Blurb: The present: Leela is doomed, trapped inside a prison cell of a dead race.
The past: After a disaster aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela arrive at the capital city of Synchronis, a world renowned for peace and civility. But an attack by a vicious creature leaves the Doctor in a coma, and Leela is persuaded to fight in the forthcoming Empathy Games, where she discovers that nothing on this world is as it seems.
Review: Empathy Games continues the storyline that started in The Catalyst. Leela is now dying but kept alive by the Z’nai machines. She hears someone crying and tries to raise their spirits with a story from her time traveling with the Doctor. Yet, nothing is quite what it seems either in her story or in the framing sequence. Empathy Games was not originally conceived as part of a trilogy. In fact, author Nigel Fairs felt that he would wrap up the story with Leela dying as he had planned to do for The Catalyst. Once again, he was persuaded to leave things open ended because producer David Richardson hoped to turn this into a trilogy. Thankfully, Empathy Games works either way. If there had never been another story with Leela then it could have easily been accepted as a story about her final moment of life, but instead it simply moves her story forward for the next story in the sequence.
It can’t be overemphasized that the guest star in this story is David Warner. Warner has had a huge and varied career. For anyone who grew up in the 80’s or 90’s, Warner was everywhere – on television, film, and even doing voices for animated series and video games. Warner is a consummate character actor and has had the distinction of playing leading men, villains, and mentor figures throughout his career. Warner really steals the show as Co-ordinator Angell. While Angell is the antagonist of the piece, he is also a man who believes that he’s doing good. This requires a subtle performance and Warner is able to provide exactly what’s needed in the part. The man is obviously compassionate and good-natured, but when he feels that his society is in danger he is also someone who will react without hesitation. Louise Jameson also does a fantastic job as Leela. Once again the older version of Leela has some weight and experience to her voice while she gives the younger Leela the energy and force of personality that she had on television. It’s amazing how well Jameson is able to recreate a performance from almost 40 years ago. Her other characters aren’t as good, although thankfully she only has to play a couple. Her training partner in the Empathy Games has a very annoying accent although to Jameson’s credit it doesn’t sound a bit like her. Her fourth Doctor impression has improved but still isn’t particularly good. At least in this story the Doctor doesn’t say a whole lot, being put into a coma fairly early on and only appearing again towards the end of episode two. Still, she does what she needs to with the roles and her performances sound fine with the idea that this is just the story as Leela can retell it.
Another thing which needs to be stressed is how good the music is. Nigel Fairs not only writes and directs the stories in this trilogy but he also does the musical score. This time the music varies from the grand themes revealing awe inspiring Wonders of the Universe to the somber and melancholy tones familiar from The Catalyst. The music is essential to creating the right atmosphere in the story. It gives the first impressions of the world of Synchronis. It also conveys the appropriate mood for Leela, suspended at the end of life and longing for death. The soundscape is really just another character in the story and Fairs directs it with superb skill weaving it throughout the story and adjusting the mood to highlight the emotions that he wants to convey.
The story itself is pretty interesting. There’s a story about a society in complete denial and the idea of the games as a form of catharsis for an entire civilization. Thankfully, the story also shows the flaws with such a plan. “Evil” or “dark” impulses are all subjective. Despite the fact that every citizen apparently has these removed from, them there is still racism present in the city. It also doesn’t stop some from acting with murderous intent when they feel that it’s necessary, nor does it stop them from torturing and killing innocent creatures all to achieve what these beings perceive as the perfect society. In some ways it feels like the kind of reveal that the classic Star Trek might have pulled off with paradise revealed for the sham that it really is.
It’s also nice that Fairs engages in a little world building. The audience follows Leela as she explores and learns about the world. It helps to create empathy between Leela and the listener but it also makes the story more interesting as the listener tries to figure out exactly what is going on. Fairs once again creates a nice symmetry between the portions that take place within Leela’s narration as well as what is happening in her “present”. Revelations in one affect the context of the other, which makes for a more satisfying experience than many of the companion chronicles, where the framing sequence is simply a pretext for why the story is being told in the first place.
There are some flaws in the story. Fairs succumbs to the same problem that many of the Companion Chronicles do in that he has difficulty with the two-episode structure. The first episode is very much like something out of classic Who with exploration and learning about the world. Unfortunately in a two-part structure that means that all of the action falls into the second episode, which makes it feel rushed. Even worse, the titular Empathy Games only take up a small fraction of that episode and there seems to be a lot more mileage that could have been made from the concept. Another issue is that the Doctor is sidelined for most of the story. In one sense this is fine because the companion chronicles do allow for stories that would never have been told onscreen, yet when the Doctor does appear, the listener finds out that he has caused all sorts of things to happen “offscreen”. Since it’s not part of the narrative it comes across as a deus ex machina to wrap everything up neatly at the end. While the good far outweighs the bad in this story, it seems as if a slight rebalancing may have helped it go from very good to perfect.
Recommendation: The Leela trilogy continues and it’s a new thrill ride as she’s forced to take on a civilization that is utterly alien to her. Jameson is wonderful and words can’t express how much class David Warner brings to the proceedings. There are some neat revelations about Leela’s character and if you don’t feel anything at the end then it’s likely that you don’t have a heart. It is definitely recommended.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Nigel Fairs
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Nigel Fairs
Runtime Approx 60 min.