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Dan Freeman – The Minister of Chance review

The Minister of Chance is an audiodrama starring Julian Wadham, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Paul Darrow, Jenny Agutter and Lauren Crace

With a star-studded cast and the first two of a potential initial run of six episodes in the bag, The Minister of Chance is a brave, quirky and highly entertaining science-fiction audio drama with an experimental sales pitch. The first two episodes are available to buy as an MP3 – currently the only format it can be acquired in. A prologue to give you a flavour can be heard for free. With a cast including theatrical legends Jenny Agutter and Julian Wadham; cult TV favourites Paul Darrow, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann lending their commercial weight to the project; as well as a commendable set of opening scripts, The Minister of Chance is destined to become a cult favourite through word of mouth.

Science-fiction is a popular genre for audio dramas, which presumably has something to do with the relatively low budget required to create alien worlds and realise huge concepts that are often prohibitive or disappointing on screen. With The Minister of Chance, you can let your imagination run riot, painting the images for the worlds on offer here, where science has been outlawed and witchcraft holds sway; where there are full-scale military invasions of other planets, and fragile doorways created by an elusive Horseman between worlds populated by strange and exotic creatures. The Minister of Chance has the feel of Doctor Who meets His Dark Materials. It has the mild-mannered, eccentric and enigmatic hero of the former, and the inarticulate but principled girl hero who finds her way through doorways into dangerous worlds of the latter.

The notion of a militaristic intergalactic empire that swiftly outlaws science upon its occupied territories is an interesting one, and achieves what the best science-fiction does – an allegorical exploration of contemporary concerns in an original but identifiable setting. Hopefully the conflict between adherents of science and those of witchcraft and superstition will be played out more fully in later episodes, but here it’s left to silky-voiced Paul McGann, governor of the occupying forces, to ensure that the locals submit to their oppressors’ ostensibly democratic rule and, for their own safety, eschew scientific enquiry for a life of ignorant subjection. This doesn’t go down too well at the university and firebrand Professor Cantha (a wonderfully sturdy performance by Jenny Agutter) is one of many rebellious scientists of Tantillion whose punishment for resistance is to be captured and forced to work on missile defences for the occupying Sezuans. (Naturally their witchcraft is no match for science when it comes to designing and building armaments.)

The Minister (Julian Wadham), a mysterious traveller from an undisclosed world, turns up at the Traveller’s Rest Inn in Tantillion looking for the missing professor. His dangerous request for information about a scientist piques the curiosity of Kitty, an inarticulate but intelligent barmaid, and she becomes embroiled in the Minister’s plan to rescue Cantha, which involves leaving her close-knit home town and crossing doorways into other often dangerous worlds with the strange man she has unwittingly befriended.

The performances are universally excellent. Julian Wadham is perfectly pitched as the enigmatic Minister, treading the right line of cold distain, sarcasm, and delightful wit. It’s hard to separate his character from one of the original Doctors of Doctor Who, though his eloquent turn of phrase disassociates him from the current batch in the remake. In fact, aside from exploring other worlds using mysterious doorways between times and places rather than a time machine, the story would work within the world of Doctor Who, though the quality of the scripts and production values are vastly greater than most of what’s on offer within the Doctor Who audio franchise. Possibly the producers are aware of the similarities, which may explain the casting of two former Doctors – Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann. McCoy is glorious as the reptilian-sounding Witch Prime, relishing the opportunity to play a deranged tyrant and giving it full throttle. Jenny Agutter gives a contained performance as the urbane Professor Cantha, and Paul McGann plays against the grain as the scheming Governor Durian. Paul Darrow (Blake’s 7) is, unsurprisingly, a baddie; but it’s a character type he’s superb at and as the thoroughly vicious military leader Lord Rathen, he gets many of the best and funniest lines.

The first two episodes of The Minister of Chance set up a good story and boast great performances. The only problem is that it’s written with a large cast, and with interweaving story strands. This can make it difficult to follow the plot on an initial hearing. Naturally, audiences will pick up clearly on the stories surrounding readily recognisable voices, so Jenny Agutter, Paul Darrow and Sylvester McCoy will draw audiences into their worlds. Unfamiliar voices fare less well and it can be confusing at times as to which character is speaking and whether or not we’ve met them before, though Lauren Crace as Kitty is an exception, beautifully characterising her part as the sassy barmaid from her first scene.

To be honest, it’s more than worth it just to hear Paul Darrow order somebody to “f*** off”, which you feel Avon would frequently love to have growled at Blake. The plot tears along at a terrific rate and there’s some brilliant dialogue (at one point the Minister tells Kitty “When I need your opinion, I’ll… shoot myself.”) A lot of thought has gone into constructing a coherent world in which the story can breathe, and it’s lifted greatly by tackling contemporary issues and concerns. Despite my reservation about the large cast and complex storytelling, the scripts have been written with a radio audience in mind, and as such it should appeal to fans of radio drama as well as devotees of the science-fiction genre. The Minister of Chance is highly enjoyable, and I’m intrigued to know where it will go next.

The first two episodes of The Minister of Chance are available to purchase, as well as a free prologue to whet your appetite on iTunes. For more details, go here:

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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