something up his sleeve all along.
Professor Cantha’s character is fleshed out, too. She’s a guerrilla Ben Goldacre who knows more about the worlds beyond hers than she’s letting on. She is absolutely committed to what she knows is right and not shy about claiming moral superiority. She points out, by reflecting the prejudices of the guards against them, how ridiculous those prejudices are. She is a pacifist Tony Stark: like him, she builds something other than a rocket right under the noses of her captors. You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out what, though.
By the end of this episode, although we have not gained much in the way of knowledge about how the politics work, or what led to this state of affairs, who the mysterious Horseman is (despite getting to meet him, at last) or what exactly makes it so vital the Minister finds him, we have a far better grasp of the characters and how they relate to one another. I found the relatively small amount of plot development to be greatly encouraging, as it meant we could concentrate on character motivation.
We have a man, of sorts, who refuses to carry a gun, because the “trigger’s too far from the consequences” and yet who can cause more bloodshed than anyone else by turning the aggression of others to his advantage. He uses people as his weapons. Into his company Professor Cantha, a pacifist so committed she would die rather than build a rocket, sends Kitty, a girl of uncertain origins and tremendous strength of will and body, with only one request:
“Do you hear the screams? Don’t teach Kitty that.”
Why would she do that? Kitty is reluctant to go and yet Professor Cantha persuades her, despite knowing what sort of a creature the Minister is.
That I am left with this question above all else makes me very happy. I have seen far too much plot driving character of late, and it delights me to be experiencing a story in which the events that happen do so because the characters would behave that way, rather than hand-waving some motivation or excuse as explanation. The badinage between characters is something I don’t get to see enough of these days, as well.
If I had anything less than positive to say at all it would be only that occasionally it can be hard to follow exactly what is going on, particularly when sound effects are standing in for actions. For instance, at one point the Minister leaves in the middle of someone talking to him, and the only clue is a soft thud. Later conversation clarifies but there were a couple of times when this wasn’t the case. Two or three moments like that mean very little against the overall whole of very good quality and well-realised sound.
The Forest Shakes confirmed for me that The Minister of Chance is intelligent writing underpinning talented performances and high production values.
Highly recommended, and all for a meagre £1.29.