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26 August 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: August 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“The Doctor reveals to Leela that they’re heading for the planet Telos. And K9 has new masters...

On Telos, in the past, the Second Doctor and Jamie are exploring the ‘tomb of the Cybermen’.

Meanwhile, the Cyber-Controller and Cyber-Planner consolidate their plans. Spare parts from Krelos are being used to construct a mighty Cyber army. The Doctor must be captured.

Out of control, the TARDIS tumbles down a chasm and the Doctor and Leela find themselves caught up in full-scale planetary invasion.”


There is a school of thought that says that big is better, and you can see that in work here: an adventure with the Cybermen! Ah, but let’s go one further: bring in an old companion! But we can do more: make it a sequel to a past adventure! Brilliant. But: no, let’s go further: we can set it during the past adventure! And let’s not just do any old story, no! Let’s set it during a much-loved classic: The Tomb of the Cybermen!

On paper, it probably sells: the Fourth Doctor and Leela meeting Jamie on Telos is a scenario which is going to get a certain type of fan tingling with anticipation, and it’s no great leap to put both Nicholas Briggs and David Richardson in that category seeing as they’ve gone ahead and made this tale.

It’s not the first time that this approach has been taken. We had The Five Companions by Eddie Robson taking place within another story, and it worked really well: it was a neat fit that took advantage of a period within the existing story when it could logically have taken place without too great a pinch of salt.  So, we have previous, and a successful example at that.  You can see why they felt confident enough to go down that road again.  Indeed, we’ve had mixed-up Doctor/Companion tales very recently, too, and sequels to popular stories in the past time and again.  How does it fare here, though?

First things first: the ‘fit’ between new tale and old tale is pretty sloppy, and I’m being generous here.  We get Frazer Hines doing his Troughton impression to try and help gel things, but… well, it sounds good in small doses, but often it just sounds like Frazer Hines pretending to be Patrick Troughton, so the effect is not as seamless as everyone seems to think it is if the Extras to this play are anything to go by.  The fit in with the plot of Tomb itself can conceivably work I suppose, but only at a push and certainly not as smoothly as Robson managed before.  This feels far more like someone desperately trying to squeeze something in than something that clicks; like someone pushing the incorrect part of the jigsaw into the wrong hole. You can make it fit, but it’s a clumsy mess.

Second up: Jamie in a Fourth Doctor story. Now, Jamie seems to continually bump into the ‘wrong’ Doctor whilst facing the Cybermen, so this feels less novel and more old and worn than it should do.  Sadly, again it’s a clumsy fit.  Quite simply, there is no need whatsoever for this tale to take place during Tomb beyond it being set on Telos, which it could be at any time.  It’s been done purely to try and shift CDs and with no regard to the story itself.  We’re looking at quantity over quality with regards to elements here.

Thirdly, the story. Again, it’s pretty poor. Cybermen are nasty to K-9, things happen, technobabble, reset, the end.  It’s dull at best, predictable at worst, and sadly as jaded and boring as the inclusion of Jamie and the notion of setting it within another story.  I understand that Big Finish tend to keep things as they are and the risks are normally minimal and then repeated– the four-by-four format was successful once and so we have it once a year now; a Northern companion worked well, so they’ve been aping Lucie Miller ever since; the false-departure for Charley worked well, so let’s do it again (and again and again…) with Hex! Heck, even the covers tend to stick to a type nowadays and take few risks– but this is about as boring an execution of old tricks that we’ve seen.

We need more, especially after a story in which nothing much happens whatsoever, but what we get here, though it has more incident than Krelos, shows less flair or innovation.  Not a good sign.

More than anything else, this feels like a huge disappointment after how strong this series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures has been.  We’ve had sparks and new things, and then… this.  A story so keen on continuity, it forgets to do anything interesting whatsoever. I really wish Big Finish would stop doing this; it’s utterly without point, and I can’t see who it appeals to.  Certainly not this listener.  I’m only giving it two out of ten because the Cybermen voices are at least pretty good. That’s overly kind of me, though.

 “You will be like us,” say the Cybermen. If that entails being anything like this play, then that is a threat indeed.

26 August 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“There are dark skies on Krelos… and something gigantic is descending.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Leela set off for some fishing in the mountain pools of Krelos. K9 has interfaced with the TARDIS and has reactivated the architectural configuration from the days of the Doctor’s second incarnation. In passing, the Doctor notes it could do with a good clean. And there’s a familiar piece of material snagged on the console.

Far up the mountain, an aged explorer is in trouble. Will the Doctor and Leela be able to save him and his planet? And what is it that K9 has discovered in the TARDIS?”


The Doctor gets up to an awful lot of things when we’re not looking.  We know this from various sources: the Doctor himself, glimpses of downtime in stories such as Midnight, The Romans, Army of Ghosts and Turn Left (it all goes to pot there, but to start with at least, Donna and the Doctor are just having fun exploring an alien market), companions reciting stories not seen on screen (Rose in Boom Town, for example), and the nagging sense that it can’t all be continual peril for the Doctor and his friends, or you wouldn’t go travelling, would you? There are definitely times when the Doctor and his entourage take a break and simply have a good time.

Why, then, have we not seen this in full before? The argument will no doubt be that if nothing much happens, then it’s not going to be the most exciting of tales, but as if that were a gauntlet thrown on the table, Big Finish have decided to try and prove us wrong and The Fate of Krelos is the result.

What happens in this story, then? Well, Leela and the Doctor wander around the TARDIS for a bit and decide to go fishing whilst K-9 is on the blink. They meet the locals and have a jolly.  And that’s it.

It’s a strange tale in that the format actively fights against the story being told.  We need a cliffhanger midway through the tale, one at the end, and a healthy dose of leading-into-the-final-play-this-series-style plot for Return to Telos to work properly. Because Nicholas Briggs, the story’s author, wants to tell a tale where the Doctor and Leela just relax instead of rush around, there is an inherent wrestle between these necessities and Briggs’s desires. So, K-9 is not how he should be but everyone ignores it uncharacteristically because that would kickstart a story.  Likewise, we get a truly horrendous and cringeworthy bit of info-dumping early on where Leela learns about Jamie purely so that she will know who he is come the final play this series. It’s a scene that exists purely to push things forward and stands out all the more than it usually would, such is the lax pace and absence of event surrounding it all.

Things suddenly whirl into action right at the end, again because it is needed by the demands of both Doctor Who as a series and The Fate of Krelos’s position in the running order of this season of adventures. Maybe placed somewhere else other than the penultimate adventure, a tale like this one could have worked, but as it is, we have what would struggle to fit a standard twenty-three-minute-long episode stretched beyond breaking point.

In spite of all this though,I cannot help but admire Briggs for giving this a shot in the first place. Does it work? Not really, but as a one-off experiment, it is at least worthy of merit. The use of Michael Cochrane in the guest cast is a nice touch, too, giving The Fourth Doctor Adventures a sense of continuity with its past (he was brilliant as Colonel Spindleton in the first series) in much the same way that repeated appearances of Bernard Horsfall and his ilk used to do on screen.

Telos beckons now, so hopefully this is but a blip in what has been the best series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor from Big Finish so far. At least Leela knows who Jamie is now… 

26 August 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes, Matt Fitton, Simon Barnard and Paul Morris

RRP: £40.00 (CD) / £20.00 (Download)

Release Date: August 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“A very special story which at last provides a heroic exit for Colin Baker's much-loved Time Lord. Four hour-long episodes, connected by the presence of the Valeyard, the entity that exists between the Doctor's twelth and final incarnations.”


If you’re looking for a success story with regards to Big Finish, then the Sixth Doctor is it. On TV, he was trapped at a time when there was chaos behind the scenes and whilst very few have anything bad to say about Colin Baker, who gave it his all regardless of what he was given (whatever people say about The Twin Dilemma, Baker himself is magnificent in it through and through), it’s arguable that poor Sixie, as he’s affectionately known, deserved better. The books which followed gave it a good shot, as did the comics, but it was the creation of Big Finish and getting Baker himself back into the driving seat that really worked wonders. Hearing him get his teeth into some fantastic scripts, and then being paired with Evelyn and Frobisher as well as Peri and Mel, thrust him back into the limelight and created a massive reappraisal for that most criticized of incarnations.  It was long overdue and much deserved, so it seems fitting that it’s Big Finish who are telling the story of Sixie’s demise.

Well, telling one version of it, anyway.  The novelisation of Time and the Rani threw some tumultuous buffeting our way (… no, me neither), Gary Russell had a go in Spiral Scratch and then we have Time’s Champion as well, bobbing around in the background.  The good thing, then, is that if people aren’t too keen on this version of The End of Colin, we have others to dip into, even those with tumultuous buffeting. (Whatever happened to the seatbelts seen in Timelash? There’s a story for another day…)

Big Finish’s approach to Sixie’s end (stop laughing at the back) is to give us four, hour-long stories (give or take. The final play clocks in at under sixty minutes whilst the first is closer to seventy-minutes-long). They’re set in various places in The Doctor’s life and have one link beyond the Sixth Doctor himself: the Valeyard. Considering what he was set up to be, it’s amazing really that nothing more was ever done with him on screen, so it makes sense to explore that here instead and it’s fitting that it’s the Sixth Doctor once more doing battle with him.

Sadly though, whilst all this looks good on paper, it doesn’t entirely translate well when listened to. The main issue really is one of connectivity.  This release is called ‘The Last Adventure’, so it’s not unfair to have an expectation that everything is going to slot together neatly, but no. Only the final play can in any terms be labeled a ‘last’ adventure, and it only really fits in with one other play in the release, leaving one wondering why they bothered listening to the other two.  As one-offs, they’d be fine, but as a build-up to the final hour, they fall massively short as they don’t actually build much.

Let’s look at the plays themselves in their own rights though.  We begin with The End of the Line by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, a ghostly tale of mysterious trains and even more mysterious deaths. The mixture of trains, abandoned stations and Colin Baker cannot help but bring to mind In Memory Alone, the third story in the Stranger series, Bill Baggs’s straight-to-video series which found its lead writer and plot visionary in… Nicholas Briggs! You do wonder if the inclusion of this tale here is a nod to the roots of Briggs’s working relationship with Baker, but I am probably reading too much into things.

The story itself is fine, but nothing new.  We’ve had ghost stories in this manner in the past and the twists are, again, nothing Big Finish haven’t done before.  It’s not to say that the play is bad per se, just a bit… underwhelming.  We’ve been here before and will do again.  Likewise, one of the big selling points for this tale is something the Sixth Doctor specifically, and arguably uniquely (sorry, Clara), has experience of: the introduction of a new companion some way into their friendship.  wap Mel for Constance, and hey presto.

Again, I imagine that the parallels here between Constance and Mel both getting introduced in ‘final’ stories for the Sixth Doctor are intended, but whereas Mel came with a fully kitted-out character, Constance here is the ultimate definition of generic.  Miranda Raison is a fine actor, but she is given nothing to go with here. Her character is blander than any of the support and you wonder just why they bothered.  I imagine someone at Big Finish said “Hey! Now here’s a good idea!” and then went ahead and commissioned this without actually working out what her character is. I hope so at least, or her forthcoming trilogy is going to be painful.

Second up, we have Alan Barnes in the writing seat and The Red House. Reuniting the Doctor with Charley, it’s a tale of werewolves, scientists and afflicted villagers. It feels similar to The Doomwood Curse in that respect, with a clash of science fiction and folktale trappings, but whilst The End of the Line felt overly recognizable, Barnes’s script here feels fresh and fits in with Charley perfectly, maybe because of the familiarities. (If you’re the sort of fan who is kept awake at night by the thorny issue of continuity and placements, then fret not: we get a very clumsy introduction where Charley reels off a list of previous adventures and where this one falls. It’s painful, but is going to satisfy a certain type of fan, so it’s probably best to have it in here than not!)

This play actually ties in to what’s to come, and as such has more merit in this box set than others. It also uses Charley and her relationship with this particular incarnation of the Doctor intelligently, and at over an hour doesn’t outstay its welcome, telling a decent story in its own rights whilst also moving pieces forward in anticipation of the finale.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Stage Fright by Matt Fitton, which reunites the Sixth Doctor with Jago and Litefoot whilst Flip is in tow.  It’s not a bad story in itself, but what Red House gets right, this gets wrong.  It barely touches upon the final installment at all, and lovely though it is to have Jago and Litefoot present and correct, there is no reason for it whatsoever other than it being a selling point for the box set. Flip, meanwhile, seems to be here purely to give us contrasts between the time period and our own (“Oh! It’s just like The X Factor! Star Wars! Other-Franchise-That-Is-Popular!”) and little else. She’s also responsible for a dénouement which makes the oft-criticized schmaltz of Fear Her look subtle.  Surely Peri, being an American in a time of colonialism and the Empire, would have been a better/more interesting fit, especially now we know that she carries on travelling with Sixie after the events of Trial? It feels like a wasted opportunity.  Indeed, the exclusion of Peri from proceedings, given how integral she was to the Sixth Doctor’s era on screen and indeed Trial of a Time Lord, feels like a massive oversight, and makes this whole set seem more a celebration of Big Finish and its various creations than representative of the Sixth Doctor’s tenure, really.

This is very apparent in the final story of this set, Nicholas Briggs’s entry, The Brink of Death, in which Mel is mostly ignored in favour of this set’s Not-Lucie-Miller-Companion, Genesta the plucky Time Lord. Ever since Lucie was a hit, Big Finish have been trying to ape her success (again, see Flip), and this is but the latest effort. No spoilers here, but it doesn’t work and she has ‘Disposable’ written all over her from the word ‘go’, and I wish they’d stop doing it.  It’s getting tedious now.

There is an attempt to use her fate to compare attitudes to death and life between the Doctor and Valeyard, but nothing really comes of it. For all the talk of the two Time Lords being Yin and Yang/one and the same, you never get the impression that they are actually the same person. You’d think there would be an attempt to show the Sixth Doctor being tempted down that path but it never materializes.

So, with Mel put to one side and a substitute companion in place, this play harkens back to The Red House and works its way towards the end.  We know from the very off that the end is approaching, so much of this is painted as a race against time: or would be, if time wasn’t continually extended and frozen all over the place, ruining any sense of pace.  No matter though, what about the plot itself?

Well, it’s reliant on two things: the Doctor having no real sense of curiosity (“Oh! So that explains that thing that happened ages ago that I probably should have looked into but didn’t because Reasons”) and the Valeyard being nigh-on omnipotent.  A big point is made time and again of the Valeyard thwarting all of the Doctor’s plans because he knows exactly what he did before and what he’s thinking, which only makes the ending– the Doctor does something that all logic and story suggests the Valeyard should see coming but, erm, doesn’t because it’s the end of the story– all the sillier and frustrating.  It’s lazy and, more importantly, at odds with everything we’ve been told so far, so what, I wonder, was the point of it all.  It certainly makes little more sense than tumultuous buffeting: arguably, that makes a smidgeon more sense than what we get here.

The end is here though, and Time And The Rani approaches. The plot of this dovetails neatly into that story (sort of. It’s never explicitly stated that it’s the Rani firing beams at the TARDIS here, but it surely has to be, or else she’d die on Lykertya or at the very least not look like Kate O’Mara).  Colin, of course, gets some final words.  Well, several.  He has a brilliant last line when talking with the Valeyard, but sadly then waffles on for a whole other scene and gets a line that is in no way as memorable or satisfying. It’s a shame that they sacrifice less for more, but that is perhaps indicative of this set overall. We could have got a series of episodes that builds up to the final end, but instead we get an advertisement for Big Finish Productions.

Final thoughts then? Tricky.  It’s an ending for sure, and the final episode isn’t awful, just illogical.  What’s most trying with this release is that you can easily see where things perhaps should have gone: a set leading to a finale, rather than a finale with almost no build-up. A set absent of Peri and largely ignoring Mel in favour of Big Finish’s own creations.  An introduction to a new assistant, but one without any characteristics whatsoever. A set that doesn’t know when to stop or, really, start.

The Sixth Doctor is surely still Big Finish’s success story, and Colin Baker still a star, but for such a flagship release, we should have got something far better than this. This is in no way the best this incarnation has to offer or even close to the best Big Finish and Baker have given us. Call this a last adventure if you will, but I’m hoping for far better to come. 

26 August 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Eddie Robson

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: June 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Steven and Vicki to the Italian city of Ravenna in the year 540 – besieged by the army of the celebrated Byzantine general Belisarius. Caught up in the fighting, Steven ends up on a boat bound for Constantinople, the heart of the Roman Empire.

Rescuing Steven, however, is the least of the Doctor's problems – because he shouldn't be mixed up in this particular adventure at all. Someone has sabotaged his own personal timeline, putting him in the place of his First incarnation... but who, and why? The truth is about to be revealed – but at what cost to all of the Doctors, and to the whole future history of the planet Earth?”


It’s been a bumpy old ride, but finally here we are: The Secret History, the final story in Big Finish’s latest trilogy. We’ve had the more-Fourth-than-Third-Doctor story The Defectors and then, sadly for us all, Last of the Cybermen, which is about as awful a play as we’ve ever been given by Big Finish, even if it did try to explain away the photograph-roundel-walls in the TARDIS. (I begrudgingly give it a nod for that.)  This has been a pretty lackluster trilogy so far then, but thankfully they’ve gone and saved the best ‘til last.

For a start, this feels just like a First Doctor story. Put William Hartnell in the title role instead of Peter Davison and it would feel just right in the way the other two plays would not have done.  Eddie Robson has easily written the most successful play for this different-Doctors remit, no question about it.

It perhaps also helps that Steven and Vicki, the two companions in this tale, fit in perfectly with the story being told, too, and gel with the Fifth Doctor in a way that makes you long for this troop to have further adventures. Peter Davison, Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien are all class acts and they milk Robson’s brilliant script for all it’s worth.

The story itself takes place in the year 540 CE: Ravenna is under the control of the general Belisarius, Steven has been whisked off to fight, and someone is in the shadows, manipulating the Doctor’s personal history and timeline… but who? And why?

The question of who is a thorny one, really. It should be a big secret, and indeed if you simply downloaded the story and seen the cast list as put on the Big Finish website, it would be. However, if you get the CD, then there is a whacking great spoiler on the cover, clearly showing you the name of the actor playing the antagonist, a character that actor is associated with. Added to that is the CD artwork which decides to place an image representing the antagonist in the centre of it all: why that and not, say, a generic roman soldier or even Belisarius? It seems odd that Big Finish have gone to great lengths to hide the identity of the Doctor’s foe and then place them smack-bang in the middle of the cover.  It’s a pity as it would have been a nice surprise otherwise.  Instead, having seen the cover and then received the CD, I met the revelation of the baddie with a shrug instead of the shock I should have felt.

Just in case you haven’t put two and two together though or been spoilt, I’ll refrain from naming them here. Suffice to say that they fit perfectly though, with both the story and the notion of incorrect Doctors across this trilogy. The actor in question works brilliantly with Davison, and again, you would gladly see more of them in the future if possible. It’s also a welcome return to their character; a nice continuation of their story which adds some genuine sadness to proceedings. Yes, they’re doing the wrong thing, but you can see why and it is heartbreaking in many ways, as is the implication that they’ve tried to carry out this plan time and time again, forever caught in a loop of revenge and upset and rage.

The use of this character proves a smart one for this, the 200th ‘main range’ release from Big Finish, as it ties in with one of their other most successful runs: a celebration, and rightly so, of some of the company’s most popular outputs.  It’s nice to see Big Finish approach this milestone with some subtly and restraint as it’s not something they’ve been doing as of late, and as such it makes for one of the most satisfying releases from the company for a long while.

Two hundred releases though: an impressive milestone.  Not every release is a gem, and there is a strong argument to be made that quality has suffered as of late due to the vast quantity of output, but the importance, and indeed at times genuine brilliance, of Big Finish is not something to be sniffed at. The world(s) of Doctor Who, and indeed my own world, would be far poorer without them.

Just think of three things they’ve given us off the top of your head: the Eighth Doctor’s adventures through time and space, the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher, the Companion Chronicles.  Impressive, and one can easily pluck out three more: Dalek Empire, Charlotte Pollard, the magnificent Jago and Litefoot series. And more still: Melanie Bush and the Sixth Doctor and Adric all being given stories arguably far better, and certainly far better received, than they had on screen. And then there is the array of brilliant writers: Eddie Robson and Joseph Lidster and Rob Shearman and Uma McCormack and Jacqueline Rayner and Andrew Smith and John Dorney and… and…

And one could go on.  This has not been an especially good run of stories, but The Secret History itself is a fantastic play that richly deserves the full marks it’s been afforded below.

The not-so-secret history of Doctor Who will sing highly of Big Finish in years to come, and rightly so.  Here’s to more adventures… 

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.

 

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