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Roderick Donald

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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8 February 2021

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By:Roland Moore

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2021

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Sometimes the TARDIS takes the Doctor to where he needs to go...

Answering a distress call from the out-world of Triketha, the Doctor and Constance Clarke discover human colonists battling against an onslaught of giant, malevolent insects. The insects’ sting induces a coma, and it is only a matter of time before all the colonists succumb.

The Doctor is curious as to the origins of the insects, which appeared from nowhere, and offers his assistance to the colony’s governor. But is this the Doctor’s first visit to Triketha, or has he been here before? The Doctor must confront a past that he has no memory of and take responsibility for the consequences of his actions."

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

In the interviews for Colony of Fear, it's mentioned that the gestation period for it has been around two years and that Roland Moore's script has taken many twists and many turns along the way. This utterly blindsided me as I had come away from the play feeling it had been rushed into production and needed at least a couple more passes by a script editor.

Yes, sadly all good things must come to an end and so the run of very good Main Range plays stutters to a halt. On paper, it sounds okay: parasitic mind wasps vs. the Sixth Doctor on a jungle planet, trying to defend a colony when a face from his past turns up. In practice, it's lacklustre at best.

You can see this in the characters, who act in a way that serve plot beats but little else. Why else would Tarlos not immediately reveal all to the Doctor once it's clear the Doctor can't remember? Because it's needed for a cliffhanger and then needed to pad out the following episode. Why does the Doctor dismiss the idea of saving the colony so quickly? Because we're near the end of the play. Why does Edwin stop distrusting the Doctor so quickly at the start of Part Four? Because it's the start of Part Four and we need that conflict resolved. And so on.

It's not subtle and it's not especially well done. It feels like it could go all-in on a b-movie vibe: we're one step away from someone crying, "But the wasps, man! The wasps!" It holds back though, and that's to its real disadvantage. Perhaps it should have gone for straight pastiche instead of po-faced cliché? Perhaps that would have helped.

The most notable part of the story comes with the aforementioned Tarlos, a companion of the Second Doctor who was accidentally returned home years before he left and has had to hide out and bide his time: and the Doctor can remember nothing about him, because the Time Lords have wiped his memory.

The play desperately wants you to care why, even introducing a could-be-a-new-companion in the form of Solana to have the Doctor not take aboard as a result of the consequences of taking Tarlos (broken families, broken promises). The trouble is, I didn't care at all. Tarlos just isn't a very interesting or engaging character. He's a vaguely intriguing plot point but not one as exciting as the script wants you to think he is. Perhaps they were angling for a return visit, or a spin-off box set? He warrants neither.

Just as the script overstated his intrigue, so do many of the plot twists overstate their surprise. The shock reveal of what occurs when people go into comas isn't a shock reveal. The surprise of what Edwin sees on his video is not a surprise. This is how things play out from start to finish, and it makes for a dud.

There is a half-decent idea and premise in here with Tarlos but two years' work has not created a half-decent play. Instead, it makes for a slog and the biggest twist and shock was how long it took to arrive at this destination. A shame.


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


27 January 2021

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Lizbeth Myles

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Something haunts the peak of Ben MacDui.

Something with heavy footsteps, striking terror in the hearts of those who sense it. With climbers going missing, retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart visits Scotland to investigate.

But when some old friends join his ascent, he worries that they will make things even more dangerous. As the snows blow in, and mists surround them, the Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier will face the Grey Man of the Mountain..."

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

I’ve commented recently that right at the very end of the line the monthly range of Doctor Who plays from Big Finish has kicked up a gear. That continues here with The Grey Man of the Mountain.

I listened to this on a cold day in Edinburgh, snow melting into slush and dangerous ice forming on the pavements, and it couldn’t have been more apt. Lizbeth Myles’s story is set in Scotland where something seems to be stalking those who wish to climb Ben Macdui, Scotland’s second highest mountain. Doctor Who has of course dipped into folklore horror before to good effect, and it’s pulled off again here to similar results.

The first thing to highlight with it all is how good Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred are in this one. It’s their most screen-accurate portrayal in a long time.  Maybe it’s because of the presence of the Brigadier in there, adding to a vague air of ‘authenticity’? I couldn’t say.  All I know is that both of them are channeling the same energy they had back in Season 26 throughout and it works wonders. Speaking of the Brigadier, Jon Culshaw is on duty here and I’d say it’s his strongest performance in the role yet. Culshaw is at his best when doing a proper performance and giving an air of Nicholas Courtney’s original, rather than trying to be slavishly accurate, as I feel is sometimes the case in the Third Doctor range. Here though he’s on fire and his warmth for the role, McCoy and Courtney really comes across. Lucy Goldie as Kirsty is likewise very good and puts in a memorable performance with spark and vibrancy.

Myle’s script is worth celebrating, too. I genuinely laughed aloud at the wink about ‘Science leads’, and the reference to Battlefield’s slightly obscure timeframe is fun as well, both good examples of continuity points that aren’t exclusive to fans and don’t swamp proceedings: other writers please take note. Myles has delivered good things before, with Distant Voices for The Twelfth Doctor Chronicles being perhaps my favourite of her audio work, and I dearly hope she does more for Big Finish.  She has a distinctive narrative voice and this script in particular feels well-researched and fresh. The final episode perhaps isn’t quite as strong as the others, but in any tale with a mystery the revelation is often a bit less impressive than the smoke and mirrors leading up to it, so I wouldn’t mark it down for that and it makes good use of the Brigadier and the Doctor’s relationship with and perception of the character. Likewise, if Thaddeus and Niamh feel familiar in terms of their character and story path, it doesn’t matter so much as the script serves them well and the actors likewise.

It’s Kirsty and Ace who really stand out though. Myles has given us one of the most believable relationships between companion and guest star for a while now.  It feels utterly authentic to Ace’s character, especially the ending between them, and makes for one of the most memorable and true pieces of writing we’ve had for ages.

Less successful perhaps is in some of the production. The music and sound design are both very good, atmospheric and enveloping respectively, but this is definitely a play where the remote recording set-up is more notable than elsewhere thanks to telltale pauses that linger just that fraction of a second too long between sentences in an exchange of dialogue. This is especially the case early on with Ace and Kirsty, which is a real pity. I wish a slight tightening in the edit had happened to make it flow a bit better, because once you notice those fleeting fractions, it’s a wee bit hard to un-notice them.

Try to though, because it’s not the fault of the script. This is a good one, make no mistake. I hope Myles returns to the Big Finish fold before too long as it’s authors like her that make misfires elsewhere feel like softer blows.


+ The Grey Man Of The Mountain is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


11 January 2021

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Chris Chapman

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"It's 1793 and the Reign of Terror is slicing through the elite of Paris - but not if the Scarlet Pimpernel has anything to do with it! With a very British pluck, and daring bravado, he rescues French aristocrats from Madame Guillotine's embrace. But who hides beneath the Pimpernel’s mask? And isn’t the Scarlet Pimpernel just a fictional character?

At Highmoor House, in England, Peri plays lady of the manor while the Doctor tends to the strange wounds of her ‘husband’, Sir Percy Blakeney. As Peri prepares to host a lavish ball in Sir Percy’s name, French agent Citizen Donat, and a sinister alien force are uninvited guests, both intent on unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel and putting an end to his heroic escapades, forever!"

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

Big Finish’s schedule in 2020 has very much been dictated by what actors have been available and able to record from home, and what has been waiting in the wings. Trilogies were discarded, a deluge of middling-to-poor Tenth Doctor plays were released, and certain writers must surely have sore wrists from all the scripts they’ve been typing. I think the shake-up of the trilogy formula has worked in the monthly range’s favour, and the technical prowess to pull off the remote-recorded plays is nothing short of brilliant. Whatever my feelings on some of the quality of the releases, I will never fault Big Finish’s gritted teeth and determination.

December gives us two releases recorded remotely according to Big Finish’s website, the first of these being Plight of the Pimpernel by Chris Chapman. Set during the Reign of Terror, the Doctor and Peri go undercover and try to work out how the Pimpernel, a fictional character, appears to be all too real and present, and just what gave Sir Percy Blakeney his nasty wound, because it looks like nothing of this Earth.

First things first: Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker are on top form in this play, and the cliffhanger to Part Three is one of the best his Doctor has had for years now. Long-time readers of my reviews for this website (if there are any long-time readers of my reviews) will know that I’ve enjoyed Chapman’s scripts but have often felt they are one draft or script-edit away from being as good as they could be, but I couldn’t lobby that criticism here for the most part.  This is a finely-tuned and fun script which is bolstered by the leading actors really gunning for it, not to mention Jamie Parker and Anthony Howell giving great supporting performances as Sir Percy and Citizen Donat respectively.

The play is nearly let down by the wide array of very bad French accents throughout the play, which may be supposed to be poor at times but just wind up being huge distractions. There are a couple of slightly fudged scenes along the way as well, such as the Doctor and Peri having a long conversation about things they themselves already know just so we the audience can get up to date, and Peri trying to be the Pimpernel and save someone’s life, only the rescued civilian is then killed… and never mentioned again! These are two blips in an otherwise very tight script, easily Chapman’s best.

Where it really succeeds, beyond the central mystery of who, or why, the Pimpernel is being quite a good one, is in how Chapman writes the Sixth Doctor. He, this most literary of Doctors, desperately wants to be the Pimpernel and buys into the strangeness around him, so much so that he turns a blind eye to the niggling issues around it all and the fact that deep down he knows something bad is afoot. It’s a really believable portrayal of this incarnation, showing how well Chapman knows him and enjoys writing for him, and it’s readily apparent in Baker’s acting that he appreciates this, too.

Sometimes, I find that I enjoy a release from Big Finish but cannot recall much about it weeks down the line. This won’t be the case here I am sure as it hasn’t been the case with any of Chapman’s stories.  Years on in some instances, I can still recall performances or beats or plot points, a sure sign that he is doing something very right, even if I’m not always entirely won over by the overall results.  Here with Plight of the Pimpernel we have a play worth remembering and we continue our run of strong monthly plays near the end of the monthly releases as we know them. Viva la Big Finish Revolution!


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


30 November 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Lizzie Hopley, John Dorney, Roland Moore & Jonathan Barnes

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


"Something is very wrong. The Fifth Doctor is lost in the Time War, heading for an encounter with his oldest and deadliest enemies... the Daleks!"

Echo Chamber by Jonathan Barnes

"It’s the radio talk show where everyone’s free to call in with their opinions. Time to welcome its host – the Doctor!"

Towards Zero by Roland Moore

"The Doctor finds himself in an old country house where he has to solve a very unusual murder – his own!"

Castle Hydra by Lizzie Hopley

"Nearing the end of his journey, the Doctor enters a jail filled with familiar faces. But who are the prisoners and who are the wardens?"

Effect and Cause by John Dorney

"A crash in the vortex leads the Doctor to the source of all his troubles, and to the Daleks. The answers are here. If he can live long enough to find them."

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

After the first part of the Shadow of the Daleks anthology wowed me, I was eager for the second half. Would it hold up: could it hold up? For the most part, the answer is yes. Overall, this is another strong release in a range that has been desperate for one for a long time now.

We start with Echo Chamber by Jonathan Barnes, which is a lot of fun. Big Finish have leaned into commentary on the downsides of social media and whipped-up public hate lately, notably in the sorely underrated and sharp Like by Jacqueline Rayner, and now again here. The Doctor finds himself unexpectedly hosting a radio show where he is encouraged to fuel people’s anger and polemic views, a scenario entirely unsuited to the Fifth Doctor and therefore all the more amusing and uncomfortable: long silences feel like they last forever and the exasperation of the staff is tangible. It’s a good opener and Barnes is clearly having fun taking his swipes as this sort of manufactured outrage.

This is followed by Towards Zero by Roland Moore, the sort of story you can only really tell with a formula like Doctor Who’s, in which the Doctor finds himself trying to solve his own death. It’s a fun premise bolstered by the ensemble cast once again showing their versatility and willingness to really get stuck into the humour and horror of these scripts. It doesn’t feel right to single any of the cast out really as everyone across this set puts in a tremendous performance, but I’d be lying if I said that Dervla Kirwan and Anjli Mohindra weren’t the ones who were still in my mind days later.

Castle Hydra by Lizzie Hopley is next and shows how the single-episode running time can work to a story’s advantage. The Doctor finds himself in a suspicious prison where there is far more to the prisoners than meets the eye, and it’s not just one set of familiar faces which greets him. This is a story with a fairly simple premise, and a faintly familiar one, but at half an hour it doesn’t outstay its welcome as would be the case otherwise. Again, the performances are tight and the writing likewise, Hopley elevating what could be fairly run-of-the-mill characters to higher plains.  It’s the first play to really go hard on the ‘everybody looks and sounds the same’ angle and it deals with it well, leading into the finale without sounding forced.

Speaking of, we wrap things up with John Dorney’s Effect and Cause. It was always going to be tricky to end this run, as what would usually be the two main hooks (the Time War/Daleks and the fact the Doctor keeps meeting the same people time and again) have in fact been background noise for the most part, much to the anthology’s advantage. The fact they’re in focus here makes this the least exciting episode in the run for me, though I suppose it was inevitable.

Really though, what gets me most about using the Time War is that it was completely unnecessary. You could have the Daleks menacing the Time Lords without it being anything to do with the Time War; it’s not like they don’t have previous in everything from Resurrection of the Daleks to The Apocalypse Element. Worse, by making the Fifth Doctor even vaguely aware of the Time War, it makes his (canonical) lack of further investigation into it all the stranger: this is the Doctor who remarked that curiosity had always been his downfall after all.

It’s a habit Big Finish fall into all too often: see also Missy all but being told her entire redemption arc in The Lumiat but ignoring it for the sake of continuity. It’s meant to be a wink to the audience, but it just makes the characters look dumb and when you’re robbing your central characters of intelligence and initiative, albeit retroactively, you have a problem.

So, a poor ending but not enough to drag things down elsewhere. You can see the strain around the edges sometimes in Shadow of the Daleks 2 (having a story set in a radio studio with accompanying studio-bound microphone effects followed by one supposedly set outside but with the same sound levels betrays the recorded-at-home nature of things all too readily) but what they’ve achieved overall is nothing short of impressive and worthy of praise and the ensemble cast have been universally excellent.

The end is here for the main range as we know it, the final curtain dropping, but for two months running, they’ve shown that there is life in the old dog yet.


+ Shadow Of The Daleks 2 is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


29 October 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: James Kettle, Jonathan Morris, Simon Guerrier & Dan Starkey

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: October 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


Something is very wrong. The Fifth Doctor is lost in the Time War, heading for an encounter with his oldest and deadliest enemies... the Daleks!

Aimed at the Body by James Kettle

"An encounter with a notorious cricketing legend should be right up the Doctor’s street. But the unexpected appearance of an old enemy is about to send the Doctor on a quest."

Lightspeed by Jonathan Morris

"The trail has led the Doctor to a spaceship in the far future - where he finds himself trapped in the middle of a terrifying revenge plot."

The Bookshop at the End of the World by Simon Guerrier

"It’s very easy to forget yourself and get lost in a bookshop. But in some bookshops more than most..."

Interlude by Dan Starkey

"The play’s the thing! Or is it? The Doctor is roped into a theatrical spectacular - but who is he really performing to?"

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

I’m going to level with you: when I first heard the idea behind this story, I groaned a little. “Classic Doctor + the Time War” sounded like the same tired sandbox thinking that has plagued Doctor Who for a long time now on audio, in print, in comics, and thanks to the Series 12 finale, on screen as well. There was a time when a surprise Kroton in a book or a shock Nimon in a play really were surprising and shocking, whereas nowadays it feels all-too-predictable and, bizarrely, dull: less really is more.

How pleased I was, then, when Shadow of the Daleks 1 turned out to be the best Main Range play Big Finish has released for years now.

It starts off on an odd note, mind. Aimed at the Body was released as a freebie to entice listeners in, but I’m not sure half an hour of walking and vague talk about cricketing etiquette was the best way to go. It’s by no means a bad episode, and author James Kettle has proven himself tenfold with the phenomenal Barrister to the Stars earlier this year in the seventh series of The Diary of River Song, but really not all that much happens. It sets up a few threads for later on and all of the cast are great (more on them later) but it’s a bit of a strange opener.

Things really step up a gear with Lightspeed by Jonathan Morris, which combines intrigue, humour and thrills with a practised ease. A hijacked ship, a countdown, and a cheeky but intelligent conclusion? Count me in. It’s here that you really notice just how brilliant the cast are, too. I want to draw special attention to Dervia Kirwan (who was also exceptional in the recent Class box sets, both of which are well worth your time: more Blair Mowat scripts please?) and Anjli Mohindra, who is continually proving herself to be a versatile actor deserving of great acclaim. But it feels remiss of me to then not note how good Glen McCready and Jamie Parker are, too, not to mention Peter Davison and Nicholas Briggs. Everyone is at the very top of their game here.

This is evident in Simon Guerrier’s The Bookshop at the End of the World. It leans heavily on the amnesia gimmick (which is such a Doctor Who cliché now that when the recent Eighth Doctor Time War series used it twice across its four box sets, I hardly batted an eyelid) but uses poetry, effective performances, atmospheric sound design and well-paced writing to generate tension and heartache that has stayed with me in the days since I listened to it. Would that all stories were this good.  Would that all bookshops were this cosy, too.

We wrap things up with Interlude, Dan Starkey’s best script yet. Much like Mohindra, Starkey has proven himself to be a real gem who is flourishing under Big Finish’s eye (not that either of them wilted on screen). The play-within-a-play trope may be familiar but again, the script gets around this by letting the actors have a lot of fun, with some genuinely clever twists in there and winning performances by everyone.

I finished this release excited for what comes next, and that has not happened for a long, long time. The trailer for the next release is sadly the usual mix of noise and unrelated scenes which Big Finish often put out (do they really entice anyone?) but the promise shown here in this release has whet my appetite.

What an impressive finished result this is. Shadow of the Daleks 1 is a fantastic showcase for Big Finish in Lockdown. A limited cast used in an inventive way, solid sound design, and lots of proper, weighty drama. Sure, you can nitpick if you like: Mohindra’s microphone isn’t quite as good as everyone else’s, and there is a line in Aimed at the Body where the Doctor remarks upon the design of the Daleks which sticks out like a sore thumb. Is it just very bad sound mixing to make that line scream out at you as being dropped in later, or perhaps it’s that the Time War angle was only hit upon later on? Hard to tell. These are small niggles though.

Speaking of smalls things, let’s quickly mention the Daleks. Though present, they hardly feature: shadows indeed and all the better for it. The Time War does not really rear its head either, and again this is to the story’s success.  Perhaps it’ll fall apart a little and fully dive into this in the second half, but I hope not, or if it does embrace this angle, I hope it doesn’t falter. Prove me wrong again, just as you’ve proven me wrong here.

Honestly, this is the most energised I’ve been with a release for ages now. How wonderful to have this treat, just as the range nears its end. I cannot recommend it enough.


+ Shadow Of The Daleks 1 is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


28 October 2020

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Gemma Arrowsmith & Katharine Armitage

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: September 2020

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


The Flying Dutchman by Gemma Arrowsmith

"The Doctor, Ace and Hex find themselves on a seemingly deserted boat in the middle of the ocean. Eventually locating the crew, they discover that the men have been in hiding to avoid the attack of the legendary ghost ship The Flying Dutchman that they’ve recently glimpsed approaching through the fog. But ghosts don’t exist. Do they?"

Displaced by Katharine Armitage

"The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive inside a mystery. An ordinary house where something extraordinary is happening. There are no occupants, the doors are sealed, and someone - or something - is attempting to communicate. And when the TARDIS locks them out, Ace and Hex suspect the Doctor of his usual tricks.

But the truth is even more disturbing..."

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

Perhaps more than anything else, this sudden showing of shorter plays (one 4x4 release and four two-parters in a row, with another two 4x4 releases up next) shows off the schedule disruption which Big Finish have endured thanks to Coronavirus. It's an unexpected upheaval just before the main range is completely changed, but not necessarily a bad one as these shorter, punchier plays sometimes yield good results. What about here though? 

The Flying Dutchman
By Gemma Arrowsmith

We kick things off with The Flying Dutchman, the main range debut for Gemma Arrowsmith whose play for The Paternoster Gang, Spring-Heeled Jack, impressed me. The Doctor, Ace and Hex land on a seemingly abandoned ship but soon discover its crew in hiding, avoiding a ghostly apparition: the Flying Dutchman has been sighted and no-one is safe… or are they?

First up, the regular cast. There's a lovely bit near the start where the Doctor is guessing the century they are in. Hex points out that he only knows because the date is printed elsewhere and the Doctor shuffles off, a bit embarrassed, as Ace tells Hex not to be a killjoy and that the Doctor just enjoys showing off. It's a really nice piece of character work that showcases the regulars well, with McCoy in particular being in good form.

Philip Olivier notes in the extras that Hex doesn't do all that much in this play, and that's certainly true. He's made out to be seasick and you don't get too much else from him, though Olivier puts in a game performance as ever.

This play is really Ace's, with her forming a bond with a cabin boy with a secret (a secret you'll guess fairly quickly, to be honest). It's here that things fall apart though, as you soon discover that this is less an episode of Doctor Who and more an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with sailors doing their best "Arrrrgh me hearties!", ghosts that are just men with special powder on them, and some extremely simplistic "girls are great!" vibes: a very good message to be made, but made here with little subtlety, if any.

It's all a bit too twee in the end. By the time we had Archie able to hold their own in a sword fight against old sailors despite only being taught swordfighting a few minutes ago, I think I'd given up looking for depth.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind. Who is good at dipping into different genres and styles, and if young children's comic book yarn is what was sought, this definitely ticks some of those boxes. I did rather like Ace and Hex desperately looking for an alien or ghostly cause of everything occurring, as if they were aware they're not in a usual Doctor Who adventure and they're trying to rationalise things. Ace seemingly knowing what the Flying Dutchman is one moment and not in the next just to let the Doctor explain it to the audience however smacks of sloppiness.

This is a hard one to grade. On the one hand, it does what it sets out to do very well, so it's unfair really to criticise it for that. On the other, I think its goal has been achieved better elsewhere at times. If you like the simple approach, add another number to the score below. If you don't, then there is at least Sylvester McCoy on top form, rather nice cover art for the release, and the sense that the guest cast, especially Nigel Fairs, are having a lot of fun.

Displaced
By Katharine Armitage

The second and final play here marks the Big Finish debut of Katharine Armitage. On the evidence here, she will surely be back before too long.

The Doctor, Ace and Hex land in an abandoned house which seems to be trapping its occupants inside. With only an automated home help along the lines of Siri and Alexa to aid them, they most solve the mystery of what happened to the family here: something alien? Something human? A bit of both?

Armitage has a really good grasp on all the regulars, writing Hex especially well and using his background as a nurse from 2020, and his relationship with Ace, to full effect, even if a bit with a badge near the start smells strongly of "this will be a plot point in the future", which it is.

Ace and Hex are both a bit fed up with the Doctor and challenge him, something the extras tries to paint as unusual but which feels pretty par for the course nowadays from Big Finish and Who in general. However, it works well here and is used for genuinely sound plot reasons instead of feeling like the done thing. There is a sense of true, solid character and plot work here that sometimes rings hollow elsewhere. Or to put it more simply, Armitage is a better writer than some in the Doctor Who fold.

The ending is grounded and somewhere between downbeat and refreshingly true. I felt perhaps the exposition made it falter a little and run out of steam, but I'd take that over something rushed or out of the blue. The Doctor awkwardly trying to convey how much he values his companions is rather sweet, as is the awkwardness of Hex and Ace avoiding their feelings for one another.

Displaced may not be perfect but it's a cut above a lot of Big Finish’s latter day output and I'm hoping Armitage comes back before too long. Until then, this play is well worth your time.


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

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!


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).

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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).

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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).

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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!


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