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10 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 799: The Vampires of Venice

Dear diary,

I don’t know if it’s still a lingering hang-over from just how good The Shakespeare Code looked back in Series Three, but the location work for this story never really felt… right to me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s some lovely footage in here, and some great locations used to represent Venice, but something feels… I don’t know. Off about it all. Maybe it’s because everywhere is quite washed out whereas The Shakespeare Code and The Fires of Pompeii really used colour to make a point in their locations? The Vampires of Venice always seemed to be a little beige by comparison. It also flags up a problem I had with Series Five at the time that I have to admit I’ve been somewhat struggling to find this time around - the feeling of things looking a bit cheap or empty on screen. I think I was probably recalling the Dalek spaceship in some ways, but the scene when the Doctor confronts Rosanna looks really bare. They’ve simply placed a throne prop into an otherwise empty room, and it just doesn’t have the impact that the designs for those other historical I’ve mentioned did.

It’s also a little bit of a shame that having gone all the way to Croatia to get some nice locations for bits of this story, it gets let down by some of the weakest CGI the programme has seen for quite some time. There are a few shots where water has been added in to represent the canals which really doesn’t work (I still don’t know if - five years on - we’re at a point where realistic CGI water can be done on a TV budget), and the clouds during that final sequence are so laughably bad that I’m almost astounded they were actually signed off for broadcast. It’s a good job that Doctor Who has a bit of a history of dodgy effects, because this episode certainly places on the scale somewhere quite high! That said, there’s some nice moments where the human characters are morphed into their CGI counterparts rather convincingly, so perhaps it’s just a case of the money being spent in different places?

All of this somewhat marry the story for me, because I’m too busy looking at elements of bad effects, or musing on how empty some of the shots look, to really get caught up in the events of the narrative. Oh, there’s some very nice moments in here, and it feels as though the writing team have finally landed on the way to write the Eleventh Doctor (this is perhaps the first time that there have been sequences that feel tailor-made for Smith), but I’m just not able to get sucked into the tale the way I have the past week or so. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either - it’s, again, just a bit beige.

If I had to pick a highlight from this story, then it would have to be Rory. First time around, I never really got the love for Rory as a character. H was alright, I supposed, but he wasn’t anything especially special. This time, though, I can see that that’s exactly his charm - he’s the character that we’d all be if we were suddenly thrust into the Doctor’s lifestyle. The Eleventh Hour, The Best Below, and Victory of the Daleks all went out of their way to make Amy look like perfect companion material, but this story does completely the opposite for Rory - making him a bit weak, and a bit silly, and a bit bumbling. His trying to fight off a ‘vampire’ with a broom, and making a mess of trying to get Amy into the school are exactly what makes him work - and I’m looking forward to seeing if I connect better with him on this watch through.

9 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 798: Flesh and Stone

Dear diary,

Yesterday, I mentioned that the Weeping Angels were progressed quite nicely in this story from what we were given in Blink, and watching it again now makes that even more obvious. Have to admit that when this first episode went out I wasn’t overall keen about the various additions made to the ‘lore’ of the creatures, but the more I’ve thought about it over the years (and especially in re-watching this story in the last couple of days), the more I can’t help but notice how clever it all is especially when the Doctor realises what’s happening to Amy;

THE DOCTOR

A living mental image in a living human mind. But we stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don't even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There's an Angel in her mind. 

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated before just how much scarier that makes the Angels. We’ve spent three years by this point thinking of them as being so easily defeated by simply being watched, and then this story comes along and makes even that part of their danger! Brilliant! It’s no wonder they’ve caught on as being the monsters of 21st century Doctor Who with gimmicks like these.

Something else which didn’t particularly work for me first time around which I’ve loved today is the sequence in the forest where we start to see the Angels move. I’m not entirely sure why, but when this was first broadcast, something about that moment felt really off to me. I sort of felt that seeing the statues move somehow lessened the fact that they can move so rapidly when we’re not looking. Actually, though, it’s really creepy, as they all start to realise that Amy can’t really see them. The fact that they start to move so slowly really helps to enhance the terror of the moment for me. It also sort of brings back to something I read recently which I’m starting to think may have been a real missed opportunity - in the original script for The Time of the Doctor, when we get that great shot of all the spaceships gathering over Trenzalore, there was supposed to be a brief shot with the shadows of the Weeping Angels flying past one of the ships. That, for some reason, has always struck me as very scary, and this sequence certainly plays into that same area.

There’s something in this story that surprised me first time around, and it’s done it all over again here - the Doctor starting to work out the mystery of the crack so early on into the season. When I got to see the scripts in the build-up to broadcast, I was only able to read as far as this one (and just outlines of everything to follow), and it struck me as being strange then. Throughout the Russell T Davies years, I’d become so used to the underlying mystery being teased across the series and picked up again when the finale rolls around. Now, suddenly, we’ve had a few weeks of the crack being very heavily used in the final shots of stories, and suddenly the characters are given the chance to use it! The crack - the running theme for the series - is integral to the whole plot of the episode! The Doctor even gets to work out what it is and start describing it.

There’s also that wonderful moment of the Doctor coming back to speak to Amy (who can’t open her eyes) and having his jacket on. The script specified that this was the Doctor from the finale (and the other scripts all featured bonus scenes with various characters who’d be integral for the opening sequence to The Pandora Opens), but I have to say I did enjoy the sheer fury that this moment caused on the forums at the time! People were so convinced that it was a massive production error, and a sign that the new team weren’t paying enough attention… oh, the fun when all was revealed a few weeks later and the humble cake had to be passed around at quite some speed…

8 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 797: The Time of Angels

Dear diary,

When it was first announced (In Doctor Who Magazine, possibly?) that the Weeping Angels were to be making a return for Series Five, I can distinctly recall in-depth discussions with a friend about the ways they could be reintroduced. In the end, we decided that the story ‘had’ to revolve around Wester Drumlins - from Blink - being renovated. The new owners, or possibly the workmen on site, would move one of the four statues in the basement out of position and the Angels would be free to roam once more. If I’m honest, I think this discussion mainly stemmed from the fact that we genuinely wondered what the Doctor’s back-up-plan would be if such an event happened. I don’t think either of us expected what we actually got from this story - an adventure which takes what we know about the Angels from their first outing, and goes on to develop that, and add new facets to them. I’m sure I’ll come back to this more in-depth with tomorrow’s episode.

I can also distinctly recall being a bit non-plussed that River Song would be making a comeback. As I said a few weeks ago, I’d simply not taken to her during Silence in the Library, and the prospect of having her come back to the programme didn’t particularly excite me. Somehow, though, I completely bought into her from the second she appears in the story - which is right at the start, before the opening titles have even kicked in. Watching it again today, I can’t help but think that it’s because she’s just so much fun in that scene. Flirty, dangerous, packing weapons, and using that very Steven Moffat trope of playing with the format of a Time Travel programme to summon the Doctor. The way she catches his attention here is so much better than simply sending a message over the psychic paper, and I love watching both halves of this little narrative play out in tandem. Hello, sweetie!

It also doesn’t hurt that Alex Kingston and Matt Smith have such a great chemistry together from the off. Oh, sure, David Tennant played opposite Kingston very well, and when I watched their two episodes recently I was completely won over in a way that I simply wasn’t in 2008, but there’s something about the way that matt behaves when they share the screen together. I’m wondering if it’s simply because I know that it’s these two who’ll go on to play out the rest of the Doctor/River relationship, or because something just works between them, but it’s already a great dynamic that I can’t wait to watch evolve over the next month.

On the subject of which… we’re four episodes in, now, and i’ve not really mentioned Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor. I’d love to say that I’ve been waiting for today as this episode contains the first scenes he filmed and thus made a fitting point to bring it up, but if I’m honest it’s simply because he’s so recent in my mind as the Doctor that I sort of forget that I’ve not mentioned it! Frankly, he hits the ground running, doesn’t he? He’s fabulous in this episode, and by the time he gets around to stories like Victory of the Daleks he’d really nailed down the way he wanted to play the part. There’s something about his energy that really resonates with me, and simply makes him feel like ‘the Doctor’. As his era originally played out, I couldn’t help thinking that his performance lost something from Series Six onwards, when writers stop writing simply ‘the Doctor’ - which Matt then filters in his own unique way - and start writing ‘the Doctor as played by Matt Smith’.

Everything started to feel a little bit more forced as his tenure went on, whereas here he’s fresh, playing it the way he thinks is best, and perhaps mores than any Doctor since Tom Baker, you get the impression that he’s simply opening his mouth and surprising even himself with the way he’s choosing to do certain scenes. I can’t say that I was against casting someone so young as the Doctor (but, equally, I can’t say I was overjoyed by the choice - I just sort of felt nothing), but when you watch him even in his earliest episodes, you completely understand how he changed Steven Moffat’s stance on wanting to cast an older Doctor - Smith is just so right for this part. I’m actively anticipating the chance to watch him develop the character now, and see if I was wrong first time around about it feeling more forced as time went by. I really hope I was wrong, because he’s won me round all over again, now…

7 March 2015

Publisher: Lulu.com

Written By: Darren M. Bane

RRP: £7.99

Release Date: 23rd January 2015

Reviewed by: Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 7th March 2015

Every week we get a good number of Doctor Who related goodies dropping through the letterbox here at DWO Towers, but one particular goody piqued our interest this week, and it came in the form of Darren M. Bane’s new parody book ‘Dr U Who’.

Join Darren as he attempts to bring an answer to a very important question; “What really happened to prompt the mighty BBC to finally return our hero to prime-time television”?

In doing so, a whole barrage of amusing issues are tackled including the ‘truth’ behind the Missing Episodes and why aliens speak perfect English - to name just a couple!

You’re taken on an accidental journey backwards and forwards in time, with many side trips along the way that will have you sniggering uncontrollably and tittering left, right and centre! 

Through the parody, you will be surprised at how many childhood memories of the show you’ll have jogged, in what can only be described as a lovingly crafted, gentle prodding at the show and the powers that control it.

Clearly, the title isn’t aimed at the younger fan, but anyone who has followed both the classic and new series of Doctor Who will appreciate everything that has gone into Dr U Who.

Highly recommended!

 

+  Dr U Who is Out Now, priced £7.99.
+  Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk

+  Follow DazzaBane on Twitter.
+  Follow DrWhoOnline on Twitter.

7 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 796: Victory of the Daleks

Dear diary,

I think it’s generally accepted, now, that the Paradigm Daleks were a mistake, isn’t it? I’m speaking specifically the design of them, not necessarily the idea of introducing a new type of Dalek. When I went off to see the scripts for this series early in 2010, someone showed me a photo on their phone of one of these new Daleks, and I honestly thought they were joking. Surely not? By the time they made it onto screen a few months later… nope. Just didn’t quite sit right with me. The 2005 design of Dalek manages to take the initial shape of the original, and update it convincingly to look like a little tank. It somehow manages to look exactly the way you always thought the Daleks looked, while also presenting a perfect step forward in the design. The Paradigm models feel like someone has set out to keep something that’s vaguely shaped like a Dalek, but at the same time is altered just that bit too far. Over the years, I’ve seen people claim that this or that is what makes them simply fail to work, and I’ve seen plenty of slight tweaks to this design which do, somehow, make a world of difference. Perhaps the most telling thing of all, though, is that this model goes on to make a cameo briefly in the next season, and play a small part in Asylum of the Daleks (alongside many of their predecessors), and then that’s it - over and done with. In years to come, I suspect this will be looked back on in commentaries with the same kind of bile as Colin Baker’s costume is these days…

But are they the sole reason that this episode generally doesn’t fare too well with fans? It placed at number 193 out of 241 stories last year when Doctor Who Magazine did their poll of people’s favourites (though, in fairness, five other Matt Smith-era stories rated below it). Well, I’ll be honest. I was expecting to write this entry very much from the stance of 'the new Dalek design is a big factor, but the episode is just generally rubbish, too'. Actually, though, it's a bit more complex than that.

The first fifteen minutes or so of this episode are brilliant. They’re dripping with just the right kind of suspense - we know that Bracewell’s Ironsides are Daleks, and therefore that they’re evil and probably up to no good, and the Doctor knows that, too… but everyone else simply can’t see it. The stakes are raised by the fact that we also know that Churchill is right; if these Ironsides are willing to serve the Allied forced, then the war could be over in a heartbeat. When we get as far as the Doctor asking for Amy to tell the Prime Minister about the events of The Stolen Earth and she doesn’t have a clue what he’s on about, the mystery is only heightened. The stakes feel high because it’s the world vs the Doctor, and the Daleks are there for good measure. That sense of unease and intrigue runs right through the first third of the tale, up to about the point that Bracewell is revealed to be a robot (Oh, and actually, isn’t that a brilliant moment? No, we created you! Wonderful!). All of this is heightened with some really brilliant direction by Andrew Gunn which means we often got shots of the Daleks gliding past in the background, and there’s simply no other word for it - they’re skulking. Little glimpses of the eyestalks twitching, and tiny movements that make it absolutely clear that they’re watching the Doctor, and biding their time.

After that, though, my interest more-or-less completely dropped off, and that seems to coincide with the arrival of the new Daleks. Now, it’s not entirely down to the appearance of the new guys (I’ll get onto them in a moment). After that Daleks have teleported up to their ship, all the tension and dread simply evaporates. Suddenly, where everything felt like the stakes were high and there was a lot going on, I find my ability to believe in the story wavering. The absolute pit of the problem has to be the moment we’re told there’s only ten minutes until German bombers reach London. Fine. We’re then remind (a few minutes into this) that Bracewell had plans for ‘Gravity Bubbles’, which would put a plane in space, though he reminds us that it’s only a theory. Fine. It’s all science-fiction nonsense, obviously, but I’ll buy it. But then, as the planes reach the East End of London (presumably around about that previously mentioned ten-minute-mark), Bracewell arrives to announce that they’ve put the Gravity Bubbles into action, and the planes are ready to launch.

I’m sorry, what? I get that Bracewell is Dalek technology, and therefore the Gravity Bubbles are probably Dalek in design, too, and thus he’s able to cobble it together quicker than usual, but the implication is that he’s managed to take it from a theory of something that could work and put it into practice across three planes in under ten minutes. I probably sound ridiculous complaining about something so trivial, but it lets down the entire episode massively for me, because it feels completely false.

The same is true, then, of the later revelation that Bracewell is a bomb. It feels as though the script was finished before someone pointed out that they were running five minutes short, and thus needed to stretch it out a little bit longer. Nothing feels real (or, at least, as ‘real’ as can be expected in a story about robots from oder-space hiding in the Cabinet War Rooms can), in the way that those first fifteen minutes did, and that’s a real pity.

As for the new Daleks themselves… well, I don’t think it helps that they arrive on screen at the same point the episode starts taking a nosedive. They suffer simply by association, because it feels like they show up and a promising episode goes to the dogs. But, equally, the design really is rubbish. I’ve already praised the direction in this episode, and I think it’s fair to say that it does a wonderful job of making the old Daleks here look like metal. The single bronze one on the ship looks lovely, and the two Ironside models are great. They’ve possibly never looked more like metalling beings. But then the New Paradigm turns up, and the daleks have certainly never looked more like they were made of plastic! It just helps to show up the flaws.

Oh, I could go on all day with a back-and-forth on ‘things Victory of the Daleks gets so right’ vs ‘things Victory of the Daleks gets so wrong’. Seriously, I think I’ve made more notes about this episode than any other in ages. I’ve not even begun to mention how great it is when the New Daleks destroy their predecessors because they’re inferior (and the fact that it’s a great little nod to the Daleks destroying Davros back in the day - the new breed will always destroy their creator, because they’ve been designed to think they’re superior), or how rubbish bits of the Dalek ship look - even if I completely get why it would be so empty. In the end, I think Victory of the Daleks needs another couple of drafts. Also, an extra fifteen minutes or so. Give it room to breathe a little, so that we don’t have to have ridiculously complex inventions made reality in a handful of minutes (seriously, even an earlier line in which Bracewell said ‘we’ve got these in development right now’ would have made it better! It would have made the drama more real, too, in the sense of ‘In theory these work, but we’re still only half way through!’), and then try something a little more traditional with the Dalek revamp… This really could have been a classic. Possibly the biggest missed opportunity that the 21st century Doctor Who has ever had.

(Oh, it was heading for at least an ‘8’ with that first third! I’ll stop banging on about it now, though…)

6 March 2015

Last week, DWO brought you a story about the current status of The Underwater Menace DVD (originally due for release in 2014, and rescheduled for 2015), and the fact that it has been removed from the 2015 schedules for the time being.

We were awaiting an official statement from BBC Consumer Products on their intentions with the title and the future of the Classic Series Doctor Who DVD range, and are pleased to report we now have that statement:

“We appreciate that some Doctor Who fans are disappointed that we have not yet been able to release The Underwater Menace on DVD. We would like to reassure everyone that we are currently reviewing the best way to bring fans more Classic Doctor Who titles. Please bear with us - we’ll let you know more as soon as we can.”

A recent petition from fans showing their support for The Underwater Menace DVD to be released, has now acquired over 1000 signatures.

+  Discuss all the Doctor Who DVD releases in the DWO Forums.

[Source: BBC Consumer Products]

6 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 795: The Beast Below

Dear diary,

Every so often in this marathon I find myself approaching a story that I just know I’m not going to like. Usually it’s because I’ve seen it before and it’s left a less than favourable taste in my mouth. When these episodes come along (thankfully, it’s a rare occurrence), I find that one of two things happens. Either the episode ends up being even worse than I remembered (as was the case last week with Planet of the Dead, which went from being one I didn’t remember fondly to being one that I really didn’t enjoy), or it swings the other way and ends up being rated probably a little above what it deserves because I’m so taken aback by the fact that I’ve enjoyed it. I’m pleased to say that today’s episode has fallen into the latter of those two categories.

I wasn’t at all expecting to like this one. First time around it felt like crashing back down to Earth after the highs of the previous week’s massively confident start to the new regime. Since then it’s simply occupied a place in my mind filed away with other stories that I never really intended to watch again in a hurry. But actually, there’s quite a decent little story tucked away in here! Oh, sure, it’s not ever going to win prizes as being the greatest episode of Doctor Who ever made, but it’s a perfectly serviceable one to pass 45 minutes, and if we take Series Five as being intended as a new start for an audience unfamiliar with Doctor Who (which is certainly what the production team seem to have been thinking in places), then it provides a crucial tent-pole in that regard.

We’re introduced to the idea that the Doctor is a Time Lord and the last of his kind. There’s none of the mystery built up around it that we had in The End of the World, because it’s not needed - from the point of view of an established audience, we already know what happened (roughly). From a new perspective the description of the Time War as ‘a bad day’ simply fills in enough to keep the conversation moving. The story gets a little less subtle towards the end when trying to about the point about the Doctor and the Star Whale being very similar (they make the point twice in the Tower of London, and then just in case you don’t get it, Amy comes to find the Doctor again and spell it out as plainly as she can), but on the whole it works.

There’s also some rather nice design work in this episode to help set it apart from the tone of Doctor Who from the last few years. One of the things that felt a shame first time around was that this story didn’t feel like it was following the same fresh new look established with The Eleventh Hour, and while it’s certainly true that this is perhaps less honed in places, it certainly does have its own unique style, and it’s really rather lovely. I’d never noticed, for example, the way that the elevators are designed to resemble the London Underground - right down to the tiling on the walls outside them. That’s a nice touch.

And while I’m on the subject of design, I’m going to mention it, because I know I’ll never get around it it otherwise: the new TARDIS. I remember not being all that fussed on the white window frames and shade of blue on the exterior when it was first revealed. I didn’t dis*like it, I just didn’t particularly love it, either. Now, though, I have to confess that I really *do like it. The interior… maybe it’ll grow on me this time around, but I was never that fond of this console room. Something about it just felt that bit too much like a set, in the way that the previous version of the room didn’t. It just doesn’t quite gel with me in the way that the coral did immediately. Not to worry, though, because the greedy Eleventh Doctor gets two console rooms, and his next one is much more up my street…

5 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 794: The Eleventh Hour

Dear diary,

In the weeks leading up to the broadcast of The Eleventh Hour, I couldn’t have told you the last time I’d been more excited for the start of a series. I’d largely managed to avoid ‘spoilers’ throughout the 2009 filming, so the trailer released after David Tennant’s departure really did a good job of whetting my appetite ready for the new run. But then, in early 2010, I was working on a project which meant I had to be completely up-to-date with Doctor Who, so that the material would still be relevant by the time it hit the shelves. This meant having to do the most exciting thing in the world - go and be locked in a room at the BBC and read some of the scripts, as well as a general outline, for Series Five. All that work avoiding spoilers was for nothing, because this was the ultimate spoiler. I found, in the long run, that it hampered my enjoyment of several episodes on broadcast, because I’d spent months imagining them one way in my head only to be disappointed when they were presented differently on screen.

Largely it’s because I couldn’t have predicted the unique way that matt Smith would play the part, and I don’t think any of us could have predicted the huge shift in tone that the series undergoes from this episode on. Just look at that long shot which looks around Amelia’s garden before leading us to the scared little girl in the house. It’s like a film! And it doesn’t stop there - Adam Smith is one of my favourite Doctor Who directors, and I wish he’d come back to do more than the handful of episodes he was responsible for in this series. The rest of the episode looks completely unlike anything we had in the Russell T Davies era - it properly starts out confident and strong, proclaiming itself to be the start of something new.

Even to this day I can’t decide wether that’s the best thing or not. Everything has changed at this point. New Doctor. New Companion. New Man-In-Charge. New TARDIS interior. New TARDIS exterior. New Sonic Screwdriver… before the series is out we’ll be able to add New Daleks to the list. This is getting on for as bigger a shift in direction as the one between Seasons Seventeen and Eighteen in the ‘classic’ run, and I don’t think we’re a million miles away from the big change of Seasons Six to Seven. In some ways, I like that it’s such a confident casting off of what went before - a programme in a new form which is proud to stand up and be its own thing. On the other, as the original broadcasts played out, I couldn’t help but think it came across as a bit of a middle finger to the five years immediately preceding it, almost as a ‘you did it wrong’. With hindsight, I think it works, and it’s certainly not any kind of disrespect to the things which came before. It’s simply Doctor Who reinventing itself almost totally, which is just what it’s good at.

So, as for The Eleventh Hour as an episode… oh, it’s good, isn’t it? I’d spent so long dying to see what it looked like on screen and then in the run up to the broadcast, I found myself booking a date for the same evening. Even as it was being arranged, there was a little voice in the back of my mind that said ‘You can’t see her that night! That’s the start of the new Doctor Who season!’. Oh we’ve all been there. And what do you do? How do you choose? I went for the simple option - have your cake and eat it. Let’s get pizza at mine and watch the new series of Doctor Who. Yes, that’s romantic. I’m not entirely sure if she was at all keen on Doctor Who by the time the episode had finished (she certainly hadn’t been before hand), and was probably a little put-off by the fact that the date ended early so I could sit and watch the episode again later that night (I know, I know, priorities), but she did return for episodes sporadically throughout the rest of Series Five, so it wasn’t a complete bust!

Oh, but it was good. Immediately after broadcast, the figures of the Eleventh Doctor (in a two-pack with a ‘raggedy’ version) and his new Sonic Screwdriver were released. I’d managed to pick up my figure earlier in the day and took great delight in adding him to the shelf alongside all the other Doctors. Matt Smith had won me over completely, and we were standing at the dawn of an exciting new era. That’s the best feeling in the world…

4 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 793: The End of Time - Part Two

Dear diary,

I can’t make my mind up as to wether the Tenth Doctor era has gone by quickly or not. I’ve spent more episodes with David Tennant’s Doctor than I have with any other since Peter Davison, but in some ways it feels like this Doctor has only just arrived on the scene. In others, it feels like he’s been around for ages. When I think back to specific episodes - anything from Series Two, for example - it feels like a lifetime ago, and the fact that Tennant physically aged quite a bit in the part makes that feeling all the more pronounced. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel all that long ago since he was promising trips to Barcelona, or bringing down Harriet Jones’ government.

But there’s no denying what an impact the Tenth Doctor made - had the profile of the programme ever been higher? Even now, with the show simulcast around the world to the biggest possible audience, it doesn’t feel like it’s at quite those dizzying heights of around 2007/2008, when you could barely move for Doctor Who. It was on the cover of the Radio Times every other week. The shops were stuffed with products of every kind. There were two sister shows running throughout the time of the year when the main show wasn’t… and everyone, even people who didn’t watch Doctor Who seemed to agree that David Tennant was one of - if not the - best Doctors ever.

And after all that… oh, I still can’t help but think that this finale is just a bit nothing for him. As with yesterday, I’ve found a lot more to enjoy in today’s episode than I was perhaps expecting to, but something about it just doesn’t gel with me. I wasn’t all that connected to the episode while watching, and nothing really spurred any particular excitement in me. I think it’s still the hangover of that feeling in 2009 of being a spectre at the feast, just wanting this Doctor to hurry up and clear off so we could get to the new chap. It certainly didn’t help that immediately after the broadcast of this episode a trailer for the upcoming Series Five appeared on the BBC website, and it was fifty times more exciting than anything which happened in this story.
Something I am pleased about, though, is that I’ve changed my mind about the sequence of the regeneration itself. For years now - ever since broadcast, really - I’ve thought that the Doctor should rage at Wilf, the final words of the Time Lord Victorious. He should scream, and shout, rage against the dying of the light, and then when Wilf tells him to simply go… he should. Okay then. You’re right. My life is more important than yours. See ya! I always thought that he should go and get his reward at that point. Venture off and see all his friends one last time. Martha, Mickey*, Jack, Sarah Jane, Rose… all those shining people who kept the Lonely Angel going. Kept him fighting. And then he should return for Wilf, who’s sad and alone in the booth, tell him that it’s his honour to give his life for such a man, and then we should pick up with the sequence as seen. Largely, I think I’d always thought of that as a better narrative because it means we can have the Doctor regenerate in the box - the Doctor uncurls from that foetal position and it’s Matt Smith! - but watching it today, I’m happy to admit that I was wrong; it works just fine the way it is, and the emotional beats hit at just the right points.

I’ve brought it up a few times in the last couple of weeks, but I can’t let today’s episode pass without giving one final mention… Bernard Cribbins really is wonderful, isn’t he? Can you imagine that there could have been a version of Doctor Who where he only made that on brief cameo appearance in Voyage of the Damned and then that was it? Horrible thought. A real pity that he had to step back into the programme in circumstances where another actor had passed away, but what a tribute to give - one of the best performances the show ever has. I’m so glad that he was given such a prominent role to play in these final episodes of the era, getting to really showcase his range and make you laugh out loud (‘God bless the cactuses!’) and tear up (‘I don’t want you to die!’) in equal measure. He really steals the show from Tennant in his final episodes, and I don’t think anyone could mind.

And now, we’re off into a bold new era! At the time, I found the Matt Smith years (well, the first couple, at least) far less to my liking than the previous few years of Doctor Who had been, and I’ve never really gone back to give them a second chance. With the exception of tomorrow’s Eleventh Hour and the 50th Anniversary special in a few weeks, I’ve never rewetted any of this era, so it’s like seeing it fresh and new, which is a very exciting thought.

It also means that I’m drawing to the very end of this mammoth project, and so I need your help! I need to decide how I’m going to be ending things. The original plan, way back in January 2013 when The 50 Year Diary kicked off was to stop with the 50th Anniversary. Nice and neat - hence the name - to cover every story from the programme’s first half-century. But then Matt Smith went and left just one episode later, so I thought I’d include that one, too, just to round off the era nicely. But now I’m wondering - with Series Nine only a few months away, and having enjoyed Series Eight so much when it was broadcast last year, do I carry on for an extra fortnight and do those episodes, too? That way, I’ll have covered all the episodes of Doctor Who. Let me know which approach you’d rather in the comments; do I finish with Time of the Doctor, or Last Christmas?

 

*I’m trying not to complain about the things I’m not so keen on in today’s episode, because it’s nice to keep things a bit nicer for a Doctor’s departure, but I have to grumble about the Mickey and Martha pairing. Not because I’ve specifically anything against the two of them getting together, but because it’s just another notch in that belt of Martha’s character being a bit rubbish after Series Three. She first gets engaged to a bloke she met in an alternate timeline for about 24 hours, despite showing very little chemistry with him in the first place, and then suddenly ditches him to marry a bloke she aired only a couple of scenes with in another episode (did Micky and Martha actually speak to each other in the Series Four finale?). It just felt so odd at the time, and it still doesn’t sit right five years on…

3 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 792: The End of Time - Part One

Dear diary,

At the time, I recall being really disappointed with David Tennant’s exit from Doctor Who. I mused the other day that knowing almost a year in advance who his replacement was going to be and only having a few scattered episodes here and there (of varying quality) meant that by the time this two-part story rolled around I was just ready for the new Doctor. The regeneration was just another thing in the way of getting on with something different, and frankly more exciting. Then this story aired, and I wasn’t keen, and the same was true for almost my entire circle of friends. The general opinion among us was that the brilliant Russell T Davies era had gone out really feebly, and it was a pity after five years which had brought us some really brilliant television.

So I was pleased to find that today, there’s lots that I’ve found to enjoy about this one. The Doctor arriving on the planet of the Ood at the start (still not quite as impressive as the matte shots, but certainly a more interesting area than the basin of ‘snow’ the TARDIS put down in during Series Four), and the fact that he’s spent such a long time running away from his summons (I really wish they’d gone with the suggestion Davies makes in The Writer’s Tale, though, that the Doctor should emerge from the TARDIS with a few flecks of grey in his hair, as though he’d done anything and everything to put off this moment). In fact, everything on the Ood planet is rather nice, and I love the design of the ‘Elder Ood’. it serves as a nice way of bringing the audience up-to-speed with the events of the Master’s last story, too, while making it feel part of the narrative.

For some reason, last time around, I took issue with the Master’s resurrection, but I can’t for the life of me remember why, and I can’t say I’ve got any problem with it here - again it’s something I’ve rather enjoyed. And then there’s everything between the Doctor and Wilf, and that beautiful moment where the Doctor ruminates on the fact that people have had to wait centuries to meet him again, and then Wilf manages it in a single afternoon, as though he’s drawing all the threads together in his own mind…

But not everything is working for me, and I’m perhaps not surprised to find that the same things are bugging me this time around that did last time. The biggest one has to be the Master’s ‘superpowers’, for want of a better word. I just find that they’re taking me out of the narrative every time they crop up. It’s not the skeletal part which bothers me (last time, I know I wasn’t keen on that, but this time around that aspect kind of works for me), it’s the mega jumps which are causing me an issue. It’s most distracting just after an incredibly powerful scene between the Doctor and the Master, in which our hero realises that the drums in his foe’s head are real… and then the Master uses his energy to propel himself into the air like Iron Man. The entire beauty of that scene was completely shattered for me by that final moment. I’ve not even got an issue with the Master going berserk at that point - it’s very in character for this incarnation - but the ‘flight’ just doesn’t work for me at all I’m afraid.

The other thing that I’ve always found so off-putting that I can’t help but look out for it and notice it even worse now if the Vinvocci make-up. For some reason, the green of the faces was added digitally on this occasion instead of as regular make-up, and it doesn’t match with the bits of prosthetic at all. It really stands out like a sore thumb, and it’s a real shame that such a botched experiment occurs in - of all episodes - David Tennant’s final story.

Oh but enough with the whining, because you know what? That moment at the end, with the big speech about the return of the Time Lords, where we pull back from planet Earth and pan round to see the Narrator, catching sight of a Gallifreyan collar only a fraction of a second before he announces who they are… it’s so beautifully executed, and is probably the best cliffhanger of the entire Russell T Davies era. Now that’s one to go out on…

2 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 791: Dreamland

Dear diary,

Much like The Infinite Quest alongside Series Three, I never really paid all that much attention to Dreamland. Because I’d taken a bit of a step back from Doctor Who in 2009, I’d missed a lot of the build up around it, and I have to confess that the broadcast completely passed me by. I picked up the DVD not long after, intending to give it a watch, but it’s simply sat still in wrapper on the shelf for the last five years. There was something quite exciting about unwrapping it for the marathon today - it’s like finding a missing episode and getting to experience it for the first time.

I’d been warned earlier this week not to expect too much, and especially that the animation in this one was ‘atrocious’, but actually I have to say I’m rather fond of it. Certainly, I prefer it to the style used for The Infinite Quest, and there’s something about the likeness of the Doctor in this one which really works for me. I don’t know if I can claim that it actually looks like David Tennant, but it certainly looks like the character of the Tenth Doctor, and that’s good enough for me. Oh, sure, there’s a few ropey moments scattered throughout - the way that doors open, or any time we get a look at character’s feet while they’re walking, for example - but on the whole I was hooked in enough to not really bother about that.

Which is the real point with this one - the story captured me enough to make me overlook the fact that I was watching an animated Doctor Who episode, and instead just allowed me to enjoy a fairly decent Doctor Who story. I won’t say it caught me right away - the first ten minutes or so proved a struggle, and I did almost think I was just going to give up half way and write about the fact that I was bored. Once things were properly underway, though, I suddenly found myself really captured - and enjoying it!

Oh, sure, the story is a bit simplistic in places (and more than a little bit clichéd), but that kind of works with the style of the whole piece - it’s a little bit of light entertainment before we head off for the Tenth Doctor’s final stand. A good way for him to have a nice simple adventure before the end. Plus it’s ignited an interest in all that ‘UFO’ nonsense again, and I’ve spent the last couple of hours enjoying increasingly outlandish ‘alien’ sightings on the internet, so that’s helped to pass an afternoon when there’s probably real work I could be getting on with.

What’s been most interesting, though, is thinking about the fact that this episode could very easily be made live action these days. In 2009, this likely would have felt a bit large scale to pull off in 45 minutes live-action, but almost all the elements have since turned up in the programme proper. The ‘American outback’ setting (complete with diner), the standard alien based on ‘Greys’… even the giant insect creatures could be pulled off now in more-or-less the same way the robots were created for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship - it’s interesting to look back and see how far we’ve come in such a sort time.

But I can’t put it off any more. Finally, from tomorrow, we’ll be headed for The End of Time itself… 

1 March 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 790: The Waters of Mars

Dear diary

Oh, this felt more like it. After my disappointment in Planet of the Dead, I’d sort of drifted out of Doctor Who during the middle months of 2009. Oh, I never packed it in completely, but I rather avoided keeping all that up-to-date with the latest news and trailers. A lot of that had to do with avoiding spoilers for the upcoming Eleventh Doctor era, which began filming in the middle of the year (I failed spectacularly at this, as I’m sure I’ll discuss in a few days). It meant that I didn’t see a trailer for this one until a few days before the broadcast, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t really all that bothered by the prospect of incoming Who. By this point, I sort of just wanted the new Doctor to start already - knowing that Tennant would be leaving and Smith replacing him so far in advance, and without having many episodes to bridge the gap just made it feel like an incredibly long and drawn-out process!

When I did get to see a trailer for The Waters of Mars, though… oh, it looked interesting. It completely piqued my interest and got me excited for broadcast - everything a trailer was supposed to do. And then the episode aired, and I thought it was good. It was very good. I even recall being a bit annoyed with the friend I’d watched it with, because they fell asleep about three minutes int (it had been a long day), but all was forgiven when he caught up with the episode a few days later and text to say how much he’d enjoyed it.

The thing that really gets me - above and beyond the design, or the casting, writing, direction, which I’ll come to in a moment - is the idea at the heart of this one. We’re so used to there being moments in history that the Doctor can’t touch because they’re part of established events - we had one last season in The Fires of Pompeii, for example - but I don’t think we’ve ever had a story quite like this one, where we’re visiting the future, and the Doctor’s unable to do anything because it’s just as fixed as any of those things from our history that we know so well. Something about that idea really chimed with me, and I loved the way that they chose to demonstrate the situation, with the flashing up of news reports. It’s simple, but it’s very effective.

And on top of that, the Doctor goes and flaunts the rules anyway, by making changes to the events! Oh, that’s when The Waters of Mars kicks into gear. Oh sure, there’s lots to really enjoy before then, but once time itself stars fighting back against the Doctor and he simply rages his way through it… that really struck me, and it’s what made the episode for me. I mused a few weeks ago during Utopia that there’s something great about David Tennant’s darker side as the Doctor, and we get to see it properly unleashed here. After which, we get the perfect example of that ‘hubris before the fall’ that I was so keen on finding during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. The Doctor goes too far. He breaks all the rules. That’s not what does it, though. What makes it all the worse is that he then gloats about it. Look at me! Look how clever I am! And right then, when he’s king of the universe, and teetering dangerously on the brink of tipping over into total darkness… Ood in the snow. What an image. Came as a total surprise to me, and I love it. Such a great way to end it. 

I risk here simply pouring all the praise on those last ten-to-fifteen minutes of the episode because they’re the bits that really make it for me, but I can’t let today’s entry go by without at least touching on the rest of the story. I rather like the Flood - they’re the scariest monsters that the Russell T Davies era creates (take that, Weeping Angels), and probably about as far as you’d dare push it for the programme at that point. These days, with a slightly later time slot and seemingly a different intention at where the show is pitched, perhaps they’d go further, but I look at some of the scenes with these ‘Water Zombies’ (for want of a better phrase), and I’m genuinely surprised they made it through into the show as it was in 2009. And these are the toned down version!

What makes them all the more scarier has to be the direction of the episode. Those first two transformations we see, where the focus is on a character in the front while we don’t quite get to see what’s happening to the other person in the background is ten times more effective than simply showing it happening. We get a great impact when that does happen with the Doctor discovering a ‘conversion’ in progress, but that’s been shot in its own way, and the horror is simply ramped up by the confirmation of what we thought we saw on the two occasions before.

So, on the whole, I think The Waters of Mars is largely made by that last quarter, but there’s plenty of merit to be found in the rest of the story, too. One of the highlights of the Tenth Doctor era for sure - and the perfect way to gear up for the big finale ahead…

1 March 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Matt Fitton

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“Still looking for a way out of E-Space, the TARDIS crashes to Isenfel - a realm of snow and ice. Snarling beasts stalk the frozen plains, a feisty princess leads the hunt, and a queen in an ice palace rules over her loyal subjects.

But this is no fairytale kingdom, and everyone in Isenfel knows the price of survival. While Nyssa and Tegan uncover deadly secrets hidden in the palace, Turlough flees for his life across the tundra.

And as for the Doctor... he only ever wants to change things for the better. But in a world such as Isenfel, such a hope may not even be possible.

***

Welcome to Isenfel.  Weather: cold.  Attitudes: frosty.  Population number: frozen.

The second play in this trilogic romp through E-Space, Equilibrium sees the TARDIS land (well, crash-land) in an ice-clad world of regal charm, barren landscapes, and technological disaster, where very quickly the TARDIS crew find themselves welcomed into the icy faux-mediaeval realm, and the Doctor is lusted after for his knowledge of science whereas Turlough is lusted over for his hair.  All is not as well as it would appear though, and the Balancer is soon on the scene, putting meaning behind the story’s title: Equilibrium is required, and the Doctor isn’t going to like that at all.

Matt Fitton, the script’s writer, does a great job in world building here, painting the scenery and atmosphere in but a few lines, and is aided by some lovely sound design and jovial music by Lauren Yason and Richard Fox.  Even the CD cover shows the TARDIS crew looking a bit blue, with Turlough looking like he’s just got for the last biscuit in the pack but found it empty.

I mention Turlough early on here as it’s him that shone brightest of all the regulars for me in this play.  A lot of attention is paid to Nyssa for how much more development her character has been given by Big Finish over the years, but Turlough has also been afforded plenty of dramatic and humorous moments, and Mark Strickson is a fantastic actor who often gets overlooked, in my opinion unfairly.

You have Adric, who gets attention for very different reasons; Nyssa, so beloved of Big Finish; Tegan, so loud and present; Peri, so fleeting and connected to The Caves of Androzani, that most loved tale; and even Kamelion gets attention through being so poorly used.  Poor Turlough often gets ignored, which is an insult to the character and Strickson, so it’s nice to see that addressed here.  He gets a decent slice of the action, a subplot with the equally interesting Inger.  You know how Big Finish often bring characters back with the line “Well, as soon as s/he was in the studio, we knew we wanted them back!” and a wink to the audience? This is one of those rare cases where it would be both completely welcome and potentially exciting.

Nyssa also gets treated very well, especially in Part Four where her relationship with the Doctor in her older guise is better observed than almost any time else since that particular storyline began.  If the show needed a mission statement, then Nyssa’s words of encouragement provide it.

Overall, Fitton’s script is very, very good.  It fits in perfectly with E-Space as Christopher H Bidmead executed it, and indeed it could quite easily fit into Season Eighteen with little difficulty, with its themes of science vs. regality, entropy, isolation and trying-to-escape, as well as the TARDIS being used as much for its technology as for its ability to take our heroes from A to B.

Where it really excels though is in the final episode (the diametric opposite of nigh-on every other Doctor Who story in existence, then) where the pace slows enough to let tragedy, character and atmosphere really shine.  By the time someone has described death as “an absence and a presence”, you know you’re listening to some of the most affecting drama Big Finish has put out in a while, and some of the deepest.  You care about this world, so neatly built in so short a span of time; you care about the characters, fleeting though they may be.  Fitton has pulled off something remarkable here, and the actors are all game.

Indeed, Equilibrium provides us with the best female guest cast Big Finish have had for absolutely ages, with Ella Kenion doing well in the role of Romy, but Annette Badland, and Joanna Kirkland in particular excelling as Queen Karlina and the aforementioned Inger, respectively.  The only criticism I can really pick (and in all honesty I try not to look for things to pick away at) is that Romy as a character is perhaps a bit more predictable than the others (the kitchen servant with a heart of gold and a family to protect!) and Kenion’s voice is at times rather similar to Janet Fielding’s, which makes one of the cliffhangers a tad tricky to decipher first time around.

It’s a minor thing though, and it’s certainly not enough to not warrant a full ten out of ten score for this play.  It builds in quality as it goes along, showing its cards quickly enough to milk the drama but not so quick as to run out of steam, and in its final throes gives us some of the best acting and dialogue the range has ever offered: Queen Karlina is someone you ache for, Inger is someone you want to see back by Turlough’s side, and the Doctor needs Nyssa in a way that makes complete sense, which only makes you think that the next play, The Entropy Plague, will break a heart (or maybe two hearts) come its conclusion.

With a cliffhanger ending leading into the final play of this trilogy, the appetite is truly whet and I’m certainly ready to see what becomes of E-Space this time around, but I would have gladly lingered longer still in Fitton’s beautiful prose and world.  A magnificent play.

1 March 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Scott Handcock & David Llewellyn

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“Times change…

Romana is approaching her final term of office, and hopes to leave her world in a state of peace and harmony. Narvin is concerned about the implementation of a controversial Precog programme, one that seeks to predict the Time Lords’ future. Ace is an operative for the Celestial Intervention Agency, having learned the art of interference from one of the best…  

And somewhere, across the stars, an ancient force is stirring: one of the Time Lords’ greatest heroes is returning to our universe. But he may also prove to be their greatest threat.

When the history of Earth is threatened, and an ancient conspiracy reaches the heart of Time Lord government, can even Romana’s closest allies truly be trusted?

Time will tell… but by then, it may already be too late.”

***

Gallifrey.  Ah, Gallifrey.  Much like the planet itself, this is a series that stubbornly refuses to actually die despite us being told it has gone for good: it’s the Hex of the Doctor Who spin-off world.  Series 3 was the end, but then came all the others, years after, and that was definitely the end of it all, and then came this play, with a series announced to follow in 2016.  For a dead series, that’s quite some staying power.  I know of series alive and well that would kill for that longevity and dogged determination for survival.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though.  Let us instead look to Intervention Earth, this year’s entry for the series.  Set several years (lifetimes, even) after one of the many conclusions to Gallifrey, this four-part story takes place on Gallifrey itself and features the third incarnation of Romana, Ace and Narvin trying to thwart ne’er-do-wells from bringing Time Lord despot Omega back from the universe of anti-matter and into ‘our’ world.

For the most part, this serves as a really good reboot for the series, giving us a good flavour of the treachery, political bickering, Gallifrey mythology writ large, and action that the series large dealt in with spades.  True, the politics here are slim and largely centred around Narvin wanting more respect in his profession and, true, the treachery is more pantomime villainy than grand betrayal, but it’s a good flavour for aspects we know well.

We’ve had two performances prior to this from Juliet Landau as Romana III and she continues well here, giving us a blend of the haughtiness and confidence of Mary Tamm crossed with the acidic wit and blistering intelligence of Lalla Ward, with her own, reserved and timid but calculated cool.  I am certainly keen to see where she takes the character next, if afforded the opportunity to by Big Finish.

Sophie Aldred here is in her all-grown-up Ace-guise, an agent of the CIA and unsure as to when and how she arrived in that position.  Big Finish have rather flip-flopped around with Ace over the years, initially changing her fate from that which was always planned for her in Season 27 (and indeed changing much of what was planned for Season 27 at all when making that season year later, or at least what purported to be that season at any rate), and then showing us in UNIT: Dominion that, actually, she did end up on Gallifrey after all.  We’ve had whispers that all this is to come since, and now here we are, with Ace a fully-fledged CIA agent, the best of the best by all accounts.  As a glimpse of what’s to come, it’s interesting, I’m just fearful that the journey leading to it will take another six-or-so years whilst Ace’s direction is steered in various directions once again.

Of the guest cast, Stephen Thorne is marvellous as Omega, delivering his lines with a punch and authenticity, as if he only recorded The Three Doctors a couple of weeks ago, but he is sorely underused.  The same can be said of Gyles Brandreth, who puts in a great performance as Rexx and, for me at least, was the star of the show.

As for the script and play itself, it is clear that writers Scott Handcock and David Llewellyn are having fun with it all, but things fall apart in the final episode.  For a start, Omega’s great plan isn’t half as clever or unexpected as the writers seem to think it is, and having the cast repeatedly tell us how clever the plan is doesn’t endear me towards it any further.  Instead, it just makes the regulars look fairly silly, as traitors can be spotted a mile off, the twists likewise.  Where it really scores an own goal is at the very end, which will completely alienate anyone not familiar with the series’ past, thus totally blowing the notion of it being a jumping-on point for new listeners out of the water.  To put it mildly, it’s frustrating.  To be stronger on it, it’s an incredibly bad move.

Added to this is a sound mix which isn’t up to usual standards, with dialogue often sounding muffled and hidden, a fair distance away from Big Finish’s usual high standards.  The music was fine but not the best, going for bombast over any real mood enhancing, but worse than that is that it is overwhelming in the mix, rendering some lines very hard to pick out.

So, it’s not all glowing for Intervention Earth by any stretch.  The ending suggests more to come, though whether this will be what we see come 2016 and the new series of Gallifrey is a mystery at the time of writing this.  Perhaps like Ace’s fate we’ll be waiting a while longer.  I’ll certainly be listening, but hope that some of the flaws from this escapade are gone by the time the future unfolds.  Gallifrey falls no more: let’s just hope it lives up to the glory days of the past.

1 March 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Justin Richards

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“Cut off from the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela find themselves stranded on a small island.  But they are not alone.  It is 1907, and members of the Caversham Society have gathered on the hundredth anniversary of the death of Mannering Caversham, the greatest Magic Lanternist who ever lived.

But Caversham was also a supernaturalist who claimed to have conjured up a demon from the depths of hell. As people start to die, the Doctor begins to wonder if Caversham’s story might have more than a grain of truth in it. Can the Doctor and Leela discover what really happened to Caversham a century ago?  And if they do, will they live to tell the tale..?”

***

Audio can be a tricky medium to get right.  Often cited as a very visual medium despite the absence of picture, it conjures up images through sound and description alone, uninhibited by budget limitations and limited only by the mind.  That’s not to say that it comes without problems: lack of visuals means a more descriptive approach to storytelling at times, and that in turn can be problematic, leading to dialogue which sounds very unnatural (“Oh! Look! That green door is half-open with a broken handle! How strange!”)

Credit where credit is due, Big Finish is usually very good at avoiding this sort of thing.  Big Finish is also very brave with what it tries to do with its plays, and on paper, a play about lanterns casting shadows and the danger that entails seems an odd beast for audio, but Justin Richards has given it his best shot here all the same.

The first episode of The Darkness of Glass is easily the strongest, setting up an isolated group of illusionists and enthusiasts in a house with the Doctor and Leela whilst the rain falls down, the wind batters all, and there’s something wicked in the glass.  It loses points for explicitly drawing parallels with Fang Rock by having Leela nod to it in such a way you can almost hear her winking to the imaginary camera, but that’s a minor point in an otherwise near-flawless opening.  Richards has a gift for distinctive voices, which is never more apparent than it is here, and Nicholas Briggs’s direction helps milk the tension for all its worth.

Sadly, it undoes a lot of this in Part Two, or more specifically, with the finale.  I mentioned at the start that audio can sometimes fall into the trap of being unnaturally over-descriptive, and to some extent it can probably never escape that, but here it felt so much so that I found myself increasingly disappointed that the resolution wasn’t so reliant upon people telling us exactly what is going on with various props, though I appreciate also that doing that in sound alone would have been impossible.

Maybe, though, that suggests that it wasn’t the best story, or ending at least, to be committed to sound.  I don’t know for sure as the first episode is so very strong, but it took this listener out of the moment at least, which was a shame.

There is a lot to celebrate still though.  The setting, though familiar, is fun and executed well, and the cast is universally good.  (The extras for this release show Baker and Briggs to be especially playful and happy throughout proceedings, and that certainly seeps through into the finished product.)

A special mention should definitely go to Jamie Robertson, whose soundtrack is brilliantly evocative of the original Fourth Doctor/Leela era and perfectly suited to the script, too.  One thing which Big Finish really excel at with these plays is music that fits like a glove, so often done that it is overlooked a lot of the time, so I hope flagging it up here goes some way to rectify this on my part.

Another thing I want to highlight here is how much better the two-part format is fitting the Fourth Doctor this year.  Pacing, story and plot this series all fit well in a way they never have done before now, as if someone at Big Finish has sat down and worked out how to really make this Doctor fit in with the format they’ve given him, rather than giving him a format and trying to make it fit as has been the feeling previously.  It marks a big leap forward in quality for the series and is the first time I have been genuinely excited to hear what happens next month on month.  

Though not perfect, The Darkness of Glass is a fun and interesting play nonetheless and I am certainly of the mindset now, perhaps for the very first time, that the Fourth Doctor Adventures not only can carry on as strong as this, but hopefully will carry on as strong as this.

It may have taken a while, but the Fourth Doctor finally feels at home at Big Finish, and that’s something worth celebrating. 

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