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Sam Reviews: Minister of Chance Episode 3, Paludin Fields

by on Aug.17, 2012, 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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Sam reviews: Minister of Chance, episode 2

by on Jun.05, 2011, under Reviews

avatarI’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 smörgÃ¥sbord 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.

Minister of Chance

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.

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Sam reviews: The Minister of Chance

by on Apr.10, 2011, under Reviews

avatarMy last copy of Fortean Times carried a plug for something interesting, although if Frood hadn’t spotted it and waved it under my nose I would have missed it. Knowing that I’d developed a bit of a thing for Doctor Who of late, he pointed it out to me and I’m very glad he did.

Minister of Chance poster

The Minister of Chance is a Doctor Who spinoff describing itself thusly:

The Minister of Chance is a new form of entertainment – a radiophonic drama – made using a combination of film and radio techniques and delivered by podcast. It is the first, but we hope not last, of its kind. By painstakingly constructing soundscapes we create worlds that you can drift into wherever you are.

The titular character was introduced in Death Comes to Time, which I haven’t heard but may now have to seek out for background (although I’m not sure I like the idea of Ace becoming a Time Lord). I do not think it is necessary to have heard that work to enjoy this, however.

The prologue, which is free on youtube, sets the scene: Paul McGann gives it some as Durian, a particularly nasty piece of work who straight away shows that politicians have no need to carry personal arms when they can offer plausible threats of much worse. It seems to be a straightforward sort of fantasy affair, with a bit of added science, but then this is just the teaser.

Episode 1 is available for download for the measly cost of £1.49, which is much less than a pint and much more worthwhile. In this we meet the rest of the main characters, and find ourselves in a beautifully realised world in which science is banned in favour of magic that doesn’t work. The scientists are labelled charlatans and frauds and outlawed, while a witch inhabits one of the primary positions of power. Even as you listen, thinking that their rockets don’t work by magic, their weapons don’t work by magic, asking yourself how can they say that science is a hoax, it is clear that those in charge are all too aware of this. Magic, then, is the opium they feed their people while denying them access to anything that would cause them to question.

Into this come Kitty, a feisty young girl of uncertain origins and unusual abilities, and an unnamed stranger who has a cold dispassion and no-nonsense attitude and who knows so much that his science looks like magic. He’s going to show her things that are as wonderful as they are unbelievable, she’s going to teach him that his brilliance runs the risk of him underestimating those around him, and you are along for the ride.

The Minister himself reminds me of an early Doctor, back when he was young enough to want to act old (I loved that explanation given by Tennant in the Comic Relief special for why the Doctor has been getting progressively younger). Kitty is a good, strong character who is full of confidence and knows how to handle herself. Jenny Agutter’s Professor Cantha is another strong female character, holding out for science in a world where doing so is decidedly dangerous.

The rest of the cast is seasoned with a who’s who of classic British science fiction. It’s almost as if they filled a bran tub with actors from Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who and pulled a few out at random. Having not seen anything from Paul Darrow since Hercules, I was delighted to hear him back in laconic action. Sylvester McCoy is another actor we’re more used to seeing in the role of the good guy.

The soundscapes are immersive. With no special effects to fall back on the writing carries everything, and it is more than up to the task. I am impressed by how clearly I was able to “see” what was happening and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the next episode.

The continued future of this series is dependent on getting the funding, and they more than deserve it. If you like science fiction and pine for the days when budgets were so low the writing had to make up for it, and did; if you want to support talented artists producing great work; even if you just want to hear Avon say a naughty word — head over there, click buy, and make sure to put your headphones on. You won’t be disappointed.

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