the paradigm of children’s storybook magicians

Books If you’ve ever wondered what Rex Harrison would sound like playing the Doctor then listen no further than Stuart Milligan’s translation of the Time Lord in Oli Smith’s new audio book Blackout. In hiring the actor who played Richard Nixon in this year’s season opener The Impossible Astronaut and his natural American accent, producer Alec Reid (or whoever’s in charge of these things) obviously hoped that simply that voice would do half the job in bringing some of the requisite atmosphere to this New York based story. But that also means Milligan has to wrap his voice box around the British regulars and the result is peculiar.

But please understand this isn’t a criticism. It works brilliantly. Steven Moffat’s conception puts the character as close as he’s ever been to the paradigm of children’s storybook magicians from Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle to Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka anyway, with Matt’s own interpretation somewhere in the midst of Rex Harrison and Gene Wilder. So in the absence of M. Smith, to, however inadvertently, have Milligan heading in that direction reading O. Smith’s words makes the story fit, even more closer than usual, into the style of the television series something which these audio exclusives don’t always manage in their rush to increase their scope.

Some of the most charming moments are in the Doctor’s interaction with the city as he attempts to employ 1960s technology to investigate an alien infection which is being spread through the city’s water supply (the TARDIS having been conveniently parked too far out of reach). He associates himself with Clint, a taxi driver who’s somehow a vital piece of a puzzle as to what the inevitable alien threat wants. Together they navigate a city experiencing the famous blackout of November 9th, 1965, when in the real world, a misjudged safety relay led to the electricity network overloading when busy north-eastern USA went about their cooking and heating in a bitterly cold winter.

With its slender running time, to give much more away would spoil some of the surprises, though since it's on the box, I think it’s safe to say that Amy and Rory’s job is to “sabotage the city’s water supply to slow the spread of infection” which leads to the main action adventure quotient of the story as well as some of the chills as the couple try to make their way back to their friend afterwards. With another season’s worth of stories to work from, Smith interprets their relationship perfectly and Milligan judges it best not to try too hard with Amy’s accent which mean we’re more focused on the story than trying to divine which part of the highlands the reader is wandering in.

The real triumph of the story is the only other main speaking part, Clint, who takes most of the bizarre of events presented to him in his stride and isn’t afraid to question the Time Lord’s motives and process, a constant reminder to the Doctor of humanity’s nobility. The reading often slips into proper audio drama as the two characters become swept up in events, the Doctor challenging the cabby’s potential for heroism. This is aided by the writer pulling back on the descriptive elements of speech meaning Milligan doesn’t have to drop of character to say who’s speaking, just rarely adding how they’re speaking to help orientate the performance.

All of which sounds like a lot of commentary on process but having listened to a few of these audio exclusives now, I can truly say that outside of James Goss's experiments in form, this is one of the most successful of this era. It’s not the most original stories perhaps, and there isn’t a lot of story to go round actually, but it’s well worth an hour of your time and another illustration of how sometimes even stand alone, spin-off fiction can have the same authority as its televisual cousin. The closing moments, underscored by composer Simon Power’s Vangelis-like ambience are certainly as moving.

Doctor Who: Blackout written by Oli Smith and read by Stuart Milligan is released on the 8th September from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.

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