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Welcome to the News & Reviews section here at Doctor Who Online! This is where you will find all the latest Doctor Who related news and reviews split up into easy to use sections - each section is colour coded for your convenience. The latest items can be found at the top, and older items follow down the page.

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22 September 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Dan Abnett & Guy Adams

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: August 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


Thin Time by Dan Abnett

"Hallowe’en, 1892. Celebrated novelist Charles Crookshap claims to have been receiving time communiqués, promising secrets that could change the world forever. But when the TARDIS interrupts the household’s evening, the Doctor realises he isn’t the only alien interloper in London."

Madquake by Guy Adams

"Abandoned on the planet Callanna, Nyssa, Tegan and Marc take advantage of its therapeutic atmosphere to come to terms with recent events; but others seek to take advantage too. The Slitheen are on their way – and they’re ready to sell this world to the highest bidder!"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Thin Time
By Dan Abnett

After last month’s 4x4 outing, this month we get one of Big Finish’s occasional dips into shorter stories. Comprising two, two-part tales, we pick up where Conversion (and presumably all of Time Apart) left off with Thin Time by Dan Abnett. It’s been a long time since Abnett was in the fold and on the strength of some of this play, I hope he’s back again before too long.

The Doctor lands in London on Hallowe’en, but much to his surprise he’s been expected. Pretty soon, the household in which he’s arrived is in trouble with a terrible something from outside, which is using visions and visages to tempt people. It’s a ghost story, in some ways, but one told with real flair and tension. Peter Davison sounds energised by the script and he’s supported by a very good supporting cast.

Sadly, it’s not perfect. The opening is fairly clunky with its exposition and scene setting, and the resolution is less drama and more the Doctor explaining what is going on to an attentive audience, which is never especially satisfying. You just wonder why the monster hasn’t eaten someone mid-sentence and instead just stands there patiently.

And then we’ve the final scene where (spoilers) the Fifth Doctor meets up with the Eleventh Doctor. Jacob Dudman is often celebrated in fan circles for his pitch-perfect impressions, but I’ll freely confess that it took me a good 30 seconds to realise it was even meant to be the Eleventh Doctor here. It’s not his finest hour by any stretch, but then again it’s a big ask for him to do an impression for so long and try to sustain it. Much like the Chronicles box sets he’s narrated, it doesn’t land.

Neither does the chronology of it all still. I mentioned before that I just don’t buy the Fifth Doctor swanning off to mope; the idea of him abandoning his companions fails to ring true at all: heck, The Caves of Androzani is about a Doctor who won’t ever do such a thing! Frustratingly, the talk here of the Doctor not wanting to endanger his companions does have a potential spot in established TV continuity which would fit far better: after Tegan has left, disgusted by the violence she has seen. You can buy the Doctor needing time to reflect after that, but not so here. I’m retreading old ground though. Overall, Thin Time isn’t perfect but it has moments that are achingly close.

Madquake
By Guy Adams

And then we have Madquake, a play that in part tackles PTSD and mental illness. But they called it Madquake. Ironic jibe or bad taste? You decide.

The approach to these topics doesn’t feel great at times. The relationship between a therapist and her patient is unlike any I’ve come across (full disclosure, I’ve done therapy many times now) and smells less of authenticity and more of someone wanting to have an excuse to have their characters talk a lot. Dialogue is largely less natural and more ‘we need a bit of exposition or character development here’.

This slightly sub-par feel runs through the script overall, sadly. A few scenes in, we have Marc tell us he’s not sure he’ll ever feel again. But he does it while panicking, before getting angry and then crying. It’s not exactly consistent, though later he clarifies that he fears he will never be happy again. The Cybermen seem to have left him with the ability to soliloquise at length about how bad his life is now, in tones that would make college-level amateur dramatic groups take a second pass at the scripts, but also, handily, they’ve also left him with the ability to detect drama: something bad is about to happen, he intones funerally at one point, a handy spidey-sense to have when you’re part of the TARDIS crew.

It’s frustrating as there are a couple of genuinely brilliant moments: Tegan worrying that all she is is anger, and what will happen if she’s robbed of that is heartbreaking, and Nyssa having a backbone and standing up for herself against Tegan is properly triumphant. I just wish the Guy Adams who wrote those moments was the same Guy Adams who wrote the rest.

As for the Slitheen? Well, they're definitely here. Their appearance would have been a genuine surprise had Big Finish not announced their presence beforehand, and it's a shame that didn't come to pass. I've not much else to say about them though, beyond that their defeat is pretty awful. Riffing on the "go to your room!" cliffhanger resolution of The Doctor Dances, this has neither its wit nor its logic or context.

It's funny. For all I didn't like Madquake all that much, what it represents fascinates me. Not too long ago, the mere idea of mixing New Series monsters with Classic Series Doctors was enough to warrant a fanfare and two box sets.  Contrast also the celebration for the first River Song box set, and how the latest series was announced in a paragraph at the bottom of an entirely unrelated piece of news from Big Finish in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine.

I'm not sure what it represents. Complacency and lack of respect for the material? Indication that repetition means things are less special? Or realisation that despite the bells and whistles, this is all one and the same silly old series (whether we like it or not, to quote the series itself)? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in-between.

As for this arc, one suspects that it'll be some time before we have any answers thanks to the pandemic. We end here though with a conclusion to the arc waiting in the wings. I'm sure many are enjoying it, but I'll be glad to see it gone. But I'm interested all the same in seeing what happens next. Perhaps I'm not as burnt out as I suspected.


+ Thin Time / Madquake is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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14 September 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Steve Lyons, Jacqueline Rayner, Tommy Donbavand & Kate Thorman

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Separated from his companions, the Doctor attempts to find solace in the history of his favourite planet – Earth – but instead discovers new threats lying in wait.

Travelling from twentieth-century East Berlin to sixteenth-century Strasbourg, the Doctor encounters creatures from other realities: monsters beneath the waves, and human beings determined to exploit their fellow man.

But how long can he survive without a friend?"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

It’s that time of the year again: Big Finish’s “4x4 release”. Paradoxically, this annual affair arguably shows off the varying beast that is Big Finish best of all. On the one hand, it shows how quick they are to fall back and repeat themselves at the first whiff of success. Circular Time was released to critical acclaim in 2007 and so Big Finish have repeated the trick every year since rather than try anything new. On the other hand, by and large these releases have proven themselves to be some of the best they do all year, and 1001 Nights for the Fifth Doctor was especially strong. I guess sometimes you swing and hit.

Back last year (November 2019 to be precise) I reviewed Conversion, a two-part story for the Fifth Doctor which ended with him leaving his companions for a bit to mull over traumatic events. I commented then that it doesn’t really fit in with TV continuity at all, and while that’s not something that is necessarily an issue (after all, the Fourth Doctor in Big Finish isn’t a thing like the Fourth Doctor on TV, and most of the actors don’t sound like they used to, including David Tennant), it is something that jarred.

Skip forward to 2020 and we follow up the ending to that story. Sort of. We get four stories here with the Fifth Doctor on his own, but quite why he’s riding solo is never addressed. I feel this is probably the best way forward as it makes this release far more of a standalone affair, a welcome thing in the muddy waters of Big Finish internal continuity.

We kick things off with Ghost Station by Steve Lyons. Set in Berlin, it sees the Doctor encounter a lone soldier and try to solve a murder mystery. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll know the ending a few minutes in but it’s well acted and directed with some nice sound design to tie it all together.  Just don’t expect any surprises along the way.

The Bridge Master by Jacqueline Rayner is next, and it’s a lot of fun with a great central premise: the Doctor has his shadow sacrificed to appease evil, but it turns out that perhaps there is more to this than simple ritual and superstition when the Doctor finds himself falling ill after the operation. Rayner writes her supporting cast with a lot of character depth and the sound design again works well. This is all rather lovely. (Oh, and for all I’ve said Conversion last year doesn’t fit in with TV continuity, the references to The Great British Bake-Off here are at once more of a continuity breaker but also far less of an issue as they’re fun lines and not ones which give us incompatible character traits and stories.)

Third up is What Lurks Down Under by Tommy Donbavand, to whom this release is dedicated in a genuinely touching gesture. His story is a strange one: a celebrity historical in which you are never told much about the celebrity or why they’re important. If you don’t know who Mary Wade is, or why she is so important in Australia's history, you’re not going to come away any wiser and instead you’ll be wondering why the story is a companion introductory tale without the new companion staying at the end. Indeed, you’d be very easily forgiven for not knowing she was a real person in the first place (and seeing as Mary Shelley has travelled with the Eighth Doctor, there isn’t really any great reason that Wade couldn’t, too). It’s definitely a different approach and Wade comes across well, but it feels a little empty and lacking finality because of the lack of historical context we are given. Still, if it encourages people to research her story, that’s surely a good thing, and the inclusion of a play by Donbavand is really nice. The interviews included state how he always wanted to write a story for Big Finish, but sadly died before it was made and released. It’s a touching and glowing testimony to the company that we have it here.

We wrap things up with The Dancing Plague by Kate Thorman, which proves to be every bit as good as Rayner’s play: they’re by far the highlights of this release. Set in the midst of the infamous Dancing Plague, a strange historical occurrence where people started dancing for no readily apparent reason and then just… stopped, the Doctor is on hand to try and solve the puzzle, aided by the rather brilliant Margareta. Everything here just works: great choice of historical location, brilliant dialogue, fantastic cast acting their socks off, and a satisfying ending.

And so we come to an end. Some things muddled, some things you’ve heard many times before, and some things utterly brilliant: how very Big Finish overall. With the monthly plays soon changing format entirely, this may be the last time this particular structure has an outing for a while. All told, this is a strong release and a fine farewell to it.


+ Time Apart is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


19 August 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Robert Valentine

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Doctor, Constance and Flip join forces with 51st-century bounty hunter, Calypso Jonze, to hunt down the Somnifax: a weaponised mind-parasite capable of turning its host's nightmares into physical reality. Chasing it through the time vortex to Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, they arrive too late to stop it from latching onto a local author of weird fiction... Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

With time running out before Lovecraft's monstrous pantheon breaks free and destroys the world, the Doctor must enter Lovecraft's mind to fight the psychic invader from within.

Can he and Flip overcome the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos? And will Constance and Calypso survive babysitting the infamously xenophobic Old Gentleman of Providence himself?"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Boy, is this a difficult one to review. The Lovecraft Invasion was intended to be Big Finish’s monthly audio play for June 2020, but ended up releasing at the end of July 2020. Bizarrely, Big Finish went out of their way to not tell people it had been delayed: think of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the stairless cellar and sign reading ‘Beware of the Leopard’ and you’re close to their approach. Anyhow, now it’s out the question has to be, was it worth the wait?

The answer to that should be a resounding yes… but unfortunately there are huge caveats, which we’ll come to in a bit. Before that though, let’s look at the positives because they really deserve highlighting.

The Lovecraft Invasion is not the range’s first brush with H.P. Lovecraft, having ridden his tailcoats before back in Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge, a play which was doomed from the off by following the superb A Death in the Family, but which didn’t help itself either by forgetting to be any good. This time around though, rather than pay homage to/parody the author and his creations, we tackle them head on.

We start at the end of another adventure entirely, with Flip, Constance and the Doctor joined by Calypso Jonze, a bounty hunter from the future. In the way these things often go, a terrible something, a mind parasite called the Somnifax, has escaped and travels back through time, with our heroes and Calypso rushing through space and time in the TARDIS to hunt it down. It lands in America, 1937, and latches onto Lovecraft, making his world and creations come to life. The Doctor and Flip journey into Lovecraft’s mindscape to tackle the Somnifax, whilst Constance and Calypso look after their unconscious bodies and help Lovecraft to deal with manifestations of his works in the real world.

First up, the cast: this is the best we have had from Big Finish for ages now. Alan Marriott is fantastic in his duel roles as Lovecraft and Randolph Carter, differentiating the two subtly and with nuance. The real standout though is Robyn Holdaway as Calypso. They are brilliant from start to finish and I’d gladly see Calypso back in a recurring supporting role: not something I say lightly given the overabundance of companions in Big Finish. Their performance and the character are just that good.

Secondly, the story. This one cracks along at a fair lick, with a lot of action well-executed. Little in the way of say-what-you-see clunkiness is on show and the runtime of just under two hours mostly flew by and proves yet again that less is more with episode lengths. This is Robert Valentine’s first story in the monthly range and I dearly hope he has more to give us of this strength on the evidence shown here. You don’t need to know Lovecraft to enjoy it (I’ve never read a word and only really knew Cthulhu was a big squidy god creature), with explanations feeling organic.

A good script, a great guest cast, good action and good pace. What could go wrong? Thus we turn to the elephant in the room. For the most part, the script engages with Lovecraft’s racism really, really well. It doesn’t shy away from his xenophobia but it also doesn’t milk it or make it monotonous, tackling it with maturity and recognising that people are flawed and can hold horrific views, but that in itself does not make them horrific people. It’s the best way they could have dealt with Lovecraft.

But then rewrites have clearly happened and new scenes bolted on: and I mean bolted on. The sound quality in these moments is totally different to the sound quality elsewhere, which only helps to betray their after-the-event nature, and the scenes added are so out of touch with the rest of the play and so ham-fisted that they drag you right out and had me looking for the off switch.  

Calypso punching Lovecraft on the nose in a retread of Thin Ice? Good, and followed up with a superb line about their background and characteristics. The Doctor telling Lovecraft he’s a terrible racist at the end of the play, just in case we haven’t got the point? Bad.

The worst offender, however, comes roughly 22 minutes into the first episode and has the Doctor and Flip discuss problematic authors. In theory this should be fine, but it isn’t. It’s not given the same mature approach as elsewhere. It reduces the subject of “can/should I enjoy the work(s) of ‘problematic’ content creators?” to the Doctor saying no, you can’t. By the time the Doctor is alluding to a children’s author whose work he can’t read because of their personal views (wink wink, see what they did there?), I had to pause the play and go do something else for a while lest I delete the download there and then.

It’s a simplistic answer to an incredibly complex question, reducing it to the most patronising, didactic fluff Doctor Who can possibly give us - worse still, it betrays every point made in the script elsewhere.

Do I understand why Big Finish did this? In part. There is a lot of anger and argument online at the moment around the subject, but much like a lot of Twitter outrage, it’s a far tricker subject than a Tweet or two can deal with and by falling into the trap of trying to appease this, Big Finish drag play to the lowest common denominator, badly at that. There is a healthy and serious discussion to have on the subject of artist vs. work, and everyone will have their own mileage and limits (goodness only knows it’s something I’ve thought about a lot with various authors or musicians whose work I like, or liked, not least including the alluded-to children’s author), but reducing it to “bad viewpoints make people just bad” is as reductive and poor a way of tackling this as you can get. (And to stave off any accusations now, no, I am not far-right-leaning politically or think people are ‘snowflakes’ (god, I hate that term) or ‘virtue signalling’ by wanting to discuss these things. They should be discussed, but with decent writing and scope, which was the case for the play as was, but which was not the case when it comes to these extra scenes.)

I long for the original cut of this play without these additions: it would be a far stronger work for it. They tackled the subject well, then they panicked and tackled the subject terribly. It makes it a difficult one to score. The good largely outweighs the bad, so that in the end influences the score (which would have been higher without these scenes). I just dearly hope that future releases do not settle for simple preaching as has been inserted here. We, all of us, deserve better.


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


15 June 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Chris Chapman

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: May 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"July 1944. The TARDIS materialises in a small village near Rouen, where celebrations are in full swing. A joyful France is in the midst of liberation as the local population welcome a battalion of Allied soldiers – along with a colourfully dressed Doctor and his two rather excited friends.

But there are screams amidst the celebrations as an angry crowd dish out their brand of justice to one of their own that they have branded a traitor. While Constance and Flip find themselves on opposite sides of a war beyond a war, the Doctor has other concerns. 

The local community is used to the fires of battle, but a new type of blaze is burning – leaping from aircraft to aircraft, man to man – and this fire seems to be just as eager for revenge as the village mob."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Scorched Earth by Chris Chapman takes us back into the war, landing us in France after its liberation. It feels like you cannot move for World War II-related things when it comes to Big Finish right now. We’ve the ersatz Third Doctor and Churchill in Operation Hellfire, Churchill again bothering the Seventh Doctor but a couple of plays ago, and now this. Whether this was all done to coincide with the VE Day celebrations in 2020 or just a coincidence, it does feel like we’re riffing on the same territory time and again right now, which made me slightly sigh as the play started up.

This is unfair really as there is a lot to celebrate in Scorched Earth. The sound design seems to be back to its usual strength after last month’s notable blip, and Chapman paces the script really well. We move from action to drama to quiet character moments to big incidents with ease. Were it in print, you’d call it a page-turner and as it is, it passes two hours very quickly.

That said, there are some strange moments in here. Flip seems to be playing some sort of game where she is only allowed to talk in quips and pop cultural references, which feels forced and lacks credibility. I know the point of her character is often to contrast with Constance but we move into the realm of being unbelievable here. She also seems to be fire retardant, able to withstand standing in a burning building, smoke and all, for ages. Perhaps it’s not real fire though, as the Doctor is also able to stand in the middle of the inferno and spout some exposition before saving the day.

Elsewhere, there is drama to be had with Constance realising just where, and when in time, she is, but the Doctor’s anguish over it seems to evaporate fairly quickly so that the plot can get on with telling a story. This is probably for the best, but again it ranks as one of the play’s strange moments.

Likewise, soon after the play starts we witness a woman, Clementine, being called a traitor and singled out for punishment by a braying mob, and rather than stop this, as Flip wants to, the Doctor decides to let them be, for the sake of blending in with the locals. This leads to clashes between Constance and Flip throughout the rest of the play. Constance believes the woman should be punished if she has betrayed the town to the Nazis; Flip just sees a scared and crying woman. The clash between them both on this is not subtly drawn but works well, reminding us of their different timeframes and perspectives, and it remains a thread throughout, with the play siding with Flip and agreeing she’s in the right. Whether or not you personally agree, it is inarguably the stance Doctor Who usually takes in such matters; the Doctor, too.

On the one hand, you can see just why the Doctor does as he does, not interfering, but on the other it feels very atypical of him to just stand by and let these things unfold. It’s not like in Rosa where inaction is key, it’s just slightly strange and hard to really justify. Colin Baker clearly feels the same way as he goes to some lengths to do just that and defend the scene in the extras, but not entirely with conviction. For me, it left a slightly bad smell in the air, reminding me a little of Timewyrm: Genesys and its rather infamous excusing of sexual assault as a ‘product of the time’.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the Doctor later on thanking a couple of Nazis for their help. A notable part of this play is Chapman, rightly, pointing out that many were forced into fighting against their will and even against their own beliefs, but it’s still a slightly strange thing to hear. Nothing wrong with being a bit challenging in your content though, so hats off to Chapman for that.

We end the play with things largely resolved between the TARDIS team after Constance is able to help save the day with a nice speech (a personal grumble of mine in Doctor Who in general. It feels a very tired resolution, and almost never a convincing one), though it will be interesting to hear if actions here prove to be the first cracks in an otherwise mostly watertight team.

Is Scorched Earth perfect at all? By no means, and the WWII fatigue doesn’t help, even if that’s not Chapman’s fault but that of scheduling. However, it’s also a largely enjoyable affair with neat sound design and very good ideas in there. A definite up after last month’s outing.


+ Scorched Earth is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


6 May 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Darren Jones

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Violently ejected from the Space-Time Vortex, the TARDIS crash lands on the remote planet of Cygia-Rema, a mountainous world ruled by the bird-like Vultriss. Their newly-crowned Queen Skye is expecting first contact with alien ambassadors – Ice Warriors - and the sudden arrival of the Doctor, Flip and Mrs Constance Clarke causes confusion.

However, Skye is no ordinary ruler, she is the Fabled One gifted with the deadly power of ‘The Cry’. The queen who will enable the Vultriss to fly once again – at any cost.

But as the Doctor investigates why the TARDIS crashed, he discovers that the Vultriss are hiding a deadly secret. An ancient legacy that if left unchecked will plunge half the galaxy into an eternal living end."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

I’ll get the awkward part out of the way now: this is not going to be a positive review. I wish it were. I always find it hard to write a review like this about something like an audio play: some people probably find it easy to do so, but I struggle. The hours that must have been put in by the writer, the director, the actors, the sound designer, the musician. Good intentions run deep in most art, and certainly here nobody has gone out of their way to create something unenjoyable. Also, what one person finds unenjoyable another will delight in, and that’s how it should be: reviews will only ever be subjective. Sadly though, this play failed to land for me in every single way.

We open with a rousing political speech given, promising a population of bird people that good times are ahead. Soon after, we join the TARDIS crew as they sail through the vortex while the Doctor is having a bit of trouble with the controls: so far, so traditional. A callback to Static reminds you how long it has been since this particular TARDIS crew (the Doctor, Flip and Constance Clarke) graced our ears, and it is undoubtedly nice to hear them back as they’ve proven to be a successful team. In fact, I would say that Flip and Constance are far better together than they ever were apart, and perhaps this is one of the play’s problems as they’re separated for much of the play. We lack their spark as they play second-fiddle to a series of uninspiring supporting characters.

Indeed, all the writing and dialogue feels uninspired. At best, it’s gracelessly functional and gets the job done; at worst, it’s overwritten and steeped in cliché. The dialogue is perhaps the greatest offender of the lot with dozens of examples of say-what-you-see writing, which is incredibly grating and unrealistic. I get that you need to paint a picture without visual aids, but it doesn’t work when someone with perfectly fine eyesight tells someone else with equally good eyesight exactly what they can both see, from the position of birds in the sky to rocks that are jutting to the size of places or the design of props. It’s audio exposition at its very worst. Perhaps, like the overall plot, it’s trying to ape a certain style, but to me it felt tired, with twists and turns in the plot flat and predictable.  I’m not sure how that is possible in a play about bird people, political intrigue and Ice Warriors, but here we are.

‘Flat’ also sums up the direction and sound design. This is unusual given how Big Finish usually excel in these matters, but in the opening episode especially it all sounded very studio-bound and lacked sparkle. Early on, the TARDIS crew is attacked by birds and we are told they are attacking from above but there is no indication of this in the sound, just loud squawking with the bare minimum of shift in the stereo field. Again, maybe it’s a feel they are going for: to make this feel televisual in its static soundscape and writing, but it’s a huge miss for me.

From start to finish I found myself clockwatching, wishing the next scene would hurry up and get here. It’s not a nice experience to be listening to a play because you have to, knowing full well that if you did not you’d have given up a long while ago and instead listened to something actually enjoyable instead.

It is tired, boring, overlong (bar the opener, every episode clocks in at over half an hour in length) and obvious, with lacklustre sound design and flat performances from many of the guest cast. I could not in any good conscience recommend this play to anyone. I am sure Cry of the Vultriss will have its fans but for me personally, listening to it made for one of the least enjoyable experiences I have had with Big Finish for quite a while.


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

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14 April 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Helen Goldwyn

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: March 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"London, 1945. Winston Churchill campaigns for re-election. His new strategic adviser assures him that Britain has a bright future under his continued leadership. It’s a vote he can’t possibly lose. But the Doctor knows that he must.

The Monk is meddling, altering history for his own selfish ends. With spies and aliens in the mix, Winston realises victory may not be so simple. But at least he can trust his old friend... can’t he?"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Big Finish: We Love Stories.  ‘And Vardans and Churchill’ could be the postscript to their tagline, and so it is that the former Prime Minister has crossed over to the monthly range at last in this play by Helen Goldwyn. He’s not come alone though, as the Monk is there for good measure, too, in his Rufus Hound incarnation.

The year is 1945, Churchill is campaigning for the election (an election he is going to lose, or so history states), and the Monk is up to his usual shenanigans, trying to stop this being the case for reasons that are never really stated.  He just likes stirring the pot. The Doctor, meanwhile, is on hand to try and stop this happening, knowing that in doing so he is risking his friendship with Churchill.  Plus, there are other aliens afoot.

There is a lot going on in Subterfuge and it’s to Goldwyn’s credit that it never feels cluttered or weighed down by its baggage. There is some genuine mystery and tension in her script, and she really shows the darker side to the Monk. For all his jokes and humour, there is a sadistic and nasty aspect to the character; a man willing to sacrifice many just to see what happens. That side is briefly glimpsed here and it’s all the better for it, making the Monk seem more of a threat than has arguably ever been the case before.

It’s perhaps trickier territory with Churchill. He is what is nowadays termed a ‘problematic figure’, which is shorthand for “had good bits and awful bits”, like so many people. (I’m aware I’m over-simplifying things here.) It has made some fans very uneasy about the Doctor’s relationship with him though, with even Steven Moffat stepping in to defend it in a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine. That slight unease is not going to vanish here, and the Doctor refusing to come down firmly on one side of the fence with his politics and Churchill at that time is bound to wind up fans across the political spectrum: which probably shows that Goldwyn has done a good job of balancing things as best she can. Some will wish she had come down harder on one side though, and I must admit having the Doctor not outright praise and defend the welfare state felt a bit uncomfortable: surely he’d be in favour? But I think Goldwyn is smarter than I by purposely not saying a word, and perhaps that’s more my political leanings showing.

Eggshell treading aside, it’s a strong script bolstered by strong performances. Hound feels increasingly at home in the role of the Monk, and I especially liked Mimi Ndiweni as Alicia, feeling she captured that sense of slight distance at all going on around her that the character needs. At first it may seem a little too distant and perhaps wooden, but that’s not the case at all as later scenes show. It’s a very carefully chosen and curated performance.

Goldwyn is on a roll at the moment, with this and the rather wonderful Mother Tongue in the third Gallifrey: Time War box set. A lesser writer would have made an absolute mess of all the elements in this play: bring back the Monk, bring back Churchill, throw in aliens, set it in a pivotal political moment in Earth’s history. That Subterfuge is anything but is a triumph in itself.


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

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28 February 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Stephen Wyatt

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Lots of fun for the family, at the Greatest Show in the Galaxy!

When a junkmail robot invades the TARDIS, the Doctor gets led down an unnervingly familiar path.

Meanwhile, space beatniks Kingpin and Juniper Berry just want to hitch rides and busk – until a greater purpose calls.

The Doctor’s past and Kingpin’s future are entangled by malevolent forces. The Psychic Circus is just beginning: it may lack clowns, but it already has a Master..."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy seems to be the in thing right now for Big Finish. First we had the return of Mags, then there was Feast of Fear, which riffed on familiar sinister circus imagery, and now we've this, which acts as a prequel to the main attraction itself (and possibly a sequel for the Doctor? It's never quite clear).

In my reviews of the Mags plays, I noted that I think Greatest Show is brilliant but questioned the need to bring Mags back: was there really more to say? Just because you can revisit a past character or story or setting, it doesn't necessarily mean you should. At best, it could do something genuinely novel and worthy and change your perception of the original story for the better. At worst, it can tarnish a good memory. Wherever you fall, you'll probably annoy the fans (as happened with The Last Jedi. Best Star Wars film in years and it was hated on by the fans so much we ended up with The Rise of Skywalker...).

Somewhere in the middle though is arguably the worst reaction of all: "Why?"

I am absolutely in the middle with this release. The cast is very good (Ian Reddington and Chris Jury slip right back in like they've never been away, especially the former who is excellent), the cliffhanger to Part One is pleasingly Doctor Who-ish (the Doctor threatens… to juggle!), Sylvester McCoy is on top form, but… but why? Why does this release exist?

It is nice to have original writer Stephen Wyatt back in the fold, and the script is not necessarily bad, but does The Psychic Circus say something fundamentally new? Not really. We learn why the circus ended up on Segonax and, more notably, a bit about the Chief Clown's origins (turns out he is from, erm, Paradise Towers. I guess Wyatt couldn't help himself). That's about it though, and I'm left wondering: did we need to know any of this? It doesn't take anything away, but it hardly adds much.

Of course, they're not the only people in the spotlight here. Semi-obligatory Gods of Ragnarok cameo aside, there is also the Master to contend with, though his role is so dull and muted you wonder why (that word again).

The most interesting thing of note about the Master here is that it's the incarnation played by James Dreyfus: does he 'count' now? He was first introduced in the box set of David Bradley First Doctor plays, which weren't meant to necessarily be canonical, until perhaps they were and Normal Who Susan met David Bradley Susan and then Bradley's Doctor himself popped up in The Legacy of Time, at which point it was anyone's guess what counts and what doesn't. If Big Finish themselves don't seem to know or care, should we? At all?

As for Dreyfus, he is fine, though I wonder if (and suspect) it will be his last outing in the role? His opinions on Trans politics has, to be polite, not gone down well with a lot of fandom online, and it's telling that here he was not mentioned in the press release for the story when it released, nor is he present in the extras, and the forthcoming Master box set from Big Finish have him conspicuously absent: and this is the set that has apparently remembered that Alex Macqueen exists at long last. You get the impression he wouldn't have even been on the cover if it hadn't been too expensive to change it, but his name is not there on the front.

It again makes this play seem more intriguing than it really is. The fact Wyatt is back, the fact Dreyfus is here, the fact some of the original Greatest Show cast return. Why though?

And that's the problem. Why? It never answers this question and as a listener, I never felt it earned its place. An irrelevant release where the things around it are in disproportion to the things it says. Far from the greatest show in town, let alone the galaxy. Why bother listening to it? I'm not sure I know.


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

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6 February 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Guy Adams

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Eleven has a plan. A grand plan. An appalling plan. A plan that endangers all life in the cosmos.

With Ace working for the enemy, the Doctor must rely on scheming Time Lord Cardinal Ollistra for help. The stage is set for an epic confrontation.

Because the Doctor has a plan to stop the Eleven. A grand plan. An appalling plan. A plan that endangers all life in the cosmos.

Whichever one of them wins, the Dark Universe won’t want to lose..."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

With so many releases across so many ranges, it is semi-inevitable that at some point they will converge in one place. We’ve seen that recently with the Who/Cicero crossover play Tartarus, and now we are mixing the streams again with the Eighth Doctor box sets and the main range in this, Dark Universe. In some ways this was an inevitable release, what with the Seventh Doctor having kicked off Doom Coalition in the first place. We know he captured the Eleven, so I suppose temptation would always be succumb to in the end and we’d get the story of how it unfolded.

That is not surprising. What arguably is surprising is that Dark Universe very much relies upon you knowing who the Eleven is and how he operates. You get a brief hand-waving exercise of “this is his basic modus-operandi” but not much beyond that, and an entire cliffhanger resolution being wrapped up in knowing that one of his incarnations was nice is the icing on the cake. Unfamiliar with the Eleven? You’ll get the vague gist of things but hand on heart(s) I am not sure this is necessarily the best introduction, which is odd as this is, chronologically speaking, the Eleven’s debut appearance in the world of all things Who. Ah well: the show loves a paradox, doesn’t it?

Speaking of confusing states of affair, Dark Universe sees an older Ace reunited with the Seventh Doctor, still up to his old tricks, years after they parted. If you thought tracking the chronology of the Eleven is hard, good luck trying with Ace. I have listened to every single Big Finish release featuring her (not an exaggeration), and I’m largely lost nowadays. Can you imagine how a casual listener must feel? The Big Finish main range is not a welcoming one.

Back to the play in hand, though. With any prequel, you run the risk of things feeling redundant. We know how everything ends, so just how exciting can the road there really be? A fair bit, it turns out. Guy Adams is definitely having fun here. We expect some of the cliffhangers before they come, but that’s part of the game. A weapon is discovered, it’ll have devastating effects… and the Doctor wants the enemy to have it! He doesn’t think they will use it… but they do! And so on. The game here is to play along, anticipate, hear it happen with a knowing wink, and smile as the episode ends. It’s a playful approach that benefits the script enormously.

I felt that perhaps things ran their course a little by the end, mind. The final episode carries on with what you expect: the Doctor looking at the bigger picture as if playing Chess; Ace calling him on it and the two of them being at loggerheads. It’s something we’ve seen many times before but unlike the cliffhangers and playfulness earlier, it’s so era-specific, instead of the wider tropes from earlier, that it feels like a cliché and little else. Perhaps it will lead to more meaningful things in the range down the line, but that’s hard to say.

As it stands, there is a lot to recommend with Dark Universe. Does it work as an introduction to the Eleven for new listeners? I’m not sure it does. But the play is fun with some nicely imaginative parts, and whatever else, Dark Universe is a declaration of intent.

The main range is increasingly wanting to acknowledge the other ranges Big Finish has to offer. We’ve had these crossovers before, but I’m not sure it’s felt as apparent then as it does right now. (New Series) UNIT dipping its toes into the Lady Christina box set is one thing, but (New Series) UNIT dipping its toes into the main range would be something else entirely. Right now, it feels plausible. Case in point, we’ve Churchill making an appearance soon: a New Series character, yes, but one who has also had two box sets of his own, and I’m sure the play will be sure to remind us of this.

What to make of this approach? It’s probably a smart move on Big Finish’s part, reminding us of just how much there is out there, but as with Ace and her timeline jumping, it’s arguably also symbolic of how intimidating Big Finish can appear from the outside looking in. Maybe having Eleven personalities at once to digest it all would help? Time will tell, it always does… ah, maybe there’s something in era-specific clichés after all.


+ Dark Universe is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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8 January 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Alan Terigo, Susan Dennom, Andrew Lias & Nev Fountain

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


Blood On Santa's Claw by Alan Terigo

"The Doctor, Peri and Joe land on the planet Naxios, where they discover the body of Father Christmas.

Who killed him? The strange individuals dressed in Shakespearian costume or the talking animals wearing waistcoats digging in the tunnels?"

The Baby Awakes by Susan Dennom

"The Doctor, Peri and Joe visit the Ishtar institute, where the term 'designer babies' takes on a new and sinister meaning. Will our heroes survive Christmas day?"

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Andrew Lias

"A Christmas party that's been going on for three years. Strange silver robots who guard the Christmas decorations with lethal force. What is the secret behind the festivities on Tate Galactic?" 

Brightly Shone The Moon That Night by Nev Fountain

"The TARDIS crew encounters a shameful secret of the Time Lords. History has been rewritten, and this time it's all the Doctor's fault."  

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

Ho ho ho! Just as Christmas is an annual event, so too is the Big Finish 4x4 play and this year we have Blood on Santa’s Claw.

In the past, some of these releases have given us completely standalone plays (such as Circular Time) and some have linked them (1001 Nights, for example). Blood does the latter whilst trying to trick you into believing it’s the former. (This subterfuge extends to just who wrote the various plays, with pseudonyms being used to try and throw you off track.) I’m not sure this trick entirely works seeing as the second play opens with beats very reminiscent of the first one, and that alone was enough to make me fairly sure that everything here was going to be connected, but hats off to them all the same for giving it a go, even if I am unsure why they did it. To give the plays an air of mystery? To try and make Joe, Peri’s boyfriend in these plays, feel more of a permanent fixture and less a one-shot character?

Perhaps the latter, though I cannot recall any publicity trying to hint at future appearances for him. Because of this, from the get go I was looking for hints that he was up to no good, so when this was revealed I was less than shocked, but then again I do listen to an awful lot of Big Finish Doctor Who releases, so this may not be the case for other fans.

The release kicks off with the titular Blood on Santa’s Claw, which is not only the best play in this anthology by some chalk but also the best play Big Finish have put out for ages now. I found myself laughing hard at times and wishing to know more about the world it painted. This sense of joy is enhanced by great performances across the board, but I’ll draw especial attention here to Heather Bleasdale as Cordelia and Becky Wright as Mole, all of whom impressively stand out in a cast that is universally brilliant.

The Baby Awakes was probably my least favourite of the plays, being one which puts Peri through the emotional wringer but which never really hit for me. It tries very hard to get a reaction and twinge from its listeners, and for me it felt like it perhaps tried too hard to do so, and was less natural in its intent.

We end with what is in actuality a two-parter. Now, I mentioned earlier that I listen to a lot of Big Finish Doctor Who plays, so some things will inevitably strike me as repetitive or old in a way that would not occur for others who have listened to far less. This may help explain that when the antagonists overall were revealed to be werewolf-like creatures, I just sighed. Much like their obsession with Vardans, Big Finish seem to be using werewolves a lot at the moment, be it in the main range or in things like their War Master series, and I had an acute sense of déjà vu as a result. It doesn’t help that the same two or three wolf noises are used again and again in the background upon their revelation, looping, but I do wonder if that’s actually an in-joke of sorts as this looping wolf noise is near identical (if not the very same one) to one used in countless BBC TV shows, including The Time Meddler.  Perhaps this is just Big Finish poking fun and adding to a sense of televisual authenticity? I applaud them for it if it is that, and if not then… well, it’s irritating but I’ll let it pass. It’s Christmas, after all.

Speaking of, the Christmas theme felt slightly shoehorned in at times, but never to the extent that it was distracting. I do wonder though if this will herald in more Christmas specials as annual events now? I hope not. I’ve mentioned before that Big Finish often suffer from a feeling of revisiting past glories with threadbare results, and I’m not sure this should be encouraged further still.

As for this particular release, as a four-play series it didn’t wow me: but! It is worth the admission price for the opening story alone. Everything that comes after is fun enough and Nev Fountain (for it is he who wrote them all) is enjoying himself, but for a Christmas treat alone, Blood on Santa’s Claw as an individual episode is perhaps the best I could have received as a Doctor Who fan: inventive, clever, amusing, and brilliantly acted, this is the Christmas treat we’ve been craving and the best Christmas Special the show has had for a long time.

For that alone, I cannot help but leave this play with a smile.


+ Blood on Santa's Claw and Other Stories is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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27 November 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Chris Chapman (Warzone) & Guy Adams (Conversion)

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


Warzone by Chris Chapman

"At Warzone, competitors gather from across the galaxy to test the limits of their endurance and achieve their personal best. So, when the TARDIS materialises in the middle of a racetrack, the Doctor and his friends must literally run for their lives."

Conversion by Guy Adams

"On the fringes of the galaxy, techno-pirates and research medics fight for the secrets of advanced extra-terrestrial technology. For the Doctor, however, a more personal battle awaits as he confronts his own guilt and the creatures that killed a friend: the Cybermen."

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for both plays. You have been warned!

Warzone 

Warzone and Conversion are the final two plays in this latest trilogy for the Fifth Doctor. We kicked things off with extended episodes in Tartarus, then had a pair of adventures last month. This follows that trend, but with the two stories joined at the hip. This varying story structure has felt like a breath of fresh air and a welcome kick to the range.

What of the stories themselves this time around though? We begin things with Warzone by Chris Chapman. Back when I reviewed Iron Bright, I said it was a good story but that I felt Chapman had something rather great to bring to the table. I think Warzone is possibly that play, and if it's not then it's pretty close to being.

Weaponising Parkrun (and the current trend for running, Couch To 5K training routines and suchlike) is a superbly Doctor Who-ish idea which Chapman melds with a comic book setting: a race to the death across a planet of pitfalls and killer obstacles. The idea may be familiar, but the execution is what counts and Chapman milks it for all it's worth.

Better still, the slow segue into the second story is well done. We all knew the Cybermen were back in Conversion but the reveal that their plans start here is a genuinely good and slightly unexpected surprise. The penny drops a couple of scenes before the reveal, and it's a thrill when the hunch is proven correct. Again, more of this is always welcome and credit must go to Chapman for hiding the reveal in plain sight and still pulling the wool over the listeners' eyes: or should that be ears?

Warzone ends with things looking bad for Marc, who is dying and has unwittingly started to become conversed into a Cybermen.



Conversion

Cue Conversion by Guy Adams, the final play in this run. We start with the Doctor uncharacteristically angry and hell bent on revenge; indeed, he does not so much exit the previous story as flee it.  Even Tegan comments on this and the Doctor admits he's not being rational. Back in Tartarus, the spectre of Adric was raised and a dark fate for Marc hinted at, and Conversion ties this all together.

It's a great idea in theory, but the play itself suffers where Chapman's flourished. Where that may have had familiar elements executed well, here such elements feel overfamiliar and as such a bit dull. It doesn't help that we've very clunky exposition at the start, with a supporting character speaking in a way no-one ever does in day-to-day life.  I know the listener needs to be brought up to speed about characters' roles and power dynamics, but there is surely a better way of doing this than having characters say things along the lines of "As well you know, my role here is leader and I'm an expert scientist and so you should trust me!"

It's awkward to listen to and drags the listener out. This isn't the first time I've raised this complaint, but it's a valid one all the same.

Unfortunately, the rest of the play feels similarly clunky in its execution. The idea of the companion turning into a Cyberman has been done better, by Gareth Roberts in Closing Time and Steven Moffat in The Doctor Falls (Craig counts for the sake of this comparison). Here in Conversion though, it feels under baked.

Arguably though, the true cardinal sin in this play comes from confusion thanks to several actors all sounding the same. I genuinely found it hard at times, especially near the cliffhanger to Part One, to work out who was talking, so similar are the accents and tones and line delivery. This is a huge no with audio, and I'm staggered it passed any sort of checks.

The release ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, if the Doctor leaving to mope alone while his companions are abandoned on a nice holiday location can get counted as such. He is sad; sad that Marc is now part Cyberman as he could not save the day, and sad because it reminds him of Adric. Whilst I appreciate the attempt to do something more with Adric's death, again I am not at all convinced it works as it feels very out of character for the Fifth Doctor to be as he is here. The desire for repercussions and more believable responses to trauma is not necessarily a bad thing, but trying to reconcile any of this with the show we saw on screen in this era is, at best, a bit of a leap. I'm not wanting my characters to be one-dimensional, but the lack of fidelity here leads to a lack of conviction. (Speaking of, the modulation on the Cybermen voices is off throughout. It's nearly but not quite close to being right, which makes it all the more distracting.)

There are hints at better things for the main range across these past five stories. Not every one hits it for six, but it's a start. I just hope the writing is a bit more consistent going forward.


+ Warzone / Conversion is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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23 October 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Carl Rowens & Martyn Waites

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: October 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


Interstitial by Carl Rowens

"When the TARDIS is drawn off-course by temporal disruption, the Doctor and his companions discover a research facility conducting dangerous experiments. But how do you fight the future when time itself is being used as a weapon?"

Feast of Fear by Martyn Waites

"At the height of the Irish famine, a carnival travels the country bringing cheer to all they encounter. But it also brings something else along with them… and it already has the Doctor."

Doctor Who has not been shy of (at times) cribbing from its own past; be it with cast members (here's looking at you, Michael Wisher), titles (The Mutants does have a nice ring about it) or plots (Planet of the Daleks feels very familiar for a reason, after all).

Likewise, Big Finish have certainly never been shy about plundering the past. We've recently had an entire trilogy featuring one-shot character Mags, two outings across two ranges for the same trio of Masters and a Missy, giant maggots pestering Torchwood, and more besides. This trilogy is bookended by a guest star from Big Finish's own original series, and a story with the 1980s Cybermen. Here in the middle, we've two stories with rather familiar beats.

We begin with Interstitial by new writer Carl Rowens. The title conjures up memories of The Time Monster, experiments with time doing likewise, but what we get instead is a fairly generic sci-fi story of differing timelines and the responsibility one has if one can alter events. (That's not a criticism, just an observation.)

The story justifies its two-episode length, not outstaying its welcome and using a small cast well, even if the guest cast are largely familiar tropes with dialogue.

Having joined the TARDIS team in the previous adventure, with hints of a sad ending, Marc is all wide-eyed innocence, a traveller from the past flung into the future, and Rowens gets to toy with his fate at times. I'm not sure how Marc is going to play out yet: confusion and enthusiasm with a dash of bravery are all well and good, but I feel we've seen this before and he will need something more to really grab our affection.

The ending of Interstitial feels rather quick after the gentle pace across the rest of the tale, but all in all this one is not bad. It even manages to take one of my pet hates (people on screen or in audio reading aloud letters whilst writing them) and give it an amusing pay-off when Nyssa signs it off. Hats off to it.

* * * * *

Next up is Feast of Fear by Martyn Waites, another new author. It's always good to see new names in this range, so having two in this release is something to be praised.

Feast of Fear is an odd one though. We sadly begin things with two characters spouting exposition at one another as they run, which made my heart sink and attention wander: there are ways of filling in characters' backgrounds organically and this isn't it.

As for the play itself, you'll be forgiven for thinking you've heard this one before. A circus taken over by a malevolent evil from outer space? I guess any story set around a circus or carnival was going to invoke comparison with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but the way around this is surely to do something radically different? As it stands, it just makes it feel like the well is running dry.

Elsewhere, things feel very in tune with Doctor Who in its post-2005 guise. Love saving the day and people able to break conditioning through memories and friendship? Closing Time and The Rings of Akhaten spring to mind.

This makes the play feel derivative. Heck, even a plot thread about the Doctor unable to stop talking has strong echoes of Tell Me You Love Me from Big Finish's (underrated) Class plays.

In some ways, Feast of Fear feels like the most Chibnall-era play we've had so far, with a (very) lengthy justification by the Doctor before taking any action against the monster and an emphasis time and again on friendships and relationships. Even plundering stories from the past is in keeping, seeing as Chibnall has riffed on Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Green Death on screen rather heavily in two of his tales.

It doesn't make for a wholly successful play here, though, if you know the show's past, and let's be honest, most people listening to these plays do. Big Finish are even doing a prequel to Greatest Show in this very range, so I am left scratching my head at the approach taken here.

This release is a story of two halves in more than one respect, then. It boasts one of the best covers Big Finish have given us for years, throws two new authorial voices into the fray, and stumbles as often as it succeeds.

I think on balance that I am okay with this. This release is not going to get a huge score from me, but at least it's attempting to do something vaguely different, albeit by treading a well-beaten path. Perhaps the future will see more success down this route.


+ Interstitial / Feast of Fear is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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11 October 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: David Llewellyn

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"63BC. Following the overthrow of Catiline, Cicero and his wife retire to the coastal town of Cumae, safe from the threats of Rome.

But when a stranger and his companions arrive at Cicero’s villa, new dangers lie in wait and Cicero finds himself plunged into a realm of gods and monsters.

His only hope of returning home lies with a man known as the Doctor. But can Cicero trust him?"

Every year, there is one month where Big Finish give us two main range releases at once instead of the usual solo effort. 2019 throws two historical pairings at our feet at the same time: the Doctor and Houdini in Harry Houdini’s War, and the Doctor and Cicero here in Tartarus.

I heard a few cynical rumblings when this play was announced along the lines of it being less a good idea for a Doctor Who play and more a good excuse for an extended advert for Cicero, Big Finish’s original series from 2018.

There is a decent enough Doctor Who story in here to silence the critics, in part because the series has taken elements of mythology and created a story from them before, as is the case here. It doesn’t necessarily feel overfamiliar though, partly because they’ve decided to buck this incarnation’s norms (Resurrection of the Daleks aside) and give Tartarus two episodes over 40 minutes in length each. It benefits this script, giving room for moments to really breathe and lending the tale a pace that’s gentle without being lazy.

I am not saying there isn’t an element of cynicism here, mind, and crossed fingers hoping people will jump from Tartarus to Cicero. Certain plot points clearly take their lead not just from history but from the series, and having the Doctor enthuse about how amazing Cicero is, while not out of character perhaps comes across as a bit too forced, ditto his arguments with him about who should be in charge and early scenes where the Doctor explains concepts from the future to him at a party. It’s the same with Nyssa and Tegan’s reactions to everything, and an observation and plot point about Adric’s death. It feels a tad like someone is trying really hard, and too self-consciously, to write ‘this is how they would react’ rather than creating something truly organic and true to the characters.

The ending of Tartarus points to more to come in, one presumes, a future trilogy. I’m not sure how keen or excited I am for this development, especially as it rather gives away the ending already. That said, I’m guessing the ending, as painted here, isn’t quite what it appears to be: and if it is, it’s almost identical to that which they’ve done before with post-Terminus Nyssa, which will seem a little lazy. Perhaps it will surprise me further down the line. Perhaps.

I do have to wonder. As of late, much of Big Finish’s output across its various ranges feels rather like we’ve seen this before, often riffing on something we have already had or filling blanks no-one really cared about and making a poor job of it. From Emissary of the Daleks to the sixth series of adventures for River Song to the fan fic slog that was Battle Scars, it feels utterly tried. Those are perhaps extreme examples of bad releases, but that weariness seeps in elsewhere more often than not nowadays, and that’s upsetting.

I genuinely hate writing reviews like these; so down and lacking in real joy or spark; I know people pour their heart and soul into writing words. But I also am not about to lie and pretend it’s all sunshine and roses, as it’s not. Every so often, we’ll be blown away by something really special or brilliant from Big Finish; The Master of Callous here, the genuinely touching Still Life there, the fun and atmospheric Krampus two-parter from Ravenous in the centre. It proves that there is life in the old dog yet, and exciting life it is, too. But with such releases few and far between, I do wonder how long it is before the well is truly dry.

Prove me wrong, Big Finish. I reckon, or at least I hope, that you can, because I know you’re brilliant when you really put your mind to it: you have been dozens upon dozens upon dozens of times before. It’s why I’m still going with you, all these years on. But perhaps I’m just tired of the increasing ‘that’ll do’ releases? And if I am, I’m sure I am not alone.

Prove me wrong. Please.


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


2 October 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Steve Lyons

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The world is at war, and Harry Houdini wants to fight for his adoptive country. He might get the chance, when an old friend crashes his New York show.

The Doctor is on the trail of a Central Powers spy ring, which has somehow acquired unearthly technology. But he is also keeping a dangerous secret...

Finding himself on the run behind enemy lines, the world’s greatest escape artist has to work out who he can trust – and fast."

Harry Houdini’s War is the final play in the latest Sixth Doctor and Peri trilogy. Despite being pushed as pre-Trial tales, the use of Dominic Glynn’s theme tune arrangement quickly suggests things aren’t all they appear with this play (either that or someone in post-production has dropped the ball), which is either a clever clue or a bit of a twist killer. The jury is undecided.

We start off slightly on the back foot then, and pre-publicity highlighting that Harry Houdini and the Doctor have met before in Smoke and Mirrors (a play that was one of the better parts of the Destiny of the Doctor series from 2013) it may seem a little off-putting: does one need to know that to enjoy this? Thankfully not, and indeed the relationship between the two men is the most enjoyable aspect of this release.

The combination of Houdini and the Doctor is a rather neat one: the illusionist who wowed the world with the person who saves it. As celebrity and Time Lord duos go, it certainly makes for an easier pairing than the ‘Doctor and Churchill’ one which has to skirt around and turn a blind eye to numerous issues and (ironically) politics to really work, and in the case of the two Big Finish series, also decent scripts and a full cast. I just hope Big Finish resist a trilogy with this pair or an ‘enhanced audiobook’ set: there’s a fine line between being intrigued to see more and seeing far too much. Even Houdini couldn’t work his magic on this.

Aside from the Houdini/Doctor partnership, there is some nice colour to this play. Educational titbits and facts concerning Houdini are dropped in neatly in a way that would make Sydney Newman happy, and I rather like the reason that’s given for why the Doctor seems to be fighting for the opposition. All this said, the script itself feels rather flabby at times, which makes the episodes’ running times feel lengthier than they are in actuality. There is also a strange thing in the first two parts where you reach a cliffhanger... and then it goes on for another scene or two before wrapping things up with a far less effective ending.

More bizarrely, the sound design for Harry Houdini’s War lacks the usual polish which Big Finish brings to the party. There is a scene that especially stood out which cuts from people in an aeroplane to people watching the aeroplane, with what is essentially a fading down of an aeroplane sound effect to denote the transition. I can see what they’re going for here, suggesting more of a pull-back shot than a hard cut between scenes, but it’s too subtle, lacking the visual immediacy audio needs to really sell the moment and creating a slower and messier picture in the mind accordingly.

In the end, perhaps that sums the play up: good ideas and nice intentions, but the finished product is lacking. As mentioned before though, there is mileage to be had with Houdini as an occasional guest star in these main range plays, certainly more than some returning elements or partnerships we’ve seen Big Finish delve into in the past. This particular play may not have the magic one wishes, but perhaps an encore can do it justice.


+ Harry Houdini's War is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


10 September 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Andrew Smith

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: August 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"On the planet Omnia, a young man leads the Doctor and Peri through the battle-scarred ruins of a city. Among the rubble he shows them proof that their invaders and new masters, thought to be invincible, can be defeated. The proof is the blasted, burnt-out remains of a Dalek.

But this is a Dalek-occupied world like few others. For one thing, there are few Daleks to be seen. And for another, the Daleks have appointed an Omnian, Magister Carmen Rega, to govern the planet as their emissary.

Why are the Daleks not present in force? And can the Doctor and Peri risk helping the Omnians, when the least show of resistance will be met with devastating reprisals from space?"

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Emissary Of The Daleks, the latest play from Andrew Smith, when it was first announced. Rightly so, too, as the premise sounded very promising indeed: a world under Dalek rule which ticks along nicely, just so long as no-one rises up against them. As ideas go, it's a good one. Would you dare risk killing everyone if things are actually okay as-is?

There is a lot of potential there, with the Doctor and Peri in the role of possible antagonists. Do you risk it all just because they're Daleks, or accept the planet is fine right now with them in charge?

 

I was therefore excited to start this play, but that soon slipped into uncertainty and quickly into being unenthused. The trouble is, the premise is never really tapped into. Instead, we have a story we have seen a hundred times before. Daleks invade the planet; a well-meaning but ultimately flawed and foolish leader acts as human / Dalek liaison and does terrible things when trying to "do the right thing"; general population is terrified and live in fear and slavery; and the Doctor saves the day.

 

There was not one plot point or twist that I did not see coming at least two scenes earlier. Two of the cliffhangers involve screaming and what sounds like the death of the regulars… only they're fine. The character development and family relationships are as easy to guess as the plotting.

 

I really wanted to like this play, and there are definitely some good parts. I like the piece of Dalek mythology which Smith gives us, about how each Dalek sucker is as individual as a fingerprint. It ranks up with Trevor Baxendale's assertion in his novel Prisoner of the Daleks that Daleks could kill you quickly, they just choose to do it painfully, as good ideas that will be forever stuck in my mind as canonical now.

 

The story is something you've come across before, time and again, but the plot is at least free of holes, and whilst none of the characters made an impression, the cast have no weak links or performances on show.

 

Perhaps it's unfair to judge this play on what it is not, but what it is is so familiar as to be a bit dull. It may be told competently but I'm not sure you'd be able to call it exciting with any real sincerity.

 

As it stands, Emissary of the Daleks is by no means a disaster, but it's also entirely nonessential and overfamiliar to the brink of being boring. The buzz for the premise may be justified, but any for the execution is not.

 


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


16 July 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Roland Moore

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: July 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"What if you’d committed a truly dreadful crime but couldn’t remember?

The Doctor takes Peri to the Memory Farm – a state of the art space station where hidden memories can be harvested and analysed. To their surprise, they find the station in lock-down and all its resources dedicated to probing the memories of an elderly man. Garius Moro may, or may not, have been responsible for the deaths of billions of people many years ago, but he simply can’t remember.

The assembled representatives of two opposing factions, each with their own agenda, anxiously wait for the truth to be unlocked from Moro’s mind. But when a memory does eventually surface, everyone is surprised to learn that it is of Peri..."

Following on the heels of the Mags trilogy, we see the return of Peri to the main range after several years’ absence. Rather than follow up the plot threads left hanging from her last, post-Trial trilogy, we are instead treated to a story set earlier in her timeline, though at times it feels even earlier than that.

Roland Moore’s debut story for the Big Finish main range, Memories Of A Tyrant is a bit of an odd beast in that it’s a Sixth Doctor and Peri story that feels entirely geared towards it being a Third Doctor and Jo story, complete with a fight scene, references to The Curse of Peladon and The Green Death, central ethical dilemma, and an old friend of the Doctor who helped free wrongly convicted aliens. It gives the entire play a slightly unusual feel, being simultaneously true to the show but not really true to the era. I wonder if perhaps it started off with a different TARDIS team in mind, or if they just wanted to try something different? Either way, it can be a little jarring at times.

This air of incongruity aside, it also happens to be an unusual play for other reasons. Its central premise is interesting: Garius Moro is a tyrant responsible for the murder of billions and he has finally been captured - or has he? No visual record of Moro exists, and the man captured has no memory of his past life whatsoever. There is, therefore, a question of morality at stake here. Is it right that a man utterly ripped of his memories should suffer a punishment for his actions, actions which he cannot recall committing and finds hard to believe himself capable of? And what if they have the wrong man?

The main issue with this play is that it dodges both these issues entirely, something not down to Moore who addressed this in his original script, but down to director, producer and script editor John Ainsworth, who according to the play’s extras insisted that they go unanswered, to better retain uncertainty. All this does is neuter Memories Of A Tyrant, robbing its exciting meat and bones of weight and making the ending feel unsatisfactory. It goes out of its way to dodge the moral quandary but that just raises more questions than it answers, namely why commission a play such as this if you don’t want to fully engage with its soul?

It’s a pity as overall Memories Of A Tyrant is a fairly enjoyable listen which gives Peri a lot to do, and Colin Baker is clearly having fun pretending to be a convict. Moore has hit upon an interesting issue, has written it as a Third Doctor tale, and has had his answers removed from on high. It makes for one of the strangest releases Big Finish have put out for a while now, and certainly a tricky one to grade.

I would like to try and take a leaf out of its book and cheat my memory. I would like to recall the happy cast and the good ideas this play has, ignoring the era uncertainty and production interference. I will not succeed; the execution looms large in my mind. But trying to do so, at least, feels the done thing.


+ Memories Of A Tyrant is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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