Welcome to the Malleus critical overview of the Faction Paradox audio drama serials, The Faction Paradox Protocols (BBV) and The True History of Faction Paradox (Magic Bullet). Before we discuss the Faction’s past, let’s take a brief glimpse at its future. Courtesy of Alan Stevens and Magic Bullet, I’m honored to present the web premiere of this exclusive clip from The True History of Faction Paradox #5: Ozymandias.
Guided by a recurring vision and a fragment of poetry, two adventurers take the first steps onto a journey which will lead them to an alien world of nightmarish architecture, insect civilisations and strange women who are much more than they seem…
For on this planet, a tribunal is assembling– a tribunal which will decide the final contest between Horus and Sutekh, and with it, the fate not only of the Osirian Court and Faction Paradox, but of the universe itself.
Click below for more clips from the entire Faction Paradox range, and a frank look at a fascinating and uncompromising science fantasy series unlike anything you’ve heard.
BBV’s Faction Paradox Protocols and Magic Bullet’s True History of Faction Paradox are not light fare. If you’re looking for another stale George Lucas / Joseph Campbell “hero’s journey” or a reductive morality play a la Star Trek, you’d do better going to the local cinema. Let’s not mince words: as charming as they can be, neither of these famous franchises will ever produce anything nearly as smart as The Book of the War. If on the other hand you get a mental rush from fascinating ideas, lush soundscapes, and layered characters, then you are absolutely in the right place. The Faction Paradox audio drama serials published by BBV and Magic Bullet are complex, flawed, difficult, inspired, and well worth your time.
I hope this essay will be of use to Doctor Who fans, but Faction Paradox is just too provocative and too good to be confined to Who fandom any longer. Accordingly, you won’t need any foreknowledge to follow this argument, and what little foreknowledge you require to enjoy the audios I intend to provide here. Although there is some critique, this is less a review than a commentary on the two serials. It’s lengthy, so for user-friendliness I’ve divided it into three parts. Part one provides the basics: the backstory, the central characters, and important themes. Part two makes the case for why the series is worth your time, arguing that it has considerable ashe, prana, funk, chi – whatever you want to call that elusive spark of life that “commercial spin-offs” aren’t supposed to have. Part 3 looks frankly at the strengths and weaknesses of the two Faction Paradox serials. Courtesy of BBV and Magic Bullet productions, I will be illustrating my comments with audio clips from both the Protocols and True History releases.
Part one: What is Faction Paradox?
Faction Paradox is a darkly playful science fantasy universe developed by Lawrence Miles, with contributions from other authors. It currently encompasses several novels, an abortive comic book series, and two linked audio drama serials, The Faction Paradox Protocols (BBV) and its successor, The True History of Faction Paradox (Magic Bullet).
If this sounds overwhelming, don’t despair: the audio dramas are the most grounded and accessible of the Faction Paradox offerings. Rather than a tangent, the audio drama serials constitute the (more or less) linear narrative spine of Faction mythos. That narrative is driven by two capable, intelligent, and dangerous women – Cousin Eliza and Cousin Justine. We’ll return to them in a moment.
Faction Paradox writ large is about the nature of time, or rather, having intellectual fun with the nature of time. In Faction mythology a race of technologically advanced beings organized into Great Houses imposed a new temporal reality on the universe. They anchored Time itself in a lineal chain and set themselves up as its overseers. By using timeships (Tardises), the members of these Great Houses (Time Lords) could travel through time and space to anywhere and anywhen. Strict protocols were imposed to govern what, when, and where they could exert influence, so their construct of Time would not be endangered. Essentially, the Houses established themselves as temporal technocracies.
These Houses are currently embroiled in a War with an unknown Enemy, a war that takes place in and through time itself. As Miles puts it, the conflict is ultimately between “Cause” and “Effect”. The whole thing smacks more than a little of postmodern critiques of how the West constructs ideas of progress and history, only in this case those critiques have been weaponized. The Houses, pressured by the Enemy, are forced into new alliances and even genetic unions with “lesser” (non time travelling) races. Basically, the unchanging Houses are being forced by the War to adapt in ways beyond their ability to predict or control. As they say in Akira Kurosawa’s epic film Kashemuga, “the mountain has moved.”
(Audio Clip: Lord Mortega and the War King, military leader of the Great Houses, discuss Lolita and the state of the War. An excerpt from The True History of Faction Paradox #3: Body Politic.)
Faction Paradox, a fallen House, is a third party. Anarchic, playful, and unpredictable, the Faction revels in violating the codes of other Houses, hence their fallen status. The War between the Great Houses and the Enemy impacts and influences the Faction’s activities, but rather than choose a side they play the powers against one another to their own advantage.
Just as the Doctor in Doctor Who or Ellegua in Yoruba mythology are trickster figures, Faction Paradox is a trickster society. (The fact that tricksters, by definition, do not belong to societies is one of the many paradoxes this series delights in.) Not surprisingly eccentrics of every stamp swell the Faction’s ranks, but Doctor Who fans should not expect a nation of Doctor clones. For one thing, the Doctor’s heroic moral code is not in much evidence, and while the Faction do help people on occasion, they do so out of self-interest. They also hurt and kill others out of self-interest. Miles substitutes a grey moral web for the Doctor Who T.V. show’s “twinkle-in-the-eye” magical optimism. (And arguably, for its “twinkle-in-the-eye” patriarchalism.) Listeners are never allowed to commit to the Faction characters carelessly or entirely.
The shadow of the Doctor does touch the Faction scripts. Unconventionally brilliant, droll, and outlandish mentor figures recur throughout the series. In the Protocols, Godfather Morlock and Mary Culver fulfill this function, while in the True History, Egyptian Gods Anubis and Upuat do. None of them have the selfless heroism or youthful brio of the Doctor, masking their nobler acts with wry humor or affected detachment. If anything, the problem is not that they resemble the Doctor too much, but rather each other.
The biggest departure from the Doctor archetype, however, are the heroines of the series. The Faction Paradox audio dramas focus on three characters: protagonists Cousin Justine and Cousin Eliza, and their enigmatic nemesis, Lolita. Lawrence Miles describes them in his character notes for The Eleven-Day Empire:
Cousin Justine. Main protagonist. Faction Paradox recruit. Young, probably early twenties. Recruited from nineteenth-century England, and it shows. Polite. Demure. Tends to be overly formal, and therefore an unusual candidate for a time-travelling voodoo cult. Probably quite uncertain about her new role in life. Nineteenth-century upringing means that she’s ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that she comes from a family of witches, even though it’s the reason the Faction’s interested in her. Actually capable of being quite aggressive, but only when she’s sure of what she’s doing. At the moment, she isn’t.
Cousin Eliza. Another twentysomething Faction recruit. Born and raised in the twentieth century, so more relaxed than Justine (but probably just as messed-up). London girl. Closer to Justine than anyone else, although that isn’t saying much. Seems to have very little faith in the Faction’s methods. Goes along with them anyway. Unwilling to risk stepping out of line, despite a noticeable cynical streak.
Lolita. Villainess. Aristocratic, but with no respect for tradition. Dangerous. Utterly amoral. Apparently in her thirties (though she’s not human, so her actual age is open to debate). Political. Manipulative. Believes herself to be superior to most other life in the universe – as it turns out, there’s a good reason for this – and regards everybody else with quiet amusement. Hard to imagine her taking anything seriously: everything she does is pre-planned, and therefore there’s never any reason for concern. Gives the impression of being “untrustworthy” rather than “slimy”. Doesn’t really care one way or another.
The conflict between these three characters centers around Lolita’s quest to extinguish Faction Paradox, and the odyssey Justine and Eliza undertake to redeem or avenge it.
What’s Lolita’s motivation? Much of the fun of Faction Paradox is putting together the pieces for yourself. However, some pieces of the plot – Lolita most of all – are arguably missing or incomplete if you have no background in Doctor Who lore. For those without that knowledge, I offer my take on Lolita below. For those who want to discover it for themselves, skip down to “SPOILERS OFF”. (And keep in mind, I may be entirely wrong.)
Lolita’s goal, it seems to me, is attaining the ultimate conflation of being and time. It is never explicitly stated, but Lolita is a sentient timeship. If a Time Lord is a person who can use a timeship to travel through time, a sentient timeship that can travel through time and space of its own volition is an evolutionary advance. Not content with that, Lolita wants to take it a step further: becoming time and space, attaining complete temporal and spatial omnipresence. Becoming sentient history, if you will.
BUTE: You talk of history as if it were a thing?
LOLITA: Well, of course I do. I’m going to be one, when I grow up. Myself and all my bloodline.
– from In the Year of the Cat, The Faction Paradox Protocols IV
The fusion of genetics and time is a running theme in the Faction Paradox audio dramas, most notably in the concept of biodata. Biodata encompasses not only a person’s genetic code, but their entire historical timeline. A person with an incomplete genetic code will have potentially lethal physical deformities; a person with incomplete biodata will fade in and out of existence throughout their lifetime.
For reasons not yet given, Lolita has determined that only Faction Paradox could upset her grand ambition. Her first attack isolates and exiles Cousins Justine and Eliza, sending them on an odyssey of self-preservation, salvation, and revenge.
Justine, a young “Cousin” (low-ranking Faction initiate), is forced by Lolita’s actions to quickly evolve from foundling to Joan-of-Arc style messiah figure. These audio dramas are ultimately her story. Eliza, introduced as a foil to Justine’s mysticism, has functioned mainly as a cynical Sancho Panza / Dr. Watson commentator. She’s been our anchor in the Faction universe, providing a grounded perspective even as Justine becomes more driven and remote.
Neither Justine or Eliza are very emotive characters, but they draw you in just the same. Justine’s uncertainty and air of innocence makes her sympathetic when she first appears, while the indomitable sense of purpose she develops lends her a magnetic quality later. Eliza’s world-weary, almost slacker perspective is laced with an enjoyable mix of humor and pragmatism. Although “messiah” fits Justine pretty well, it isn’t easy to use the word “hero” to describe either her or Eliza. In fact, Justine and Eliza’s antagonists frequently display more of the raw human feeling that we associate with “goodness”.
(Audio Clip: Eliza tortures the Malakh soldier, Jalal, to coerce information from his commander, Merytra (Isla Blair). An excerpt from The True History of Faction Paradox #2: The Ship of a Billion Years.)
Lawrence Miles has made Justine and Eliza associates of convenience rather than friends or rivals, and their emotional reserve towards others extends to their own relationship. Miles seems to prefer noncommittal ambiguity to overwrought hero/sidekick cliches. This tactic has kept Justine’s and Eliza’s ultimate roles in the saga – even their ultimate dispositions towards each other – hard to predict. It has also rendered their relationship inert, at least until very recently. Justine and Eliza’s most colorful interactions typically occur not with each other but with supporting characters. Only in the latest Magic Bullet episode, Words from Nine Divinities, has the status quo between Justine and Eliza shifted dramatically.
Part two: An artistically vital “spin-off”
Faction Paradox is time-traveling science fantasy with a dark, intellectual edge. It is also a “Doctor Who spin-off”. “Science fantasy with a dark, intellectual edge” sounds generic and the word “spin-off” carries the unfortunate (but often true) connotation that a work is aesthetically derivative and / or moribund. And this is where Faction Paradox is exceptional, making it worth my time and yours: it is uniquely, vibrantly alive.
I can defend the uniqueness of Faction Paradox, on a superficial level, in terms of simple mathematics. Miles brings at least five times as much new material to the table as he borrows from Doctor Who. To take one example, consider the sombras que corta (“the shadows that cut”), the Faction’s unique weaponry. These are living shadows, able to act independently from the bodies they are attached to. Every Faction agent’s shadow is bonded with a specific weapon, a weapon that the agent’s actual body does not carry. Thus even while physically unarmed, Faction agents can wield their shadows with lethal swiftness. This conceit is interesting enough. But Miles isn’t content to let the idea go as a simple sci-fi fetish, and through Justine in particular, takes it much further:
(Audio clip: Cousin Justine and Godfather Morlock attempt to defuse a Sontaran bomb in a tensely wrought moment from The Faction Paradox Protocols #1: The Eleven-Day Empire.)
There is of course a larger question at stake, in terms of Faction Paradox’s claim to genuine artistic life, than its “spin-off” relationship to Doctor Who. Namely, does it work as effective drama, or is it just more clever sci-fi claptrap? I admit it feels strange to be typing this essay so soon after Fred Greenhalgh’s wonderful interview with Crazy Dog’s Roger Gregg, whose approach and style seem almost antithetical to the notion of commercial art as art. Gregg’s work strikes me as Dionysian in the best sense, celebratory, fecund, erotic, generative and unpredictable. He brings a wild energy to his plays that, by comparison, makes the grey deadness of most commercial dramas all the more apparent. In short, Gregg seems like all you could wish for in an artist’s artist, a bacchic saxophonist.
To borrow further from Nietzsche and Paglia, Lawrence Miles’s work is in many ways textbook Apollonian: intricately plotted, classically controlled, and almost mathematically poised. Eros? There isn’t any. The only love you’ll find in the Faction Paradox audios is maternal, paternal, or platonic. And the author’s work, like (I suspect) his life, is saturated with a geek’s love of the fantastic and its eruptions in popular culture. Miles is probably less concerned with challenging the boundaries of what we consider dramatic art than he is with challenging the canon of British science fiction.
Yet the effect of Miles’s surfeit of Apollonian control is very much the domain of the Greek god of wine: intoxication. His blend of the meticulous and the phantasmagoric places Miles within the literary tradition of intellectual fantasists like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Like them, Miles goes well beyond the boundaries of genre with playful explorations of the nature of time, narrative, and being. Consider the inventively absurd notions of using a “tracking knife” to slice into a corpse’s personal timeline or looking through Big Ben’s clock face to dissect a battle in progress.
(Audio clip: Cousin Eliza and Godfather Morlock discuss the ongoing Sontaran attack on their home in The Faction Paradox Protocols #1: The Eleven-Day Empire.)
Miles is very much representative of what comic book writer and journalist Steven Grant calls the British school of “mad ideas,” the origins of which Grant traces to 60’s new wave science fiction. Miles’s scripts are dense with ingenious, absurdist inventions, some of which advance the plot, many of which are just there to delight and provoke the mind. This is, in my opinion, his greatest strength as a writer and the best reason to check out these audio dramas. Faction Paradox succeeds most because it is fascinating and entertaining to think about.
If I have one complaint about Miles’s scriptwriting, it is that he doesn’t unleash his wildest conceptual experiments in his audio dramas nearly as much as he does in his books. It would be fascinating, for example, to hear what “a weapon that can rewrite history” sounds like, and how it impacts the way the story is told. Miles, Stevens, and Lock certainly have the talent to pull it off. But beyond a few tantalizing moments here and there, Miles opted to keep the narrative structure of his audio dramas predominantly linear. This traditional approach certainly helps make the audio dramas accessible, and I can’t fault Miles for wanting to do that. However, in a series that is largely about questioning the nature of history and narrative it still feels like a missed opportunity. (In our upcoming interview, Alan Stevens hints that we may see this change dramatically in the final releases.)
Part 3: A Tale of Two Audio Serials
So you’re intrigued. Now comes the loaded question: where should you start? If you want the whole story, start with BBV’s The Eleven-Day Empire. But is that the best answer? Let’s look more closely at the continuities and differences between the two serials.
BBV: The Faction Paradox Protocols
The first 6 Faction Paradox audio dramas were released by BBV under the Protocols line. These plays were directed by Nigel Fairs and featured Suzanne Proctor as Cousin Justine, Emma Kilbey as Cousin Eliza, and Caroline Burns-Cook as Lolita. The episodes were released in pairs, so that every two CDs delivered a complete chapter of the ongoing story. They are:
The Eleven-Day Empire / The Shadow Play: The story of Lolita’s first attack and Justine’s rite-of-passage, set in the Faction’s home territory (the titular Eleven-Day Empire). The Sontarans, a militaristic race of clones from numerous Doctor Who episodes, are featured.
Sabbath Dei / In the Year of the Cat: Justine and Eliza visit London in 1762, becoming embroiled in court politics, the Star Chamber, the Hellfire Club, and Lolita’s more than royal ambitions. The Peking Homunculi from the Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang are featured.
Movers / A Labyrinth of Histories: Eliza attempts to rescue Justine from a prison world of the Great Houses, and Justine experiences flashbacks of her first encounter with the Faction. The prison world is very likely a take on Shada from the unfinished Tom Baker story from Doctor Who, Shada.
Each 2-cd chapter has a different historical setting, period style, and cast of supporting characters. Only Justine, Eliza, and Lolita appear in all three chapters. Each chapter also incorporates an element of Doctor Who lore to draw fans: Sontarans in the first pair, Peking Homunculi in the second, and a thinly-veiled Shada in the third. The Protocols were discontinued prematurely in 2004 when BBV shelved its entire audio drama line.
The BBV productions were diamonds in the rough. The scripts were written to Miles’s usual high standard, with innovative concepts, dry wit, and an epic scope. Nigel Fairs, who cast, directed, and scored the dramas, threw himself into his work. With a few minor exceptions, the cast was strong and gave inspired performances.
Why then diamonds “in the rough”? Fairs was working with limited means, which had audible consequences for the series. Since his budget did not allow for casting established stars, Fairs drew primarily on emerging talents. Budget pressure also kept casts small and necessitated double-casting.
That said, good casting doesn’t require stars, it requires the right people in the right roles. With few exceptions, that’s what Fairs got. I want to make special mention of Suzanne Proctor and Emma Kilbey, who originated the roles of Cousin Justine and Cousin Eliza. Proctor played both sides of Justine’s personality – the self-doubting acolyte and the driven messiah – with grit and intelligence. More than anyone else, it was Proctor’s performance that first riveted me to the series and kept me coming back. Some have contested the appropriateness of Proctor’s accent (a beautiful Lancastrian lilt) to the role of a 19th century witch. As an American, I confess I have no idea of how fitting Proctor’s accent was for the role. What I can say is that both Proctor’s voice and accent carried a bewitching folk flavor that really suited Justine. I have to confess I was completely smitten. I’m happily married to my soulmate, a Thai woman from exotic New Jersey. But in my next life, let me wed a Lancastrian.
(Audio clip: Eliza encounters Godfather Morlock and Faction Paradox for the first time while on a youthful ramble with her friend in rural England. An excerpt from The Faction Paradox Protocols #5: Movers.)
Emma Kilbey arguably had the harder task in bringing Eliza to life. A “straight man” supporting character whose primary role is to provide the listeners a foothold in a strange world, Eliza’s narrative purpose often threatens to overwhelm her dramatic potential. Kilbey avoided this by leavening Eliza’s scripted cynicism with savvy and world-weary gravitas.
(Audio clip: Eliza matches wits with the enigmatic Sabbath over a game of tarot cards. An excerpt from The Faction Paradox Protocols #3: Sabbath Dei.)
Other noteworthy performances included Ellis Pike as the meticulous, grandfatherly Godfather Morlock, an actor and a role that were pivotal in launching the audio dramas and contributed greatly to their arcane yet humous tone. I was very sorry to see both the actor and the role vanish from the series. Jackie Skarvellis is a hoot as Mary Culver, a saucy mix of extra-dimensional power, prophet, and salt-of-the-earth prostitute. And Kate Dyson’s calm, calculating Demetra Kein is a genuine antagonist to be reckoned with. The actor who surprised me most, however, was Saul Jaffe as Sabbath. Given the character’s enigmatic and imposing name, I was expecting an actor more along the lines of a Magic Bullet star: Gabriel Woolf or Philip Madoc, say; someone with an imposing, cultured, and deep voice. Jaffe’s voice is pitched high and youthful, but he gives Sabbath a thoughtful cunning that leaves you with little doubt as to who is the smartest man in the room. I began a doubter, but was completely won over by the end. A pleasant surprise, and another character I’m sorry to say has not been retained into the Magic Bullet run.
The roles I was least taken with were the double-cast ones. In the interest of full disclosure, while I recognize double-casting is often a financial necessity, as a listener I loathe it. In my experience, very few actors can disguise their voices to the point that they are unrecognizable. And unless you are doing comedy, where knowing the different voices are coming from one actor is part of the joke (a la many a Firesign Theatre or Monty Python sketch), it can really destroy the fourth wall. Emma Kilbey was called upon to voice both Eliza and Godmother Quelch in the first two BBV releases, which she carried off brilliantly on both counts. She was less successful playing Eliza’s aged Aunt Fiora in the last two BBV plays. For whatever reason, young women voicing old women, whether on the radio, T.V., or in the movies, never convince me. Having Linda Bartram play so many supporting roles with cartoonish dispositions (Shuncucker, the Lady / Annabel) also made the Faction Paradox universe seem that much smaller.
As the director / musician / sound designer, Nigel Fairs did more than anyone else to give the first Faction Paradox audios their distinctive sound. As a director, Fairs got rock solid performances from his players, keeping them closely in tune with Miles’s character descriptions. Fairs did play up the farcical elements of the first two BBV releases, The Eleven-Day Empire and The Shadow Play, more broadly than he would in the sequels. The reasons behind this will be detailed in my upcoming interview with Fairs, but the change in tone that followed was welcome.
As a musician, Fairs provided Faction Paradox with its most memorable theme, a haunting calliope / harpsichord melody that captures the series’ dark carnival feel. It too underwent some significant changes over the course of BBV’s 6 releases. I would agree with general opinion that the first soft-rock iteration wasn’t successful, but the somber dirge in the final two episodes remains, for me, the definitive Faction anthem. I like Alistair Lock’s theme for the Magic Bullet series, which calls up vistas of desert wasteland under alien skies. But as good as it is, Lock’s intro / outro music could just as easily be used for an episode of Stargate, or any other Egyptian-tinged sci-fi epic. There’s nothing particularly “Faction Paradox” specific about it, whereas Fairs’s witchy tune couldn’t be used for anything else.
Fairs’s sound work on this series isn’t flawless. Proctor and Kilbey overload their microphones while screaming in an Eleven Day Empire sequence. Lolita’s infant child sounds like a canned sound effect, since the same baby crying track is looped for every appearance. A woman says “Oh” in a background murmur loop from Sabbath Dei so loudly and regularly that anticipation of it becomes a form of Chinese water torture. Generally speaking, Fairs’s scenes never achieve the layered aural richness that gave Alistair Lock’s later work on the series such epic sweep. But as Frog-mouth said in ZBS productions’ Ruby 3, sometimes “low tech does the job”. What Fairs’s sound work lacked in polish it made up for in inspiration, and I mean that sincerely. His shadow weapon sound effects, created by reversing clanging kitchen pans, have more visceral bite than Lock’s synth versions. (Alan Stevens has since written to inform me that Lock’s shadow weapons effects are derived from the sound of a whip-crack.) His jangling Peking Homunculi, stirring like broken clockwork, are hilarious and eerie.
(Audio clip: Justine uses her shadow weapon to dismantle a self-effacing yet self-assured Peking Homunculus that is doing its level best to kill her. An excerpt from The Faction Paradox Protocols #3: Sabbath Dei.)
Rough-hewn it may be, but Nigel Fairs’s sound work has real character, and in this respect it sometimes surpasses Lock’s. It is largely due to Fairs’s hard work and smart innovations that the Faction Paradox Protocols, for all their rough edges, still sound so compelling.
BBV’s Faction Paradox Protocols are not the slickest or most lavish productions. But there’s an undeniable spark to them, and while their delivery is a bit patchwork, their content is always effective and enjoyable. My recommendation would be not to skip them.
Magic Bullet: The True History of Faction Paradox
In 2004, Magic Bullet released their first entry in The True History of Faction Paradox, Coming to Dust. And there was great rejoicing. It hadn’t been at all clear that the audio dramas would continue in any form after BBV ceased production. I actually considered the possibility that Big Finish or Magic Bullet could pick up the series, and even suggested it on the old Outpost Gallifrey message boards. I never expected it to happen, though. We owe Alan Stevens a debt of thanks for taking a chance on the property and giving it a second life.
Although it followed on from the events of the first series and kept the Protocol’s “two CDs per chapter” format, the True History series was set up to stand on its own. So far the following chapters have been released:
Coming to Dust / The Ship of a Billion Years: British occultists summon Justine and Eliza to the Naples of 1763 to investigate a demonic Ape being exhibited there. They are soon swept up in a search for Faction Paradox genetic banks and into a confrontation with the Osirian court, a race of space-faring Egyptian gods. In the shadows, Sutekh (Set) is ready to strike . . .
Body Politic / Words from Nine Divinites: Sutekh claims the ship of Ra with disastrous consequences, Lolita expands her powerbase among the Great Houses, and Eliza lives the myth of Set and Osiris.
Ozymandias / ????: The forthcoming conclusion to the series, which Alan Stevens promises will be apocalyptic.
Whereas the Protocols were open-ended until cancellation, the True History is scripted to be a finite 6 CD series. As such it is less episodic in nature than the Protocols were, with its overarching villains and themes (Sutekh, Egyptian mythology, resurrection) remaining stable over the course of the 6 CDs rather than shifting every 2. Essentially the Magic Bullet series has taken an “Osirian turn”, with the space-faring race of Egyptian gods assuming an important ongoing role. If you are familiar with the classic myth of Set’s murder of his brother Osiris, you are in for a retelling like none you’ve heard before.
(Audio Clip: Sutekh lays claim to what is rightfully his in The True History of Faction Paradox #2: The Ship of a Billion Years.)
The change of production house had significant consequences for the Faction Paradox audios. The most obvious one was the recasting of Justine (Wanda Opalinska), Eliza (Jane Lesley), and Lolita (Jet Tattersall), and the scuttling of nearly all other recurring characters from the BBV run. The reasons behind the recasting will be addressed by Alan Stevens in our upcoming interview. Here the point is qualitative – how did recasting impact the listener’s experience?
Hearing a new voice take on a familiar role always takes getting used to. There are two ways a director can approach the problem. 1. Cast people who sound as close as possible to the originals or 2. cast people who sound different, but capture the spirit of the character in their own way. To my mind, there is only one right answer to the problem. As Brandon Routh discovered in the ill-fated Superman Returns, portraying Superman in the manner of Christopher Reeve doesn’t recreate Reeve’s Superman or pay homage to it: it results in a not-quite Reeve’s Superman. (Routh am Reeve Bizarro!) As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze would say, “make maps, not tracings”, or create, don’t imitate. If the new actors playing Justine, Eliza, and Lolita were to succeed, they would have to do so on their own merit. Fortunately for us Alan Stevens recognized this, and he didn’t cast sound-alikes.
Wanda Opalinska brings a new level of steely poise to Justine. An actress with the uncanny ability to convey stature through her voice, Opalinska does full justice to the harder persona Justine has evolved into. She convinces from the moment you first hear her. [audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/radiodramarevival/08_Eliza_is_summoned.mp3]
(Audio clip: Cousin Justine, summoned by the Society of Sigismondo di Rimini, makes her debut in the True History of Faction Paradox #1: Coming to Dust.)
Given her later entry into the series, Opalinska does not have the opportunity to portray the younger, less assured Justine that Proctor originated. Justine has evolved beyond that phase, having already adopted the mantle of avenging angel. This is hardly Opalinska’s fault, but the fact remains that the older Justine just isn’t as accessible as her younger self. Despite Opalinska’s strong performance, I would find it difficult to care quite so much for Justine if I hadn’t heard Proctor portray her beginnings. Those who come into the True History without knowledge of The Eleven-Day Empire will also be at a loss to understand the source or meaning of Justine’s strange powers.
Where Opalinska quickly made Justine her own, Jane Lesley as Eliza grew on me more slowy. In Coming to Dust she lost the world-weariness that enriched Kilbey’s performance of the character, becoming more quippy sidekick than laconic narrative foil. In The Ship of a Billion Years, however, she enriched her portrayal of Eliza with some nice emotional nuance, after tragedy rendered the character more empathetic than she’d ever been. It wasn’t easy to go from Kilbey to Lesley, but now that I have, I do like where Lesley is taking the role.
Of the three characters, Jet Tattersall’s Lolita sounds and acts most like the original version (Caroline Burns-Cooke’s). Tattersall’s delivery is less arch and more lambent than Cooke’s, and so unaffected that any similarity of interpretation should be put down to synchronicity rather than mimicry. To be perfectly frank, I found her performance even more natural than the original actor’s. Only the most anal-retentive will be put-off by this particular recasting; others may not even notice it.
The move from BBV to Magic Bullet also resulted in noticeable qualitative changes. To get down to brass tacks, it’s evident that the True History worked with a larger budget than the Protocols. Alan Stevens of Magic Bullet was in a position to hire a larger cast bolstered by many veterans of British sci-fi television. This lead to a number of memorable performances, particularly from actors with commanding baritones. Gabriel Woolf reprises his role as Sutekh from the Doctor Who classic, Pyramids of Mars, and his voice drips with all the old sibilant menace. Philip Madoc, another Who veteran, does a fine turn as the War King, a decadent schemer and tactician who finds himself out of his depth. Isla Blair (Ellainya / Merytra) gives an impassioned, surprisingly empathetic performance as the half-demonic leader of the ape-like Malakh. Peter Halliday’s Anubis effectively blends whimsy, scientific curiosity, and quiet dignity with a Jackal’s head. Julian Glover makes Upuat the Oscar Wilde of Egyptian mythology: gossipy, vain, fashionable, and witty. Peter Miles . . . but you get the idea. There’s really an embarrassment of riches here. None of these stars reinvent themselves, all playing character types they mastered long ago. But that mastery is very much in evidence. And if you don’t know these actors by name yet, you will realize why they are stars when you hear them.
One name I didn’t recognize but want to make special mention of is Patricia Merrick as Astarte Marne. This is a small role, defined by quiet defiance and fierce maternal longing. But although Astarte never so much as raises her voice, Merrick gives her an emotional weight even the gods of the series don’t possess. Performances like these impress on me all over again the care with which Magic Bullet puts their casts together.
It’s true that not every supporting role is outstanding. Francesco Calabretta’s (Don Escuro) frantic attempt at ethnic comic relief falls flat in Coming to Dust, and Chris Tranchell (Mortega), though gifted with a classically handsome voice, sounds more like a classically handsome BBC news announcer than a Time Lord in Body Politic and Words from Nine Divinities. Tranchell’s neutral baritone makes me feel like the play will be interrupted for a breaking story every time Mortega makes an appearance. But these are, I admit, minor quibbles.
Magic Bullet also brought greater sophistication to sound design in their Faction Paradox audios. Or rather, they brought in Alistair Lock, which is pretty much the same thing. Lock is one of the most accomplished sound designers ever to work in British commercial audio drama, and he is much beloved by connoisseurs for his early work at Big Finish. The phrase “cinema for the ears” gets abused quite a lot, but in terms of Alistair Lock’s work the term is apt. Lock brought a level of craftsmanship, nuance, and a sense of epic scale to the series that it hadn’t previously witnessed. When Lock conjures up a miniature sun at the heart of a spaceship, or has the winds of the desert force open the gates of the gods, you believe it. My favorite sound effect to spring from Lock’s mind, however, was the Royal telepathic speech of the Osirian court. Authoritative divine gibberish that flies past your ears like a dense stream of code, the effect is surprising when it hits you and weirdly credible.
(Audio Clip: Justine and Upuat attend the royal court of the Osirians in The True History of Faction Paradox #2: The Ship of a Billion Years.)
The result of Lock’s work is that the stakes seem higher, the scope broader, the threats more credible, and the tale more vivid than ever before. There is a majesty and richness to what Lock does that is hard to match.
In conclusion, you can certainly enjoy the True History, with its distinctive Egyptian stylings, impressive cast, and technical excellence, all on its own. It is the most impressive iteration of Faction Paradox on audio, and for pure professionalism I can recommend it without reservation. But I do have a weakness for the Protocols. The BBV releases are rougher, but what they lack in polish they make up for with imagination and verve.
Of course, this is a false problem. There is no reason to choose one series over the other. I strongly advise you to treat your ears and your mind to both.
Next week: An interview with Nigel Fairs, director / actor / sound designer / composer for the BBV Faction Paradox Protocols audio dramas.