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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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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).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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).

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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).

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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).

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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).

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25 June 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Alan Barnes

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: June 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"A space-time summons brings the TARDIS to the strangest place Mags has yet visited. A haven for the freakiest freaks and the weirdest weirdoes: Camden Lock, London, in the early 1990s.

But there's a reason why former TARDIS traveller Ace has brought the old gang back together. She’s on a mission to rescue an alien being, held prisoner in a massive mansion…

A mission that can’t possibly go wrong. Can it? "

An Alien Werewolf in London is the final story in this trilogy of stories featuring Mags, this time with Ace along for the ride. Believe it or not, that’s about all I can say without straying further into spoiler territory, so brief is the CD blurb. Keeping that in mind, what follows will contain spoilers so you may want to just skip ahead to the score without context or read this after listening.

With that in mind, let’s carry on. Werewolf is a slightly weird release; on the one hand, there is much to praise: it’s a decent enough plot, using time travel and double-bluffing rather well and the title is an amusing enough pun. In short, it’s an entertaining enough play that doesn’t feel like it has ever outstayed its welcome, despite episodes running over the 30 minute marker. The continual pop cultural references don’t really work, mind, not feeling true to the era, and the music utterly swamps everything, relying on only a couple of cues over and over again, an issue I had last month, too. The direction feels a bit off, too, with notable pauses between lines at times that kills the flow dead.

Enemy-wise, we’re back in one of Doctor Who’s favourite territories: vampires. Okay, so they don’t like to be called vampires, but we all know what they are. I suppose there was a certain inevitability about vampires and werewolves coming together in the end, but it’s done fairly well here.

Sadly though, the issue that has plagued this trilogy since the start is here again: just who is Mags beyond “I’m a werewolf and I’d rather not be”? I still don’t know, three plays and a television story in.

I mentioned in previous reviews for this trilogy that Mags was essentially a well-acted plot point back in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and though the plot point has changed now (from “I am trapped and secretly a werewolf” to “I am a werewolf and I feel trapped”), I do not know her character. She wants a cure and feels like an outsider because she changes but, again, that’s not really a great deal to go on. That’s the sketchy, one-sentence pitch to potential writers.

Alan Barnes, the play’s writer and the outgoing script editor for most of the main range, says that bringing back Mags was always on his “to do” list, but I’m still unsure just why he was. On paper, a werewolf looking for a cure could be fun, but it strikes me as fuel for a spin-off comic book series instead of a great idea for an ongoing companion.

Nothing in this trilogy had persuaded me otherwise. Jessica Martin puts in her best performance as Mags by a mile here in this play, and we end not with a conclusion but a potential continuation of the storyline, only I’m not sure ‘continuation’ is the right word. We haven’t moved anywhere. We end up how we started, only with Mags in the TARDIS instead of on a planet.

In the end, I just feel torn. The opening and closing plays of the trilogy are enjoyable enough; enough to ensure this one gets a healthy score out of 10, despite my niggles with the direction and music, but that one word keeps coming back to me: why?

Why bring Mags back? Just who is this trilogy for: what is the audience Big Finish are aiming for? I’m utterly baffled.

Mags, we hardly knew thee. I’m not sure any of the writers really did, either.


+ An Alien Werewolf In London is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

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25 May 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Emma Reeves

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: May 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The Doctor has returned Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus, to her native world: Vulpana.

Not the savage Vulpana that Mags was taken from, but Vulpana in an earlier era. The Golden Millennium – when the Four Great Wolf Packs, each devoted to one of the planet’s four moons, oversaw the height of Vulpanan civilisation. A time when the noblest families of the Vulpanan aristocracy found themselves in need of new blood…

A golden age that’s about to come to a violent end!"

I noted at the start of my The Monsters Of Gokroth review that Big Finish seem to be tailoring their output for a very small and specific audience right now, and went on to question exactly what fans were dying to hear more tales about Mags and what stories could be told with her. This month sees the release of The Moons Of Vulpana and it goes some way to answering the latter question, but not always in a positive way. 

By returning to Vulpana, Mags’s home planet, we get a good chance to do some world building and add some background details. This is a welcome development and I could start to see the potential in the character and why some fans may have been clamouring for further adventures.  I’m not of the mindset where I hear a throwaway line and want to see it filled out: we’ve learnt from things like the Star Wars prequels or Big Finish’s own The War Doctor box sets that this is often not a good thing. Still, there are blanks that can be filled here should writers wish to, and so it is here. I hope that the fistful of fans who crave this sort of thing are enjoying the ride.

 

The problem really is not the mindset but the execution here. Yes, we get to visit Vulpana but what we get for those filled-in blanks is nothing original or especially engaging.  We land on a planet with pseudo-medieval trappings and Mags finds herself wooed by two werewolves. Before too long, she has met their haughty mother and their surly, outsider brother who feels isolated and unsure they should be celebrating the past after all, going against the grain of the planet. But despite Mags feeling at home here, perhaps all is not what it seems… to which I found myself saying, “Well, no, of course it isn’t going to be, is it?” because I feel like I have heard this story before. Many, many times. I kept waiting to be surprised, but nothing felt out of the ordinary. Even larger plot points later on lacked the impact they ought to have.

 

Throw in a repetitive musical motif that has outstayed its welcome before the opening episode is through (it makes that fanfare used in Rosa feel positively underused), and you’ve one of the most disappointingly average releases for a while.

 

All of the above elements contribute towards the creation of a play that is competent, but that’s about the most positive thing I can say about it. The script is functional and the performances not bad, but nothing here grabbed me because nothing here is new. I’m not sure it’s a fault with the writing. Emma Reeves has done great work elsewhere, with her Unbound play The Emporium At The End being one of the wittiest and joyful releases Big Finish have done this past decade. It’s not a fault with the acting either. The guest cast fails to shine, mind, but that’s not their fault: they can do only so much. As for Mags, Jessica Martin is really trying her best with what she has. It’s just that the character lacks true dimension and depth and I think the relatively uninspired feel of The Moons Of Vulpana is but a reaction to this.

 

Even this review feels underbaked and brief, but that’s because there is almost nothing to say beyond that which has been stated already. It doesn’t makes me especially hopeful for the conclusion to this trilogy, but you never know. Miracles happen and how blissfully Doctor Who-like it would be to save it all at the eleventh hour. Here’s hoping.

 


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

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29 April 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Matt Fitton

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: April 2019

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"The people of Gokroth live in fear of the monsters in the forest. Creatures with scales and fur, teeth and claws. But worse than these, perhaps, is the strange doctor who does unspeakable, unholy work in the high castle on the mountain…

A doctor who’s about to receive a visit from an off-worlder. Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus. A native of the planet Vulpana… with a monstrous secret of her own."

I do not think it’s unfair to say that Big Finish have decided that their target audience right now is a niche section of fandom. To get anything out of their releases now, you really need to know your onions.

If you don’t know about the plot and cast of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the last Fourth Doctor series will leave you cold. Can’t remember your Gallifreyan history and the timeline of Rassilon both on-screen and in the Big Finish audio pantheon? I’d skip the second volume of Gallifrey: Time War. Unaware of who Susan is? Or the backstory of the Eighth Doctor’s audio companions, or Katarina, or Eric Roberts’ incarnation of the Master? That’s various series and volumes of The First Doctor AdventuresRavenous and The Diary Of River Song that are set to confuse you.

 

And now, just after Kamelion has exited the trilogic spotlight, Mags turns up, she of the Psychic Circus from The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, in a brand new set of adventures. If you aren’t a fan steeped in lore, Doctor Who on audio just isn’t for you right now.

 

The trilogy kicks off with The Monsters Of Gokroth by Matt Fitton (the sort of title destined to be misspelt for the rest of our days). Set on a pseudo-medieval planet plagued by monsters, Gokroth concerns the plight of the villagers beset by said baddies; a scientist mistrusted by the masses who dwells in a castle with her servant; a ne’er-do-well showman who arrives to take care of the monster infestation… for a price; and a werewolf named Mags who is seeking help for her condition, which of late seems to be spiralling out of control.

 

If it looks like Fitton’s script has all the trappings of a classic horror movie or creature feature, that’s because it does and it fully embraces this, much to its strength. The familiarity of archetypes lends Gokroth a playful air and heightens the scares and drama throughout, and it means that it (just about) gets away with the antagonist speaking aloud to themselves and the audience, or otherwise clichéd lines such as Mags worrying aloud about “the monster inside”. (The Seventh Doctor all but quoting Jodie Whittaker’s line about always helping people, however, is less homage and more tired rip-off.)

 

I’d say that this is Fitton’s best script for a long while now, with only Whodunnit? in Series Four of The Diary Of River Song coming close to stealing that crown. Like that script, his one here is a playful sending up of tropes that doesn’t descent into farce and has enough twists and good characters to not outstay its welcome.


The Monsters Of Gokroth is boosted further by solid direction from Samuel Clemens, his first time in the director’s chair for the monthly range, and an extremely strong performance from Victoria Yeates in the guest cast, which only proves yet again that new blood can work wonders for these monthly jaunts.

 

Sylvester McCoy is on good form, too, and Jessica Martin impresses, though the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there yet. There are hints and the first few sparks, but expect more to come as the plays go on.

 

This does bring up the thorny subject of Mags though. Martin, as noted already, is very good and it’s nice to have her back in the fold, but one has to question “why?” Of all the characters from the show’s past to return, it feels like a strange decision. Why not Ray from Delta And The Bannermen, for example, or Glitz or any host of other supporting characters from the Seventh Doctor’s past? I am not disputing that Greatest Show isn’t good (it is) or that Mags isn’t a good character in it (she is) or that Martin isn’t a good actor (she is) but does the character have enough going to warrant the solo focus?

 

The answer is uncertain as it stands, mostly because (as Martin herself points out in the play’s extras), Mags doesn’t really have all that much character. She’s an intriguing puzzle bolstered by superb execution in Greatest Show, but here she has to had to start over with regards to writing and approach.

 

You can just about reconcile the Mags here with the Mags there, but only just about, because in the end she is moving from plot point to companion and that brings with it a huge shift in dynamic range and backstory.


Fitton gives us hints of potential, and Martin is clearly excited to be back, but is this goodwill enough? We shall see over the next couple of months. For now, the jury is out but I have my fingers crossed.

 


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

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29 March 2019

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: John Dorney

RRP: £8.99 (Download) each

Release Date: February 2019

Reviewed by: Chris Swaby for Doctor Who Online


The Perfect Prisoners: Part One

"The Doctor, Ann and K9 are hot on the trail of the Syndicate, and straight into trouble. 

After contending with killer robots and dangerous aliens, the clues lead straight to a machine that can literally make your dreams come true. A device that in the wrong hands could lead to misery for billions.  

But who’s the real villain here? And what exactly is their master plan?"

The Perfect Prisoners: Part Two

"Secrets have been revealed, and the Doctor and his friends at last know who they’re fighting.

An epic journey across space leads them to the true mastermind of the Syndicate conspiracy.

Alliances will shift. Friends will die. Can even the Doctor come out of this alive?"

As this is the finale to the eighth series of “The Fourth Doctor Adventures” it begs the question, can this be enjoyed without having listened to the rest of the series? Well, the answer is yes but it comes with two caveats. Both parts are perfectly enjoyable and easy to follow without listening to the proceeding six stories. However, to get the most out of this finale, I would suggest listening to these first. Added to this, it would be worth checking out “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, why? Because it gives a nice bit of background to this story and well, it’s one of the classics of Who! It may be 12 parts, many of which are sadly still missing but this does not detract from a fantastic serial. 

Part One starts in a pretty lively fashion. We first encounter The Doctor on the run from killer robots whilst trying his best to avert a rocket launch that would mean certain doom for many planets. As usual, not only is he fighting a deadly foe, but also a long standing enemy - a countdown! Meanwhile, the newest addition to the Big Finish roster, WPC Ann Kelso, is chasing down a suspect in true Policewoman style. Here we get a big departure from the usual companion territory, and we experience the first of many shocks and twists that this finale throws up. 


Following the successful stopping of a nefarious plot, a clue is picked up to the existence of the mysterious “Syndicate”, an ever present threat throughout series eight. From here to the end of part one, we stay pretty static on one planet and one building as The Doctor and Ann investigate a media conglomerate on their way to unravelling what The Syndicates’ master plan is. The episode moves along slowly without ever feeling like it is dragging, a hard task to accomplish for a writer but John Dorney manages it flawlessly here. 

 

Towards the end, the story flicks into another gear and the action really ramps up finishing with a huge twist at the end, setting it up nicely for the next part. Again, even without being invested in the series as a whole, the reveal still manages to shock and leaves you instantly wanting to get straight on to the next part. I was intending to listen to it over consecutive nights but as soon as part one finished I couldn’t stop myself from playing the next part, which is always the sign of a good cliffhanger.

 

Whereas Part One kicked off with an all action set piece, Part Two goes the other way and is a lot more understated, which given the huge reveal makes sense. In this part we get a far wider scope in terms of location, moving from one to another as The Doctor works to piece together the fall out from the cliffhanger, whilst also trying to stop The Syndicate’s plan from coming to fruition. On the whole this has more action than the former part, but it is evenly spaced between some great dialogue scenes, with one near the end being a particular highlight of the finale. 


The ending has plenty of twists and turns. At one point you really feel like the ending is clearly signposted, with one character killing another but it defies expectations and goes in another direction completely. In the dying moments, you really think you can tell what is going to happen but again, the writer throws convention out of the window which left me with a feeling of heartbreak followed by happiness at the final words. This is a true talent for any writer to accomplish and John Dorney nails it perfectly.

 

Both parts are full of well acted, entertaining and engaging characters. Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor is as fun as ever. He comes across fun and banterous to start but by the end of the first part and throughout the second his serious side comes out. That’s not to say its a complete 180 degree turn and the humour stops but he is definitely far more on the silly side to start.

 

Ann Kelso is a tough one to discuss without going all in on spoilers so I will try my best to pass comment without ruining any surprises. I found during the first part it was a bit difficult to really pin down her character, there are some interesting things that she is involved in but does come across as a bit unremarkable for bits of part one. I am pleased to say that although she is hard to pin down character wise at times, there is a lot going on with her and there is much to enjoy from the character throughout. Jane Slavin handles the character well and puts in a great performance given the different things she was required to do.

 

K-9 features heavily in this story and the back and forth with The Doctor is as comedic as ever. At times it can feel like K-9 is used as a bit of an easy “out” to certain situations and I found it to be a bit grating in a few places. The main highlight of the supporting cast is Ronan Vibert as “Zaal” who gives a wonderful performance, whether it be confident, duplicitous, smooth, schemer, manipulator or crazed despot. This is one of the best villains Big Finish has thrown up in a little while and I’m hoping we haven't seen the last of him.

 

There isn’t much to dislike here, the only things I found I didn’t enjoy or out right annoyed me can be boiled down into several things. I really didn’t like the voice acting for the character of “Drarn”, as it is such an over the top performance. It reminded me very much of Alex Maqueen’s Master, which for him works well given the character but here it feels a little out of place. Secondly, I thought was a bit needless that this is a two part story that is then further broken down into four episodes. This means halfway through each part, we get a mini cliffhanger, then the outro music followed immediately by the intro music which just feels jarring, needless and interrupts the flow of the piece. 

 

In my opinion, if you are a fan of the Fourth Doctor and / or “The Daleks’ Master Plan” then you are not going to want to miss this. Even if you have never seen that or have never dived into the Fourth Doctor’s Big Finish run you will still find this an enjoyable story. If you want my advice on the best way to get the most out of this - listen to 8.1 through 8.7, then “The Daleks’ Master Plan” finally finishing up with “The Perfect Prisoners”, you will not regret it!
 


+ The Perfect Prisoners - Part 1 & Part 2 are OUT NOW, priced £8.99 (Download) each.

+ ORDER these titles at Big Finish!


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