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23 November 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: John Dorney, from a story by Barbara Clegg

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 31st October 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 23nd November 2011

After what was to my mind, was a mixed season of releases, the Lost Stories return, with the Fifth Doctor making an excellent debut in the range.

After the events of Arc of Infinity, Tegan is back in the TARDIS and the Doctor has mixed feelings about it. He decides to take both Tegan and Nyssa to the paradise world of Florana but they wind up under the dome of a battle scarred planet, run by the Elite. The Doctor is intrigued by this place, one in which the people are all young and the old are absent. While the military fights for the glory of the Elite, everyone lives in reverence or fear of the High Priest who lives hidden in the cathedral of power. The situation is about to dangerous for the High Priest knows the Doctor of old, and an old enemy will stir.

The Elite is very good indeed. A gripping and intriguing narrative, coupled with exciting all out action, particularly near the story’s conclusion.  Everything about this release feels like authentic Peter Davison era Who from the characterization, to the suitably Peter Howell-esque musical score.

Peter Davison himself delivers an excellent performance throughout, as do the rest of the main cast with Janet Fielding in particular on good form.

What gives The Elite its hook is the central mystery of the High Priest. I will not spoil it for you, but when his true nature is revealed, it is very satisfying.  Dorney does an excellent job of keeping us guessing right until the revelation, and it is a credit to the rest of the story that it does not get swamped by its magnitude.

In fact The Elite has so much more on offer than a mere plot twist. 

What impresses is the exploration of the abhorrent ideology of eugenics and the examination of the church versus the state. The ugly nature of the Elite is slowly revealed and what disturbs is how much it’s young citizens have such absolute conviction that the elimination of the weaker elements of society should be erased.  It is played with complete conviction by the cast and credit must be given to the actors involved, as it ensures their characters do not become mere soundboards for the Hitler Youth politics the Elite believes in.

The depiction of religion in the play is fascinating.  The acolytes of the High Priest, such as the character of Thane, played like a true zealot by Ryan Sampson, are completely devoted to the ideal of the High Priest as their one true God, even when his divinity comes into question.  Although the Thane character comes close to being worryingly two dimensional towards the end, he best represents the shadowy nature of the religious organization and its suspicion of the military powers. The mutual distrust between the military and the church, and their rightly held belief that one is trying to overthrow the other is explored well and offers some excellent dramatic tension throughout.

The Elite, is a thoughtful, exciting and rich play. The only downside is that some of the characters aren’t as well served by the script as others. Poor Sarah Sutton is relegated to the sidelines and spends most of the time under the spell of the military education, a plot line that is underdeveloped which is sad considering how much strong material is on display. However The Elite is a very strong debut for the Fifth Doctor in the Lost Story range. Highly recommended.

22 October 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Marc Platt

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 31st October 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 22nd October 2011

The Eighth Doctor without Lucie Miller?; Surely we all said the same thing when Charley Pollard left the TARDIS and now without Sheridan Smith in sight, how will the Doctor cope? Well he won’t need to as this Doctor has not met both of those well loved companions. This is a younger, less hardened Doctor, and it is with this trip to the past that Big Finish brings Paul McGann back into the main monthly range.

Our story begins in Nineteenth Century Vienna. The Doctor arrives with Mary Shelley, after their meeting in Switzerland, hoping to rendezvous with his other companions, Samson and Gemma.

As soon as they arrive, they hear gossip of a killer on the loose and a mechanical marvel that can play musical instruments, and beat anyone at a game of their choice. Intrigued, the Doctor and Mary venture to the great Viennese Exposition, where Alfred Stahlbaum unveils his marvel, the Silver Turk. But nothing is what it seems with the Turk, as one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies makes an unwelcome return.

It is no secret that the returning foes here are the Cybermen, but more specifically the earliest version of the Mondas monsters. It is familiar territory for writer Marc Platt as he worked with them in the wonderful Spare Parts, and to see him writing them again is one of the joys of this audio. 

Platt has crafted a very simple but gripping story, where every character has a significant part to play. The story does not offer any big or grand ideas, for what we get is a creepy and exciting adventure and it serves as a wonderful introduction to a new companion.

The cast here is first rate. McGann’s younger Doctor, but still possessing a rather dangerous edge, is a welcome change after the trauma the character suffered in his last story with Lucie Miller. Although it is a little anti climatic not to have that storyline continue, the decision to go back to the past I believe was a good move, allowing long devoted listeners a bit of breathing space and an essential reminder of what makes McGann so great in the part.   

Julie Cox, returning as Mary from her appearance in last year’s The Company of Friends, is marvellous. The character’s enthusiasm for the life of travel and a particularly brilliant scene where the frightening nature of the situation she finds herself in threatens to stop her journey in the TARDIS before it has begun is superbly played and I look forward to hearing where the character goes in the following stories.

The supporting cast are all fantastic, with Gareth Armstrong as marionette making Dr Johann Drossel a particular highlight, putting one in mind of Tobias Vaughn for more than one reason.

With Shelley in the story, you cannot escape the obvious references to Frankenstein. The Cyberman known as Gram, becomes a prototype for Shelley’s future Creature, mistreated by its masters and demonised by the Doctor. It is the mark of a good writer if he can generate sympathy for a cybernetic creature that speaks like an ancient computer and Marc Platt pulls it off remarkably well. Gram is a fascinating creation, and it is a credit to the vocal talent of Nicholas Briggs that he injects some humanity into the inhuman creature. Gram is by no means a hero for he is still driven by the Cyberman desire of conquest, but with Briggs’ performance and Platt’s handling of him, you feel a smirk of triumph when he finally gets his own back for his mistreatment, culminating in a rather unexpected but brilliant line of dialogue.

Mention must go to the wonderful sound design and musical score by Jamie Robertson, who is quickly becoming one of Big Finish’s best composers. He is also responsible for one of the biggest surprises of this release, a brand new theme arrangement for the Eighth Doctor. It is very different to hat you have heard before, but after a few listens it fits in rather nicely.

With a new theme tune, new companion and new direction, The Silver Turk is an excellent start for the return of the Eighth Doctor to Big Finish and well worth your time.

22 October 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Simon Guerrier

RRP: £8.99

Release Date: 30th September 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 22nd October 2011

Memory is a peculiar thing; it can be both a valuable and dangerous, especially if it is manipulated, and it is this concept that drives this rather excellent Companion Chronicle.

Zoe Heriot, dreams every night of adventures she may or may not have had with the Doctor and Jamie in the TARDIS. Now she is a prisoner of the Company. They are convinced she has travelled in time and they want to know more about the Doctor. But what can Zoe tell them? After all she is renowned for her total recall of even the most insignificant details. If she had travelled with the Doctor, surely she would know about it. The Company have found some evidence to help jog her memory; documents which place Zoe with the Doctor and Jamie in a Russian town in the aftermath of the revolution, where something or someone came out of the night, taking the town’s children. Faced with this evidence, Zoe slowly begins to remember what happened. Or does she?

This is an excellent two hander between Wendy Padbury reprising the role of Zoe and Charlie Hayes, Padbury’s own daughter in the role of Jen, Zoe’s interrogator. Both play the mutual suspicion of one another convincingly, and it is the strength of their performances which draw you into the story.

Padbury is superb playing a much older and hardened Zoe, showing at times how the character seems to have become a being of detached logic and reason. Jen is the counterbalance to this. She is firm but sympathetic, simply wanting to know the whole story, and Hayes does a wonderful job playing her.

This Companion Chronicle is a tale within a tale, so what of the story that both Zoe and Jen relate to one another?

The story itself is creepy but rather at times a pedestrian affair, although with some wonderfully disturbing images such as the Children encased in Alien cobwebs. But what becomes clear as the drama unfolds is that it is not the story that is important, but who is telling it.

Throughout Jen relates the details through the historical documents and archives provided by the company and the gaps are filled by Zoe’s memories as they break through the wipe placed on it by the Time Lords. But all is not as it seems.

To give away the ending of this play would rob it of its excellent shock value, but suffice to say it is revealed brilliantly and will leave you pondering way after the closing music has played.

This is a play without easy resolutions and raises many questions about the accuracy of stories. Should we believe what we are told and does written information hold the truth about everything? Can we ever really know the truth about anything?

This is a very fine addition to The Companion Chronicles and yet another reason why this series is an important part of Big Finish’s output.

22 September 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Mark Morris

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 30th September 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 22nd September 2011

Fear can get to us all, even the Doctor, and it is this that lies at the heart of this second of Big Finish’s releases for September featuring the Seventh Doctor and quite frankly, it is the best.  

Our story begins with a lost girl; confused and alone at the front door of Blue Fire House, a tumbledown hotel on the very edge of nowhere. She is met by Mr Soames, the elderly caretaker who tells her that she is expected by the Master of the house, and her room is ready. This is news to the girl, as she has no memory of how she got here and who she is.

Gradually, she comes to realize that she is not the first. There are others like her, all without their memories, addressing each other by their room numbers, in place of lost names. If things could not get any worse, the house seems to be haunted, plagued with strange visions and noises and just who is the tall man in the window of the tower room? These people are slowly being drawn together for a dinner date with fear, and something far more ancient is lurking in the shadows.

What is striking about the first episode of this play is that it is virtually Doctor Free. The bulk of the episode is carried brilliantly for much of its length by Amy Pemberton and Miranda Keeling who play No 18 and No 5. This should go down as one of the finest opening episodes in a Big Finish story in its history. It is beautifully atmospheric and played to perfection and when the Doctor finally turns up he gets the best line in the whole play. 

Sylvester McCoy is in fine mode, turning out another strong performance as do the rest of the cast including acting royalty Timothy West as Soames.

The rest of the play repeats a similar plot device to The Doomsday Quatrain, in that the story eventually reveals itself to be a lot more than we have been led to believe. Unlike the former, the revelation works more strongly here. It is not perfect by any means as it does somewhat diminish the wonderful atmosphere set up in the first two episodes; however it magnifies the motivations of the central antagonist, a creature who creates fear to feed off it. 

This brings us to the villain of the piece, The Mi’en Kalarash. Its presence is mostly dealt with off audio, for want of a better phrase but it is eventually given voice by possessing one of the characters. The concept of the Time Lords having their own boogieman is fascinating, and McCoy sells the threat presented by this creature, even if it eventually sounds like a sinister voice overdubbed with a vocoder. 

Overall though, with a strong story, more hints of the mysterious Black TARDIS and the tantalising suggestion of a new companion for McCoy, House of Blue Fire is definitely worth your time.

21 September 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Emma Beeby & Gordon Rennie

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 30th September 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 21st September 2011

The Doctor meets Nostradamus; already a fascinating idea which forms the central starting point for this second release for the Seventh Doctor in the main Big Finish range.

Florence in the 16th Century. As the city runs about its normal business, the people are in intrigued and puzzled by the prophecies of the local seer Michel de Nostradame, for he has predicted the end of the world; An end that will come, when ships sail in the sky, bringing monsters from the heavens to unleash fire upon the world. So when the doomsday quatrain starts to come true no-one is more surprised than The Doctor, after all he has seen the end of the world, and it certainly shouldn’t be happening now.

Throwing the seventh Doctor together with the famously celebrated and debunked seer Nostradamus, should make for a delicious cocktail of a story, but what we get is something quite unexpected.

We begin with what seems like a standard historical romp, as the Doctor finds himself in Florence and for the first two parts we get a pretty standard run of mill history meets sci-fi run-around. When the big twist in the story comes at the end of part two, it is an intriguing but rather a small let down.

Essentially, what we thought was Florence is really an artificial reality, and from here on in the setting becomes unimportant effectively rendering Nostradamus and his world to mere window dressing for the rest of the story.

The play does deal with some interesting ideas from a result of the twist, and it stops the story from becoming too dull but, without giving too much away, the ideas themselves are strong enough on their own, that the story doesn’t really need Nostradamus in it. Sadly the mixing of both these plot lines have a detrimental effect on one another, as neither is explored in as much depth as you would hope.

The main antagonists of the piece, the crocodilian Crowe are a rather dull villain. Though they have a rather enjoyably nasty way of progressing through their chain of command, they are in effect useless and not much of a threat.

The other alien presence, the highly evolved Poldigon’s, two of which are voiced very well by John Banks and Caroline Keiff, turn out to be as much of a mystery as the Doctor says they are, and quite why they are building planet size facilities to create realities out of raw liquid material for paying clients is anyone’s guess. Again there is a wealth of ideas here, most of which are sadly glossed over or unexplored entirely.

However one of the things there is to enjoy here is a passionate and grand performance from David Schofield as Nostradamus, who finds himself at one point playing companion to Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. McCoy himself is having a wonderful time here. As Robophobia showed brilliantly, the Seventh Doctor is at his most compelling when he has no familiar companion around him and McCoy puts in a fun performance despite the madness of the plot. It is a pity that not much more was made of the meeting of the Doctor and Nostradamus, as the potential for the butting of ideologies between the two would’ve elevated this story somewhat.

The Doomsday Quatrain is not a bad play, nor is it a strong one - there is enough to enjoy, but one cannot help feeling that the overall story was an opportunity missed.

2 June 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Andrew Cartmel

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 31st May 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 2nd June 2011

The Seventh Doctor is regarded as the most manipulative or Machiavellian of all the Doctor’s incarnations and that was the responsibility of Andrew Cartmel, who was script editor during Doctor Who’s last three seasons before it went off the air in 1989. So with the unproduced season 27 forming the basis of this latest series of Lost Stories, it is only right that Cartmel should be involved. Unfortunately, Crime of the Century isn’t as strong a story as you would hope from the man credited with laying down the legendary “Cartmel Masterplan”.

Our story begins in 1989 with Raine Creevy, daughter of cheeky chappie Marcus Creevy from the previous story Thin Ice. Raine is not only charming but an expert safecracker and Cat burglar. One night while trying to rob from a safe at a very fashionable house party in London, she finds something or rather someone inside it she hadn’t counted on; a strange little man from her distant past.

Meanwhile Ace has found herself in the remote Soviet republic of Kafiristan, where the local tribesmen are engaged in a rebellion against the Russian army. There she finds an old enemy and stories of demons hiding in the mountains.

It isn’t long before Raine and Ace find themselves knee deep in the Doctor’s mysterious plans which seem to have something to do with a high security vault on the Scottish border.

One of the strongest elements of this audio is the performances, particularly from Beth Chalmers as Raine. She is sassy, confident and a wonderful contrast to Ace, played superbly as always by Sophie Aldred. Sylvester McCoy, in an at times reduced role for the Doctor is particularly mysterious and the supporting cast all excel.

What lets this audio down somewhat is that it is not sure what tone it should be. The first three episodes contain some incredibly bleak and dark moments and then shifts rather suddenly into a baffling mix of absurd comedy, mostly from the story’s alien menace the Metatraxi. The questionably comic scene where the Doctor fixes their translators seems ill placed in a story which is laced with death.

The Doctor is once again back to his Machiavellian ways, effortlessly moving the people around him to achieve his aim, but throughout I found myself asking why? There doesn’t seem to be any real sense of peril in this story, more a series of often infuriatingly cryptic events which lead us to the climactic scene in the high security vault where the Doctor finally gets what he is after. There are some great moments. Raine’s introduction as a character is brilliantly achieved. Her first meeting with Ace and their subsequent sizing up of one another promises that sparks will fly in future stories.

Crime of the Century suffers by trying to be a loose sequel to Thin Ice, mostly in a couple of recurring characters and the Soviet connection.

Although the continuity is nice, I would’ve preferred a cleaner break from the previous story. Possessing a really good musical score and sound design, there are moments to enjoy in Crime of the Century and Cartmel does succeed in creating a believable and strong new companion for the Seventh Doctor, but overall I was hoping for just a little bit more.

16 May 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Peter Anghelides

RRP: £8.99

Release Date: 31st May 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 16th May 2011

What if the search for the Key to Time wasn’t as easy as we once thought? What if the Fourth Doctor and Romana took a few detours along the way? This intriguing idea is a highly appealing factor about this latest Companion Chronicle

Set between The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara, The Doctor and Romana arrive in a small quiet village in Norfolk, following a strong signal that will lead them to the next segment of the Key.

In their search they stumble into the observatory of former US astronaut and recently widowed Lady Millcent Ferril. Lady Ferr il is a woman with her eyes fixed firmly on the stars, who has created rather grotesque metal sculptures in the gardens of her estate and that is not the only thing that is made of metal. The Lady has plans of a maliciously cosmic kind and she quickly realizes that the Doctor and Romana are the only ones who can help put those plans into action, whether they like it or not.

As a two hander between Romana and Lady Ferril, the play’s greatest strength is the point of views given between our heroic protagonist and antagonist. To hear events unfold through the villain of the piece is a lovely idea and Lady Ferril is deliciously evil creation played fantastically by Madeline Potter. To have her as an American character helps with the transition between Romana and Ferril’s grasps of events which can happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly throughout. The Doctor spends some good portions of the story out of sight and the bulk of the narrative falls between the leading ladies. Mary Tamm shines as Romana and her tired slightly annoyed tone at the high jinks of the Doctor are one of the play’s highlights.

As a story, it is quite a strange tale but feels genuinely like it could have slotted itself easily into the Key to Time sequence as writer Peter Anghelides captures the feel and tone of that season very well.

Lady Millcent’s ability to control metal makes for some rather gruesome moments but the main criticism that I have about this release is the rather confusing and disappointing ending. To reveal the nature of my disappointment would spoil play but let us just say that to have the majority of your play told by two people in hindsight and have one remaining after dispatching the other with no clear resolution is very confusing and a real let down. I kept waiting after the closing music to hear if there would be an epilogue but sadly not and I felt that it might mar a listener’s overall enjoyment of the story as a whole.

All in all Ferril’s Folly is a very enjoyable tale, with two excellent performances but it loses marks for its baffling and disappointing ending.

10 May 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Paul Finch

RRP: £8.99

Release Date: 30th April 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 10th May 2011

The Companion Chronicles have become of late, spring boards for new series such as Jago and Litefoot, or a way to explore concepts only hinted at in previous audios. The Sentinels of the New Dawn is one of these. Conceived as a prequel to the Sixth Doctor lost story Leviathan, it's written by the same writer Brian Finch, using the opportunity to flesh ideas hinted at in Leviathan and offering the tantalising possibility of further stories to come.

The story has Liz Shaw; now back at Cambridge, finding herself caught up in a colleague’s time travelling experiments. Concerned about the potential effect this could have, she calls her old friend the Doctor to have a look for himself. After an accident in the midst of testing her colleague’s machine, the Doctor and Liz are transported to the year 2014, and find themselves guests of the enigmatic Richard Beauregard, the head of a strange and rather sinister political movement called New Dawn. As the ugly truths of New Dawn’s practices are discovered by Liz and the Doctor, they begin to be hunted down by New Dawn’s devoted followers and something far more terrifying...

For an audio intending to expand on ideas touched upon in a previous story, The Sentinels of the New Dawn is a rather 'by the numbers' affair. It does a terrific job of authentically recreating a Third Doctor story with an earth bound adventure filled with numerous chase sequences, Venusian aikido and the Doctor flying a helicopter, but it feels too standard for the Companion Chronicles which have become a great forum to further explore the ideas raised in Doctor Who.

But that is not to say it is a bad story. It is thoroughly engaging and Caroline John gives a marvellous delivery, with great interaction from Duncan Wibsey playing the various supporting characters.

There are some lovely moments such as Liz expressing her regret at leaving the Doctor so soon, though it sadly only comes from hindsight. Exploring this idea more dramatically and allowing the Doctor’s own opinion of Liz’s departure to be heard would have been a rather interesting idea to explore, something very much in keeping with the Chronicles themselves. 

In the end, the play shows itself to be a set up for a greater plot arc in future releases, a bit too readily. Although there are enough ideas in this story to entice listeners to hear more about the New Dawn, this Companion Chronicle, although enjoyable, comes across as merely the stepping stone for something far more intriguing.

10 May 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Marc Platt

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 30th April 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 10th May 2011

When the closing credits of Survival rolled in 1989, no one watching knew that Doctor Who would not return for a good long while. Production on what would have been season 27 had been suspended leaving potential future storylines for the Seventh Doctor and Ace in limbo.

After the very successful first Lost Stories season featuring the Sixth Doctor, Big Finish have brought to life the missing Season 27, giving us an incredibly fascinating insight into where the show would have gone if it had not been taken off the air.

The first of these stories is Thin Ice, known popularly as Ice Time in fan lore. 

It is Russia in 1967. The Cold War is raging and the Russians are hoping to gain an advantage with the retro engineering of captured Alien Technology but not just any alien tech. This is the ancient horde of a Martian war lord and his devoted followers want it back. Meanwhile the Doctor and Ace arrive and in the midst of getting entangled in the various powers wanting this technological prize, Ace begins to suspect that the Doctor once again knows more than he is letting on.

It is no secret that the returning monsters in this story are the Ice Warriors, who have become something of a favourite recurring foe in the recent audios. But that isn’t a bad thing, due to the vocal mastery of Nicholas Briggs who brings real, dare I say it, humanity to the reptilian warriors.

The appropriately named Hhessh is a fantastic character, speaking one line in particular that had this reviewer stifling laughter on public transport. Various supporting Ice Warriors as well as a number of key supporting parts are played very well by veteran Nigel Lambert.

Sylvester McCoy is in fine form, accurately recreating the rather secretive seventh Doctor from his time on the show and Sophie Aldred slips back into a younger Ace with such ease that is completely believable. The supporting characters are equally well drawn with special mention going to Ricky Groves who makes a convincing Harry Palmer/James Bond turn as Markus Creevy. Beth Chalmers, who will have a greater part to play in the upcoming season, is brilliant in a play in which everyone has a moment to shine.

Writer Marc Platt has done something quite remarkable with Thin Ice, in that he creates the feel of a McCoy era television story on audio so convincingly you can see it in your head... most of the time. However little touches such as the biker gang with Ice Warrior helmets recall the Cyber Henchmen from Silver Nemesis; visual ideas so baffling they could only work on television, which is one of the weaker points of the audio in that a lot of visual ideas fall a bit flat in the audio medium.

All in all, Thin Ice is a rather fun and exciting way to kick off this season of Lost Stories, with some rather unexpectedly dark moments and little hints of the stories to come. If Season 27 had seen the light of day on television, this story would’ve given Doctor Who a strong direction in the nineties.

10 May 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Alan Barnes

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 30th April 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 10th May 2011

Since Big Finish began producing audio adventures for our favourite Time Lord over a decade ago, they have brought back many of the classic and more obscure monsters from the television series, yet, Heroes of Sontar marks the first time the company have used the Sontarans.

Quite why it has taken so long to bring these clone soldiers to audio is baffling considering how much fun this story turns out to be.

Heroes of Sontar is the first instalment of the second series of adventures for the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, Tegan and Nyssa, and focuses on a platoon of seven Sontaran troopers being deployed to the Planet Samur; a peaceful haven conquered by the armies of Sontar twenty years earlier. 

These soldiers have been given sealed orders for a secret mission, sending them into the furthest reaches of Rutan space. Unknown to the Sontarans, the Doctor and his companions have arrived on Sumar too, looking for some rest after Tegan’s latest encounter with the Mara. Eventually, after crash landings and getting separated the travellers and the Sontarans are thrown together, for there is something ancient and deadly hunting in the dark.

Let us begin with the stars of the audio, the Sontarans. These are the Sontarans of the classic series. You can hear in the pitch perfect voices the echo of the late Kevin Lindsay as Linx and Styre from adventures gone by. It is thoroughly authentic and one of the great pleasures of this release.

What strikes you listening to this play is its rather light approach. The seven Sontarans have very different personalities but all are by the book soldiers and just a little bit thick. Writer Alan Barnes has made no secret that these are the Dad’s Army of the Sontaran Empire and he is not joking. 

They are all very individual characters with their own quirks, strengths and failings, whether it is  Seargant Mezz, an officer driven exclusively by protocol or the incredibly doom laden thoughts of the subtly brilliant character Trooper Jorr.

Some listeners may have an issue with the humorous tone of the story, but it is a clever plot device as it becomes quite clear as the story unfolds, there is a much darker reason as to why these Sontarans are so utterly useless. These are Sontarans that we, dare I say it, care about and it is all the richer for it.

The performances are all very good indeed. Peter Davison excels as always and Sarah Sutton, as the older Nyssa is wonderful, but a special mention must go to Derek Carlyle who puts in a very touching performance as Trooper Vend.

If anything negative can be said about this play is that some of the humour doesn’t quite work. Tegan’s acerbic put downs to the Sontarans become a bit annoying and Turlough has moments of cowardice that seem at odds even with his cowardly personality. The mysterious antagonists could have done with a bit more back story but what we are given is enough to make them work as rather chilling villains. 

With excellent direction by Ken Bentley and a superb musical score by Jamie Robertson, Heroes of Sontar is a highly recommended debut for the Sontarans at Big Finish and a strong start to the new Fifth Doctor season. 

15 April 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writ ten By: Eddie Robson

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 31st March 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 15th April 2011

The Industrial Revolution is not a new subject for Doctor Who or for the Sixth Doctor.

Having encountered luddites in The Mark of the Rani,  the Doctor now gets entangled with all the cogs and machinery in this somewhat disappointing end to the latest Thomas Brewster trilogy.

The story begins with Brewster working at a Brass mill in 19th century Lancashire, left there by the Doctor after his request to return to a more normal life. Unknown to Brewster, the Doctor is not too far away, keeping an eye not just on him, but the mill’s mysterious owner Samuel Belfrage.

After a series of gruesome accidents, it’s not long before there is real trouble at the mill as the nature of Mr Belfrage’s business begins to wreak havoc.

While the play is not a bad one, you cannot help but feel the sense of missed opportunity, particularly with Brewster. John Pickard is as ever charming and rascally as Brewster, but the character is once again simply scheming with the people not on the Doctor’s side, a theme that has occurred throughout this trilogy. Separating Brewster from the Doctor once again, makes you question whether he was actually needed as the story could have worked just as easily without him.

Colin Baker and Maggie Stables continue to show why The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe are a perfect Doctor and companion team and the supporting cast do give it their all but the story seems a little stretched in places.  

The villains of the piece are almost steampunk in nature and with some excellent sound design and musical score make very effectively creepy antagonists.

There are some interesting ideas about our over dependence on technology as well as an obligatory class issue as Brewster engages the factory workers to strike, which amounts to padding at best.

Ultimately though, it is a story that doesn’t really go anyway, although the intriguing nature of Brewster’s departure leaves an opportunity open for him to return. 

I hope it is a far more interesting affair, as the character does have a great deal of potential to develop further than the artful dodger persona he seems to be stuck as.

Industrial Evolution is not a complete failure but it is certainly not one of Big Finish’s strongest plays.

 

6 March 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Mike Maddox

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 28th February 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 6th March 2011

Bringing back an old foe in Doctor Who is always risky, especially if that villain is as iconic as Axos.  With characters like this, simply rehashing old storylines is an easy trap to fall into and one that this adventure seems at times perilously close to.

The sentient parasite is brought back in the latest Sixth Doctor audio and one of the most exciting things about this release is the return of Bernard Holley to the role of Axos, 40 years after playing the role in The Claws of Axos.

The story picks up immediately after the cliff-hanger from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, where Brewster has hijacked the TARDIS demanding the Doctor take him back to his own time. Of course things don’t go according to plan when they land in the time loop where The Doctor originally trapped Axos many ages ago. Inside the parasite they find a group of astronauts working for Space Tourism billionaire Campbell Irons, intending to revive Axos and use its energy to solve the world’s energy crisis. But of course the newly awakened Axos has other ideas.

What follows is, to put it simply, a slight inversion of The Claws of Axos.

In that story, Axos intended to feed off of Earth’s energy and now the Earth intends to return the favour. Despite an interesting current event twist, it becomes somewhat lost as Axos’ intentions are essentially the same as before though I suppose one can’t ask much more of a space parasite with a large appetite.

What seems to be the focus here are the characters, with the focus shifted onto Brewster yet it all seems a bit of a retread. At end of the previous audio there was potential for a sparky team relationship with The Doctor, Evelyn and Brewster however once again the characters are separated, leaving Brewster to get up to his old tricks. The potential for these characters with such differing personalities working together more is tantalising but to have them separated yet again is somewhat of a let down.

In The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, Thomas was in cahoots with a sentient planet to try and save it from destruction by emulating the heroic nature of the Doctor. Now Brewster, angry and hurt turns his services over to a sentient parasite to punish the Doctor but of course with his own gains in mind. For once I’d like to see Brewster in a non-scheming mode. I know it is a driving force of his character, but it is becoming a little tiresome.

The supporting characters, although serving their parts well, tend to get lost in much of the noise and Campbell Irons, a potentially great villain, seems in the end to be a bit wasted.

Despite this, there are some lovely moments with the Doctor and Evelyn and a rather distressing cliff-hanger to Episode Three however the stand out of this audio is Bernard Holley.  Sounding every bit like he did in 1971, his rich voice really serves well on audio and the impact of Axos, a very strong visual presence in the original television serial, loses none of its impact here, although the same cannot be said of the Axonites. He is so good that he almost dominates the whole adventure.

Despite some flaws there is a lot to like in The Feast of Axos, but like Axos himself, you end up wanting a little bit more.

 

18 February 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Dick Sharples & Terry Nation (Adapted by Simon Guerrier & Nicholas Briggs)

RRP: £25.00

Release Date: 31st December 2010

Reviewed by: Paul Everitt for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 18th February 2011

Big Finish continue their Lost Stories season, with a very special box set dedicated to the second doctor; the great Patrick Troughton.  The box set includes two adventures plus over fifty minutes of bonus material – including interviews and a look behind the scenes. The first adventure sees Earth in a very different light, with a very sinister undertone throughout. The second adventure is rather special in its own right, a lost story involving the mighty Daleks which never saw the light of day...

The first adventure, Prison In Space see’s the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe looking for a little vacation. Even Jamie has become tired of fighting “wee little beasties”.  Promising them a vacation, with perhaps a picnic, the Doctor flies the TARDIS to safe haven – one with plenty of greenery and peace, or so he thinks. 

It’s not long before our heroes find themselves in trouble, arrested for trespassing the soon find that their so called haven is actually run by a mad tyrant – Chairman Babs. Not only do they find themselves arrested, the Doctor and Jamie soon realise that this world is run by women, who see men as inferiors – men are the weakest and are therefore treated like animals, with contempt and disdain. Soon things get even more serious as Jamie and the Doctor are sent to a prison in space, trailed and convicted for their crime – Zoe is left in the hands of the Chairman, forced to choose sides – with the resulting events proving to be explosive and quite unexpected. 

For this adaptation we see the return of Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury, reprising their roles as the Doctors companions. It’s great to hear the Scottish accent of Jamie return; Zoe is as bright as ever, in a part which really pushes Zoe to the limits. The sound effects bring back the sense of the sixties incarnation of the show, helping to push the narrative along at a great pace. Big Finish has adapted this lost script brilliantly, bringing back the essence of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. This could have easily proved to be one of the second Doctor’s best TV adventures...

Moving onto the second adventure included in this box set, The Daleks: The Destroyers, is the adaptation of the unmade US TV Pilot. Big Finish has adapted this script into a gripping space adventure, full of tension and scares. This is definitely one to listen to by yourself in the dark. 

The adventure takes place around Explorer Base 1, a human exploration station – located on the surface of meteorite M5. Newly built and protected by a force wall, the occupants have no reason, to think of anything dangerous, from the swamp lands laying, just past the force wall. However in the darkness lurks a terrible threat – The Daleks. Within the first five minutes of the adventure, the station is ripped apart – all personnel killed in cold blood. 

Enter our three heroes, sent to investigate by the Special Space Security forces. Sarah Kingdom, played brilliantly by Jean Marsh is an intelligent, efficient agent, who has a habit of screaming. Mark Seven the android, with an emotion chip, classic good looks and superhuman strength. Played by Alan Cox, who gives the character life, making great use of the lines to inject some life, into what could have been a dull character. Then we have the leader of the squad, one Jason Corey rugged and intelligent. Jason is played by Chris Porter with an authority, which brings the character to life in your head.  The intrepid trio soon find themselves playing a cat and mouse game with the Daleks, trying to remain hidden – whilst discovering the alien’s master plan.

The narration to the story, drags you into this new world – masterfully read and acted making the hairs on your body tingle with excitement. The story is a lot darker than I had imagined, giving the Daleks a meaner darker look, than I can remember from the sixties. Even though there is a definite darker undertone, Big Finish have still managed to make it sound like an original episode from yester year. The main theme brought flashes of sixties TV flooding back, its catchy American style stays in your head, hours after listening to it. The score sets new standards, becoming at times operatic in substance, making you tense up, feel elation all at the right moments. Even the sound effects help you build a picture of what could have been, allowing you to connect to the main characters. A blinding story, which ends on a cliff-hanger, which I hope is resolved.

Also included is a fifty minute documentary, detailing how Prison In Space happened. A fascinating look into how the original script was found and the process that followed. It’s full of fact and gives us an insight into the love that the team had for Patrick Troughton

This box set prove compelling listening for any fan out there, showcasing what could have been if things were done a little differently.

3 February 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Jonathan Morris

RRP: £14.99

Release Date: 31st January 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Young for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 3rd February 2011

Part of Big Finish’s Sixth Doctor range, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster marks the return of the eponymous past companion as part of a fine cast in this funny, referential but somewhat unbalanced adventure...

The story begins when The Doctor (Colin Baker) is called to London by the Metropolitan police to investigate a mysterious gangster known only as...‘The Doctor’! The fun of this premise isn’t so much the mystery of who might be behind this (the title gives you a fairly good guess to begin with) but The Doctors reaction to the situation. Investigating, he at first assumes the gang leader could be a version of himself from a forgotten past or yet-to-occur future. Discovering that ‘The Doctor’ is collecting weapons for some unknown purpose, he wonders if his future self could be capable of something which, to him, seems unthinkable; “doesn’t sound like me” he muses. This timey-wimey conundrum is furthered by the inclusion of DI Patricia Menzies (Anna Hope reprising her role from The Condemned and The Raincloud Man) who, previously a companion to The Doctor, has now encountered him from before he has met her. All the while, she must keep quiet about knowing him in order to secure their time line. As well as some humorous scenes where Menzies feigns amazement over time travel, I laughed out loud when Menzies said she figured all of this out by reading ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ (“well, watched the DVD”). It’s a brilliant piece of referential humour that brings a great sense of fun to the story while also playing with the concept of time travel to great effect.

Moments like this reveal The Crimes of Thomas Brewster as a story driven by its appealing characters. It’s strongest when it allows them to let loose with some great humour and energy. I have always loved Evylne Smyth (Maggie Stables) as a companion – an elderly British History professor travelling with The Doctor just makes sense – and her dialogue and relationship with The Doctor is at its best here.  There are also some brilliant Colin Baker moments that will give you the giggles: The Doctor finds a use for that coat; asserts that he is “not captain Kirk!”; and even lets out a well timed “Geronimo!” 

Gangland goings on are not the only thing the Doctor has to contend with, however. He is also being attacked by Terravores; giant and deadly robotic mosquitoes. To continue with the theme of displaced meetings, they have met The Doctor before; but he has yet to meet them. As the story progressed, and The Doctor got involved with the police and murky underworld of London as supernatural goings on transpired, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a contemporary version of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This, in my book, is a very good thing and the first two parts of the story have a similar sense of referential fun mixed with genuine threat. I wish the story either embraced its setting of modern London more or had picked another time period as a setting. There are references to iPhones, Twitter and Lady Gaga which make it unmistakably modern, but there is also a large cast of stereotypical cockney gangsters which, while causing some serious titters, seemed out of place. 

In fact, the setting of London was so fun that some of the lustre was lost once the action shifted to a mysterious alien world. The storyline involving the Terravore conflict with ‘The Locus’ – the hive mind of a living planet – is interesting in itself, but feels drafted from another story. While modern London and this alien world are linked – quite literally – in the story, I felt that after leaving London the story never replicated the sparkle present in the first two parts. This is made worse by the late introduction of two needless and little used characters and the absence of Evylne’s lively self in the later sections. Most disappointingly, Thomas Brewster (John Pickard) himself isn’t used to great effect. Again, he is closely linked to the story line but, other than a compelling conversation with The Doctor explaining his actions, he is by no means the heart of the story I was hoping for. I felt more interested in his history and activities in London than the story of the Terravores and Locus.  While consistently entertaining, this story had all the ingredients to be much more. Thankfully, the final minutes suggest we might learn more about Brewster very soon...

 

3 February 2011

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Nev Fountain

RRP: £12.99

Release Date: 31st January 2011

Reviewed by: Matthew Davis for Doctor Who Online

Review Posted: 3rd February 2011

Perpugilliam Brown, or as we all know her: Peri.

Companion to both the Fifth and Sixth Doctor, her importance in Doctor Who history should not be summarized as that annoying American who wore inappropriate clothing in life threatening situations. There is far more to Miss Brown than you would think and we finally get to see who she really is and, incredibly, who she will be in this very complex and rich release from Big Finish.

The second double length release for the Companion Chronicles since The Suffering, you may be forgiven for thinking that to dedicate two CDs to Peri Brown was mere indulgence on Big Finish’s part. You couldn’t be more wrong, because what we have here is a Companion Chronicle that not only pushes the format in a new and interesting way, but for my money is one of the best audio plays Big Finish has ever put out.

The story begins with young Peri, arriving wi th the Fifth Doctor in Los Angeles in 2009, to track down a Piscon by the name of Zarl, intent on causing mischief as only a Fish relative of the Pescatons would do. But the Doctor and Peri are joined unexpectedly in their hunt by a future version of Peri, claiming to work for a government division that protects the Earth from Alien invaders.

So far rather intriguing but what grabs your attention is that the future Peri is not only older, but she is not very likeable. In fact she is so cynical she could give Lauren Bacall a run for her money.

But as with the best of the Big Finish audio plays, not everything is a simple as it seems.

The very nature of the Companion Chronicles is to allow the listener an experience of travelling with the Doctor through the eyes of his companions. It is their perception of him and his actions that make them compelling listening, and here Peri’s perception of the events that unfold are the key to the whole story, but rather incredibly, we get the story not from one Peri, but by future Peri too. This is a simple but brilliant device, as certain heroic events related by the younger Peri, become not so heroic, in fact rather farcical when told by her future self.

Peri, played brilliantly as ever by Nicola Bryant, makes for a very engaging narrator. Shes funny, surprisingly open about her hopes and dreams in life, such as her desire for motherhood, and warm. One of my favourite moments in the play is where she addresses why she is always wearing high heels, referring to them as “Optimism Shoes”, that by wearing them, she hopes the next planet she and the Doctor land one will be a nice one with no danger. It is little moments such as this, which make you fall in love with her character, making the sombre and cynical narration by the future Peri all the more intriguing.

Not only do we get two Peris, we also get two Doctors, with one, unusual for the Companion Chronicles, played by one of the actors himself and not impersonated by the companion.

Colin Baker’s presence in the play as The Sixth Doctor is not there for the sake of it, for he plays a rather important role in events and to say anymore would be a spoiler too far.

This release rather boldly gives us the answer to really happened to Peri after we last saw her in Mindwarp? Did she really go off and marry Brian Blessed? Well we finally get our answer, and it is devastating.

Throughout the play, the madness of the adventure gives way to some heart wrenching moments as we learn of Peri’s fate and it is a credit to writer Nev Fountain that with all the mad comedy and emotional drama going on the tone of the play does not jar, but flows beautifully between the two.

If any criticism could be brought up is that some of the running jokes, particularly those about plastic surgery wear a bit thin early on and some of the supporting characters are merely plot devices, but they are rather small issues when, as a whole, this audio play is a triumph.

 

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