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23 April 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“Jo Grant is shocked to find most of her colleagues are missing. Then she discovers that the Doctor has inexplicably changed.

But there’s no time to worry about it, as she and her misplaced Time Lord friend are whisked to the mysterious Delphin Isle on a matter of national security. There, they encounter a disturbingly odd form of local hospitality and learn of a highly classified incident that took place during the Cold War.

Why exactly have they been brought here? And what is the truth concerning the bodies in the harbour and the vast project being undertaken beneath a cloak of secrecy?”

***

Big Finish love stories! So they keep telling us with every advert going, but they also love a good old novelty hook to drum up a bit of publicity.  The Defectors kickstarts a trilogy already unofficially known as the “Locum Doctors Trilogy”, the sort of fan-pleasing label that will only ever crop up in reference books and threads on forums where people scoff at those who know them merely as ‘those three stories with the wrong Doctors’.

Bah! Pity those fools! I bet they’ve never had a sleepless night over the incorrect theme tune on the CD release of The Invasion of E-Space either.

The idea behind this run-up of stories leading into Big Finish’s 200th release is simple: we get companions from the Doctor’s past mixed with Doctors later on chronologically-speaking— so, the Seventh Doctor is here paired with Jo Grant whilst the Sixth Doctor will next month be paired with Jamie and Zoe. (Again. What? No, the novelty hasn’t worn off, sssh you.)  The trilogy will round off with the Fifth Doctor and Vicki and Steven, the latter of whom is the only pairing that really made me go “Ah! Yes, that could be fun!”

Whether that is the case remains to be seen, but with The Defectors, I was left slightly… confused.  A stutter start theme tune and UNIT does not automatically mean that a story is going to have a Third Doctor flavour, and that is certainly the case here.  Jo Grant may be present, and Mike Yates may be on hand complete with Greyhound insignia via a crackly radio line, but the story, in which the Doctor and Jo are taken to a mysterious village where people don’t quite act right, and the military are clearly hiding something alien, feels far more like a Fourth Doctor adventure than anything Pertwee ever came across.

It made me question what the point really was of the novelty of having the Seventh Doctor interacting with Jo, beyond it being just that: a novelty.  Certainly the script doesn’t feel very Pertwee-esque, despite the cast, and beyond one moment where the Doctor being the ‘wrong’ Doctor nudges the plot along slightly, there doesn’t seem much call for it plot-wise, either.  Not even the ending justifies it, where you think for one moment that the Seventh Doctor’s difference in approach to his predecessor may wind up being key to the conclusion, but then Jo steps forward and acts in a way that doesn’t feel particularly true to Jo at all.

I never once bought the comparisons being made between the Third and Seventh personas of our favourite Time Lord either. (Well, I say favourite. You may have a hankering for Coordinator Vansell, I couldn’t say.) There is a lot of talk about how certain and sure the Third Doctor was and how he’d have a plan and know all the answers… but that’s not really true.  In fact, that’s almost exactly how the Seventh Doctor is: the great schemer and planner who watches as carefully managed schemes unfold.  It makes me wonder if that will be a key part of the revelations further down the line, so for now I’ll simply leave a question mark over proceedings.

The play itself is fine with a touch of healthy paranoia here and some nice action from Jo there (before the aforementioned ending), who reminds us always that she was a cut above the generic screaming assistant.  In some ways, it feels a lot like a dry-run for Nicholas Briggs’s own take on The Prisoner (coming soon from Big Finish productions, fact fans) which, again, doesn’t feel very Third Doctor-y.  Briggs sets up a lot of intrigue in the opening couple of episodes though, the first one being especially strong in that regard, but without the Seventh Doctor being there, I doubt that The Defectors would really warrant much attention.

It also feels a bit sloppy at times, too.  If you want to be picky, then the theme tune is wrong as it has the stutter start dropped for Season 10 onwards, and it rather trips up over itself near the end, when the baddies-with-a-hint-of-Cyberman-about-them start talking with the exact same vocoder effect as the Cybermen themselves, leading me to wonder whether next month’s foes had already been taken before Briggs could write his script.

If you wish to be political about this, then there is also a bit of heteronormative eyebrow-raising to be had when men wearing make-up is noted as a strange and comment-worthy (shaming, almost) thing, which didn’t feel especially in keeping with the Doctor’s live and let live ethos.  I suspect he’ll start mocking ladies for not shaving their legs next.

As the start to a new trilogy, The Defectors didn’t so much whet the appetite as leave me hungry, but hopefully hindsight will be kind to it.  Hopefully, I’ll reach that milestone 200th release and go “Ah! Looking back now, that all made a lot more sense!”  We shall see.  In its own right though, there’s nothing much to see here.

 

23 April 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Matt Fitton

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The Death-Match is under new management. The Hunt Master's Champion has been installed. All regular players are welcomed back to the Pursuit Lounge to observe the contest in luxurious surroundings. Privacy is assured. For this reason we ask our elite guests to abide by the strict security protocols. Please note, the house has no limits.

In the Gallery, your combatants can be observed on the orbiting Quarry Station. A purpose-built environment filled with deadly traps and hidden dangers. Prizes are offered for every kill, with bonuses for rogue elements. Only an elite hunter can survive the End-Game. Do you have a worthy champion? Kill or be killed: the only rule of the Death-Match..."

***

Ah, the Master.  You don’t see him for an age, then he turns up all over the shop: in Dark Eyes 4 first, and then in last month’s Fourth Doctor Adventure, Requiem for the Rocket Men, before turning up again to face the Fourth Doctor and Leela once more. (This is no great surprising given the cliffhanger ending to Requiem, nor the fact that pre-publicity told us that this was to be the case, but still.)

Written by Big Finish stalwart Matt Fitton, Death Match starts off in the middle of a great fight and then switches to a rather grumpy Fourth Doctor, kicking things in the TARDIS and generally causing K-9 grief, when Marshall, Leela’s trainee-to-be and potential love interest, contacts them: Leela is missing, and the Master is responsible.

Given that last month’s release had the Master actually kill the Doctor and feel rather muted by it all (granted, that wasn’t really the Doctor, but the Master was not aware of this at the time), it was always going to be tricky to follow up the threat levels, and Fitton wisely decides instead to zone in on Leela and Marshall: their reunion, their relationship, their future.  The fact that Leela was kidnapped is quickly skipped over (really, it serves as little more than a decent cliffhanger for Requiem and a good way to include her in the action here without doing an Arc of Infinity-style false-ending with co-incidental reunion later on) and we soon shift our focus to the main attraction: the titular death match.

For reasons unknown and sinister, the Master has decided to mussel his way into control of these death matches, where people are made to fight one another in arenas to the death for glory, gambling purposes, and above all survival.  It takes a leaf from cult classic Battle Royale and also The Hunger Games (which in turn very much took its inspiration from cult classic Battle Royale… that film/novel has a lot of weight behind it) and focuses not so much on the fighting but the human element behind it, which proves to be a good move, allowing Louise Jameson to continue the sterling work she put in throughout Requiem and build on that here, culminating in one of the most satisfying Leela tales that Big Finish have given us so far, and one of Jameson’s finest hours.

Returning as Marshall and the Master respectively, Damian Lynch and Geoffrey Beevers both give it there all, too, though Marshall is a bit too nudge-nudge-wink-wink towards Leela throughout the play to ever really warm our hearts or convince us that this is a love for all time, growing a bit tiresome with his innuendo-laden patter instead.

There are some especially fiery scenes between Beevers and Tom Baker though, with the latter spitting out his lines with as much gusto as he gives nowadays. (He’s more muted than he ever was on TV and even at his most furious sounds more ticked off that apoplectic, but still.) The Master also gets to indulge in some enjoyable flirting with Susan Brown’s Kastrella, and some aurally nasty killing, which makes the Tissue Compression Eliminator genuinely horrifying beyond concept for once: there’s no doll Logopolitans or CSO scientists in lunchboxes here.

The story arguably never quite lives up to its foundations but the final scene lets Jameson, and Leela alike, shine and that’s no bad thing.

What is a bad thing is that the scripts overrun massively, with the first episode clocking in at a whopping 38 minutes’ length and the second only shaving two minutes off of that.  I’ve praised the other stories in this series for really working in the two-episode-long format for the first time since the Fourth Doctor joined the Big Finish fold really, so it was a shame to see that good work undone here, especially when despite the additional length, it still feels strangely… lacking.  Maybe it needed the confidence to be a full four-part adventure, or maybe a good editing down, but as it stands, an extended length and an underwhelming set of death matches (especially notable seeing as that’s what the play is titled) leads to a release that never quite gets to where it arguably ought to be, given its cast, characters, good points and scenarios.

A disappointment then, but far from the worst that Big Finish, and The Fourth Doctor Adventures as a range, have ever given us.

 

1 April 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Jonathan Morris

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“A Great Darkness is spreading over E-Space. Entropy increases. In search of a last exit to anywhere, the TARDIS arrives on the power-less planet of Apollyon, where the scientist Pallister guards the only way out – a mysterious portal. But the portal needs power to open, and the only power Pallister can draw on is the energy contained within the molecular bonds of all living tissue...

The Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough soon learn that neither Pallister nor his ally, the space pirate Captain Branarack, will stop at murder to ensure their escape. But they're not the only menace on Apollyon. The Sandmen are coming – creatures that live on the life force; that live on death.

Death is the only way out into N-Space. Death, or sacrifice.

But whose death?

Whose sacrifice?”

***

All good things must come to an end (sometimes; if your name is Hex then god only knows) and so the stories featuring Older/Young/Old-ish Again Nyssa come to an end in this, The Entropy Plague by Jonathan Morris.  In many ways, this feels like not so much a conclusion to the E-Space trilogy which we’ve been experiencing across these past few plays, but a sequel and finale to everything post-Morris’s own Prisoners of Fate.  Nyssa has a family to get back to, and being stuck in E-Space is only hastening the inevitable, despite how much the Doctor would like her to stay.

In keeping with the rest of this trilogy, the story has strong nods to its positional equivalent in Season 18’s original foray into E-Space: Mistfall shared its writer, Marshmen and, erm, Mistfall with Full Circle; Equilibrium and State of Decay have their castles and regal cast; and here in The Entropy Plague, we have Warriors’ Gate’s thresholds and setting as well, this one being set on the other side of the world to Steve Gallagher’s original concept-heavy tale.

Whilst Equilibrium managed to feel very Bidmeadian in its concepts, music and execution, this time we are firmly in Eric Saward’s home ground.  You know how Ressurection of the Daleks has the ethos of ‘Life is Crap and then you Die’? This play makes that look positively life-affirming and comedic.

We start with the Doctor telling Nyssa’s son, Adric, that he will never, ever see his mother ever again, and then we flashback to a point where Tegan is still kidnapped by space pirates (clearly everyone on board forgot how successful space pirates had been on the last attempt) and the TARDIS is crashing (what else?) down on the planet Apollyon.  Devoid of power and borrowing liberally from the sound effects bank (Cloister Bell? Check.  Dwindly-light sound from Death to the Daleks? Present), things are looking dark and bleak for our heroes, which only sets the tone for what is to come across the next 100-odd minutes.

Apollyon is a dying world, the people are celebrating the end of all things, and the only way out— a CVE leading to N-Space— is probably what’s going to kill everyone else, unless entropy does first.  Morris decides to make entropy more of a tangible threat than a few starts being blotted out ala Logopolis though, and so we get the Sandmen, the nipple-tastic monsters which grace the CD cover, who rather nightmarishly are the living embodiment of an old folk tale… or would be if they were nightmarish.  Instead, they mostly growl about dust a lot.  It’s a rare dropping of the ball by Morris, who usually milks his good ideas for all they’re worth, but this monster-of-the-week feels increasingly functional and not much beyond tokenistic.

In fact, The Entropy Plague is a rare case of Morris dropping the ball altogether, and giving us something that is just unremittingly bleak across its duration.  I understand that the collapse of an entire universe is no laughing matter, but there is no glimmer of happiness across the play.  We get pointless sacrifice, torture, threatened executions, families torn apart, separation and selfishness instead, and that’s nearly all in the opening episode.  By the time I reached the point where one of the guest cast is mercilessly put to death only to get a slight reprieve before killing themselves horribly and pointlessly, I found myself having to Google images of kittens to fully recall that not everything in this world is utterly horrendous.

No-one seems happy here.  The Doctor seems quite happy to let a universe die to escape, channelling Hartnell’s incarnation in many ways; Turlough sounds pained as situations confer to make him have to act selfishly; Tegan is placed in danger of death more often than one can count; and Nyssa seems to know that she is never going to see her family again even before the title music has properly faded and the first scene kicked in.

The story is at least open about Nyssa’s fate from the very off (until Big Finish perform a massive u-turn on it in a couple of years’ time, one suspects) and such a scenario warrants a certain gravity, but this goes beyond that, to the point where her departure feels almost by-the-bye in this world of utterly nasty things and occurrences and, despite an attempt at sweetening things with a monologue at the end, you’re left in no doubt that nobody is happy, no-one at all.  And why would they be in a world where everything is bloody awful?

Doctor Who is many things and has many faces, but it has rarely if ever been as grim and so utterly devoid of pleasure as this.  For me, Doctor Who is and always will be a children’s show.  I think there is room for more adult pursuits in these plays and comics and books and suchlike, but if the goalposts are shifted so far as to become unrecognizable as is the case here, and you lose any appeal to children whatsoever, then you can count me out.

There will be many, no doubt, who warm to this nihilistic take on the show and its truly adult no-kids-allowed vision, but I am not among them; it left me thoroughly cold and just wanting it to end from around three episodes in.  It takes more than just a TARDIS to make Doctor Who the show it is; I only hope that’s remembered in the future.

 

1 April 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: John Dorney

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: March 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The Asteroid - notorious hideaway of the piratical Rocket Men. Hewn out of rock, surrounded by force-fields and hidden in the depths of the Fairhead Cluster, their base is undetectable, unescapable and impregnable.

In need of allies, the Master has arranged to meet with Shandar, King of the Rocket Men. But the mercenaries have captured themselves a very special prisoner - his oldest enemy, the Doctor.

What cunning scheme is the Doctor planning? How does it connect with Shandar's new robotic pet? And just what has happened to Leela? The Master will have to work the answers out if he wants to leave the asteroid... alive…"

***

The Rocket Men were arguably one of the greatest successes to come from The Companion Chronicles.  Nasty, beautifully 1960s-ish in their style and approach, and the central antagonists in two of the range’s best and best-loved releases, it was perhaps only a matter of time before they made the transition to another range and another Doctor.  Whether this needed to happen is another question altogether, but happen it has and John Dorney’s Requiem for the Rocket Men is the result.

The third story in this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, it carries on the tradition set down so far this year by being perfect for the two-episode format and the regular cast.  Leela, K-9 and the Doctor alike are all served well by Dorney’s script and scenarios, and the addition of the Master turns out to be a really smart move, showing the Rocket Men to be smaller players than they perceive themselves to be and remnants of an era that has past them by.  Indeed, one of the cleverest things about this play is how they reflect the change in Doctor, and era they’re aiming for, by making the titular Rocket Men feel very… retro now; outdated and outpaced in this new world of robot dogs and rival Time Lords and female savages.  It’s no wonder they need the Master to give them a hand, and no wonder he treats them with such patronizing contempt.

Just as Dorney subverts his own creations, so he also plays with the traditional Master/Doctor set up by having the Master stumble into one of the Doctor’s plans and adventures rather than the other way around which is the norm.  It could be a gimmick in the wrong hands or so post-modern it hurts, but here in Dorney’s capable hands it’s a lot of fun and never once feels out of place in the story being told.

Another good thing is the fact it isn’t slavishly trying to recreate the Fourth Doctor’s era, something else in common with the plays so far this series. (Speaking of changes, the pedants in us will probably be interested to note that the font on the back of the CD has changed for this release, the sort of heinous crime that usually generates half a dozen protests on the forums and threat of a boycott or alternative cover. Let’s hope they didn’t look at the spines for the first series of Early Adventures, eh?)

I’ve noted before that I have found this quest for authenticity to be a foolish one; one which has stunted the growth of the series or stories, so I am glad to see it gone at last.  It also makes the ability to mix ‘traditional’ stories with character development less of a messy fit.  We get more depth of character for the Master in this story than we ever had on screen during Doctor Who’s original run, and Leela gets to grow stronger and braver here than she was ever allowed to.  One of The Fourth Doctor Adventures’s strengths is the interplay between the Doctor and Leela, far wittier and cosier than we ever saw on screen, and the final scenes of this play give us a warmth and pleasure and— dare I say it? — closure we were robbed of in Invasion of Time.  It’s nice to see that addressed here.

It’s hard to fully judge the story in its own right as it leads directly and explicitly onto Death Match, next month’s release in this series (which isn’t a spoiler as such as it was advertised by Big Finish themselves in publicity for the series, though I will admit that I missed it somehow, which made the ending far more surprising than it perhaps should have been!) but in its own right it’s another damn good play from John Dorney and another good release for this series.  I hope next month proves to be every bit as strong.

 

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.

 

 
1 February 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Andrew Smith

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“Drawn off-course, the TARDIS passes through a CVE into a closed universe – a hugely improbable event with a tragically obvious cause. In order to escape inescapable E-Space, the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are forced to venture in the wilds of planet Alzarius.

But they're not the only unwanted visitors to this strange world. A Starliner has landed, captained by Decider Merrion – but why would Merrion risk rousing the Planet that Slept, and the monsters in its marshes?

Mistfall is coming. The Marshmen are coming. But while Nyssa and Turlough find themselves caught in the open, in the hands of fanatics who model themselves on the legendary Outlers, the Doctor and Tegan discover that the supposedly secure Starliner affords them no protection from monsters both within and without...

***

If there was any good thing to come from AudioGO’s demise (and ‘good’ is the wrong label to lose), then it was that timing led to the audiobook of Full Circle getting a release around the same time Mistfall was released by Big Finish (and frankly a novelisation-reading getting a fortuitous new release date is no compensation for everyone who lost their livelihood due to the company’s collapse).

Regardless though, the two releases fit snugly together as far from being a sequel to the televised version of Full Circle (though, erm, it is), Mistfall is really a follow-up to Andrew Smith’s own novelisation of his one and only television outing.  To quote myself (because no other bugger is ever going to) from my review of the novelisation in the fanzine Whotopia, Full Circle is:

 

A really rather lovely novelisation written by the young Andrew Smith from his own scripts.  What makes it such a winner is not so much the story, which is fine, but the obvious care and delicacy which has gone into writing this novelisation, with plenty of time given to delving into the Doctor’s thoughts and giving characters […] a depth which shows us a real desire to make this story the very best it can be.  There’s an almost tangible adoration– love, even– in this book, which grabbed and enthused me, even if the story isn’t the greatest ever told.

 

I hope you’ll forgive me for being indulgent and quoting myself as these same thoughts popped into my head upon listening to Mistfall: the greatest story ever told? No.  One which Smith is clearly enjoying writing? Yes! And not only that, one which makes good use of Doctor Who lore, most specifically Adric.  He may not be around, but his presence is felt, dragging people into E-Space and leaving a solemn shadow over people once it’s clear just where the TARDIS has landed.  Even the music feels indebted to Season Eighteen and the artful dodger that almost never artfully dodged.

Mistfall cracks along at a fair pace, clocking in as one of the shortest plays Big Finish have given us as part of the monthly range for a long time now, and whilst a lot of it focuses on people being a bit cranky in a spaceship, it also moves on the mythos of Mistfall and the Marshmen nicely, showing that Smith has a really solid idea of where his creations should have gone and of the world he devised back in the 1980s.

Whether returning to E-Space will prove to be anything more than a novelty for this current arc remains to be seen, but it works well enough here and it’s true to say that without it, this story could not have happened.  The ending also suggests a tighter continuation from story to story than we’ve seen for a while, so perhaps the setting will be fully justified across the next two releases.

I’m still not 100% sure on how I feel about Nyssa’s presence here after the events of Prisoners of Fate— for someone deeply regretting what they’ve done to their son, she hopped back on board the TARDIS fairly quickly, leaving him forever abandoned if the conclusion to that play is anything to go by.  It doesn’t feel very true to the character at all, but colour me at least intrigued as to how this trilogy is going to approach this.

Overall, Mistfall is not the best play I have ever heard, but it’s fair enough and a decent start to the year’s releases, and as always, it’s lovely to hear what Andrew Smith has to offer.

 

Finally, a word on the cover art.  It’s not secret that I personally know Will Brooks, diarist for this very website and co-writer of a book with me, but I did want to, from a neutral, appreciative standpoint, highlight the frankly gorgeous cover for this play which he has designed.  It’s the first since 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men to really grab my attention, and makes a very nice change in pace to the usual one-alien-and-a-handful-of-generic-headshots approach which has dogged many releases lately, promising a return to more experimental and/or arresting covers such as that for Phantoms of the Deep, and indeed many of that series of Fourth Doctor Adventures before they returned to the (in my opinion) disappointingly repetitive Photoshop affairs.  The cover for next month’s E-Space adventure, Equilibrium, is equally pretty, so touch wood for even more from Brooks in the future. (He can pay me for the good vibes later.)

1 February 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“Planet E9874 supports a developing civilisation known as the Tarl. The peaceful, technologically advanced Locoyuns are helping the Tarl develop rudimentary technology. What could be more innocent than that?

When the Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive, they find the delicate balance in the relationship between the two cultures reaching an unexpected crisis point. The spears are flying and the threat of all-out war is in the air.

The Doctor must use all his guile to tread a careful path with Tarl leader Ergu, while Leela and K9 discover an ancient power of unimaginable strength which threatens to tear the minds out of its victims.”

 

***

Here we go then: another series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor, another old enemy returning to face our foe.  It’s fair to say that I have not been too taken with much of the Fourth Doctor Adventures range thus far, finding it to be the wrong format for this incarnation, as I noted in my review of The Philip Hinchcliffe Box Set.  There have been some good stories and some that really stand out, but for the most part they have merely plodded along for me, doing their best to not stir things and playing things ever so safely, and a lot of them have failed to make much of an impression.

I went into The Exxilons with a certain reluctance: another story in which the Fourth Doctor uncharacteristically encounters something from his past and has to defeat it whilst tiptoeing through a peppered field of continuity references.  John Leeson, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson would all be on fine form (they forever are) but the script would probably just… plod and do little for me.  Each to their own, I realized, but there we were: my expectations were set low.

I realize that complaining about traditional formats is going to make my next declaration of “imagine my surprise, then, when I really enjoyed it!” seem all the more clichéd, predictable and a tad hypocritical, but nonetheless the two episodes of Exxilon fun wowed me in a way that hasn’t happened for quite some time in this range.

Nicholas Briggs is a self-confessed big fan of Death to the Daleks, as his praise for it on the official BBC DVD and in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine will attest to, and quite right he is, too: it’s a marvellous story with a lot to recommend, plus a cliffhanger so utterly absurd that I never fail to burst into laughter when the end of Part Three approaches and the camera dramatically zooms in on some rather incongruous patterned tiling.  I mention Briggs’s love of that story as he has clearly given the Exxilons and their culture a lot of thought before writing this script: it shows in every playful nod to our first encounter with this alien race, every continuity-enhancing titbit concerning the Exxilon City, and oozes through in the Carey Blyton-esque musical score and original sound effects which enrich the atmosphere.  Briggs has managed to skilfully take points from Death which I never considered worthy of addressing, and has given them importance and development, in a way which actually enhances things rather than feel spurious or done for the sake of it.  This is a good case of actually using past stories to a purposeful and good effect, and for once the two-episode format of it really fits the story well and suits the team of K-9, Leela and the Fourth Doctor like a glove.

The story is simple enough but well told: our heroes land on a planet where the Exxilons are present and up to things disturbing the local natives who are unsettled by their presence.  Throw in some murder, maniacal dedication to The Cause, and subtle parallels between the Exxilon presence here and the Daleks’ in Death, and you’ve got enough meat to chew upon for the next hour.

The only minor niggle here is the presence of Hugh Ross in the guest cast: he is brilliant in the role and does it well, but is so associated now with Counter-Measures that it is hard to shake off Sir Toby from the mind’s eye whenever he speaks.  It’s unfair for me to criticize that aspect of the play, really, but here I am.

By the time the play ended, I was won over by it all and smiling at how much I had enjoyed it.  The CD extras show us Tom in a rather reflective and almost sad mood at times, which is notable all the more after such a joyful listen, but it had me rushing over to my DVD collection and grabbing Death to watch afterwards, which is about as good a sign for a play of this ilk as you can get, really.

Do I want more returning to the past time and again as has been the case more often than not with this range? No.  Done well as it is here and you get something good, but it’s all too easy to do it cack-handedly and the range could do with fewer nods and more of an individual identity (as well as a move away from two-episode stories, but that’s a moan for another day).  The trouble with these continual callbacks is that it slowly— slowly but oh-so-surely— squeezes the Universe(s) in which the Doctor travels, making it feel smaller and less spontaneous, which is a pity.  The magic of Doctor Who is its boundlessness, and the moment every third story involves meeting people or enemies or creatures from the past, the moment boundaries appear and that magic starts to ebb away.

Still, it doesn’t stop The Exxilons from being a lot of fun, from proving my fears wrong, and from being a strong start to this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures. 

1 January 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Justin Richards

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The TARDIS arrives in the CAGE – not a trap, but the College of Advanced Galactic Education, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in colonised space.

Not a trap. Or is it?

The Doctor’s here to receive an honorary degree in Moral Philosophy. But there’s something rotten at the heart of the Medical Facility. Someone is operating on the students. Someone without a conscience. Someone with access to a Sidelian Brain Scanner – a technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

That someone is the ruthless Time Lord scientist known as the Rani – in her new incarnation. But will the Doctor and Peri recognise the Rani’s hand before her trap is sprung?

***

Ah, the Rani.  Until her triumphant lack of reappearance on TV post-2005, no-one really seemed to give two hoots about her, which is a pity as Kate O’Mara always gave it her best, and The Mark of the Rani is, for my money, one of the Sixth Doctor’s strongest televised adventures.

Suddenly though, things had changed.  Doctor Who was back, and fandom got it into its head that the Rani should be involved for… well, for whatever reason fandom had at the time.  It’s never been entirely clear, but maybe the ‘Bring Back McGann!’ brigade were on holiday.

Whilst BBV and Pudsey Bear had both tried and failed to kill her reputation for good, Russell T Davies’s stubborn refusal to include Mistress Rani in the revived series was the last straw, and then— and then! —he only went and truly rained on everyone’s parade by teasing us all, naming a character Rani who, crucially, wasn’t the Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and if that wasn’t enough, the Master came back and then went and regenerated into a woman.  By then though fandom seemed to have forgotten about it altogether and were busy attacking Philip Morris for having the sheer audacity to return nine missing episodes to us all.  The bastard.

Step forward Big Finish, professional fanboys who had undertaken the steady resurrection of the Voord, the Mechonoids, the Rutans, the Nimon, the Nucleus of the Swarm and even some of their own characters such as Hex and Hex and… erm, Hex.

It was time to bring out the big guns; it was time to bring out the Rani.

The Rani Elite is the first Big Finish outing for the character, pitting her once again against the Sixth Doctor and Peri, albeit in regenerated form this time around due to the sad death of Kate O’Mara.  You can feel its shadow looming over much of this production, largely due to the dialogue being very clearly written for O’Mara and her portrayal of the role.  In much the same way that the Doctor is the Doctor but just swapping, say, mentions of Bessie for mentions of Jelly Babies won’t paper over all the cracks (yes, BBC Books, I’m still looking at Drift all these years later), so it is here.  Siobhan Redmond is wearing the tyrannical Time Lady’s shoes now, and she clearly has a lot of fun with it, but I felt throughout that I wasn’t hearing her interpretation of the role, just her reading someone else’s lines.  I would love to hear Redmond do her own thing with it in later appearances, as what we get here is fine, but not a whole new Rani.  More a Rani 1.5 affair.

As for the story itself, it’s not bad at all.  Justin Richards is always a very safe pair of hands in which to place a slot in the schedule, and there are enough twists and turns along the way here to keep you guessing and feel very true to the era, arguably far more so than any other story in these past few Sixth Doctor/Peri releases (though references to Time and the Rani make this very firmly Big Finish territory).

Set on a school with the Rani pretending to be one Professor Baxton, Richards’s script treads territory walked on by The Unquiet Dead previously, but with enough flair and difference to hold its own.  The questions posed are big ones: at what point does living become a privilege and not something one simply does? Is there a hierarchy over who should live and who should die?

Being Doctor Who, I think you can answer those questions without hearing the play, but all the same the script, and characters within it, handle them well and it helps the four episodes to move along nicely.  As a play in its own right, it’s not bad at all.

As a conclusion to this latest set of Sixth Doctor and Peri plays? Well, it hints at things to come briefly with regards to Peri and her health, but is mostly a standalone play, which is a blessing, really.  The trilogy format has grown increasingly stale as of late, with arcs being imposed on them rather than feeling like natural states of affair, and it’s nice to have heard three mostly standalone plays that just happen to feature a particular Doctor and Companion(s) pairing.  I’d love to see a return to the days of alternate Doctors and no big arcs month on month, but maybe that’s just me.  As it is, I’d like to see fewer arcs with no real cause to be there, and more individual releases such as this has been.

Lastly though, as a reintroduction to the Rani, I think it only half works.  It gives us her amorality writ large and some nice scenes to play with alongside Colin Baker’s Doctor, but as I have already said, it’s a story for O’Mara and not Redmond.  As such, we’ll have to wait a while longer to see what her incarnation brings to the table.

Whatever else though, it’s nice to have the Rani back with us, whatever face she decides to wear.

Now, let’s start moaning about Philip Morris again.  How DARE he only return nine episodes! Who does he think he is…?

 

1 January 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Matt Fitton

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“1950s London: newcomers arrive daily on British shores seeking a fresh start, new opportunities, or simply the chance of a different life. However, some are from much further afield than India or Jamaica...

After an emergency landing, the TARDIS crew must make the best of it, and look to their new neighbours for help. But the Newman family has more than the prejudices of the time to contend with. A sinister force grows in strength amid the pubs, docks and backstreets of London...

And without the Doctor, marooned in a time and place as alien as anything they've ever encountered, Steven and Sara may well face their greatest challenge yet. To live an ordinary life.”

***

This one, according to the CD Extras and David Richardson’s notes, has been in the pipeline for a long, long time now.  Richardson hit upon the central ideas of this play a while back but it’s only now, in the form of An Ordinary Life and with Matt Fitton in the writer’s seat, that we can hear it in all its glory.

You can see why Richardson kept persisting with this idea and holding back until he had found the perfect writer and team: the notion of the Doctor’s companions being forced to live life day by day in a past as alien to them as the far-flung future aboard a starship would be to us (well, me anyway: I cannot speak for the rest of you all) is a good one, and Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom prove themselves to be the ideal subjects for such a story, as Fitton’s very strong script goes out of its way to show you time and again.  Indeed, such is the strength of the drama and scenery, that it’s acutely disappointing when aliens pop up and turn the tale away from the domestic. (I am certain that this will not be an original observation by any stretch, but all the same, I mean it.)

Perhaps the smartest thing about this play is the time in which it is all set.  It puts us in England in the 1950s with a family of first-wave immigrants, a time of quite some social unrest and upheaval, and Fitton neatly draws parallels between the family with whom Steven and Sara stay, and the companions themselves: both learning, both cautious, both more frightened than they let on.  It could be done in a very clunky manner or grow patronizing, but Fitton never lets that be the case.  He continues with the slight will-they-won’t-they take on Steven and Sara’s relationship as put forward in The Anachronauts (still one of my favourite Companion Chronicles) and develops it slightly, but, again, not enough to rock the boat too much, nor to cause any continuity errors further down the line.  Whether it necessarily needs to happen is a matter of personal taste, really: I’m sure their personal relationship/story could have been as strong without this take on it, but it is far from the worst thing in the world.

Of course, a script is only as strong as its execution, and never more so is that the case when it’s so people-orientated as this one is.  Thankfully, everyone is great.  As Who fans, we practically expect that from both Jean Marsh and Peter Purves, but it really is worth stressing here just how incredibly good they are: this play would crumble without them.  It would also be nothing without its guest cast, and here we have Ram John Holder and Sara Powell in particular delivering about as good a set of performances as Big Finish gives us.  One thing definitely worth saying at this juncture is how good the guest cast has been across this first series of Early Adventures, which bodes very well for the future.

As noted earlier though, things falter when the story shifts from domestic to alien, and sadly it is that which stops this from reaching the dizzy heights that it rightly deserves to scale.  It is a crying shame really, but fewer bodysnatchers and more scenes of Sara kicking policemen to the ground would have given this the 10 out of 10 it probably deserves.

By the time the TARDIS departs and the story ends with that oh-so-familiar theme tune, we feel like we have really grown to know everyone involved, regular- and guest-cast alike, and Fitton has every right to hold his head up high, as does David Richardson, whose dogged persistence has paid off in spades here.  Hearty congratulations to all involved.

And with that, we reach the end of the first series of The Early Adventures.  I’ve noted before flaws I perceive to be present in this series, so it’s not worth retreading old ground here, though I will note that the issue of authenticity chimes again, sadly.  An Ordinary Life is great in that it very cleverly puts 1960s companions into the 1950s, the recent past for contemporary viewers of Hartnell’s adventures, but most of that impact, especially with regards to political and social repercussions, only works now, decades later.  As with some of the very best Companion Chronicles, it makes use of both the present and past simultaneously and plays with them to create something wonderful, but the one thing it is definitely not is period-authentic.  A smart use of 1960s settings and characters? Yes, but not a story that would (or perhaps even could) have been tackled back during the relevant period of Doctor Who.

This recurring issue doesn’t stop the stories from being any good (indeed, you’ll note that three out of four of these reviews have been positively glowing) but it does make Big Finish look a bit silly, or to be more kind naïve perhaps, to keep screaming on about how these accurately recreate 1960s soundtracks.

They do not; they do not come even close, but they’re bloody good fun all the same.  Stop being ashamed of letting them be what they are; drop the slogans and taglines and just admit that these are the new Lost Stories, which in themselves were fuller-cast Companion Chronicles at times.  There’s no shame in that at all.

 

1 December 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Mark Wright and Cavan Scott

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on.

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy.

When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators.

By history.

Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless...

The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help.

***

There are certain things that Big Finish do which could be seen as fingerprints across the main range: the return of characters from the past, the use of actors more recently seen in Doctor Who on TV, and sequels to stories from the original 1963-1989 run.

There are more, but these three often stand out, and it is the latter which is present and correct here in Masters of Earth.  Coming straight on the heels of a story that was simultaneously a sequel to Peri and the Piscon Paradox and Mindwarp (or The Trial of a Time Lord if you prefer), we get another sequel, this time to The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  We’ll be ticking the ‘return of characters’ box with the Rani next month, but there is at least a few weeks’ pause between them both.  This time, it feels rather… brave to have sequels so close together.

Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, this play starts with a light recap on the last story, though not so much that no newcomers couldn’t jump right in, before we’re plunged into Dalek-invaded Earth and all the horror that entails.  The Doctor wants out, having been here before and ended up integral to the Daleks’ defeat: the web of time has to be maintained, and the usual get-out-of-jail-free clauses which so pepper the series, but of course, things don’t end up like that and before he can stop it, both the Doctor and Peri are involved.  But of course they are.

Before I go any further though: The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

I must confess that my love affair with that tale started rather late in the day, with its DVD release.  I had always liked the Peter Cushing take on the tale, but the TV version had left me cold on VHS… and then we got the DVD, with its incredibly clear sound and remarkably clear picture, and I could suddenly appreciate the drama in a way I had never quite grasped before.  Years later, we got the audiobook recording of the Target novelisation, and the combination of good sound design and CD production, great narration from William Russell, and a stellar adaptation by Terrance Dicks made me fall in love with it all over again… and then! Then we got Big Finish’s own take on the tale’s mythos with An Earthly Child, Relative Dimensions, Lucie Miller and To The Death, all of which were stunning.

It’s fair to say then that I was both hopeful and fearful of this story: Big Finish have previous for doing good things with this setting, but Invasion of Earth is particularly good, so I didn’t want them to mess up.

Scott and Wright are old hands at Big Finish though, and whilst their Project plays concerning the Forge may not have been my cup of tea, I could always recognize that they were well-crafted plays, just not in a genre I especially went for.  Scott has since helmed Iris Wildthyme and I must admit that I was heartened to see their names linked to this play months before: they’re good writers and, as Scott as proven, a safe pair of hands, and perhaps their slightly grittier take on Who would suit the era in which this was set.

I’m going to spoil this review now by revealing my rating now: it’s a nine out of ten.  I don’t want to keep you all in suspense for no good reason.  The truth is, it’s damn close to getting the full ten, but something in particular let it down for me.  Let’s get to that in good time, though.

Despite my preconceptions about this being potentially gritty, Scott and Wright don’t really go down that route, instead telling a good adventure yarn instead, but with an air of hopelessness due to the struggle which the guest cast are undertaking.  The Daleks are brutal, the resistance weaker than they realize, the tension high, and the setting surrounded by familiar Dalek tropes: Varga plants, Robomen, saucers, traitors ready to betray their fellow human… it’s all here.

It doesn’t feel like a slog or box-ticking exercise though, but something that flows nicely and uses the 1960s Dalek trappings well.  It almost should feel tokenistic and cluttered, but no, Scott and Wright prove their worth yet again, with Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nicholas Briggs all giving their all as well, elevating an already good script to higher places still.

What about that one point, though? Why only nine of out ten?

Well… sadly, because another Big Finish cliché, and frankly a Doctor Who cliché through and through, is someone getting irreversibly possessed by an alien creature or parasite, but being able to beat it by thinking really, really hard about it. (“No! No, I won’t become possessed because my mind is too strong!”)

It’s probably just a personal taste thing, but it’s a plot device that irks me a lot.  It makes me wonder how dull a story such as Inferno would have been if to stop becoming a Primoid, all they had to do was believe in themselves.

The trouble here is that it’s a big deal and a major part of the final act, and so, to my mind at least, it cheapens the tension and drama by giving us a fairly lazy plot device to wriggle out of a blind alley.

It’s not a minor quibble but a big one, and yet there is enough good elsewhere for me to still be giving this a firm nine.  It’s a far stronger play than this trilogy’s opener, and once again, the reputation of The Dalek Invasion of Earth remains pure.  Good on Scott and Wright, and good on Big Finish.

 

1 December 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Ian Potter

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


“Ceres. A tiny, unforgiving ball of ice and rock hanging between Mars and Jupiter.  It’s no place to live, and it takes a special kind of person to work there.

The crew of the Cobalt Corporation mining base know exactly how deadly the world outside their complex is, but the danger isn’t just outside anymore. The systems they rely on to keep them safe are failing and the planet is breaking in.

When the TARDIS strands Steven, Vicki and the Doctor on the base, they have to fight a foe they can barely comprehend to survive.”

***

There comes a point in life when someone appears to be protesting too much.

“I don’t hate Steven Moffat, I just hate this, this, this, this, this and of course this…” is one you often find on Twitter (you can swap ‘Steven Moffat’ for any showrunner or writer and you’ll find the same vitriolic results; he’s just flavour of the month online as I write this), and similar include, “I do like the Daleks, they’re just…”, or “Yes, sure, Red Kangs are best, but have you considered…”

With the extras on this CD, we have a slightly different game.  It’s the “Let’s tell everyone how great this Early Adventures range is, and how different it is to anything that came before it!” game.

It’s slightly unfair of me to focus on the extras for this play, as they may well have been recorded completely out of order, but three releases in and we can almost hear the sweat pouring off of Big Finish’s collective brows as the guest cast are interviewed: was cancelling the Companion Chronicles a smart move? Are these plays going to prove themselves to be the next big thing?

There are ways around this, but I’m not sure that getting assembled cast members to compare Chronicles and Adventures is the way forward.  We have lots of talk about how much better this range is because it’s so much more expansive with a near-full cast; how authentic the scripts are to the eras in which they intend to be from; how different they are.

Now, the first point is a subjective one, so far be it from me to say anything definitive there: for the record, I think both formats have strong points and drawbacks.  The third (to skip ahead) is not exactly true now, is it? Because what this range is, ostensibly, is The Lost Stories but with original scripts (and given some of the Lost Stories scripts were expanded from a handful of words scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet somewhen in the 1960s when half-cut on ale, it’s pushing it to say ‘lost’, really).  In all fairness, they do name-check Lords of the Red Planet as a springboard for this sort of production, but saying it’s a whole new range feels like it is pushing it somewhat.  As for the authenticity issue… well, back in the first release, we had Carol Anne Ford happily remarking that they’d never have done that script back in their day, and this story is all well and good, but most definitely not a 1960s script, but one you can picture being executed with excruciatingly bad CSO and above-average models in the late seventies.

It tries to do what some of the best Companion Chronicles did, and use the fact that Steven Taylor was a space pilot to aid and enhance the script and justify the setting, but everything feels far too… un-1960s-ish, for lack of a better term, to get even close to this supposed authenticity which they aim to hit.  Added to this, the story isn’t anything special as a whole, and when you haven’t got a strong enough story to cover the cracks…

I’m sorry, I’ve mostly gone on about format so far, but sadly the play itself did very little to inspire or indeed excite me across its four parts: by far the weakest of the Early Adventures range so far by quite some distance, and easily the least 1960s-esque release to boot.  It’s just a bit… dull.

Whilst the final series of Companion Chronicles ended on a bit of a damp note due to scripts not feeling quite as polished or exciting as normal (possibly due to focus being more on this range?), I’d still take them regularly rather than get what we’ve had here so far.  Perhaps I am just being jaded and the quality of release will suddenly come on in leaps and bounds? I don’t know.

It’s not as if I haven’t enjoyed them up until now, really, as my previous reviews will attest to.  It just still feels like a sad move to kill the Chronicles off in their monthly form to make way for adventures in a format that isn’t anywhere near as original, clever or authentic as Big Finish would like us to believe, no matter how much the extras try to tell us otherwise.

1 November 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nev Fountain

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: October 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“Once, long ago, in a land of monsters and corridors, a fair maiden was captured, and placed in a deep sleep.

She was used to being captured, and she had a hero who rescued her on just such occasions. But this time the hero never came.

And the fair maiden slept on.

Eventually, a King rescued the maiden, and made her his bride, which many wise old women might tell you is just another way of capturing fair maidens.

And still the fair maiden slept on.

Then, the hero had another stab at rescuing the maiden from her prison, but he was too late. And, more importantly, he had forgotten the rules of fairy tales.

He didn’t slay the dragon.

***

It feels like this story has been waiting to be told by Big Finish for a while now.  Their fascination with a post-Trial of a Time Lord Peri goes way back to Her Final Flight, a subscriber special and one of those oft-forgotten plays which I always enjoy whenever I revisit it.  We then change ranges and ping over to The Companion Chronicles with Peri and the Piscon Paradox, which is every bit as good as reputation would have it.  Its writer, Nev Fountain, clearly really cares about Peri as a character and has given her ultimate fate a lot of thought, and Nicola Bryant has rarely been as good as she is throughout that play, squeezing the script for every drop of drama, heartache and laughter she can.  It felt like a decent conclusion to things: open-ended enough to maybe exploit further down the line, but with the option to simply move on now and leave things as they are. (I am desperately trying to not spoil that play here!)

We then switch ranges again, this time to the Main or Monthly Range, depending on what it’s being called this week, and have the Sixth Doctor travelling with Flip, but his heart(s) belong to someone else: Peri.  He simply has to see her; to know how she is doing.  It was clear from the very off how that trilogy was going to end: farewell Flip, prepare for Peri.

And now we are here with The Widow’s Assassin: Peri is back, Flip is gone, the Sixth Doctor is patiently waiting for things to click into place, and Nev Fountain is back in the hot seat, writing the follow-up-in-all-but-name to Piscon Paradox.

The first question is: is it as good? The answer, predictably, is no.  Let’s be honest though, it was never going to be.  Peri and the Piscon Paradox is about as perfect a play as Nev Fountain, and indeed Big Finish, have ever done, so it was going to be hard.

The second question is: is it satisfying for Peri? The answer is… debatable.  For Peri with regards to lines/action here and Bryant’s performance? Yes, it’s very good indeed.  As a continuation of her tale? Not so much.  It takes a rather easy way out, a way which avoids future complicated arguments between the Doctor and Peri about how things ended between them, and whilst that is perhaps understandable, it still feels like it robs us of some weighty drama further down the line.  It just doesn’t feel right or fair after all this time and fanfare.

The third question is: is it a good play? The answer is yes, it is good.  Not brilliant, but higher than average.  It is good.  Fountain is great at writing comedy and there are some genuine laugh-aloud moments across Widow’s four episodes, often in the guise of the hapless prison guards who so ineffectively guard the Doctor.  Halfway between the two guards from children’s television classic Maid Marian and her Merry Men and Evans from The Web of Fear, they sing whenever featured, and a whole host of alien delegates do likewise.

As with Piscon Paradox, there are some twisty-turny plot elements involving time here as well, though I must confess that I saw some of the larger twists coming a while off this time.  I think, in fairness to Fountain, that it is perhaps the result of a lot of twisty-turny plot elements involving time being prominent in the show on TV in recent years, not to mention in Big Finish plays such as Dark Eyes 2, The Light at the End and, indeed, Peri and the Piscon Paradox itself.  It just makes them slightly easier to spot than would otherwise be the case.

Still, Peri is back, and Bryant seems to be having fun alongside Colin Baker.  We’ve Daleks coming up next and the return of the Rani, so things look promising.  Even better, the irksome cliffhanger ending regarding Flip is resolved with an off-hand comment near the end of this play, which genuinely had me cheering: the best move Big Finish have made for a while now!

I am not going to pretend I thought this was the best play ever; in some ways, it disappointed me a bit.  It’s not Fountain’s finest, nor is it Peri’s, the Doctor’s or Big Finish’s.  It is, though, another decent monthly release after the recent Seventh Doctor/Ace/Hector-Hex trilogy, and that bodes well for the rest of 2014.

 

1 November 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Marc Platt

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: October 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“England, 1400. Winter. Blood in the snow. Henry IV has usurped the throne, and deposed King Richard II languishes in Pomfret Castle.

Meanwhile the Doctor and his companions preside over New Year revels at Sonning Palace.

But Sonning is a prison, treachery is in the air and murderous Archbishop Thomas Arundel will stop at nothing to crush the rebellion.

As the Doctor and Barbara take the road to Canterbury, Vicki finds a royal friend and Ian is dragged into a dark web of conspiracy at whose heart sits that teller of tales, Geoffrey Chaucer.”

 

***

Chaucer! You either like Chaucer or dislike him with a fiery intensity that can set whole libraries aflame (just ask any English Literature graduate, we’re all the same).  Me personally? I really like him and think that The Canterbury Tales is fab through and through, and it has forever surprised me that the show never took the plunge and had our heroes meet him.  Well, until now, that is.

Two stories into this new Early Adventures range now, and we’re flung into The Doctor’s Tale, an historical adventure with all the ingredients one would expect from such a tale: shady characters, political shenanigans, someone famous from Earth’s history who one of the companions happens to know a lot about.  This is a far more ‘authentically’ 1960s-esque piece of Doctor Who than the preceding month’s adventure (though I stress again how much I enjoyed that story), and I suspect much of your enjoyment of it will depend on how keen you are on historical adventures, and quite possibly how much you know about Chaucer, though seeing as every effort is made by Marc Platt’s script to fill you in on the historical/political and, indeed, literary backdrop to the era in which this story is set, you shouldn’t struggle too much.

Taking its lead from the Crusade school of thought, Platt separates the TARDIS crew rather swiftly, giving us two separate strands of story that come together nearer the end of the tale.  It’s a neat move which allows the script to breathe more, and gives both William Russell and Maureen O’Brien, on narrating duties, some good, meaty material to really sink their teeth into.

One thing that did really strike me about this story though is how missed Jacqueline Hill is as Barbara.  The absence of Barbara in an historical story was always going to be notable, and never more so here, where we hear her fill in parts of the plot, take a central role in proceedings, and tick that ‘educational and fun’ remit which the show strived for in its formative years, even when she does take a week’s holiday for the third episode (a nice attention to period detail by Platt).  I’m not surprised, therefore, that Big Finish have announced someone coming in on Barbara-narrating duties for future adventures, and am curious to see how that pans out.  As it stands right now though, much like when Katy Manning takes on the Brigadier or the Third Doctor, you can feel a spectre in the room; a piece of the jigsaw missing.  Indeed, perhaps the most fitting tribute to Hill and her portrayal of the character is the fact that her absence is so keenly felt, here more so than William Hartnell himself, and that for this range and its stories to properly work, the gap is going to need to be somehow plugged.  That’s quite some legacy to be leaving years on.

Back briefly to the play in hand though.  Platt’s script feels very evocative of the era in which it apes, and you can almost picture the creaky special effects as people travel from A to B.  It’s richly enhanced by a stellar performance by Alice Haig as Isabella, who infuses her role with a ferocity comparable to Jean Marsh’s in The Crusade and for me was the standout performance in the whole play (no easy task when you also have John Banks giving it his all with genuine conviction), and, two releases in, the range so far.

The Doctor’s Tale may lack the Boy’s Own air of 1950s adventure serial that Domain of the Voord had about it, but stick with it.  It’s a damn fine story, clearly painting the brutality of life under a dogmatic and fanatical regime (in this instance, a religious one), a life with quite the body count by the end of it.  You’ll cheer for Chaucer, hate Thomas Arundel, and feel every ounce of Isabella’s frustration and pain.  And you’ll miss Jacqueline Hill.

What is a Hartnell historical without Hill? Good, but not Wright.

 

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