Epic sci-fi radiophonic drama The Minister of Chance has now reached its penultimate episode, and far from treading water to keep the plot ticking over, the screws are turned and tightened as more than a few shocks and twists are thrown into the mix.
The story so far: the nation of Tanto is under police state rule by the Sezuan, a race who ban science in favour of witchcraft. With scientists imprisoned and forced to work on weapons of mass destruction as the Sezians prepare for full-scale war, the leaders backstab one another as they vie for supreme power. Seemingly only the Minister, an enigmatic traveller, can prevent war and liberate Tanto, but he has recently passed through a doorway into another world to face his mortal enemy the Horseman…
The plot is intricate and cleverly structured, and the various threads start to come together in this penultimate episode. The sci-fi genre is used to great effect to create interconnected worlds that draw some startling parallels to our own, especially in the struggle between the opposing ideologies of science and superstition. The science-oppressing Sezians are quarrelsome by nature, and now as much as ever, the triumvirate of Durian (Paul McGann), Witch Prime (Sylvester McCoy) and Lord Rathen (Paul Darrow) connive to wrest ultimate power from one another with all the treachery, deceit and Machiavellian scheming of a papal conclave.
The Minister of Chance is an ambitiously expansive story. It features several nations as well another world accessed only through a doorway; and with a large cast of characters, some of whom (particularly the Sezians) are brazen liars, the story requires close attention or you may miss out on the subtleties. I hear something new and unexpected every time I return. Whilst it’s a treat to savour an ingenious story that doesn’t patronise or assume a braindead audience, it’s also worth indulging in the first few episodes again before embarking on this one to get the most out of it.
This episode opens with an act of war and witnesses the fallout of the Minister’s encounter with the Horseman. It resolves the Sezian power struggle, which leads up to a breathtaking climax as the major players come together to set up the finale.
Not once but twice does writer Dan Freeman succeed in leading you in startlingly new directions. If you think you’ve guessed how the plot is going to play out, then there’s a good chance that you’ve been looking in completely the wrong direction. This is most apparent with the absolute shocker episode climax, which, without giving away any spoilers, is liable to leave your mouth agape (and possibly even mouthing, “Noooo!” as… well, I’ve said too much already).
Then there’s the character of the Minister himself. Julian Wadham’s authoritative and often pompous creation has previously been warm and assured. In this episode we see the Minister at his most vulnerable and ineffective. He’s still paired off with Lauren Crace’s Kitty, and as she has done throughout, she acts as the moral focal point of the story. However, a bombshell is thrown into the mix concerning her backstory with the Minister, which will force us to re-examine what we think we know about both characters. Let’s just say there’s a good reason why she calls him a “tosser” and physically assaults him. It sets up intriguing possibilities for the future.
The ensemble cast is excellent: mesmerizingly good in fact. The lead actors have such distinctive voices and flair for characterisation that, despite filmic rapid cutting between scenes, you’re never in doubt of who’s speaking. The dialogue is sharp and witty, with not a trace of fat to be culled: it’s the kind of script any actor would jump at the chance to perform. Its quality is reflected in the calibre of performer. The production values are incredible too, with sound effects and a sumptuous string score adding another layer of class and reinforcing the cinematic style of the storytelling.
Jenny Agutter continues to impress as Professor Cantha, and her preaching of rationalism through parables is a neat subversion of familiar religious proselytizing. You feel there is also a crisis looming for her, as the war rockets are named after her: is she another Oppenheimer? Paul Darrow has been consistently brilliant throughout the serial as the menacing Lord Rathen, Durian’s right-hand man; but he really comes into his own in this one. There’s nobody quite like Darrow to growl with menace and deliver deadpan timed to comic perfection simultaneously. The other villains are played by the hugely likeable Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann. The contrast between McCoy’s neurotic and clownish Witch Prime versus McGann’s smooth and charismatic Durian (think of an alien Tony Blair) is one of several wonderful pairings in the drama.
The Minister of Chance is a delightfully immersive world. The best approach is to turn the lights down low, close your eyes and listen through headphones. Your imagination will do the rest, as the remarkable story is brought vividly to life inside your head. It’s pure class, with a healthy dose of magic.
With cliffhanger endings and major reveals invariably consigned to the past for TV drama in the age of instant gratification and internet-leaks, the Minister of Chance is a nostalgic return to the epoch of agonising waits between episodes. With only one part remaining in this series, and a hell of a lot of plot left to resolve and mysteries to explain, episode five can’t come soon enough.
You can download the prologue and the first three episodes (with episode four coming very soon) for free from the Minister of Chance website: http://ministerofchance.com/The_Minister_of_Chance/Episodes.html
Uniquely, the whole production is funded by you, the listener. Find out how you can get involved with episode five here: http://ministerofchance.com/The_Minister_of_Chance/Help_to_make_Episode_5%21.html