1 October 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Andrew Smith

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara land on the planet Hydra, where Admiral Jonas Kaan leads a vast flotilla of ships trying to elude the vicious race that has invaded and occupied their world. But his ships are being picked off one by one, vessels and crews dragged underwater by an unseen foe.

The time travellers find themselves pitched into battle against the Voord, the ruthless enemy they last encountered on the planet Marinus. As they take the fight to the very heart of the territory now controlled by the Voord the stakes get higher. First they lose the TARDIS... then they lose that which they hold most dear. And that's only the start of their troubles.

In the capital, Predora City, they will learn the truth of what it means to be a Voord. And that truth is horrifying.”

 

***

The first of Big Finish’s new Early Adventures range, Domain of the Voord has a lot to do across its four episodes: kick the new range off, give the Voord an edge and background/serious identity which they so lacked on screen, and tell a good story in its own right.

The first category is perhaps the hardest to judge, as a lot of whether you enjoy it or not will depend, I suspect, upon what your expectations of the new range are.  I think, in some respects, that Big Finish have rather shot themselves in the foot this time around.

A lot of the advertising surrounding Doctor Who: The Early Adventures has been in monochrome and very clearly paints them out to be evoking the 1960s era: brand new audio stories, told in black and white, cheers the poster, and elsewhere David Richardson, the producer, has said how he wanted to recreate the feeling of listening to soundtrack recordings of missing episodes (still 97 missing, at the time of writing this) with these plays.

With all this in mind then, I think it is more than reasonable to assume that people are going to have specific expectations about the range in mind before pressing play and listening to the Voord do battle with our heroes once again.  With that in mind, I think it is more than reasonable to assume that said people may end up very disappointing when listening to Domain of the Voord and discovering that it is, in fact, nothing like listening to a TV soundtrack, being littered as it is with very audio-typical dialogue (“It’s been two weeks since we set sail on this large, metal boat on a sea of crystalline blue!”) and actors reading out characters’ lines with ‘he said’, ‘she said’ and other such quantifiers after each sentence.  What we actually have is a release somewhere between the Companion Chronicles, the TARGET Talking Books and Big Finish’s Lost Stories range when it covered adventures from the 1960s.  Indeed, it feels far more like the final range than any other, including lost episode soundtracks.  Perhaps some of this will depend on how authentic you found something like The Rosemariners when listening to it: did it feel like an enhanced audiobook, or a TV soundtrack? If the answer is the latter then... well, colour me impressed as I’ve no idea how you’ve happened upon this experience.  If the former, then that’s fine: an enhanced audiobook is a lovely thing to be listening to and in no way a bad thing.

That’s what we’ve got here, only with a brand new script this time as opposed to, erm, a brand new script based on a handful of scribbles, and in many cases flat-out contradicting said scribbles. (The Lost Stories range really was a curious beast at times.)

This is going to disappoint a hell of a lot of listeners, but what’s to be done? Well, maybe clearer advertising and statements, but what we have now is what we have, and that’s the end of that.  Perhaps with the news that roles such as Ben and Barbara have been recast, we have the possibility now of truly recreating that soundtrack nature in the future by having full-cast productions with additional narration, but right now, we’re not there.

Second point: does it feel like we’re back in the 1960s? Again, I would say no.  Not just because of the production values, which are obviously a step up from what could be achieved back then (though why do footsteps dubbed onto the track always feel so intrusive and fake?), but the story feels a mixture of being steeped in that era and true to it, and whole worlds away from it with some complex technical jargon and violence.  Carole Ann Ford herself remarks in the (very, very slim) CD extras that it would never have been done in the 1960s due to the imagery, so again, you wonder what is to come, and just hope it doesn’t disappoint too many people. (Seriously though: the CD extras are so slight, you wonder why they bothered. There’s no discussion at all of it being a new range and what they hoped to achieve, which for a series launch feels like a rather drastic oversight.)

This move away from rigidly trying to ape an era isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a hell of a lot of the first series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures suffered directly because they were hell-bent on emulating an era and forgot to tell necessarily exciting stories, so ignoring this could be a good thing.  It’s just not a thing it claims to be.

To return to the start though, let’s address the other two points I reeled off: does it move the Voord on, and does it tell a good story?

This time, the answer is a resounding yes, to both points.  I’ve mentioned it in these reviews before, but an Andrew Smith script is always an exciting prospect.  Do you remember those distant days way back when the only thing we had from Smith was Full Circle on screen and its rather beautifully written novelisation? (If you haven’t ever read it, please do: it’s the most wonderful love-letter to a show which the writer so clearly adores.) I’m terribly glad that those days are behind us now.  Big Finish should be praised for it.

Here with Domain of the Voord, Smith gives us a very exciting and fun script which intelligently scrutinizes the Voord based on their one on-screen appearance whilst also telling a decent tale in its own right.  The TARDIS crew land upon a ship in the midst of a planet-wide war with an alien aggressor.  Within minutes, Ian is fighting to save the day, the Doctor is in danger of losing the TARDIS, and the crew are aware that the Voord are back and mean business.

Along the way, we get duplicitous prisoners trying to engage in a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, an alien race that present as religious fanatics in many respects, a return to the fun days of TARDIS-loss and separation from the Doctor (I don’t think I’m going to be spoiling much here when I say I cheered when the first person declares the Doctor to be dead early on in the story: it’s always a fun staple of Who when you hear this, as you’re then waiting eagerly to see how he returns to save the day), and glimpses of birthright and blood ties, and what it is that makes someone who they are, or in this instance: what makes a Voord a Voord? Oh, and it also solves the age-old question of what the correct plural of the Alien Voord is: Voord or Voords? (Much like sheep and sheep, Smith favours simply ‘Voord’. So, there we have it.)

Despite my love and adoration of Yartek, Leader of the Alien Voord (to the extent where he ‘wrote’ on my blog weekly, dispensing advice and witticisms for nearly a year), I think it’s safe to say that he never really scared us much.  Smith manages across four episodes to make the Voord feel like a legitimate threat.  It’s no easy task, so credit where credit is due.  That said, the final episode is practically the length of two standard-sized ones, so it’s nearer a five-episode-span than you’d expect, another nail in the authenticity coffin.  In short though, this is a damn fun play, ably acted as ever by Ford and William Russell, and with a frankly terrific guest cast: take a well-earned bow, Daisy Ashford, Andrew Bone and Andrew Dickens.  They are all absolutely brilliant.

In the end though, Domain of the Voord is a difficult one to mark.  In terms of story alone, this is a nine out of ten affair, no questions asked.  However, in terms of what The Early Adventures purported to be and what they actually are, the score surely has to be docked some points.

I’m going to plump for 7 out of 10 in the end, which feels unfair to Smith but hopefully fair to other listeners.  But, please feel free to adjust the score accordingly.  And watch out for the Voord; they’re not as harmless as you’d imagine...

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