“You feel that pounding in your heart? That tightness in the pit of your stomach? The blood rushing to your head? Do You know what that is? That’s adventure! The thrill and the fear and the joy of stepping into the unknown. That’s why we’re all here, that’s why we’re alive!”
October, 1930. His Majesty’s Airship, the R101, sets off on her maiden voyae to the farthest-flung reaches of the British Empire, carrying the brightest lights of the Imperial fleet. Carrying the hopes and dreams of a breathless nation.?
Not to mention a ruthless spy with a top-secret mission, a mysterious passenger who appears nowhere on the crew list, a would-be adventuress destined for the Singapore Hilton… and a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey.
There’s a storm coming. There’s something unspeakable, something with wings, crawling across the stern. Thousands of feet high in the blackening sky, the crew of the R101 brace themselves. When the storm breaks, their lives won’t be all that’s at stake…
The future of the galaxy will be hanging by a thread.
Regardless of what your opinion may be of the TV Movie, almost everyone agrees that Paul McGann made a great Doctor. And he still does here; quite different to his seventh self who was more calm and collected, and seemed to know what was going on everywhere he went, often having already put plans in motion, this new Doctor is different and quite rightly so – there needs to be a contrast.
The Eighth Doctor comes across as youthful, energetic and more innocent than some of his predecessors. He doesn’t know where he’s landed or what’s going on and he seems to be enjoying working it out. I can see elements of the Fifth Doctor’s innocence and the Fourth Doctor’s flippancy and on-the-hoof style. There’s also a feel of the cool uncle or the kid’s favourite teacher. It’s an appropriate about-face from the precise and manipulative Seventh Doctor.
So, on to Storm Warning itself and the story starts with the Doctor on his own in the TARDIS, which is stuck in the vortex. He finds and defends a ship from some space/time vultures before escaping the vortex and landing somewhere. It’s not a great start though because the Doctor is on his own and therefore talking to himself; now there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone talks to themselves occasionally, the problem is that, this being audio, there’s no visual reference for the listener so everything has to be described to us through the dialogue. I’m sure they did the best they could but it just doesn’t sound right, nobody talks to themselves like that. Once he arrives on the R101 he’s still talking to himself but it sounds more natural whereas in the opening sequence it sounds forced and false.
If you’re expecting historical accuracy here, stop it. Given that the R101 was a disaster that involved the very real deaths of everyone on board, they rightly decided not to use any genuine people as characters. Everyone on board is completely fictional, the only accuracies are the time and place.
The story itself is a good one; the new gas dirigible, the R101, is on its maiden test voyage with some prestigious dignitaries on board. However the military have a secret mission to return a stranded alien to its ship hovering in the sky and negotiate or commandeer its technology. The aliens also have an ulterior motive to recruit a human into their own society, for perfectly benign reasons I might add. And there’s a stowaway on board, a young woman pretending to be a male steward because she wants a life of adventure. So, in short, everyone’s got a secret.
The young woman in question is Charlotte Pollard, the new companion-to-be, and she gets found out pretty quickly. She meets the Doctor in Part One while hiding from the Chief Steward and from that point on she really doesn’t do a lot until Part Four. She has a couple of important scenes in Part Two and almost nothing to do in Part Three but it’s not a problem, because she’s so well played by India Fisher. The scenes that she’s in are good enough that she doesn’t need to be at the forefront and there’s enough going on in the story anyway that if she did have a bigger part to play, it would have felt too crowded.
More of a main character than Charley really is Lord Tamworth, played by Gareth Thomas. He’s a Government minister and he’s head of the military contingent so he’s the highest ranking person on board and he’s in charge of the secret mission regarding the aliens. To begin with he comes across as an aggressive, self important, I’m in charge, everyone does what I say kind of man and you get the impression that he’s going to be the villain. What’s great is that by Part Two you realise that he’s not a villain but he’s more like the government ministers in the Jon Pertwee era, actually useless but so full of himself that he’ll do something stupid which makes everything worse. And then by the end he’s not that either, he becomes a kind of heroic figure so I like the fact that his character isn’t completely obvious from the start and challenges your expectations.
Rathbone, though, is suspicious and sinister from the start. By the beginning of Part Two you know damn well he’s a villain. Posing as Tamworth’s valet he’s actually from British Intelligence working with Tamworth but he’s far more ruthless. Prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done you know that he’d sacrifice everyone on board if it got him his prize and in the end that’s exactly what he does, destroying vital parts of the airship in his attempt to get the Doctor. He’s well played but the accent is annoying, I think it’s meant to be South African but it comes out as South Irritating.
The two other characters are Frayling, the officer who designed the airship, and Weeks, the chief steward. Neither of them is particularly important to the story but necessary to flesh out the cast.
The end of the story, when the action is over, involves the Doctor realising that Charley was supposed to have died in the crash and, given that he’s spent the whole story going on about preserving the web of time, he seriously thinks about putting her back aboard. He clearly doesn’t want to condemn her to death though, so he grasps at invisible straws and tells himself that it won’t cause any problems if he takes her with him… It’s a nice little scene and an important one, which will have far-reaching consequences.
This brings us to the Triskele. They used to be a feared, conquering species but have managed to escape that way of life by creating a single individual called the Lawgiver who leads them and is a balance between the two separate races within their society, Creators and Uncreators, the latter of which is a primal, predatory race responsible for their previous reputation. Naturally things go wrong and the Lawgiver dies before a replacement is found and the Uncreators are let loose. And we come to the one point where the story could have completely fallen down. The Doctor reasons that the Uncreators have been kept docile, or tamed I suppose, for so long that if a larger, louder predator were to come along they would shy away and back down….so he roars at them. And then he gets everyone else to roar at them as loud as they can. It’s only a temporary solution but it makes the Uncreators retreat long enough for a new Lawgiver to be found and to contain them. I know, it may sound silly, but it isn’t. It could have been done in a comedic way, but it wasn’t. It works within the story and it fits the Eighth Doctor’s personality (I can’t see any of the other Doctors pulling it off without looking really stupid). And hearing Charley, who’s the only woman, roaring alongside all the low, deep voiced male roaring made me smile.
Some people may find Part Three to be exposition heavy and, to be fair, at 36 minutes it’s the longest episode and it does involve a lot of talking between the Doctor, Tamworth and the Triskele but this is the point in the story where plans are revealed, motivations are explained and characters are taken further – Tamworth in particular. Personally I didn’t have any problems with either the length or the exposition and found it interesting and enjoyable, that’s probably down to Paul McGann and Gareth Thomas being so good but I can see how others may find it too ‘talky’ (although it is audio only so what do you expect?).
The bits that didn’t make me smile; The opening scene as I’ve said, wasn’t convincing. I don’t like the idea of them riding the vortisaur to safety at the end, It’s cheesy but it’s quite brief so I can live with it. Rathbone’s accent irritated me, there’s a strange effect they put on the TARDIS materialisation sounds which is just wrong. It’s no longer the sound we know and love, that sound is there but it’s got something over it which I don’t like. They’ll keep using it for the next nine years at least, but I wish they wouldn’t.
Finally, I need to mention the new theme tune by David Arnold. I’m a big fan of David Arnold’s film scores and also of the TV theme tune he came up with for the 2000 revival of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). It’s quite a coup for Big Finish to get a guy who does big Hollywood blockbuster soundtracks doing the theme, which makes it doubly disappointing that it’s dreadful. The actual Doctor Who tune is in there but it’s completely swallowed up by a load of dull, throbbing noise, like he created it during a headache.
Any negatives though are small things that don’t really affect the story.
It’s a good debut for a companion, a great (second) debut for the Eighth Doctor and a good story all round. Well done to everyone involved. 4.5/5
The Doctor: Paul McGann | Charley: India Fisher
With: Hylton Collins (Chief Steward Weeks); Barnaby Edwards (Rathbone); Mark Gatiss (Announcer); Helen Goldwyn (Triskelion); Nicholas Pegg (Lt. Col Frayling); Gareth Thomas (Lord Tamworth).
Writer: Alan Barnes | Director: Gary Russell | Music: Alistair Lock | Release Date: January 2001 | Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: The TV Movie and Rose