Sam Reviews: Minister of Chance Episode 3, Paludin Fields

Aug.17, 2012, filed under Reviews

avatarLong-time readers of this blog —as well as a good number of Californian wine makers, wine drinkers, restaurant staff, farmer’s market attendees and stallholders, and the passengers on May 7th’s flight VS020— will know that I am a big fan of Radio Static’s Minister of Chance. This crowd-funded, Doctor Who spin-off audiodrama has production values, acting quality and writing to match anything put out by Team Moffat, and I’d go as far as to say it exceeds in some respects because it doesn’t have visual effects to fall back on.

Episode 3, Paludin Fields, is the latest in this highly-anticipated production. It reunites some of the great and the good of British science-fiction acting talent (Paul Darrow, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Jenny Agutter) and introduces some equally talented new voices, including Tamsin Greig (Black Books, The Green Wing, the Archers) and Beth Goddard (X-Men: First Class, Ashes to Ashes).

The Minister of Chance, for those unfamiliar with the series, takes place in a world (I use the term loosely, for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it) of politics divided by a religion where the priests are witches and the currency is ineffective magic. To question the power of magic is to invite the kind of attention the Spanish Inquisition turned on heretics. Think Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, where the Inquisition is instead employed by an invading army to root out scientists, even though they make use of rockets and guns.

There are several interweaving plotlines, each driven by a main character conflict. The primary plot arc is that of the Minister himself, played with aplomb by Julian Wadham, and Kitty, believably voiced by Lauren Crace. The Minister is a Time Lord (although this has not been explicitly stated) and Kitty is a young girl who is not what she appears to be, as she has abilities not generally found in the populace. The pair of them are on a mission to stop the Horseman, who may or may not be another Time Lord, but is definitely a bad egg. Durian (Paul McGann) wants to start a war, although it is not yet clear whether he is doing so to take over as Witch Prime (Sylvester McCoy) or whether the war itself is what he wants, for an as-yet unrevealed purpose, and a coup is just a beneficial by-product. I was reminded of Prince Humperdink and his war on Guilder. Jenny Agutter’s Professor Cantha has a story arc to herself. In this episode her pacifist ideals are tested most sorely by the leader of the resistance (Beth Goddard) and, apparently, to breaking point. Although we have been there before and found her more than capable of fooling those who would have her turn to violence in their service.

I’ve already praised the sound effects in past reviews, so it will come as no surprise to learn that the soundscape in Paludin Fields is equally immersive and used to great effect to distinguish between the different settings and arcs. There are a number of jumps between the various plots, and it takes no more than a second or two to know which one is coming. The swamp life of the marsh is as distinct from the background murmur of the Coven’s assembly as it is from the echoing of an abandoned and ransacked library. Such is the attention to detail in the soundscape that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if two different listeners, when asked to describe what the various locations look like, came up with something similar enough to be recognised as the same place by someone who has never heard of the series. So I’ll concentrate on the story and the writing rather than the superb acting and production.

Episode 3 introduces further complexity to a story already full of depth and flavour. There is the Sage of the Waves (I wonder where they got that character name), played by Tamsin Greig, who would appear to be another refugee from the Minister’s world of technologically-advanced, scientifically über-literate, universal mystics; leading one to wonder what in the name of the Eye of Harmony happened to scatter them all over this steelpunk world of misogynistic pubs and frog-infested marshes. We are introduced to the Resistance, who rescue Professor Cantha, although this turns out not to be the blessing it first appears. We learn a bit more about Kitty’s unusual nature and, best of all, we learn more about the underlying principles governing how things work here.

I especially loved the Minister’s explanation to Kitty of why his talisman necklace was so important. It was a sublime piece of plausible hand-waving that I, as a fellow writer, can only admire: any writer who can explain something impossible in such a way as to make it sound not just possible but obvious is doing a fantastic job.

I also enjoyed Professor Cantha forcing the ex-librarian to recite the Theory of Fields she taught him in school as a counter to the resident magical explanation of “things just appear, by magic”. The populace has been beaten into believing it’s not just a rabbit in a hat that got there by magic, but every rabbit.

In the beginning was the data, and the data was complex and dynamic, and from the data came forth all the laws and forces of the world. And first amongst there was Causation, for for every effect there is a cause.

“If we look upstream do we not find a spring?”

Taken with the Minister’s explanation of how his talisman works, what it does and to whom he has given it, life is going to get very interesting on Tanto in Episode 4.

As I said, MoC is crowd-funded, and the campaign to fund Episode 4 is already well under way. There are some nifty rewards on offer for those who help, including the opportunity to have Paul Darrow record a voicemail message for your answering machine (now is probably not the time to confess to having the Blake’s 7 soundboard on my HTC — Orac alerts me to every text message). There are loads of creative projects out there asking for help with funding, and I’m well aware of the need, in the current financial climate, to pick and choose which ones to support. Episodes 1 – 3 are available free of charge, so you don’t have to take my word for it, but I’m certainly going to be putting money where my mouth is. I really hope you enjoy this as much as I have and will find even as much as the price of a pint of beer or a bottle of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon to help them on their way.

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