Graceless

Posted in Audio by - March 12, 2018
Graceless

Released November 2010

After the Fourth Doctor scattered the Key to Time to prevent the Black Guardian from claiming it, the Fifth Doctor had to try once more to assemble its pieces before the end of time itself, this premise forming the basis for Big Finish’s Key2Time trilogy composed of ‘The Judgment of Isskar,’ ‘The Destroyer or Delights,’ and ‘The Chaos Pool.’ Assisted by Amy, a powerful but strange blank slate both influenced by and able to influence the universe around her who was created by the pan-dimensional beings the Grace, the two soon crossed paths with her sister, Zara, who did not have the morality of the Doctor as a guide and who became much more selfish and unscrupulous as a result. With the Key assembled, Amy and Zara were left to traverse the universe on their own, and thus Graceless arrives as Big Finish’s first Doctor Who spinoff to feature its own characters.

Graceless begins with ‘The Sphere’ on the titular satellite complex that doubles in size every week where new hotels and casinos are constantly grafted onto the outer layers with massive girders and where corruption and greed are rife at the centre. Zara came here by accident and quickly became enthralled by the noise and excitement, but when Amy- who now goes by Abby as a disguise to gain entry to the casino and to avoid confusion with television series’s concurrent companion Amy Pond- finally finds her, she finds that they are both trapped without use of most of their powers. This is a series that proves right away that it is unafraid of dealing with mature subject matter, and the corrupting influence of this environment in so many ways on the naïve and innocent Abby is a fantastic central conceit that allows exploration of both sisters and the type of person each is and wants to become now that they are reunited.

Ciara Janson as Abby and Laura Doddington as Zara both give immensely powerful performances as their characters are subjected to physical and emotional horrors throughout while coming to terms with their new life aboard the Sphere, and writer Simon Guerrier is able to make the casino and the darker corners of its walls and denizens come to life effectively to create a living environment in which hope springs eternal but winnings are few and far between as Amy finds her own morality corrupted and eventually becomes a willing part of the system. However, in a series fronted by two charismatic and strong female leads, it is a notable decision to make Zara pregnant right from the start, the father a man she came upon when penniless and lost who offered her housing in exchange for sex. Fraser James puts in a strong performance as Marek in this role, and the script certainly takes some steps to soften the character as the narrative progresses, but the fact that he makes the same deal with Abby who at first is repulsed but who eventually comes to find him attractive in his own right as her ideals are shattered hardly paints these two sisters in the most positive light. Still, Abby and Zara are more of less interconnected naïve beings who learn and adapt as they experience, and that concept along with the promise of the future drama of a child within those narrative confines still present plenty of potential drama after this intriguing but somewhat flawed first story.

Abby and Zara find themselves in the small English village of Compton in 1912 in ‘The Fog,’ enjoying a local beer before promptly being arrested for the murder and disappearance of the town’s children. As a mysterious and cold fog surrounds the town and prevents people from entering or leaving the town’s boundaries, the appearance of these two travelers is the only connection the villagers can form, in the process offering a much more deliberate and intimate affair filled with paranoia and fear than the pacey glitz and sexuality of the previous instalment. With David Warner’s justice of the peace Daniel a force for reason as he subdues his own initial calls of witchcraft that match the mob mentality of those affected, there is finally a sense of someone truly on the sisters’ side in a way that Marek didn’t quite manage earlier, and the compassion that manifests in this good-hearted man as the small group looks into the truth is palpable.

It’s intriguing to note both that Zara is unable to teleport away from her cell because of her pregnancy and that her pregnancy is the only thing that saves her life once Abby disappears and lends credence to the accusations. In fact, there isn’t much here to distinguish the two sisters aside from the pregnancy, but this does mean that the two cannot simply leave when the going gets tough, and the fretful truth that Abby brings back with her from the near future is a distinctly non-traditional answer for the rather traditional setup of a secluded town where people are going missing. With the town’s fate thus known, there’s a weighty sense of fatalism as time is seemingly eaten away and the proclaimed time approaches, and it’s strangely satisfying to realise that Abby and Zara are simply caught in the wake of a process that cannot be stopped or altered in any way, allowing an immense amount of humanisation and development in a short period of time as emotions run high and acceptance becomes the needed action.

Events on the Sphere catch up with Abby and Zara in ‘The End’ as Marek returns and reveals that he has sold out the duo in an act of revenge to the space pirate Kreekpolt who knows that they can save his burned daughter’s life. This entire series has succeeded admirably in questioning the intent of Abby and Zara compared to the consequences of their actions as they learn to love and interact with the increasingly complex and heightened universe around them, and that essence is amplified even further as the fate of one individual hangs in the balance against the tens of thousands that were lost at the Sphere. The two have recognised their mistakes and their crimes, and as the sisters’ initially disparate characterisations of good and evil have converged and created much more dynamic characters as a result, their acts of contrition and redemption have been exceedingly poignant and effective. This is perhaps no better exemplified than when the sisters try to save Kreekpolt’s daughter knowing that any use of their powers will hasten their own demise, and the trip back to their home planet with a look at the events of their recent past in relation to their association with the Grace underscores their development well.

‘The End’ wisely does not choose a side regarding Kreekpolt’s desire to save his daughter; he will clearly go to any length necessary to achieve his goal, including painfully giving up his own life in exchange, but some of the actions taken are reprehensible, and Michael Keating does well to play this forceful and determined man with a hint of desperation and compassion in order to maintain a sense of empathy. Unfortunately, the script once more lets Marek down in this regard, and part of this is due to the very intimate and relatable nature of his misdeeds compared to the sisters’. A planetary disaster is so big and impersonal compared to sexual assault and continued betrayal that Marek’s continued lack of meaningful remorse as he hurts the sisters over and over again is a slap to the face of audience members who must accept that both Abby and Zara willingly choose to continue on with Marek with baby Joy in tow. This choice and its ramifications, of course, may be dealt with in future series, but as it stands now it makes no sense given the strength of these women except to provide a familiar face and contrasting viewpoint for the two going forward regardless of the past turmoil caused.

It’s all too clear that Graceless has immense potential to be a captivating story of two figures continuing to learn and to find themselves without near-infinite powers at their fingertips. Janson and Dodson are eminently likable and more than charismatic and strong enough to anchor this series, but the writing fails to make full use of the characters, often relying on familiar damsel-in-distress tropes and failing to truly distinguish the characters after the first story even as they have naturally become more like each other due to the pressures faced. There are plenty of intriguing ideas on display, and hopefully the sisters continue to gain self-confidence to truly become a forceful presence without relying on others- and one man, in particular- going forward.

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