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22 January 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Cavan Scott

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The TARDIS deposits the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and their android ally Kamelion aboard a prison ship. A ship with just one prisoner: Nustanu, last warlord of the Zamglitti – monstrous, mind-bending mimics able to turn themselves into mist.

A ship that's in trouble, and about to make a crash-landing...

On a planet of mists."

With Doctor Who having as many stories under its belt as it does, it’s unsurprising that at times the show wishes to celebrate this. Done well, a brief nod or wink to the past can be amusing and encourage people new to the show to dip into the past. Done badly, it can be off-putting, make the series feel like it is tailor-made for a small audience, and give characters the strange habit of not being able to walk five metres without referencing a former adventure.

Big Finish have historically veered between the two, sometimes in the same scene, and their reputation at times can be of pandering too much to the sort of fan who thinks simply name-checking Vardans makes for a good story, no plot required. The trouble with this attitude is that it means genuinely good nods to the past can perhaps be overshadowed: cue Kamelion.

Kamelion is oft-forgotten, not least by the TV series itself. Almost impossible to operate, superfluous to requirements and absent for months on end, the poor android was pretty much done and dusted as soon as he had set foot upon the good ship TARDIS (I’m using the male pronoun here: if it’s good enough for the character’s new voice artist, Jon Culshaw, then it’s good enough for me). There was potential there though: a shape-shifting companion with the ability to have its mind controlled by outside influences!

The trouble is, the two stories in which he appeared (no, I’m not counting Androzani) show this potential off and so one if left to wonder what else there is to be done with the android. Devil In The Mist by Cavan Scott does not really put those fears to rest, but it does show that there is some exploration to be had with the relationship between bot and human, even if it is largely resolved by the end of things. (It also has a lovely cover, which shows off how gorgeous the android’s design was if nothing else.)

The story starts with a very wary Tegan. Kamelion has links far too close to the Master in her eyes and when he is apparently caught tampering with the ship, her fears appear to be confirmed and she sees red. It’s this fractious relationship between the pair (Tegan angry, Kamelion unable to solve this problem) that forms the crux of the emotional heart of this four-part adventure, and adventure is very much the right word. We’ve crashing spaceships, rivers to cross, a jungle to explore, and secrets to happen upon and the running time does tick on nicely enough. Throw in some space hippos (Scott’s own creations, the Harrigain, who have popped up across media now) and ne’er-do-wells and you’ve something that feels like it’s taken a shot of adrenaline before breakfast.

The regular cast are more than up to the game. Mark Strickson remains thoroughly underrated as Turlough and Janet Fielding is as brilliant as ever. Culshaw, meanwhile, fits into Kamelion’s shoes with utter ease. If anyone has been dipping into the Target audiobook range, they’ll know already how soothing and gorgeous his voice can be on the ears and there’s no change here. He could read the phone book and I’d be content.

I mentioned earlier that not much new is really done with Kamelion though, and I stand by that. There is a nice exploration of companion dynamics (Tegan’s slipped confession that she still feels uneasy around Turlough is beautifully done) but does this story really show the need for Kamelion’s return? I’m not sure it does. (I’m also not sure having one of the story’s cliffhangers revolving around a boat accident is in especially great taste given the tragic death of the android’s original operator. I am 100% sure it’s just a nasty co-incidence but even so, I did wince a little.)

Adventure aside, the script itself passes the time nicely but I can’t say it made much of an impression. Think of this as a blockbuster popcorn movie: the sort you watch with half a mind elsewhere whilst grazing and forget much of the plot hours down the line. That’s not a criticism of the genre at all: sometimes that sort of entertainment is necessary and I’d take it over being bored. I definitely wasn’t clock-watching during this outing, but give me a few months and I am not sure I will be able to regale you with many specifics about it.

Kamelion is now due for a further two stories, and I am more curious than anything else. Will we see the potential hitherto untapped? I do not know, but I am confident that they’ll give it a good go. As a starting block Devil In The Mist is not bad, even if it is not an especially convincing argument for a need for more outings for the character. Perhaps with some of the dramatic tension now eased we’ll see what could have been, with a happier Tegan, a busier TARDIS and a calmer Kamelion.

And if you can’t end a review on a terrible Culture Club joke when talking about a creation from the 1980s, when can you?


+ Devil In The Mist is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


14 January 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: AK Benedict

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Doctor arrives in present day Iceland and receives a frosty reception from Inspector Yrsa Kristjansdottir when he becomes the chief suspect in a murder enquiry. But the Doctor knows that the real killer is of extraterrestrial origin.

Joining forces with Yrsa, the Doctor goes in pursuit of a ruthless alien that is hunting humans for sport. Yrsa unearths a dark conspiracy which reaches back into her own past.

Determined to expose the truth and prevent further deaths, the Doctor and Yrsa soon find themselves running for their lives, prey on the hunting ground."

2018 ends in the snow for Big Finish. The wolves are running, but it’s Colin Baker and not Patrick Troughton taking centre stage for this tale of hunting, police procedure and cover-ups. Plus aliens and robots, because what's Doctor Who without a nasty monster waiting in the wings every so often? Dull, that’s what.

Things get off to a pleasingly disorientating start with a child’s bedtime story interrupted by screaming and pleading and roaring, all before the theme tune kicks in. We’re soon introduced to Inspector Yrsa Kristjansdottir and placed in the middle of a murder investigation that smells of Forbrydelsen, to the point where I kept expecting Sarah Lund to turn up in one of her trademark cosy jumpers. Again, it’s a pleasingly Doctor Who thing where you have something so familiar interrupted by the Doctor and alien activity and that’s exactly what we get. Chuck in a singing printer and unusual wolves, and you have an entertaining start to the adventure.

Despite all this good work though, the play throughout feels like it lacks a certain something. The ingredients for something wonderful are all there and the story continues to throw such things at us, from hidden spaceships to bickering bureaucrats, to car crashes to traitors, but the glue holding all these things together is web-thin. Doctor Who meeting Scandinavian crime drama is a nice idea, in theory, but there is a notable disconnect between these elements in The Hunting Ground, to the extent that it feels like the two genres are fighting for the spotlight and as a result they both feel a tad undercooked.

It’s a shame as, as noted above, there is much to praise in AK Benedict’s script. I enjoyed her crack at the Eleventh Doctor in The Calendar Man, and there is a similar blend of fairytale with normality here, too. Unlike there though, again these two things sometimes work against one another.

I really like the approach taken towards what is often dismissed as supernatural and ‘other’ in this play. People speak of elves and trolls with a shrug, as if they’re nothing out of the ordinary, which is at once unusual and refreshing. It feels like a nice and respectful blend of traditional Icelandic folklore and the show’s existing mythology, but this lack of wonder at the ‘other’ sadly bleeds over to elsewhere.

I can understand the natural extension of the police accepting magic folk so therefore not finding it a great stretch to accept that the Doctor is an alien and that alien activity may be involved with the murder case. I see, too, why this may have crossed the mind of Yrsa Kristjansdottir before, seeing as her father died in similarly unusual circumstances. However, she is then almost roundly unimpressed and surprised as time travel, alien hunters and robots all announce themselves and as such it’s a bit hard for the listener to be enthused or excited.

And then we have the very ending which hints that Yrsa may be about to become a new companion of the Sixth Doctor. I actually let out a small groan at this point as it just feels so ordinary and expected and, again, underwhelming. They’ve tried to pull off the ‘Sixth Doctor and an unexpected companion!’ trick once already in 2018, in the truly terrible release The Lure Of The Nomad, so by now it’s like a bad joke. Whether Yrsa does make it aboard the TARDIS or not seems unclear for now, but the door is open so I suspect it will be but time. I can’t say I am counting down the days.

The Hunting Ground, then...  It’s a strange story with much to praise and celebrate, but it’s also one that feels disjointed and lacking. It’s a bit of a damp end to 2018’s monthly releases from Big Finish, but perhaps you can exaggerate the peaks and troughs here to make a good symbol for how the main range has been this year: some terrific highs and some perilous lows.

I hope that 2019 provides us with a bit more consistency. More monsters and fewer people shrugging off the wonderful. A bit less of the predictable and a bit more of the surprising. We shall see. For now, let’s look at the good here and hope it’s built upon After all, what is a new year if not a chance to reflect upon the good and bad and vow to do better?


+ The Hunting Ground is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


14 January 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Paul Magrs

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Oooh la la! It's been a long time coming, but the Doctor is about to be reunited with Iris Wildthyme! They're both in 1920s Paris and everyone's flocking to Iris's salon.

But wait...! What's that noise..? Thud thud thud...! It's the soft, approaching feet of a small and acerbic Art Critic Panda...!"

December 2018 for Big Finish’s main range of Doctor Who plays gives us two Winter treats. With Colin Baker in The Hunting Ground, we’ve snow and isolation and wolves a-running, whereas with Muse of Fire we’ve something with a far lighter, end-of-term feel.

The play gets off to a very good start, bursting in with the full edit of the Sylvester McCoy opening theme tune instead of the truncated version Big Finish usually use. It’s a small thing, but it grabs your attention immediately and suggests an attention to period detail… that is almost immediately kicked to the curb for pandas, nude modelling and a bus bound for Putney Common via the Multiverse.

Yes, Iris Wildthyme is back in all her glory and wild eccentricity and Muse of Fire takes that as its lead. The play is set in Paris in the 1920s, a time of artists and poetry and creativity and - but of course - alien ne’er-do-wells. It’s a fun setting that fits Iris well and also the Doctor, not to mention Panda, whose art criticism is sending waves rippling through the city and perverting the known course of history.

Now, I’ve heard some grumbles about Ms Wildthyme in the past; people claiming she should be confined to spin-off media and her own series instead of lumped in with the good ship TARDIS, irrespective of her roots (discounting the Phoenix Court Iris, that is). These same voices will hold up the charge of silliness, idiosyncratic writing and everything being a bit over the top: to which I say, go for it.

Give me an authorial voice that has purpose and drive (and love him or no, Paul Magrs’ writing certainly does when given freedom as is the case here). Give me over-the-top action (seriously, have people never seen the show?)

And as for silliness? Yes please. I said earlier that this play is lighter, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s lightness with a wink and a breath in its lungs, in a script with depth and heart and weight amid the silliness: and oh! How glorious it is to be silly sometimes. Doctor Who is often at its best when it’s smiling and Muse of Fire is worth grinning over.

I noted depth a moment ago, because this play has it in spades. It’s a sincere and sweet look at artistic integrity and feeling valueless when surrounded by others more successful than yourself. It’s a search for validity in your work and voice, and a sombre warning to not let that make you blind to the love of others who aren’t possessive of an artistic mindset. That it has that weight and also a cybernetic panda is about as Doctor Who as you can possibly get. Plus, Hex gets his kit off, which will get a lot of fan approval from certain quarters.

There are fingers one could point if one was minded to. The disposal of the big bad near the end feels rushed, for example, and the final line feels a bit like there is meant to be a musical swirl or follow-up sentence after it; the end theme tune coming in surprises the listener a little. But frankly, I don’t care.

This is a fun play to listen to and everyone, from Magrs to the cast, to Jamie Anderson directing, all seem to be having a lot of fun. Indeed, McCoy is full of enthusiasm in the extras for this release and that’s lovely to hear. Hopefully it’ll encourage more intelligent nonsense: and I mean that in the most loving way possible. Let’s hope that the flame lit by this muse of fire keeps on burning for a while yet and inspires more of this quality down the line.


+ Muse Of Fire is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


22 November 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Steve Lyons

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"It’s time the truth was told. About UNIT. About the Cybermen invasion. About the so-called ‘Doctor’. About what happened all those years ago, at Warlock’s Cross. About the man they keep locked up in a cage, in a secret prison…

It’s time. Because UNIT scientific adviser Elizabeth Klein is going to help ensure the truth is brought to light.

Today’s the day… that UNIT falls."

The Seventh Doctor’s five-release-run in the Main Range from Big Finish continues here with Warlock’s Cross by Steve Lyons; the final play in the ‘New UNIT’ trilogy.

It’s a bit of an odd play for various reasons, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Things kick off with some set up and well-executed exposition (sometimes a rarity in audio). The Doctor himself is sidelined fairly early into proceedings with a nice gag on how he wasn’t really much of a player in the 1990s, and it’s not long before all the main players are established, including the return of Blake Harrison as Daniel Hopkins and Tracey Childs as Klein. They are joined by others along the way, but it’s Colonel McKenna who takes central stage. He is the man in charge now and proves to be as waspish as he predecessors; the moment he name-checks Lewis Price as the best of the best is a nice shorthand for everything you need to know about his character.

By the end of the first episode, we’ve a mystery to solve, a jailbreak, betrayal and uncertainty over some characters’ motivations. It’s a lot to work with, so it’s a surprise then that the episode itself is a bit of a damp squib. Much happens, but not an awful lot of it is all that interesting. The same goes for Part Two, which had me concerned. The previous two entries in this trilogy have failed to land for me and I was very concerned this one was heading the same way.

Thankfully, we have here a Doctor Who story which bucks the trend by actually improving as it goes along and Part Three in particular is enjoyable with some fun concepts. Part Four is perhaps more pedestrian, but Lyons throws us some nice bones here and there with interesting character development for Klein and weighty discussion on what the Doctor did to her by interfering with her past. It helps justify her inclusion in the play, which otherwise would be hard to do, regardless of how good Childs is in the role (and she is: she’s very, very good).

A lot of the issues at the start of the story really boil down to the performances of some of the cast, but a lot of that is down presumably to directorial decision and tics in the script itself.  It’s very similar to the problem with Ashildr back with Series 10 on television. If you write a character as having a tough exterior and being emotionless, the performances given are going to lack warmth and subtlety and so it is here, too. The actors in this cast are very good actors but I would be lying if I said I felt they gave us incredible performances. I don’t feel that’s really something they can be entirely blamed for though, especially when it comes to the character of Hopkins. It’s a decision taken at a higher level, to make him the way he is, and it’s made for a very bland character that you wish had been flagged up as a misstep somewhere down the scripting or script editing road.

Compare Blake Harrison’s performance here to that in The Helliax Rift. I didn’t enjoy that play, but it’s fair to say Harrison had a lot more to go with and his performance is accordingly better for it. Harrison is a good actor, but saddled as he is here with scripts and character development that are lacking, it’s a wonder he does as well as he does.

In the end, the decision to go down the route they did with Hopkins weighs down the New UNIT trilogy, a trilogy which has felt ill-conceived and poorly executed from the start. I can see where they were aiming with it all (UNIT in Battlefield, for example, feels very different to how UNIT was in the Pertwee era or indeed Tennant’s, Smith’s or Capaldi’s) but it lacked the believability to really make it sing, populated by characters who should know better when dealing with the Doctor and stories that feel largely tired.

The 1990s were not the kindest of times to Doctor Who in many ways and perhaps ending the trilogy in this era rubbed off. Warlock’s Cross is by far the best of the three in the loose arc, but I don’t think it’s a play I’ll be returning to any time soon.


+ Warlock's Cross is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


5 November 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Guy Adams

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: October 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Doctor and Ace are locked up. The TARDIS is gone. Things just couldn’t get worse, could they?

Of course they could. Things can always get worse — the new President of the Solar System, Josiah W Dogbolter, didn’t get where he is in life without learning that. That’s why he has a Quantum Possibility Engine. It’s a wonderful machine, creating a wonderful Solar System. And with this wonderful device, he can bring happiness and peace to all.

Possibly.

Either that or tear the universe to shreds, it’s hard to be sure which."

Right now as I write this, Doctor Who on screen is going out of its way to be accessible to new audiences. If you dived in to The Woman Who Fell To Earth having never seen the show before, you’d find your feet soon enough and not feel you’re missing out on anything - fleeting reference to a white-haired Scotsman aside.

On the other side of the fence, Big Finish seem to be increasingly catering for a niche audience; one which is familiar and comfortable with several dozen strings of continuity. Take the Main Range right now; the latest trilogy ends with this play here, The Quantum Possibility Engine by Guy Adams, but that’s not it for the Seventh Doctor. The next release is Warlock’s Cross, a solo outing for this incarnation at a later point in his lifetime and a sequel to the ‘Modern UNIT’ trilogy that’s been running across the year which also sees the return of Klein. Straight after that we dip back in his timeline and also Ace’s (in relation to this month’s play) with Muse of Fire. It’s a tangled web of time and placement at odds with everything else right now.

Even this month’s play is not immune. We have Narvin in it; a popular character from the spin-off series Gallifrey, but a younger Narvin than the one in much of that series, and the main antagonist is Dogbolter from the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips. In fairness, both elements are explained away in the script, so no prior knowledge is necessary but it shows a far more insular and fan-focussed approach to the show.

Perhaps appropriately then, this play often feels like a bit of a greatest hits collection at times. The main bulk of Part Two and Part Three for Ace, the Doctor and Narvin will be very familiar to anyone who has read the comic strip The Glorious Dead, watched Forest Of The Dead and to a lesser extent Human Nature, or listened to Big Finish’s own The Crowmarsh Experiment. That’s nothing compared to the ending though, where a great portion of it isn’t so much similar to The Girl Who Died as a direct rip-off. It’s hard to not have a sense of slight fatigue at times thanks to this, all of which makes it surprising that I enjoyed the play as much as I did. In fact, I’d say it’s one of Adams’s best outings so far.

The points about repetition aren’t its only problem, mind. Mel falls into the tired trap of telling someone a load of exposition for no reason at all other than to have this information used against them later on, which always irks me (it’s justified when Dogbolter does similar later on), and I’m not sure I ever once bought the reason Mel didn’t tell the Doctor or Ace about her predicament: that smacks more of needing a cliffhanger ending and arc across a trilogy than anything truthful. But everything else has a real sense of fun about it, so much so that I’m happy to let these niggles pass.

I’d somehow completely missed the fact Narvin was in the play, so that came as a genuine surprise.  His inclusion here makes sense, far more so than it ever did with Dark Eyes years ago now. I must be honest that I was uncertain when he first popped up that it would be an inclusion for the sake of an inclusion as was the case there, but thankfully not. Sean Carlsen is always brilliant value regardless of script and he’s a welcome addition here, too.

The same goes for Toby Longworth, whose Dogbolter is as fun here as he was in The Maltese Penguin, many moons ago when our canonical Doctors numbered but eight. His inclusion feels perfectly suited to the overall comic-y ambience of the play and whilst I think continual cameos and kisses from the past aren’t healthy when done with regularity, I wouldn’t be against more of this type on occasion if handled with equal skill.

Big Finish may be playing hopscotch with the story placement in their release schedule, but plays such as this one leave me smiling. Perfect? By no means, and yet here I am giving it a thumbs up. A patchwork of past glories it may be, but it’s fun and a nice way to pass a couple of hours. In the end, Doctor Who should aspire to be this way, always.


+ The Quantum Possibility Engine is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


25 September 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Mark Morris

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Doctor, Ace and Mel are caught in a forever night. After crossing the threshold, a strange world awaits them.

An army of tortured souls. A lift that leads to an alien landscape. An alien warlord, left for dead, and willing to do anything to prolong his life… it’s all in a day’s work for the Doctor.

But when his companions become victims of the desperate and powerful Arkallax, the Doctor will have to do battle in a psychic environment where he must make a choice. Save his companions… or himself."

When I’m writing these reviews, I try to avoid other people’s. You don’t want to have your ‘voice’ accidentally imitate someone else’s viewpoint and articulation, and you certainly don’t want to start framing your arguments with somebody else’s words, albeit accidentally.

It’s been hard, though, to avoid everyone’s praise for this play and while it did not land for me in the same way Red Planets did, last month, it’s easy to see why it’s getting plenty of nods in the right direction.

The story starts with a battle in space, but before too long, things have been dragged down to Earth with a real bump: an abandoned estate, zombie-esque humans shuffling and moaning that they’re hungry, Northern accents aplenty and a lift that does not go where it should be going, all get thrown into the mix alongside an alien that takes over both the body and vernacular of a local resident, a young couple trapped as the monsters make their way across the land, and, of course, the Doctor, Ace and Mel. Sylvester McCoy especially sounds like he’s enjoying this one, though the extras reveal that Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred are in what is termed a “playful” mood during the recording session, which is a lot of fun to listen to.

(As in the norm nowadays, no extended extras were available to listen to upon release or across the days following, which is a real shame but Big Finish don’t appear to be changing this any time soon, sadly. It’s doubly painful this month as The Dalek Occupation Of Winter came out with a set of extended extras simultaneously, the day after The Dispossessed was released. Ah well.)

The opening couple of episodes of the play are very strong, with a nice sense of menace and that wonderfully Doctor Who thing of merging the mundane with the fantastical: a block of flats being attacked by an alien menace. Actually, that sounds a lot like Attack the Block, doesn’t it? Perhaps Jodie Whittaker has been having a word.

Mark Morris has constructed a good setting and nice characters here. None of them entirely likeable and all of them people you root for. That’s so bloody hard to pull off, and I am in awe with how easy he makes it look here. (I also appreciated the return of his running gag about how much sugar the Seventh Doctor takes in his tea.)

It was near the ending that for me things started to feel less spectacular, though never bad or dull. Spoilers will follow, so look away now if you wish to not be ruined…

… still reading? Okay, spoilers begin.

In the end, the big bad is another psychic foe (or rather, a foe with psychic abilities) and though Morris has a neat and novel spin on it, it does rather boil down to the Doctor ensnaring a villain in their own trap and lots of shouting about possession and minds and battling with mental powers.  It just feels beyond over-familiar from Big Finish now to be falling back on this once again and it rather flattens the second half of the play.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with the brain tumour subplot. I understand that Morris is trying to make a point here about how diseases in the past once thought incurable can now be corrected with little fuss, but it comes off as a little trite to have one of our lead supporting characters cured of his with a nod and a lot of laughing about how silly it is to be worrying about them. I wonder if something like terminal cancer would be dealt with which such flippancy? It just felt in rather poor taste for me, though I appreciate the point that was being made.

The Dispossessed ends with Mel going rogue and leading the Doctor, Ace and the TARDIS to the lair of none other than Dogbolter himself, which could be a lot of fun. It’s not the return of Frobisher comic book fans, but it’s close and I’ll take it. The only downside is that this means Guy Adams will be absent from script editing duties. On the strength of his efforts this year, that’s a crying shame and I hope it is not too long before he is persuaded to return to the role.

This does not diminish the good though so let us be grateful for another solid script in this run of Doctor / Mel / Ace adventures. Here's hoping more comes our way soon.


+ The Dispossessed is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


28 August 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Una McCormack

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: August 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"London, 2017. Except... it isn't. Berlin, 1961. But it isn't that either. Not really. Not in the timeline the Doctor knows. Something is very wrong.

While Ace tries to save the life of a wounded British spy, Mel and the Doctor must get to grips with the modern day socialist Republic of Mokoshia. For Mel it feels strangely familiar and 'right', which makes the Doctor feel even more uneasy.

Soon, a message from a dark and blood-soaked distant future is on its way... But the Doctor will have to act fast to stop this timeline becoming reality.

And with Ace stranded in an alternate 1961, will saving the Earth end her existence?"

They say that bad news comes in waves, but I’ve often found the reverse to also be true. 

After a few months now of plays mostly failing to land for me, Big Finish have suddenly hit a run of very strong offerings: The Barbarians And The Samurai is hands-down the best thing Andrew Smith has written for Big Finish and had me raving about it to friends; Flight into Hull! is a truly fantastic story by Joseph Lidster (I was, I’ll admit, very unsure about wanting to hear anything about the Meta-Crisis Doctor until I saw his name attached to the project, and both outings were very strong); False Coronets by Alice Cavender was a lot of fun; I’ve only dipped into Class so far but what I’ve heard I’ve liked; and then there is this, Red Planets by Una McCormack.

In a word? Superb.

Mel and the Seventh Doctor find themselves on Earth in 2017 - only not quite the Earth it should be: Mel is singing Russian anthems and recalls a history very different to that she should remember and even the Doctor can’t persuade her otherwise. Meanwhile, Ace finds herself in Berlin in the early 1960s but, again, things are all askew. Time and history are at a crucial turning point and it’s going to be up to the two groups to put things right.

“Okay,” people will say. “Parallel timelines. Done this before!” Ah, but rarely with such grace and depth and plausibility. This isn’t just spinning out an idea into a side-story, but creating a believable world. You feel you could spend an entire trilogy exploring the ins and outs of this new history and not get bored, and it is this that makes it a cut above the standard, alternative-history adventure. McCormack goes into just enough detail to make it hold tight but not enough to swamp you with detail and research.

The characters are rich, the performances strong, the different locations (the past! The present! Space!) varied enough to stand tall and carry three very different, but equally engaging storylines. The play also scores points for being true to the era in which it is set, i.e. the Seventh Doctor’s run on TV. Yes, Mel here is still the Mel of Big Finish and not the one often criminally underwritten on-screen (poor Mel, I do love her) but you can picture the BBC sets as you listen to this story and imagine them pulling it off. Credit must go to the sound design for that and also the direction by Jamie Anderson, not to mention the script editing by Guy Adams. (He was also in the driving seat for the excellent Davison trilogy which kickstarted the year, and I see he was in charge for next month’s play, too. This bodes well.)

Red Planets is helped along by sterling performances from the three leads. As long-time fans, we know the anecdotes of old: no glasses and late to the audition, a letter sent whilst working with builders, a chance encounter charming people at a party, lying about being American or lying about Australian air hostesses. We know these tales of old and that knowledge can, at times, make us take for granted how good the casting was; how perfect the fit between role and actor. This play helps us be more appreciative of that. Sophie Aldred in particular, gives us what is, for my money, one of her strongest outings as Ace, yet.

The ending of the play sets things up for stories to come and with a whopping five McCoy plays on the trot, it’s doubly nice that this one is so very good. This play, like those at the start of 2018, reminds me just how brilliant the Main Range can be. There’s an energy about Red Planets; a spring in its step and a confidence in its vision that all make for one of the most enjoyable listens I’ve had from Big Finish this year. In short, plays like this make the yearly subscription worth it.


+ Red Planets is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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20 August 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Andrew Smith

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Answering a call from UNIT, the Doctor arrives in London to find the streets deserted, apart from looters in possession of a valuable commodity - water.

Britain is suffering an extreme and bizarre drought. The cause is suspected to be extra-terrestrial.

The discovery of a signal being transmitted into space, and of a spacecraft whose crew are desiccated corpses, provides a possible answer. But the true enemy is an old foe of the Doctor’s.

The Cybermen have been patient, setting their plans in place over a number of years. As the final stage is implemented, in the darkest hour, the Doctor must identify who among his allies he can trust."

There was a real buzz online and through fandom when it was announced that David Banks and Mark Hardy were returning to the role of Cyber Leader and Cyber Lieutenant after so many years. Given that Banks had previously said no to a return, it felt all the more exciting that it was finally happening. When I saw that they were coming back in a script written by Andrew Smith, my interest was piqued further still as Smith is always a solid pair of hands and has done some good work for Big Finish in the past.

What is the end result though? Nothing special, sadly, but it has some very nice parts.

The play starts well with the Doctor landing in a deserted London, wryly wondering if dinosaurs have returned, and stumbling upon looters. Before long, and before it really does descend into a full-blown remake of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, UNIT arrive and the Doctor is shown the plight England is enduring and is then reunited with some old friends.

Hour of the Cybermen is a follow-up, of sorts, to The Helliax Rift, a play which roundly unimpressed me. You definitely need to have listened to that first to get any sort of emotional satisfaction out of this play, even if the plot mechanics do not carry over.

Blake Harrison and Russ Bain return as Daniel Hopkins and Lewis Price respectively, and both have changed a fair bit, with Price now written as likeable and Hopkins sombre after suffering a personal tragedy. There is some justification for Hopkins, but you have to question why they’ve gone down this route with Price as it doesn’t really fit in with what we had before, at all. That said, Price’s character was utterly ludicrous in Rift, so I suppose we should be thankful.

The plight mentioned earlier is a drought, which amused me. England has been enduring a heatwave with record-breaking temperatures, so the subject matter feels one step removed from being bang on the money at present. That said, the play was released on the day the hot weather broke and rain fell in some parts of the country, so depending on where you listened to it, it’s either a reminder of what’s outside the window, or a reminder of what was only the day before.

As you would expect from the play’s title, it turns out that the Cybermen are responsible for this state of affairs and it’s with them that the play’s true success lies. Smith writes for the 80s Cybermen really well. Their dialogue rings utterly true, all pomp and bluster despite protesting they have no emotions, and on paper you could read their lines and hear their voices without a moment’s hesitation. On paper. You’d think that having the original actors back to deliver them would make that dream a reality, but in truth it doesn’t quite work. It gets close, but the modulation used for the voices is a bit… off. Not massively, not earth-shatteringly, but definitely off. 70% there and 30% missing at the best of times, nearer 60-40 at the worst. It means you are continually noticing something isn’t quite right beneath the surface, even if Banks’ performance in particular is absolutely perfect, which is a real shame.

And then there is the rest of the play. The main issue with it is that a lot of the plot revolves around a traitor and about, ooooh, ten minutes into the first episode it is very obvious who that traitor is. The fact the others are in the dark is insulting to their intelligence and the listeners’, especially with the Doctor. The traitor’s lines, and especially their performance, robs the play of any suspense whatsoever. It kills the play dead as much of it - most of it, even - is reliant upon this being a shock or dramatic talking point, but because it isn’t a shock it lacks drama, and because it lacks drama, what you’re left with is a lot of people running around and the Doctor carefully and slowly explaining his plans and how clever he is in front of the baddies to substitute for the lack of visuals. This becomes an increasing problem as the play goes along, and the final two episodes in particular suffer enormously from this to the point where those episodes’ 31-minute-long running time felt like a bit of a chore.

Hour of the Cybermen is not a write-off by any means, thanks to the performance Banks gives and Smith’s dialogue for him, but once you take the thrill of the original actors returning and a decent opening episode, you’re left with something a bit empty. Approach with caution. 


+ Hour Of The Cybermen is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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16 July 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Chris Champman

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: June 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"It's London, 1828, and the father-and-son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel are masterminding a dangerous project - the digging of the Thames Tunnel. There's just one problem...

The Brunels' tunnel is haunted. Every night, a spectral blue lady walks the excavation.

Now, the 22-year-old Isambard, eager to step out of his famous father's shadow, finds himself dealing with not only the supposed supernatural, but a second unexpected guest - a colourful trespasser who calls himself 'The Doctor'.

Isambard would like to know a great deal more about this strange man and his mysterious blue box..."

After a couple of major lows for the monthly range, I was a little nervous stepping into this play. Big Finish and historicals usually make for good bedfellows, but the sour taste left by The Lure Of The Nomad especially made me a little wary. Please (I thought to myself, going in), please, not another one like that.

The first thing to note is the cover: it’s beautiful. The wider space for the play covers’ imagery is a welcome thing, finally ditching the awkward black bars, and the new logo? It looks superb here, really catching the eye and wowing the viewer. It all makes for a far, far nicer and more consistent ‘Who identity’ and level of design than we’ve had before and I can’t say I’ll be mourning the loss of the old any time soon. A very good move / insistence by whoever is in charge of branding.

Iron Bright is by Chris Chapman, rapidly becoming a regular contributor to Big Finish’s monthly outings. So far, he’s given us The Memory Bank, a very solid one-episode-long story that I have found myself returning to since the first listen (always a good sign), and The Middle, which I thought had some very strong ideas but perhaps didn’t quite do them justice: very enjoyable overall all the same, mind.

Iron Bright probably falls into the same category, but that’s not to slight it. Big Finish were canny when they released the first episode as a free download for newsletter subscribers as it’s a lot of fun: ghosts and history, the Doctor and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Colin Baker giving one of his best performances for a while all make for thirty minutes of drama which whizz by. The second two episodes are not quite as strong though.

When people see ‘Sixth Doctor + Historical’, the go-to story is normally The Mark Of The Rani, and this has some similarities in that the historical figures are, at times, sidelined in favour of alien goings-on. I feel, though, that this story shares most of its DNA with Timelash.

Remember how H.G. Wells is treated less as a figure of historical importance and more as a substitute companion, and historical period settings are largely ditched in favour of alien landscapes? That’s how Brunel is treated here, and indeed how the middle of this story feels a lot of the time.

When we return to Earth, I felt the story picked up a bit and I perhaps wish we’d been given a straight historical, or one with greater earthly grounding. I don’t feel the Doctor’s meeting with Brunel is wasted, in the same way his meeting with George Stephenson in Rani is not, and perhaps it was a silly and false expectation on my part to think we’d be getting something more ghostly and less... well, traditional Doctor Who.

After all this, the final episode then arrives and things really kick up a gear in quality again. The pocket emptying scene in particular is wonderful (even if Baker does note in the extras that he’s apparently hiding a key prop from the story’s opening in the process: surely a job for a script editor and not the lead actor?), and I want to stress again that the story is never bad.  Far from it.

One thing Iron Bright really has going for it is a truly excellent supporting cast. There is not one flat performance in there; everyone gives a wonderful turn. It’s one of the best ensembles we’ve had, with Catherine Bailey and Imogen Church being particularly impressive, and all credit must go to John Ainsworth for sorting it out. That said, Colin Baker’s remark that Becky Wright should return as a companion made me shake a little: surely no more companions for him? Baker and McGann between them seem to be having a competition to see who can collect the most, like a Gallifreyan game of Pokémon.

(In addition, Wright’s character, Flo, really did sound like the lost child of Flip and Ellie from Jago and Litefoot crossed with some of the backstory of Gwen from The Unquiet Dead, so I’m not sure it would be the wisest move.)

By the time Iron Bright finished, it had won me round again. This doesn’t wash away the bad taste left by recent plays, but it goes a long way to helping.

One thing is utterly apparent, mind: keep an eye on Chris Chapman. I truly believe he is one or two scripts away from writing something utterly superb for Doctor Who and I cannot wait to hear it. The Middle and Iron Bright may not quite hit all the marks, but my word do they show a promise and verve that makes me very, very excited to see his name next to a play again before too long.

 



22 May 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Matthew J. Elliott

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: May 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"For thousands of years, it has drifted through space, unimpeded, forgotten, seemingly lifeless. Now, finally, it has been discovered.

Responding to a distress call from the mysterious hulk, the Doctor and his companion, space pilot Mathew Sharpe, walk into a desperate situation. The multi-tentacled semibionic Makara were tasked with renovating the abandoned craft, but now they’ve begun murdering their employers.

The Doctor soon realises that the Makara have been programmed to kill, but by whom, and for what reason? Finding out the truth will mean uncovering a secret that threatens the entire Universe."

The following review contains massive spoilers for this play from the very start. Please read NO FURTHER if you do not want twists and character / plot developments ruined. I cannot stress enough how from the off YOU WILL BE SPOILED should you choose to read any further.

Heard the one about the spaceship that’s about to crash with a sole occupant left behind, sending out a distress signal which is picked up at the last possible minute by a man in a Police Box, who materialises on board to save the otherwise doomed pilot? What’s that? You have and it featured the Eighth Doctor? How about you listen to it featuring the Sixth Doctor for Big Finish instead.

You like the Sixth Doctor you say? Then have you heard the one where we are introduced to his new companion after he’s been travelling with them for some time? You can pick or choose Mel or Constance here. Or perhaps the one where the Sixth Doctor has a brand new companion in spin-off media? (Hello, Grant or Flip or Evelyn or Frobisher, and so on and so forth.) 

No? Then maybe the Big Finish play where we are introduced to a new companion that turns out to be solely for this tale, as they’re secretly a baddie? Again, you can pick The Fifth Traveller or this one: it’s your call.

You catch my drift, I’m sure. The Lure Of The Nomad, written by Matthew J Elliott, is Big Finish’s 238th main range release and boy does it feel like it. Uninspired and riffing off past glories, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone genuinely read the script without a feeling of déjà vu hanging around. I simply cannot believe the CD extras where they express surprise at the ending. From the moment the story was announced with tiny fanfare for the supposed new companion, and no image of said companion on the cover art, I would have had money on them either dying or turning out to be a wrong’un by the end of the play had I been able to get decent odds anywhere, so when the twist comes that Mathew Sharpe is not the man we thought he was, it was less a surprise and more a case of “Well, obviously, yes. Can we hurry this up now please?” It’s a pity but not something that shocked me, and if anything that’s the saddest part of all.

Nicholas Briggs kicks off the play by announcing with funereal gravitas that you’re listening to a Big Finish production, but he needn’t have bothered. By the time we have references to Quarks, the very first Dalek serial and a joke about carrot juice and exercise bikes riffing on Terror Of The Vervoids, I could have guessed. Later nods to Terileptils, Harry Sullivan and Stattenheim remote controls only add to this sense of it being business as usual, where characters cannot go five minutes without making a nod to past adventures and winking unsubtly at the audience.

Done well, these sorts of kisses to the past can be fine and not derail the action, but done with the sledgehammer regularity as is the case here, they are not. Indeed, the one to Harry is the worst offender. It stems after Mathew makes a reference to the boxer John L. Sullivan, which makes no sense for the character. We’ve already had much said about how far into the future he is from and so he is unfamiliar with cultural touchstones such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so why would he then be able to namecheck a boxer dead since 1918CE?

I know this is a minor point, but it’s symptomatic of a script littered with clumsy dialogue. The opening scene is painfully bad with its on-the-nose exposition, for example: nobody in the world speaks how the two characters here do. It’s the sort of ham-fisted “Let us set up the backstory” chatter we mocked The Space Museum for many moons ago now, and it’s sad to see we haven’t moved on yet. Elsewhere, we’ve more than the usual quota of ‘say what you see’ descriptive lines and the conclusion features a self-sacrifice so out of the blue and out of character that it’s insulting to suggest it happens for any reason other than to wrap up the plot.

(Sadly, these are familiar issues with Elliot’s writing, similar and in some cases identical to ones in his last main range play, The Silurian Candidate, and also present in Backtrack, which he wrote for The Tenth Doctor Chronicles, which makes me suggest this clumsiness of his isn’t moving anywhere any time soon.)

The Lure Of The Nomad is not a good play. There are good aspects, but good aspects do not a good play make. For what it’s worth though, these good aspects include an amusing joke about the plural of ‘octopus’ and nice performances by Matthew Holness and Anna Barry in the guest cast. The final scene is relatively underplayed and memorable, too. It’s for these reasons and these alone that it gets 2 out of 10.

Three very good main range plays followed by two of the worst in recent memory? I really hope things pick up again soon. The Lure Of The Nomad is as forgettable as it gets.

 



2 May 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Scott Handcock

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Daniel Hopkins thought he knew what he was letting himself in for when he joined the top-secret UNIT organisation as its latest Medical Officer.

Racing about the countryside, chasing strange lights in the sky? Check. Defending the realm against extraterrestrial incursion? Check. Frequent ear-bashings from UNIT’s UK CO, the famously no-nonsense Lt-Col Lewis Price? Check. Close encounters of the First, Second and even Third kind? Check, check, check.

But he had no idea what alien beings were really like. Until the day of the Fallen Kestrel. Until the day he met the Doctor."

The start of this year has been a joy when it comes to writing these reviews.  The main range has been well and truly riding high and each month has presented us with something funny, something well-constructed and something downright enjoyable.  It is far more fun to write a review praising something to high heavens than to write one explaining why a certain release has utterly failed to grip you.

But all good things must come to an end perhaps.

I want to state here that I have enjoyed Scott Handcock’s work elsewhere. His direction of The War Master was very strong, for example, as it was in The Worlds of Big Finish (a much underrated release) and a lot of Gallifrey. His first outing as a writer for the ‘main range’ of Big Finish plays, World Apart, was a triumph of character study and understatement. Handcock is a very capable and strong writer, producer and director, of that there is no doubt in my mind at all. It just wasn’t to be, here.

The play starts as follows: the Doctor lands on Earth, drawn there by a signal of extra-terrestrial origin. He is not alone though. UNIT are also on the scene, but this is a UNIT the likes of which the Doctor has not encountered before. Gone are Lethbridge-Stewart, Bell, Yates, Benton and the rest. In their stead is a far colder and harder military outfit headed by one Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis Price. Sometimes, it’s the lack of familiarity on your home soil that can be the biggest threat of them all…

There is a problem here. The problem is quite a big one because it goes on to undermine and underline everything that comes next. The problem is that this new version of UNIT are fully aware of who the Doctor is and his past with UNIT: and they still treat him as an alien hostile, threatening him with execution, giving him orders and acting as if he could be a traitor to the Earth and an enemy of humanity. Which makes no sense whatsoever. If they just thought he was another alien wandering around with significant intelligence, then so be it, but the Doctor? He of heroism and daring do? He who helped UNIT so often?

It doesn’t work and renders these soldiers utterly inept and stupid, thus making a huge aspect of the story just a bit… well, silly. UNIT has moved on, yes, but they know the Doctor of old and all he has done, so to try and make him out to be a threat to the planet just doesn’t wash or hang together at all.

This isn’t helped by the aforementioned Lieutenant-Colonel, who is as drab and one-note a character as the range has ever seen. There is no nuance or depth; no subtlety or, crucially, believability. He shouts, he snarls, and when the plot needs to wrap up he has a slight change of heart for no explicable reason. Everything about this character is painfully dull. It is utterly flat and this extends elsewhere sadly. The plot feels overfamiliar: aliens fall to Earth, humans experiment upon them. Aha, though! There is a twist!

Because of course there is, because you expect there to be, because nothing here feels new or exciting or fresh at all. It feels like we’ve been down this path many, many times. Misguided humans, the power of love, the Doctor poised against the authorities, a token ‘good’ character who is on the Doctor’s side against their commander’s wishes.

The same goes for the Morden Clinic and those who work there. They never convince as real people. They’re plot devices and twists. They’re there to try and make you think the story is going one way when in fact it’s going quite another: only you never believe it’s going just one way, because that sense of familiarity from the off means you never expect to be surprised.

In the end, it all makes for a rather boring play.  I don’t think I ever once failed to see what was round the corner, and even if I could not spot the specific incident about to unfold, I was certain that a twist or incident was incoming because it’s that sort of Big Finish play. The plot would be competent at least, but the UNIT element in the wider world of Doctor Who means it stumbles on that front as well. 

Across the past three releases, I’ve talked about how exciting and fresh the plays have felt; how new and interesting. This feels like a massive leap back, into predictability and stale writing; into characters poorly executed and an absence of shock. Lewis Price is the worst of them all, but he is by no means alone.

Perhaps this is just a blip; a small hiccough and no more. I hope so. Because as it is, this has been as disappointing a release from Big Finish as I think I’ve ever heard.



22 March 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: David Llewellyn

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: March 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"You are cordially invited to Argentia, the galaxy’s most exclusive tax haven, to attend the funeral of mining magnate Carlo Mazzini. The memorial service will be followed by music, light refreshments, and murder!

Carlo’s heirs have come to say their final goodbyes (and find out how much they’ve inherited) but when a masked killer begins picking them off one by one, Argentia goes into lock-down, closed off behind its own temporal displacement field.

Can the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Adric apprehend the murderer before Argentia – and everyone on board - is forever cut off from the rest of the Universe?"

Back in the dim and distant country that was September 2014, I reviewed the play Mask of Tragedy for DWO and sung the praises of Samuel West’s turn as Aristophanes in it. He nailed the comedy perfectly, and the extras showed him to be genuinely passionate about Doctor Who and infectiously enthusiastic.

Flash forward to March 2018 (present day at the time of writing) and Big Finish have just released Serpent In The Silver Mask. Who is that actor putting in a genuinely excellent comic turn with multiple characters, all of whom have a degree of humour and gravity where required injected into them? Take another bow, Samuel West! In the extras for this play, director Barnaby Edwards rightly sings West’s praises and I think it’s worth just stressing again how good he is here. Truly, you’ll not find a better guest performance in a Big Finish play across the board; this equals the very best of them, perhaps even besting his turn in I Went To A Marvellous Party.

(I’ll get a grumble out of the way now: the extras. Long-time readers of these reviews will know it’s a bugbear of mine that the extended extras for subscribers do not surface for weeks after the plays’ releases, and that’s especially irksome here when the extras we get on the CD/original download feel heavily edited. You can tell they’re curtailed, with some edits coming in almost mid-sentence, and that’s a real shame.)

What of Serpent In The Silver Mask elsewhere though?

The play starts with our heroes landing on Argentia where the Doctor is on the hunt for the materials to build a new sonic screwdriver. Before too long, they’ve had their tongues swabbed and they’ve gatecrashed a funeral, but it appears that there’s a murderer on the loose... cue a Sherlock / Christie-style romp with robots and prisons and dolls, oh my!

David Llewellyn is in the writing seat this time around and he’s clearly had the same memo as the other writers in this latest trilogy of Fifth Doctor / Adric / Nyssa / Tegan plays: listen to the DVD commentary for Earthshock and write them like that and not how the characters were on screen. It does mean you’re not going to come away from this play, or indeed any of the others in this trilogy, feeling you’ve experienced an ‘authentic’ era-accurate story. This sort of thing really bugs some fans and kills the mood for them, but for me personally it does not factor in at all when the scripts themselves are as strong as the past three have been. Are these the companions we used to watch on screen or the Fifth Doctor who saved the world in the early 1980s? Not even close at times but, crucially, does it matter at all? Mileage will vary.

For my money though, I’d say Llewellyn has crafted an exemplary script with a central mystery that genuinely surprised me. I was so sure I had worked out “whodunnit” but, pleasingly, I was wrong. I had the means but not the right antagonist: and what better treat for a fan of the genre to be close but outfoxed? I think I had as much fun trying to work it all out as the Doctor does. Indeed, the Doctor is having a lot of fun here, whether conversing with a robot or playing detective, and it’s a joy.

I’ve already celebrated West and the script, so it’s time again to heap praise on Edwards’s direction and the regulars’ performances. I want to highlight Janet Fielding here as this play gives Tegan a lot to do, but frankly Matthew Waterhouse is brilliant, Peter Davison hilarious, and Sarah Sutton making every scene count. This is an exciting time to be a fan of the Davison era. We had Jenny Colgan give us an incredibly good outing for Turlough in Gardens Of The Dead. Time In Office was my favourite main range release in 2017 by some distance, and this original trio of companions just goes from strength to strength in the main range.

Does all this praise feel repetitive to you? It would be understandable if so as I’ve done that time and again this trilogy, because this trilogy is by a leap - a bound - and a mile, the very best succession of releases in the main range we, as fans, have had the pleasure to receive for years, now.

Guy Adams’s stint as script editor for these plays has injected verve and spark in what was increasingly becoming a range of average releases, and his role in teasing out the best we’ve had for ages cannot be understated.

Three high hitters worthy of full marks? Yes, I really think these plays deserve that accolade, and that gives me more pleasure to write and share online than I can readily articulate. As the Doctor herself put it: “Oh, brilliant!"

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16 February 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: James Goss

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"This is a city of ghosts and no-one knows them better than Leanne. Twice a night she leads tourists to visit the most haunted sites - the Hanging Yard, the Witch Pool, the Screaming House, and, of course, the Catacombs.

Leanne’s realised the ghosts of the city are real. Something’s lurking in the Catacombs - an ancient force that has been growing in the darkness for centuries. Sabaoth is returning and they must be stopped before they devour the world. Leanne knows this, because a ghost told her."

I don't know who it was that made everyone decide the Fifth Doctor should be funny and find himself in comedies, but I suspect it was Steven Moffat. When Time Crash aired, that mix of old and new Who felt utterly new and alien. In many ways, so did the Fifth Doctor. He cracks gags here and seems a bit peeved off. He has far more in common with the Sixth Doctor than the Fifth Doctor we originally saw on our screens, but that's okay. It's not as if the Sixth Doctor we've had from Big Finish is much like the one on screen at times.

It cemented the Fifth Doctor's fate though, and his comedy efforts in audio have been on the up ever since. It feels especially ironic given John Nathan-Turrner's firm stamping out of humour during his era, but it's a welcome shift as Peter Davison has taken to it like a duck to water.


Ghost Walk is written by James Goss. Goss and Doctor Who are two things which compliment each other perfectly. His list of successes with Who and its assorted spin-offs is quite frankly alarming: City of Death and The Pirate Planet; The Art of Death and Dead AirThe Scorchies and Asking for a FriendWorld Enough and Time and Mask of Tragedy. All this, and no mention of The Blood Cell or What She Does Next Will Astound You or The Sky Man. And there’s far more on top of all this. That's one hell of a hit rate!


Ghost Walk is the latest triumph for Goss: because I'm not going to play it coy and keep you in suspense until the end. This is another brilliant story by a brilliant writer.


As alluded to earlier, it's a funny play. It's also far more than just funny though; it's a play about ghosts and ordinary people being put in extraordinary circumstances, and it's one that tries to scare you.


Horror and the Fifth Doctor? Other unfamiliar bedfellows. Just as the Fifth Doctor of new is unlike the Fifth Doctor of old, so this story feels pretty alien to the original series, something remarked upon in the extras. This is completely true. Ghost Walk, with its talk of fixed points and e-mails, its time travel-heavy twists and turns, its humour, and its pre-credits teaser is straight out of the series post-2005, but you know what? That's no bad thing. This is the play that proves that so.


Last month, Kingdom of Lies kickstarted this new trilogy of Fifth Doctor plays and I mentioned there that Adric and Matthew Waterhouse were especially well suited to comedy, and that's the case here again. His comments on quantum states and Australia had me snorting, and the Fifth Doctor patiently waiting for the end of the world is beautifully observed, too. Tegan and her, at times, fractious relationship with everyone else is written for with deft skill, too, but when the drama really needs it, Janet Fielding gives us one hell of a performance. The same is true for Sarah Sutton as Nyssa. Nyssa has a far straighter role in this play than the other TARDIS companions, but it works well. It has echoes of The Curse of Peladon and Jo and the King about it, something cemented by Sacha Dhawan sounding eerily like David Troughton at times. It works though, despite the brevity of time in which to develop any relationship.


I've got this far and not mentioned Fenella Woolgar as Leanne yet, which is remarkable as she is front and centre of much of the play and carries a lot of the plot with seeming effortlessness. The support from John Banks as rival ghost walk host Louie is great as well, Goss once again showing a great ear for comedy and naturalistic relationships and patter with his dialogue.


Another thing to note is the sound design, which feels pleasingly ambitious with wide stereo swoops as people move from left to right, and some nice effects as time goes all awry later on. Barnaby Edwards' direction is perfect throughout, too. I noted last month that he really gets comedy and that assertion is only strengthened here.


I honestly don't think a foot is put wrong in Ghost Walk. I have often observed that Big Finish continually use the same writers over and over and over and over again with predictably diminishing returns, even when they're great writers. Goss seems to be immune to this though. I suspect it's because he is so busy elsewhere, too.  That palate cleansing works wonders.


Whatever the case may be, Ghost Walk is as good as they're saying and these two plays mark the most astonishing highs which the main range has reached in years, and that's not an exaggeration. For a range which felt deflated and tired, this is no small achievement. Long may it continue.


When I scored Kingdom of Lies, I was unsure whether to award it full points or not. The more you score things at the very top, the more it lessens that score, and the same with the lows. There is no hesitance here at all though. This is one of the easiest 10 out of 10s I've ever given. Sublime!

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23 January 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2018

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"On the planet Cicero Prime, the kingdom of Cardenas is divided, with the whole population forced to swear allegiance to either the effete Duke or the fiery, hard-edged Duchess. This is a situation both parties have grown tired of. What use is half a kingdom when, thanks to a carefully engineered murder, you could have it all?

Surely, neither of them would be rash enough to summon the deadly off-world assassin The Scorpion to help with their problem? And surely, this terrifying figure wouldn’t arrive wearing a long cream coat and striped trousers…?"

The 2018 main range of Doctor Who plays kicks off the year with Kingdom of Lies; an outing for the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. 2017 started the year running with this team with The Star Men, but will lightning strike twice? Frankly, yes.

Set in the pseudo-medieval kingdom of Cardenas, the Doctor and his friends land after a timely intervention in the TARDIS from Tegan (when it doubt, whack it and see what happens) and soon find themselves embroiled in a tangled web of assassination, marital troubles, and assumed identities.

It doesn't take long for this story to set out its credentials as a comedy and Nyssa in particular benefits well here. One minute she's simply Nyssa of Traken, the next she's the apparent assistant to the Scorpion, feared assassin and mercenary for hire. Sarah Sutton has a lot of fun with the material, and Barnaby Edwards milks it for every drop of comic potential, giving us a masterclass in how to handle this sort of material.

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky's first Big Finish outing, The Ravelli Conspiracy, was a bit hit-and-miss, with the actors seemingly uncertain at times in their faith in the material, as evidenced in the extras where Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien confessed they were not too sure about the script before recording it. You get the impression that wasn't the case this time around as everyone commits to the comedy with full gusto. Matthew Waterhouse is an especial revelation in this case, and I wish we'd had a bit more of Adric in here. Janet Fielding, meanwhile, observes that Tegan takes a bit of a backseat here this time. It's a pity for certain, as the relatively recent Time in Office (my favourite main range release in 2017 by far) shows just how compatible Fielding and Tegan are with comedy.

The test of any comedy really is twofold: will it stand up to repeated plays (untested, but I suspect there's enough going on here to let that be the case) and does it remain entertaining for the duration? Thankfully, Khan and Salinsky realize that having four episodes of comedy on the trot may well test listeners' patience and wear the story's premise thin, so the final episode shifts gears to become a chase of sorts where death is a very real possibility and things feel a lot more dangerous than the lighter tone before then would have you necessarily expect. It's a smart move.

I've mentioned the regular cast, but praise must also go to the guest cast here. Patsy Kensit is clearly enjoying herself, for example. I'd quite forgotten she was in it, but the second she started speaking I found myself unable to shift the song I'm Not Scared from my head: I swear her voice hasn't aged a day since she sang that. Elsewhere, Charlotte Lucas is superb as Miranda. Selfish, rude and egotistical, she is that rare hated character where you boo her not because she is inherently evil, but because she is thoroughly dislikable. She's the sort of person you'd go out of your way to avoid in the workplace, knowing she would find fault in everyone else's attitudes bar her own.

Humour is subjective of course and your mileage will vary, but for my money this is a very bold and genuinely amusing start to the year's Big Finish offerings and all praise must go to the writers, the cast (both regular and guest) and Edwards' direction. I'm fairly hesitant to give anything full marks, especially when the impact of something like this is very much weighted on the first listen. Comedies are rarely as fun the second time around; horror films lack the initial impact; thrillers are devoid of some of their thrill once the twists are there. I'm going to make an exception here though. This one's very fun indeed.



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4 January 2018

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Jonathan Morris

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2017

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Deep in the heart of nowhere, near a place called Abbey Marston, there’s a caravan site. The perfect place to get away from it all. Close by, there’s a stone circle they used for human sacrifice in olden times. A little further afield, there’s an old RAF research station, where they did hushhush things in the War.

There’s only one rule: the use of radios, cassette recorders and portable televisions is strictly forbidden.

People come here to get away from it all, you see. No-one wants to hear the noise. No-one wants to hear the voices in the static…

No-one wants to hear the ghosts."

You can tell that Big Finish have a lot of good will behind this one. For months now, all we’ve heard about with regards to the ‘Main Range’ is that Static is on its way, and it’s scary, thrilling, chilling and not to be missed. Some are even saying it’s better than The Chimes of Midnight.

You wouldn’t think as whole trilogy of Sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance plays had been released, only this one. Is it any good though? Yes!

The Doctor and his friends land on a creepy campsite, to the disappointment of his companions who both want to go home (is it just me or does that come from seemingly out of nowhere? Even the actors sound a little confused in the extras on this point). The site is creepy, wet and a place where portable televisions, radios and cassette recorders are not allowed. Oh, and ghosts abound. It’s a good set-up milked for all it’s worth by Jonathan Morris, with some good, meaty drama for the guest cast to get into.

As with last month’s The Middle, the opening episode is very strong and arguably the best of the four. The sound design by Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian are the real stars of the show here, sweeping hiss and crackle and rain around us after a rather bizarre spoken introduction by Nicholas Briggs letting us know it’s a Big Finish play we’re listening to (or at least, that happened on my download. I can’t speak for the physical releases). The music is less good though, at times being pretty intrusive: you notice it because it doesn’t quite fit.

Now, most soundtracks for Big Finish do not really evoke the eras the stories are set in, sounding like... well, Big Finish soundtracks instead, but that’s fine. The actors don’t sound as they once did either, so you let it pass. Here though, it fails to either evoke the Colin Baker era or be its own Big Finish thing, standing somewhere between the two and falling short at both ends.

That’s okay though because the atmosphere in performance and dialogue is more than enough to make up for it.

I could niggle and point out the fact it’s steeped in cliché, but that’s rather the point at the start and by the time it’s become its own thing, it has carefully let you know its genre and made you comfortable in the surroundings. The final episode arguably is a bit too signposted with its beats and could benefit from a bit more focus on reactions from the supporting cast and regular crew (the Doctor feels especially cold at times and gets away with it, which feels a wasted opportunity), but again, everything else is working hard to make up for it.

This is Jamie Anderson’s finest hour as director, and his casting here is brilliant with every supporting character being perfectly chosen. David Graham is as good as you would expect, but Scott Chambers, Pippa Nixon and Jo Woodcock are all equally impressive and names to watch out for.

It’s a pity that, as is always the case seemingly nowadays, the extended extras for subscribers are (inexplicably) not available from the off as the interviews we do get seem to jump around and Colin Baker especially, is very enthusiastic about the play. It would have been nice to hear his and the other cast’s full thoughts instead of the rather obviously edited highlights.

It’s been a long-term grumble of mine that Big Finish run their writers dry, leading to far lesser productions than the writers would give us otherwise, and I stand by that still. Keep using the same shirt and it’ll run ragged in the end. A play like Static only ups this feeling in my mind. Morris is a brilliant writer and this is a brilliant script, and with a bit less elsewhere, you feel that other writers of his ilk could hit these high spots time and again instead of increasingly fleetingly.

Is it the Chimes of Midnight beater, others are claiming it to be? No, frankly, but then again they’re two very different plays so it’s an utterly silly and redundant comparison.

Static is its own thing, and it’s bloody good. No wonder Big Finish have been celebrating it loudly. It’s worth every shout.



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