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2.4 – The Isos Network – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 11 February 2016 7:26 pm

THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE ISOS NETWORK

The second series of Early Adventures wraps up with “The Isos Network” from Nicholas Briggs, a direct sequel to “The Invasion” that captures absolutely none of what made the TV story so good. As with so many other stories of similar vintage, there isn’t anything particularly terrible about “The Isos Network,” but “boring and uninspiring” sums it up quite well.

I’m still unsure of the purpose of the Early Adventures. Cynically, I understand that they serve as an excuse to slap the faces of Hartnell and Troughton on CD covers to sell more copies, but creatively I’m not sure. The Companion Chronicles were also an excuse to tell stories featuring unavailable Doctors, but those rapidly became a strong creative exercise, with many releases taking full advantage of the narrative format to tell imaginative, ambitious stories. With the Early Adventures returning to a conventional narrative style, the ambition seems to be absent as well (unless they’re written by Simon Guerrier). I’m not sure how sales are going, but I’m shocked that they haven’t yet announced a year-round monthly release schedule for these; why grind out four stories a year when you could be grinding out twelve?

I suppose I should discuss the story, but you know what I’m going to say. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe travel to a planet that served as the staging area for the Invasion from the season 6 story. Thousands of Cyber-conversion chambers standing empty, their occupants long since destroyed in the failed Earth campaign. This is a cool image, but what opportunities does it afford for storytelling? Perhaps a character piece, with the Doctor and his companions dealing with the fallout from their recent adventure? How about an exploration of a society rebuilding its tattered remains after the Cybermen departed? But no, Briggs takes the most obvious route: there are still some Cybermen left over that must be defeated. There’s a hard-bitten group of soldiers, there’s a doomsday device that threatens to destroy everything, and the Doctor and companions run around for 2 hours foiling the evil Cyber-plot. Oh, and they ride on giant slugs for a while. And there’s a partially converted person struggling to maintain his identity in the face of Cyber-control.

Wait a minute, doesn’t this sound familiar? Didn’t we just do this in Briggs’ “Return to Telos?” (Or Alan Barnes’ “Last of the Cybermen?”) Well, yes. It’s bad enough that Big Finish is turning into a generic Doctor Who assembly line, but releasing the same story from the same author twice in under a year is really pushing things beyond the bounds of reason. Oh, but that was in the Fourth Doctor Adventures and this is in the Early Adventures, so that makes everything okay, or something. At least in that story you had Tom Baker in the lead role; here you’ve got Frazer Hines and his one-note Troughton impression leading yet again to long scenes of Hines talking to himself. It’s the same complaint as usual: the impression, while very effective with limited deployment in the Companion Chronicles, isn’t convincing enough to support a central character over a two-hour story, and it distracts from the story rather than enhancing it.

The narrative, incidentally, is clunky and obvious, but then that’s no surprise because Briggs is not a capable prose author (see also “The Dalek Generation”). Briggs directs, and it’s fine, though it doesn’t help the snail’s (slug’s?) pace of the story. The sound design from Toby Hrycek-Robinson is good, if unremarkable. But I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to take away from this. If I’m supposed to be inspired, the story failed. If I’m supposed to enjoy myself, the story failed. If I’m supposed to think “Yep, that was certainly a four-part Doctor Who story!” then I guess the story succeeded, but that’s not exactly an inspiring goal.

Snore.

4/10

213 – The Two Masters

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:12 am

The Doctor is drawn into a desperate battle with his arch-enemy – squared!

212 – Vampire of the Mind

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:12 am

The Doctor suspects the hand of his oldest enemy behind a spate of mysterious disappearances… but will he even recognise the ‘new’ Master, when he arrives at the scene of one of their earlier encounters?

211 – And You Will Obey Me

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:12 am

The Master: wanted for crimes without number, across five galaxies.

The Master: escaped his pursuers. Last known location: rural Hexford, England, Earth.

The Master: dead and buried in an unmourned grave, in a lonely churchyard.

Apparently.

210 – The Peterloo Massacre

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:11 am

“They say there’ll be thousands pouring into Manchester tomorrow. From all over the county, north and south. It’ll be a piece of history. People will remember this!”

Lost in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, the TARDIS crashes four miles south of Manchester, in the grounds of Hurley Hall – a grand mansion belonging to a local factory owner, a proudly self-made man. But while Hurley dreams of growing richer still on the wealth of secret knowledge locked up in the Doctor’s time and space machine, his servants hope only for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. His young maid Cathy, for instance, whom Nyssa learns is looking forward to joining the working people’s march to St Peter’s Field, in the heart of the city. There’ll be speeches and banners and music. It’ll be like one big jamboree…

Or so she thinks. For the city’s establishment have called in their own private militia, to control the crowd. One of the darkest days in Manchester’s history is about to unfold – and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are right in the thick of it.

209 – Aquitaine

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:10 am

Today should be much like every other day for Hargreaves, the computer consciousness that co-ordinates daily life aboard the spaceship Aquitaine, stationed on the outer fringes of a black hole. Water the plants, run the diagnostics, cook the Captain’s breakfast; then tidy the plates away, rotate the ship, clean the windows of the observation deck. When at last the day’s work is done, Hargreaves will dim the lights in the sleeping quarters. But no-one will sleep aboard the Aquitaine tonight. Because the Aquitaine’s crew is missing.

But today will be different. Today, a space/time ship called the TARDIS will materialise in the botanical section, bringing the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan aboard the Aquitaine. Together, they’ll seek to discover the truth of what happened to Hargreaves’ crew…

… if only the ghosts will let them.

5.08 – Casualties of Time

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:07 am

Synopsis TBA

5.07 – The Pursuit of History

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:07 am

Synopsis TBA

5.06 – The Trouble with Drax

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:06 am

Altrazar. The temporal Atlantis, a place lost to time. Believed by many to be a myth, it has long been the perfect location for the rich and powerful to hide away their most dangerous secrets.

Until now.

Because the somewhat crooked, not exactly honest, wheeler-dealer cockney Time Lord known as Drax has found a map that leads to its location. And, at the behest of a manipulative businessman, he’s going to use it.

When the TARDIS is dragged out of the space-time vortex, the TARDIS crew aren’t best pleased to see the Doctor’s old school friend, even less when he pressgangs them into joining a raid on the most secure safe-house in history. However with Romana and K9 held hostage, the Doctor has little choice but to agree. With Drax in tow, he heads for the planet.

Which is where the trouble starts.

5.05 – Gallery of Ghouls

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:05 am

The Randomiser brings the travellers to the future site of Brighton Pavilion, where a travelling waxworks has set up a show. But what horrors does Madame Tissot’s Exposition hold? And what does it have to do with Marie Antoinette?

5.04 – Legacy of Death

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:05 am

The Doctor, Romana and K9 have found themselves trapped in a temporal war. On Aoris, the past battles the future – and the future fights back!

With both sides of the war now capable of time travel, the conflict is about to enter a deadly stage. As the pieces of history lock into place, there is little the Doctor can do.

With more Time Tanks moving into combat, the endgame is approaching. The people of Aoris risk extinction at their own hand.

Can even the Doctor save the same planet twice in the same day?

5.03 – The Paradox Planet

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:04 am

Whilst travelling in the vortex, the TARDIS is struck by an advanced war machine – a Time Tank! Losing Romana, the Doctor and K9 pursue the Tank to Aoris, a world quite literally at war with itself.

Soldiers from the future are attacking the past of their own planet – gathering resources and stealing endangered species. But the past is not without weapons of its own – leaving deadly devices ready to trigger many years ahead after their enemies have been born.

Trapped at opposite ends of a temporal war, the Time Lords have two time zones to save. But who is in the right, and who in the wrong? And when history itself is against you, can anybody actually win?

5.02 – The Labyrinth of Buda Castle

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:04 am

The Doctor and Romana land in Budapest, intent on enjoying another holiday, but shortly after landing they find themselves too late to save the life of a man who has seemingly been attacked by a vampire. As they learn that this is the latest in a series of violent attacks, it becomes clear that they have stumbled onto something that needs investigating.

Aided by a vampire hunter who is searching for Dracula, they look into the nearby Buda caves, currently being used for storage by the military – and find that the soldiers have problems of their own.

Stalked through the tunnels by a monster, and up against an ancient evil, the race is on to escape alive – and foil the dastardly schemes of the maniacal Zoltan Frid.

5.01 – Wave of Destruction

Posted by Styre | 4th Doctor Adventures | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:03 am

A modulated frequency wave cancellation signal isn’t something that the Doctor and Romana expect to detect in 1960s London. But then they don’t expect to find Professor Lanchester, the man who invented it, lying unconscious. Or MI5 investigating.

With the help of MI5 Agent Miller, Lanchester’s daughter Jill, and his nephew a pirate radio DJ called Mark, the Doctor, Romana and K-9 investigate. They soon discover that there is more at risk than they imagined, and an alien invasion is about to begin.

Can the Doctor identify and defeat the aliens in time? Will Romana manage to find a recombinant transducer before it’s too late? And how will K-9 cope with his new job?

Review by Styre

5.1 – Wave of Destruction – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 3 February 2016 4:02 am

WAVE OF DESTRUCTION

The fourth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures was a bit better than its predecessors, but for the most part the range continues to plod along, uninterested in anything but the most basic appeals to fan nostalgia. For the fifth series, we head into season 17, famous for being script-edited by Douglas Adams, and we get Tom Baker and Lalla Ward paired up. It opens with “Wave of Destruction” by Justin Richards, and it’s… a plodding, uninteresting story. Imagine that.

It seems like a lot of Doctor Who fans think that the defining characteristic of season 17 was silliness, with Tom Baker wandering around mocking everything in front of him. While that certainly happened, the storytelling was quite ambitious, even if (in usual Doctor Who fashion) the production couldn’t carry it off. “Wave of Destruction” is not ambitious at all. It’s a very basic “return of the Vardans” story that does absolutely nothing new or inventive with anything. The Vardans plan to hijack a radio transmission to gain access to Earth; the Doctor and Romana execute a fairly straightforward plan and stop them. But this is set in the 1960s, so it’s a pirate radio station located offshore! Is anything interesting done with that idea? You know the answer. The Vardans want to conquer the Earth and enslave its people, ha-ha-ha, and Richards doesn’t even try to do something original with them. This would be, by far, the worst episode in season 17. Hell, even “The Horns of Nimon” had more going on than this, and nobody took that even a little bit seriously.

At least it’s funny. There’s a fun scene of Romana going shopping, and Lalla Ward’s exasperation is almost worth the price of admission, despite the predictable humor. There’s another good scene with Romana and K9 running the pirate radio station. Tom Baker clearly enjoys getting an endless supply of witty comebacks, and it’s great in general to hear him “together” with Ward. I don’t know if they ever shared a studio, but that’s the magic of audio if they didn’t. But even the humor lacks the breezy elegance of Adams’ scripts, and often comes across as a pale imitation. It’s admittedly unfair to hold these stories up to the standards of one of the best writers of his generation, but if that’s the feeling they’re trying to recapture, what else am I supposed to do?

Look, you know what this is: it’s a Fourth Doctor Adventure, so it’s a plodding, rote imitation of the Tom Baker era. It’s disappointing to hear something like this from Justin Richards, who’s usually good for some inspiring ideas, but here we are. Baker is good, Ward is good, John Leeson is there for a bit and he’s good as K9, and everyone else is entirely forgettable. It’s funny, so I suppose it’s recognizable as season 17, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Big Finish’s worst range rolls on.

4/10

208 – The Waters of Amsterdam

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Tuesday 2 February 2016 12:32 am

Reunited with the Doctor and Nyssa, Tegan joins them on a trip to Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum to see a new exhibition of the work of Rembrandt van Rijn, featuring his drawings of “Vessels of the Stars”. The Doctor is astonished to discover that they are designs for spaceships that would actually work, and decides to pop back to the Dutch Golden Age for a quiet word with Rembrandt – but the world-weary artist is no mood to help.

Meanwhile, strange forces are swirling in the canals, creatures from ancient myth, the watery, goblin-like Nix. What is their connection to the mysterious Countess Mach-Teldak – and to the events of Tegan’s life during her year away from the Doctor?

Review by Styre

208 – The Waters of Amsterdam – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Tuesday 2 February 2016 12:31 am

THE WATERS OF AMSTERDAM

With a new year comes a new trilogy, and with the protracted “older Nyssa” arc finally over, the monthly range moves to a different point in the fifth Doctor’s life. Jonathan Morris’s “The Waters of Amsterdam” picks up right where “Arc of Infinity” leaves off, with Tegan rejoining the TARDIS crew after helping defeat Omega. Surprisingly, it’s not a continuity-packed “extravaganza” but rather a smart, low-key character piece, and it’s all the better for it.

It’s annoyingly rare these days to say a monthly range release is actually about something, but “The Waters of Amsterdam” is very much a story about loss. Almost every major character in the story is dealing with a loss of some kind, and the different ways in which they cope drive the plot along. This is textbook character-driven storytelling: let the story develop according to the characters, not the other way around. So we start with Tegan and what she was doing during the time between “Time-Flight” and “Arc of Infinity,” and we discover that she lived a relatively normal life, jumping between jobs, dating, and all the rest. It’s mundane, but because we know Tegan so well, Morris makes it easy to relate to and sympathize with her struggles and successes. Her relationship with Kyle (Tim Delap) ends for very simple reasons: she needs someone to challenge her and he doesn’t do that. There’s no dramatic revelation of infidelity or anything like that, just – from Tegan’s perspective – an ordinary relationship ending for ordinary reasons. And so, when he turns back up, she has to struggle with the fact that she likes him but knows that they’re ultimately incompatible.

Of course, being that this is a Doctor Who story, Kyle conceals a great secret, one that explains his struggles in the relationship. And as he gains greater self-awareness and independence, he has to learn how to lose someone he cares about while still retaining the ability to find someone new. Again, there’s nothing earth-shattering here, but Morris writes with a very human, believable touch, something that is quite effective considering Kyle’s true identity. And then there’s Teldak (Elizabeth Morton), dealing with the loss of her entire planet. She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the opportunity to see her home one final time. Rembrandt (Richard James) is the historical celebrity for this story, and he, too, is dealing with the loss of his wife – and Nyssa knows all too well the struggle of losing loved ones, leading to a great moment between the two characters.

All of this makes “The Waters of Amsterdam” sound downbeat or even bleak, but it is none of those things. It’s a very easygoing story, with a refreshingly light sense of humor. Morris’s scripts often have a quick wit, and this one is no exception. The plot is strong, and never convoluted, and only seems to put a foot wrong near the end. It’s also a story that actually makes use of time travel as more than a plot device, with a similar exploration of the “alternate future” concept to that seen in “Pyramids of Mars.”

My biggest issue with the story is the decision to make Teldak a villainous character. This wasn’t necessary: she could have taken many of the same actions out of pure desperation to survive rather than a megalomaniacal desire to destroy her enemies, and in that scenario the Nix (Robbie Stevens) could have remained the sort-of-allies they became. But no, it’s more “I killed them all! Ha ha ha!” dialogue that cheapens an otherwise intelligent, delicate story.

The production is excellent. Jamie Anderson directs, helping to lend the story its unusual feel relative to much of the rest of the range. Martin Montague’s sound design is quite good, and I very much enjoyed Jamie Robertson’s score. Overall, “The Waters of Amsterdam” is a very strong story, one that isn’t afraid to let its characters drive events without relying upon hoary old science fiction clichés. If the monthly range would produce more stories like this, I’d be much more satisfied.

Highly recommended.

9/10

The Diary of River Song – Series 1 – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 27 January 2016 8:10 pm

THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG

THE BOUNDLESS SEA

Big Finish, never known for half measures, is jumping into the New Series pool with both feet. We’ve had UNIT, the War Doctor, Torchwood – and now “The Diary of River Song,” a four story set featuring the time-traveling archaeologist and spouse to everyone’s favorite Time Lord. The first story in the set, “The Boundless Sea” from Jenny T. Colgan, is an odd decision: it’s about the safest, most generic story imaginable and it almost completely fails to inspire.

River is weary of… something and so she decides to take some time off by working as a university archaeologist in early 20th century England. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the institutional sexism that she would have confronted in this job in the real world, but it’s so caricatured that it’s sometimes difficult to take seriously. I’m also unsure about the idea to have her so reluctant to get involved, as it doesn’t make the character sympathetic and requires a great deal of trust from the listener. Additionally, the story takes forever and a day to get going: the opening scenes in the university followed by the travel to the dig site are interminable, with very little of interest happening at any point.

And once she does arrive, she spends the majority of the remainder of the play locked in a room with two other characters. As the pilot episode for a series about a time-traveling adventuress with the universe at her fingertips, the scope is shockingly limited, presenting itself as little more than an utterly clichéd cursed-tomb story. There are some interesting character beats – the villain is a woman who was defined entirely by her marriage, and River can sympathize with that for obvious reasons. But the resolution is far too Doctor Who, in that River solves the problem exactly as you’d expect the Doctor to solve it – and in a story that makes the point that River is sometimes defined too much by her relationship with the Doctor, it’s an uneasy resolution.

While the script might be uneven, it’s at least thoughtful. The production, on the other hand, is uncharacteristically weak. Alex Kingston is largely excellent, but the other performances are overly mannered and affected for a story that otherwise isn’t attempting a pastiche. The conclusion is far too action-oriented for audio and features an unfortunate amount of characters yelling descriptive passages at each other. Ken Bentley-directed stories are usually much stronger than this. And while the sound design from Steve Foxon is quite solid, the theme music is not – it’s too long, it’s way over the top, and it doesn’t even sound convincingly orchestral. Overall, “The Boundless Sea” is a bizarrely weak way to launch a box set, with questionable decisions showing throughout the production. I said this about UNIT and I said it about the War Doctor and now I’ll say it again: if I had never heard of Doctor Who or River Song, I wouldn’t bother moving on to the second episode.

3/10

I WENT TO A MARVELLOUS PARTY

I know it’s a Noël Coward song, but there’s a party supply store where I live called “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” and so that’s all I think about when I see the title of Justin Richards’ “I Went to a Marvellous Party,” the second story in the Diary of River Song box set. This has absolutely nothing to do with the story, but as an anecdote it’s about as interesting – which is to say that there’s very little that stands out in yet another space murder mystery.

Look, I know what you get with Justin Richards scripts. They’re usually entertaining, with solid characterization and enough conceptual sci-fi to keep you reading or listening. He’s not one to push boundaries – and despite his extensive experience writing new series spinoffs, this is the second story in this set to feel more than a little like a classic Doctor Who story. It’s “The Robots of Death” or “Terror of the Vervoids,” basically, and though there’s a good twist in the murder plot, there’s very little here to surprise or capture your interest.

What I do like is River’s role in the resolution, specifically how she manipulates the various players, switching sides until she can engineer an ideal outcome. The character on television is devious as well as charming, always hiding a secondary motive underneath a disguised exterior, and that element of her character is on full display in this story. It’s just a shame that the plot to which she turns this devious nature is so simplistic – it doesn’t feel like a challenge, nor does it bear any significant weight. As I mentioned before, this is a great example of what Doctor Who would be like with a female Doctor – but this isn’t Doctor Who, this is River Song, and it should be more lively than this. I’m struggling to find more to say about this story; it’s thoroughly competent but utterly uninspired. Still, there’s improvement here from the first story in the set.

5/10

SIGNS

Now this is more like it. “Signs,” from James Goss, is the third story of the Diary of River Song set, and it finally tries to depart from the Doctor Who norm and tell a more unique story. It’s still flawed, but there’s actual interesting material here, leading to a much more successful outing.

So at the end of the previous story, someone (Samuel West) claiming to be the Doctor turns up, and he convinces River that he’s an incarnation she hasn’t yet encountered. Of course, the audience knows this isn’t true, because Big Finish isn’t going to start creating new Doctors, but River doesn’t, and the story is therefore about observing her reactions and how she figures out who he really is. Goss elects to do this in two-handed fashion: the story features only Alex Kingston and Samuel West and a lot of dialogue between the two. West’s “Doctor” is very convincing, and as such his interactions with River are largely delightful, as we see the deep affection she has for him. The two actors have great chemistry together as well.

The problem is that the story isn’t particularly gripping. There are great images, like the “Doctor” traveling in a large, empty spaceship, and the idea of the Spore Ships in general. But the “Doctor’s” scheme is vaguely presented, and the true villainy of his behavior – repeatedly cloning and killing River until he learns what he needs – is saved for a climactic plot twist instead of being worked into the story. I appreciated the twist, and I didn’t see it coming, but I wish we could have spent more time knowing so we could learn more about River through her reactions. I did like the death bed scenes, which let us see just how desperately River wants to survive. I also appreciated River’s actions at the very end – finally, something different from what the Doctor would do – but it felt like there could have been more to it than an action movie line.

I also wasn’t a fan of the two-hand structure. For the most part it works, but there are moments where Goss has River and her “husband” pleading with planetary governments – without hearing anything on the other side, it comes across as the sort of “Listen, all of you!” crowd scene that Big Finish has always been terrible at. On balance, though, I enjoyed “Signs” – it’s a flawed story but it has a great deal of ambition and makes me feel better about the set as a whole.

6/10

THE RULERS OF THE UNIVERSE

They definitely saved the best for last. “The Rulers of the Universe,” from Matt Fitton, closes the Diary of River Song set, and it’s easily the strongest story of the four – though I suspect that’s only because the Doctor is in it.

So you’ve got an entire box set of stories about River Song, and the two best stories by far involve first a fake Doctor and then an appearance by the real thing. As an attempt to feature a supporting character and define her as a person in her own right that doesn’t rely on the Doctor, this doesn’t really work. Suddenly much of the drama is about River trying to figure out a way to help the Doctor while he saves the day without revealing her identity – and yeah, Fitton writes it well, but we’re back to defining River in terms of the Doctor.

This does mean, though, that the Doctor (Paul McGann, in this case) gets some excellent material. The story is set in the early days of the Time War, presumably near the end of the eighth Doctor’s life, and the Doctor is dancing around the edges of the war and cleaning up collateral damage while refusing to get directly involved. The brief mentions here are much more effective than anything in the first War Doctor set – Fitton actually communicates the idea of a war with its tendrils in unexpected places and causing a number of unexpected consequences. And McGann plays the Doctor with more of an edge than usual – this is a man clearly losing patience with the war and his role in it.

To dodge any possible continuity problems, the Doctor and River only interact via communicator – but since this is an audio story, it’s basically like hearing them meet. Kingston and McGann have fun with the interaction, showing the Doctor’s puzzlement running headlong into River’s desire to look after him. It’s a shame they couldn’t do more with this, though I understand the difficulties in staying consistent with the TV series. I’m also pleased that Fitton doesn’t reduce River purely to a support role: before taking over communication with the Doctor, she puts an elaborate, time-travel-driven revenge scheme into action, thoroughly defeating the titular Rulers of the Universe. This was the first and only time in the entire set that I felt I was seeing the same River I’ve seen on television: intelligent, resourceful, and completely audacious. But even so, this is a relatively brief moment that feels as though it’s clearing the decks so the Doctor can solve the problem of the Spore Ships.

The whole set should have employed some of that bravado. River Song was a bomb dropped into the middle of Doctor Who; she shook up the status quo more than any one character in the series since its revival. But here we have, for the most part, straightforward science fiction tales. River doesn’t feel like the influential, magnetic character that changed Doctor Who. Instead, she feels like another random guest star – an interesting one played by a talented actor, of course, but little more than that. There has been a serious lack of ambition from Big Finish in all of their new series releases thus far; I’m starting to wonder if we’re ever going to see any.

Still, this was quite good.

8/10

Box set average: 5.5/10

The Diary of River Song – Series 1

Posted by Styre | River Song | Wednesday 27 January 2016 7:48 pm

1.1 The Boundless Sea by Jenny T Colgan

River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses.

But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River.

Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?

1.2 I Went to a Marvellous Party by Justin Richards

River Song always enjoys a good party, even when she’s not entirely sure where or when the party is taking place. But the party she ends up at is one where not everything – or indeed everyone – is what it seems…

Being River, it doesn’t take her too long to go exploring, and it doesn’t take her too long to get into trouble. The sort of trouble that involves manipulating other civilisations, exploitation, and of course murder.

River is confident she can find the killer. But can she identify them before anyone else – or quite possibly everyone else – gets killed?

1.3 Signs by James Goss

River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips.

Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch.

But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…

1.4 The Rulers of the Universe by Matt Fitton

As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all.

Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication.

The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives – intact…

Review by Styre

207 – You Are the Doctor and Other Stories

Posted by Styre | Doctor Who Monthly Series | Thursday 14 January 2016 9:15 pm

Four new stories starring the Seventh Doctor and Ace!

You Are the Doctor by John Dorney

YOU are the Doctor, a mysterious traveller in time and space. Will YOU succeed in foiling the ghastly plans of the horrible Porcians, the most inept invaders in all the cosmos? Or will you get yourself killed, over and over again?

Come Die With Me by Jamie Anderson

A spooky old house. A body in the library. A killer on the loose. The Doctor accepts the challenge laid down by the sinister Mr Norris: to solve a murder mystery that’s defeated 1,868 of the greatest intellects in the universe… and counting.

The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel by Christopher Cooper

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Ace to the most opulent casino hotel in the cosmos – a haunt of the rich, the famous and the unutterably corrupt. There’s a robbery in progress – but is the Doctor really in on the plan?

Dead to the World by Matthew Elliott

Tourist spaceship the Daedalus hangs suspended in space, all but three of its passengers having fallen victim to a bizarre infection. But if the Doctor saves those last survivors, he risks destroying the entire human race.

Review by Styre

207 – You Are the Doctor and Other Stories – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 14 January 2016 9:12 pm

YOU ARE THE DOCTOR AND OTHER STORIES

YOU ARE THE DOCTOR

It’s not particularly well known, but Doctor Who has a long history of “Find Your Fate” / “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and John Dorney embraces that history with “You Are the Doctor,” the first story in the 2015 anthology release. It actually makes a great deal of sense: just number the individual tracks and then have in-story cues about which track comes next. And there are certainly consequences: pick the wrong track and the Doctor and Ace die horribly; pick the right one and another deadly choice is soon to arrive. But as you listen, you notice the choices becoming more and more perfunctory, along with the reactions of the Porcians to those choices. That’s when you realize that Dorney has made the format a functional part of the story, and that the story works even if you just listen to the tracks in order. This doesn’t completely work – the silly tone makes it very difficult to take at all seriously, for example – but it’s a fun way to play with the audio format and a very enjoyable start to the anthology. We need more boundary-pushing work like this.
8/10

COME DIE WITH ME

The second story, Jamie Anderson’s “Come Die With Me,” isn’t structured particularly well. The Doctor and Ace show up at a spooky old house where a mad genius presents them with a murder mystery in which an incorrect guess means death. Fairly straightforward Agatha Christie-type material, but where are the victims? It turns out the victims are the previous players, and the task is to figure out who will kill you if you guess wrong. By the time this is spelled out, the story is half over, meaning the first half talk of murders is deeply confusing. And the resolution doesn’t help much: who was the original victim, anyway? Who killed that person? How did this endless cascade of murdered geniuses get started? I really like the central conceit that the previous victims are the murderers, but I don’t like how the story gets there. And Ace saves the day by catching an obvious flaw in the Doctor’s puzzle logic? Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.
5/10

THE GRAND BETELGEUSE HOTEL

“The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel” from Doctor Who Adventures comic writer Christopher Cooper, is better than its predecessor despite one unavoidable flaw. The “planet with weird legal rules and court procedures” trope is overdone, but it’s nonetheless dramatic to hear Ace trying desperately to argue her innocence. It also underscores just how unlikely the Doctor’s adventures are – to an outsider, Ace absolutely sounds guilty at worst or an unwitting accomplice at best. But my problem, unfortunately, is with Sophie Aldred, who is asked to deliver intensely emotional lines about the Doctor and their relationship, and who is, on this particular day, not up to the task of the performance. There are certain scenes that she handles quite well; this is not one of them and it took me completely out of the story. Apart from that, though, “The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel” is a solid, entertaining story. I was hoping for a Wes Anderson pastiche, though!
6/10

DEAD TO THE WORLD

One of the best things about season 25 on television was how it mixed the humor of the early seventh Doctor era with the increasing darkness to follow. It always took its villains seriously: even in “Silver Nemesis” the threat is legitimate. Matthew Elliott’s “Dead to the World” trips up on this score: there’s an absolutely legitimate threat undercut by comedy aliens that the Doctor defeats with virtually no effort. I do like the reversal in the main plot, though: the captain is the only one who knows the Earth is in danger and she is heroically sacrificing herself and her crew to protect it – but no, she’s actually acting out of pure selfishness and saving the Earth is an extra benefit. The story doesn’t explore the implications to any great extent, but I like the moral ambiguity of someone doing the right thing for completely wrong reasons. As an aside, I think Sylvester McCoy is excellent throughout this box set: they really let him get back to his character’s comedic roots and it’s refreshing. “Dead to the World” is a valiant attempt that didn’t quite grab me, but I enjoyed the listen.
6/10

Box set average: 6.25/10

08 – All-Consuming Fire – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Tuesday 5 January 2016 12:41 am

ALL-CONSUMING FIRE

One of the more celebrated New Adventures was Andy Lane’s “All-Consuming Fire,” largely because it was well-written and because of the synopsis: the Doctor and his companions team up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to battle Lovecraftian horrors! And since Big Finish produces Sherlock Holmes stories of their own, this was a natural target for an audio adaptation, in this case by Guy Adams. The result? Another success for what has become a very strong range.

Despite some of my criticisms, I have no problem with Nick Briggs’ ubiquity in the Doctor Who ranges. While I dislike his overuse in the writer’s chair, I have absolutely no issue with his talents as a director or as an actor. I mention this because some have dismissed “All-Consuming Fire” as a vanity project, given that Briggs himself plays Sherlock Holmes for Big Finish, but I don’t see the problem. In fact, this is my first experience hearing Briggs as Holmes, and I think he’s quite good! It’s akin to the classic portrayals: he’s brilliant but frustrating, arrogant but kind-hearted, and absent of the sociopathic characteristics of the modern Holmes presentations. I also like how Holmes is written: he’s intelligent enough to take everything in his stride, even a voyage to an alien world, but he’s thrown completely off his game by the Doctor, the only person on whom his famous deductions don’t work.

Frankly I’m surprised the Doctor Who/Sherlock Holmes crossover has only happened in this story. Holmes and Watson work brilliantly in a Doctor Who setting because their relationship remains strong even as Watson gets to see Holmes genuinely wrong-footed. The team of the genius detective and the pragmatic doctor works in even the most fantastic settings because it’s quite similar to the Doctor/companion relationship. I also like how Benny is presented as the star struck TARDIS crewmember while the Doctor is largely amused by the ordeal – a meta-acknowledgement of the situation, perhaps? Setting Benny opposite Watson is a delight as well. She acts entirely within character but to a man of Watson’s era she seems incredibly forward and uncouth – but he’s too much of a gentleman to point it out. Clichéd, sure, but entertaining nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the story goes a bit too far in how it tries to incorporate the Cthulhu mythos into Doctor Who. We’ve had hints at this in other (much, much worse) McCoy Big Finish stories, as well as other New Adventures, and though this story is better than many of those it doesn’t entirely work. The biggest problem is that it’s simply overcomplicated: I don’t mind the story following Holmes from Earth to another planet, but trying to introduce Lovecraftian elements with the story more than half over just clutters things up. It feels rushed and disorganized in ways the rest of the story does not – suddenly you have a villain with a motivation that is simultaneously basic and difficult to understand. The book handled this a bit better because it had more room to explore and elaborate, but the same struggles were evident there. But then that was the case with a number of the New Adventures: they were often too ambitious for their own good. That said, I’d rather have a story whose mission statement is “Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor team up to fight Azathoth!” than “It’s just like a TV episode from the 1970s!”

The production is great, both from director Scott Handcock and sound designer Alistair Lock. Sylvester McCoy is fantastic while Lisa Bowerman and Richard Earl, as Watson, have a great deal of fun. Even Ace, in her limited time, is quite clearly the “NA Ace” – and she’s quite likable. Overall, “All-Consuming Fire” is yet another strong release in the Novel Adaptations series, with only the overcrowded ending keeping it from joining the ranks of the elite. It’s Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes – how can you say no?

Highly recommended.

8/10

01 – Only the Monstrous – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 16 December 2015 8:39 pm

THE WAR DOCTOR: ONLY THE MONSTROUS

Despite shaping the entire revived Doctor Who series around the aftermath of an eternity-spanning Time War between Time Lords and Daleks, Russell T. Davies consistently refused to show the war on screen, arguing that any representation would underwhelm when compared to the audience’s imagination. But now, years later, Big Finish has secured the services of John Hurt and his War Doctor, and the first box set, “Only the Monstrous” from Nicholas Briggs, is set right in the middle of the Time War. And unfortunately it turns out that one of the most celebrated TV dramatists of all time was, shockingly, correct.

My biggest problem with “Only the Monstrous” has nothing specifically to do with the plot, or the characters, or anything like that. Rather, my biggest problem has to do with its almost total lack of imagination. Have you heard Briggs’ own Dalek Empire series? Then you’ve heard this, except this isn’t as good. Every military action we see, every strategy discussed, is done in entirely linear terms. There’s a brief mention of Time Lords “slaughtering” a faction of Daleks who can’t travel in time, but we never get to see how. There are Dalek fleets moving toward Gallifrey, transduction barriers, battle TARDISes – all hallmarks of a big, galaxy-spanning war, but absolutely no indication that this war is taking place through all eternity as the characters claim. We see Time Lords sent on a covert operation into Dalek territory, and they behave exactly like human soldiers armed with conventional weaponry. The Daleks are said to be hiding in a “null zone” where time travel is impossible, but this idea isn’t actually put to use, as all the scenes there are the same as all the scenes set elsewhere. Even the moment at the beginning, when the Time Lords earn a great victory against the Daleks, just uses the Time Destructor from “The Daleks’ Masterplan.” Sure, this reference tickles the fan gene, but all we hear is a giant explosion when it goes off. This is a huge opportunity for Big Finish to tell stories that we couldn’t see on television, and all we get from the first set is a bog-standard war epic. Great?

Of course, the other huge draw is the War Doctor himself. John Hurt is absolutely fantastic, but then you’d expect nothing less from an Oscar-nominated star – he gives this Doctor a fantastic combination of grumpiness, softness, and weariness. We’re rapidly faced with the difficulty of not using the name “Doctor,” but he defaults instead to John Smith, which is satisfying enough. Naturally, much of the story is devoted to demonstrating how different he is from his other incarnations, but I found that it mostly flagged up similarities. Part of the problem is the undergraduate pontification on war – “war is the embodiment of hypocrisy” and so forth – but a bigger part is that the Doctor doesn’t seem all that different. Briggs sets up a scene where the Doctor is forced to choose between two distasteful options – and it’s so obviously a riff on “The Parting of the Ways” it’s groan-worthy! I mean, really, a Dalek yelling “coward or monster?” – and the Doctor chooses the less distasteful of the two. Yes, this is different from the modern portrayal of the Doctor, who normally rejects the choice entirely and finds a way to save everyone, but what it does more than anything is make the “normal” Doctor seem like an irrational pacifist. This was addressed with much greater depth and sensitivity in “The Resurrection of Mars” two-part Eighth Doctor Adventure, but even there the Doctor’s heightened morals were shown to be specific to that incarnation. What it boils down to for me is this: is there anything in “Only the Monstrous” that you can’t see the seventh Doctor doing? Because if not – and the answer for me is “no” – then what’s so different about this Doctor?

There’s also a long segment about a faction of Time Lords who are so weary of the war that they want to negotiate peace with the Daleks. Everyone assumes that the Doctor is going to associate with the pacifists, but they were wrong, because this is the War Doctor! He’s much different from his other selves, and in a shocking revelation, he doesn’t want peace with the Daleks! Except, again, this is entirely consistent with his previous (and future) characterization, which has always shown him to be willing to kill Daleks without a moment’s hesitation while considering them utterly irredeemable. Add to that the fact that the peace plan involves the deaths of untold billions of people across a thousand worlds, and what other reaction did they expect? Instead of being shocked that the Doctor was unwilling to sue for peace, I was shocked that the Time Lords were so totally ignorant about the Doctor’s motivations and experiences. This makes Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) seem stupid, not cunning.

Otherwise, everything about this is generic and predictable. We see an idyllic society and then revisit it years later as a ravaged disaster under Dalek rule, we have the Daleks going back on a deal just like they always do, we get a cliffhanger with Daleks chanting something bizarrely out of character, and so forth. There’s even a second race of genocidal killers, and we know they’re genocidal because the Doctor says the word “genocidal” about five thousand times in the first episode alone. All we need is two rebels to fall in love and we’ll complete the bingo card. The production, from director Briggs and sound designer Howard Carter is pretty good – it certainly feels epic – but there are definitely moments where the sound design is confusing. The theme is also about the most generic thing imaginable – it sounds like a test version of the TVM theme. Overall, “Only the Monstrous” is exactly what I feared it would be: entirely lacking in ambition. It’s not terrible or anything – it’s solidly entertaining as these things go and holds the attention throughout – but it takes staggering concepts like the Time War and the War Doctor and does the bare minimum possible with them. Hopefully future War Doctor sets will make more of an effort – the new series license should be taken as more than just an opportunity to grind out generic Doctor Who stories with slightly different trappings.

Thoroughly, but expectedly, disappointing.

5/10

01 – Only the Monstrous

Posted by Styre | The War Doctor | Wednesday 16 December 2015 8:38 pm

Three new battles for The War Doctor

1.1 The Innocent

As the Daleks mass their time fleet for a final assault on Gallifrey, something ancient is waiting for them at Omega One. And a sacrifice must be made.

Arch-manipulator and Time Lord strategist, Cardinal Ollistra receives shock news of the Doctor’s death.

Meanwhile, on the planet Keska, a parochial war has returned to plague a peaceful civilisation after decades of tranquillity. But how can such a war have any connection with the great Time War which, at any one moment in the whole of eternity, could threaten to tear the universe apart?

If only the Doctor were still alive.

1.2 The Thousand Worlds

With the high-ranking Time Lord Seratrix behind enemy lines, the War Doctor finds himself assigned to a rescue mission. But any room for manoeuvre is severely restricted by an area of space known as the Null Zone.

Times have changed on Keska, and a countdown to destruction is beginning.

But who are the Taalyens and what is their part in the great and terrifying Dalek plan?

1.3 The Heart of the Battle

Trapped in a citadel swarming with Daleks, the Time Lord rescue force must find a way to overcome insurmountable odds. With the Daleks apparently planning to rule the Null Zone, perhaps their thirst for universal conquest and victory has been quenched…

The War Doctor doesn’t believe so — but how can he prove it without destroying any chance of peace?

As the countdown to the destruction of Keska proceeds, a deadly choice must be made… A choice that will define this Doctor, and perhaps forever cast him in the role of ‘monster’.

Review of the set by Styre

08 – All-Consuming Fire

Posted by Styre | Novel Adaptations | Tuesday 15 December 2015 7:48 pm

The Library of St. John the Beheaded contains the most dangerous books in all creation, so when some of them are stolen, who else should the Vatican call but Sherlock Holmes?

Immediately, one of the possible suspects seems more suspicious than others. He has no traceable background, refuses to give straight answers and hides behind a pseudonym. However, Holmes and his loyal friend Watson soon realise this suspect is also their greatest hope: war is brewing and an Old God is rising. To save humanity they need the Doctor as much as he needs them.

Review by Styre

07 – Theatre of War

Posted by Styre | Novel Adaptations | Tuesday 15 December 2015 7:46 pm

Years ago, an archaeological expedition came to Menaxus to explore the ruins of an ancient theatre. All but one of the team died. Now the only survivor has returned, determined to uncover the theatre’s secrets.

But then the deaths begin again.

The Doctor, Ace and Benny find themselves caught up in the very real events of Shakespeare’s greatest play. When they finally reach the theatre on Menaxus, the Doctor begins to realise that the truth about the planet may be far stranger than anyone imagined. With Benny doing research at the Braxiatel Collection, the Doctor and Ace head straight into an interplanetary war…

Review by Styre

07 – Theatre of War – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Tuesday 15 December 2015 7:45 pm

THEATRE OF WAR

The seventh Virgin novel adaptation from Big Finish is “Theatre of War,” originally written and adapted here by Justin Richards. The novel never had the best reputation in fan circles, so I’m not sure what drove the decision to adapt it – maybe because it introduces Braxiatel, or because Big Finish has a long history of working with Richards? In any case, the final product is a solid Doctor Who story that works on a refreshingly ambitious scale.

I suspect there’s a subconscious tendency among Big Finish writers to mimic the scale and budget of the TV stories. There are a lot of stories that take place across a few rooms on a spaceship, or in a series of easily filmable country houses and pubs. “Theatre of War,” on the other hand, starts in the ruins of a theater on a rain-swept planet before shifting to the galleries and arenas of the capital of an alien empire, with long digressions at the Braxiatel Collection and inside a holographic theater projector. Every episode seems to introduce a new location, which keeps the relatively straightforward plot much more interesting than it would otherwise be.

Even the plot is something I’d like to see more of. There’s a great moment where the Doctor is told that all of his deductions have been correct but his conclusions based on those deductions have all been wrong, and it works because the listener is led through those same deductions but given more information than the Doctor. Everything Benny learns at the Collection goes against what the Doctor learns on Menaxus, and the only conclusion – that everything is a fake – is so audacious that it surprises even when you know what’s happening. Additions like the living statues and the deadly fictional characters are largely there to fill time, but they both hint at the events of the conclusion.

I also appreciate it when Doctor Who stories actually take advantage of the companions’ backgrounds, and “Theatre of War” certainly does that. While Benny’s actual qualifications are murky at times, she claims to be an archaeologist and an academic, and so the Doctor sends her on a mission to do research into the planet they’re investigating. This sounds so simple, but it rarely happens, and it’s quite refreshing to hear. Furthermore, the Braxiatel Collection is a great digression from the main story. It’s calm and peaceful, and Braxiatel himself is as polite as can be, in spite of any dark undercurrents. And the idea of the Doctor simply needing to look something up every once in a while is appealing, especially in a story with 2 hours to fill.

All that being said, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about “Theatre of War.” This is the first outing for “new Ace” since all the way back in “The Dark Flame,” and there’s little here to indicate she’s any different from the TV character. And even though the Doctor is wrong-footed by the course of events, he easily corrects course and saves the day – this doesn’t seem particularly challenging to him. The bit at the end about Brax out-scheming the Doctor doesn’t feel earned, and the brief hints at their deeper relationship don’t go far enough. It’s easy to see why Brax becomes such a major character in the spinoff media, though. The production is excellent, both Scott Handcock’s direction and Peter Doggart’s sound design – most of these adaptations have had an epic feel and “Theatre of War” is no exception. In the end, “Theatre of War” is a solid adaptation of a solid, entertaining Doctor Who story, with just enough going on to hold the interest throughout.

Recommended.

7/10

1.4 – One Rule – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Monday 14 December 2015 5:12 pm

TORCHWOOD: ONE RULE

Joe Lidster takes on quite a challenge in “One Rule,” the fourth release in the first series of Torchwood audios from Big Finish. Unlike the first three stories, “One Rule” features a regular character that was never seen in Torchwood! Yes, it’s Yvonne Hartman (Tracy-Ann Oberman) from all the way back in Doctor Who TV series 2 finale “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday, in a story set back in 2005, right after the Auton invasion. Yvonne was a multifaceted character on TV – she was lined up opposite the Doctor, but she was genuinely concerned about humanity – and Lidster expertly portrays this here. There’s a great moment where Yvonne, who has been take-charge and unafraid of violence or intimidation, expresses dismay at Barry’s (Gareth Armstrong) racist comments. It’s moments like these that make her a sympathetic character: we might not agree with her methods but we know she’s a concerned, well-meaning person underneath. I also like how her sneering disregard for Cardiff rapidly disappears the longer she spends there, and how the hidden beauties of the city are nicely represented by Helen (Rebecca Lacey), who fakes her drunkenness to put her opponents off guard. “One Rule” is an intriguing character piece, ably directed by Barnaby Edwards, that fleshes out an underappreciated Doctor Who character. It’s another in what is becoming an unbroken string of hits from the Torchwood range.

8/10

2.2 – The Forsaken – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Saturday 12 December 2015 6:26 pm

THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE FORSAKEN

You know what you’re going to get from Justin Richards when it comes to Doctor Who: a very traditional story with good characterization of the regulars but very little thematic significance or depth. And that’s pretty much what you get with “The Forsaken,” the second story in the second series of Early Adventures – except that this one seems even more slight than usual.

There’s very little for me to say about this story because Richards doesn’t want to say anything about it himself. There’s a huge deal made out of the fact that, by random coincidence, Ben’s father (Oliver Jackson) is among the soldiers encountered by the TARDIS crew. They have to keep him alive – if they don’t, Ben might cease to exist! How will Ben interact with a man who will become his father in just under a year? What will we learn about Ben by getting this unique look into his personal history? None of these questions or concerns are addressed after his identity is revealed. Frankly, “Jacko” could have been any generic soldier character and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to the story.

These concerns continue throughout. This is the first trip that I can recall by the Doctor to the Pacific theater of World War II, specifically as the Japanese are pushing the British out of Singapore. Certainly, since this is a new environment for the series, it is rife for exploration – but it could be set in almost any jungle at any time period in history for all the difference the setting makes. The only relevant feature is the fact that they’re on an island, automatically isolating the people from rescue and the villain from escape. Speaking of the villain, we learn that he is one of the Forsaken, a race that travels to war-torn planets and feeds on the fear of the population. So we know how they eat, which is vaguely interesting, but if you want to know anything else about this alien race or how they operate, you won’t learn it here. All the creature does is run around saying evil things and killing people. You can write a successful story around a relentless, single-minded killer, but this certainly isn’t one.

I commented before that the casting of Elliot Chapman as Ben was a success, and it continues here – it’s difficult not to forget that you’re not listening to Michael Craze, as Chapman has great chemistry with Frazer Hines and Anneke Wills. I’m not a fan of these stories making the second Doctor such a major part of the scripts, however. Hines’ Troughton impression is effective in small doses, but when you have entire scenes between the second Doctor and Jamie, it rapidly becomes apparent that this Doctor is just Frazer Hines putting on a different voice. There are moments, particularly in long sentences, when Hines just reverts to his natural accent. It would benefit these stories to be formatted more like the Companion Chronicles, and not just because the Companion Chronicles were (thus far) clearly superior.

I don’t know what else to say about “The Forsaken.” The TARDIS lands, some dangerous things happen, they solve the problem, and they leave. Absolutely nothing interesting or thought-provoking happens in the interim. So what’s the point of it all? Just to grind out yet another generic Doctor Who story to fill a release slot? Are we really already at that point in the Early Adventures? I shudder to think what’ll happen when they inevitably extend this range to 12 months a year. Oh, I did like the score from Toby Hrycek-Robinson. It was unique, memorable, and effective. So that’s something.

Blah.

5/10

2.3 – The Black Hole – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Saturday 12 December 2015 6:24 pm

THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE BLACK HOLE

The most disappointing element of the Early Adventures to this point has been their general reluctance to stand apart from the pack. Unlike many of the Companion Chronicles, the first six Early Adventures haven’t attempted anything particularly ambitious – at least not in storytelling terms. This changes quite drastically with Simon Guerrier’s “The Black Hole,” a story that gleefully flaunts continuity and tells a very modern-feeling story set in the midst of season 5.

The Patrick Troughton/Frazer Hines segments of “The Two Doctors” are difficult to explain on their own: not only does the progression of time mean that our beloved characters look decades older, but the Doctor is consciously doing work for the Time Lords, something that would have been utterly unheard of in Troughton’s era. The “season 6B” theory sprang up around this: that the second Doctor, after his trial but before his enforced exile, ran errands for the Time Lords, who reunited him with Jamie (and possibly Victoria) for this purpose. Guerrier evidently has no time for this idea as, in the middle of “The Black Hole,” the Doctor and Jamie head off to meet Dastari on the bidding of a Time Lord, Stattenheim Remote Control in hand, and return later talking of Sontarans. This isn’t particularly relevant to the story, but I do love the audaciousness of it, and to see that idea worked into a 1960s-themed story is quite refreshing.

Even more interesting, though, is the way Guerrier completely disregards accepted limitations on the era. We can’t have a story involving Time Lords prior to “The War Games,” right? Well we’ve got one here! Admittedly it involves some convenient memory wipes prior to the conclusion, but it’s fascinating to hear the second Doctor interacting with one of his fellow Time Lords.

The Monk! I had no idea this was coming, and for good reason: Guerrier stages the revelation that there is another Time Lord around as though it’s the story’s grand twist, then later reveals that same Time Lord is actually the Monk. It’s a simple, tricky bit of structuring that certainly paid off to me. I also like that we’re seeing more Monk stories popping up – he was the first recurring individual villain in Doctor Who, and I see no reason why he can’t pop up to menace the second Doctor. Rufus Hound is excellent in the role, coupling the Monk’s gleeful love of interference with a surprisingly sympathetic side. We don’t get to spend a lot of time getting into his character – though we see a lot more of that in the Eighth Doctor Adventures – but it’s also commendable that he isn’t an out-and-out villain.

Additionally, not only do we have a third Time Lord, Pavo, involved in the story, we get to see that Time Lord regenerate and change sex in the process! I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that this came out right around the time that “Hell Bent” first aired on TV, but that’s a mind-blowing continuity step for any Doctor Who story, never mind one from the Troughton era.

The biggest problem with “The Black Hole” is that, despite the fun continuity elements, it doesn’t really dig into its characters. There’s a potentially interesting bit with Victoria being traumatized, but while it sounds disturbing, the script never explores it. This is surprising, since Guerrier is normally all about that sort of thing, but fortunately it doesn’t detract significantly from the story, which is solid enough, if a little confusing.

As for the casting, whoever decided to have David Warner narrate the story deserves some sort of award. He’s a brilliant narrator, of course, and it really saves on confusion to have someone narrate who isn’t otherwise in the cast. Frazer Hines, meanwhile, is playing both Jamie and the second Doctor again, and yet again the problems with his Troughton impression are flagged up: he can really only capture one of Troughton’s many moods, and the more you hear it, the more you realize it’s just Hines putting on a funny voice. Lastly, Deborah Watling returns to the role of Victoria, and while her performance is considerably better than her dreadful turn in “Power Play,” it’s still not that impressive.

The production is fantastic, from Lisa Bowerman directing to the sound design and score from Toby Hrycek-Robinson. Overall, “The Black Hole” is a strong release, the best of the Early Adventures thus far, and well worth hearing. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’ll nonetheless stick around in your mind for many reasons.

Highly recommended.

8/10

206 – Shield of the Jötunn – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Sunday 6 December 2015 7:43 pm

SHIELD OF THE JÖTUNN

The penultimate release in the 2015 monthly range comes from a new author! Yes, it’s comics writer Ian Edginton, and he brings us “Shield of the Jötunn,” the final story in the introductory trilogy for new companion Constance Clarke. There’s not much new about the story, but it’s told in a refreshing, energetic way that holds the interest throughout.

It is often useful to tell Doctor Who stories by making full use of the four-episode format, and Edginton definitely engages with that idea. The story shifts from the Doctor and Constance sneaking around an installation to something akin to survival horror to a full-blown action epic as it proceeds, meaning it’s very difficult to get bored even if you dislike any one of those things. It’s obvious that Edginton comes from the comic world, as the script often presents set pieces that seem like “splash panels” – the massive terraformer powering up, or an army of giant Vikings doing battle with an army of frost giants. But he never loses sight of the audio medium, and so we are thankfully spared the characters taking time to describe things out loud that everyone can already see.

I also enjoyed the use of flashback. The TARDIS translation circuits enable Constance to read ancient Viking runes, but instead of Miranda Raison reading out loud, the story shifts to narration by an ancient Viking chieftain (James Caroll Jordan) describing the initial invasion of Earth by the villains. When that character appears in the present day, later on, the audience is more connected to him thanks to the story’s slight divergence. It also adds variety, as we haven’t seen much in the way of flashback in Big Finish Doctor Who stories.

The characterization is the best part of “Shield of the Jötunn.” I’m not entirely sure how all of these companions fit into the sixth Doctor’s timeline, but Edginton writes Colin Baker at his most prickly and sarcastic. It’s almost uncomfortable to hear this Doctor like this after so many stories presenting him as a cuddly old grandpa, but it’s a lot of fun listening to the Doctor dispense with social niceties. Constance, meanwhile, is pretty much the “plucky young woman” archetype, but her military background is brought to the fore, and it’s good to hear a companion actively take a different approach to the Doctor. I’m also a huge fan of Dr. Hugo Macht (Michael J. Shannon), the billionaire funding the terraforming project. He professes innocence and a desire to save the world, but this is Doctor Who, so he’s secretly a megalomaniac, right? Wrong! He’s a genuinely good person trying to change the world for the better. I’m not saying billionaires need public rehabilitation, but it’s nice to see the obvious stereotype and plot twist ignored in favor of something more thoughtful.

I was less impressed with the characterization of this month’s alien menace, however. Admittedly this is also an old Doctor Who trope – the seemingly harmless race of alien scientists suddenly revealed to be brutal conquerors – but that revelation is always less interesting than what precedes it. Giant ice men stomping around yelling about conquest doesn’t make for compelling drama, but at least it allows them to have a fight with giant ghost Vikings, which may not be deep but is certainly cool. The production is excellent – director Louise Jameson allows the sound design to tell the story in many places, and Martin Montague’s design communicates events without ever becoming confusing. Jamie Robertson’s music is effective as well. Overall, “Shield of the Jötunn” is a solid, entertaining Doctor Who story with surprises in a few places. I continue to wish for more from the monthly range, but at least this is a worthwhile way to pass a couple of hours.

Solid.

7/10

01 – UNIT: Extinction

Posted by Styre | UNIT - The New Series | Saturday 21 November 2015 6:19 pm

In this four-story box set, Kate Stewart, Osgood and the UNIT team confront an alien invasion by the Nestene Consciousness and its army of plastic Autons…

1. Vanguard by Matt Fitton

While UNIT attend a ’skyfall’ incident under the eyes of watchful journalists, reclusive billionaire Simon Devlin is planning a product launch that will change the world…

2. Earthfall by Andrew Smith

Lieutenant Sam Bishop and Osgood are deployed to the Gobi desert in search of a Nestene energy unit. But there are Autons in the sand dunes…

3. Bridgehead by Andrew Smith

Captain Josh Carter has gone undercover inside Devlin Futuretech. But his safety is jeopardised by the activities of investigative journalist Jacqui McGee.

4. Armageddon by Matt Fitton

As UNIT leads the fightback on every front, every continent, against an implacable army, Kate Stewart must look to the past for some clue to defeat the plastic menace.

Review by Styre

01 – UNIT: Extinction – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Saturday 21 November 2015 6:18 pm

UNIT: EXTINCTION

After years of being restricted to only the Doctors and characters from the “classic” series of Doctor Who, Big Finish finally acquired a license to the “new” series and proceeded forth with a raft of new material. The first hint of this came with the appearance of new series Daleks in Gallifrey VI, but “UNIT: Extinction” is the first full example, bringing Kate Stewart, Osgood, and others together in a four-story box set from Matt Fitton and Andrew Smith. Unfortunately, this first trip into a new era is wholly unmemorable and stands as a colossal disappointment instead of a bold leap forward.

The plot, in a nutshell: the Nestene Consciousness has returned to Earth, and it is once again animating the planet’s plastic supply into killer Autons. Without the Doctor around, it’s up to UNIT to avert the invasion. But wait, you ask, didn’t we basically get that story in “Spearhead from Space” and then again in “Terror of the Autons?” Yes! If you’ve seen those stories, there’s very little reason to listen to “UNIT: Extinction,” as it hits almost all the same beats, starting with the plastic spheres crashing to Earth from space and finishing with a horrible monster manifesting in a glass tank. It completely lacks the inventiveness of its predecessors, though – it attempts to draw modern relevance through the use of 3-D printing, but that means no scenes of familiar plastic objects coming to life and menacing the populace. So the Autons are just killer robots.

The worst part by far, though, is the characterization. You’ve got Kate, played by a curiously flat Jemma Redgrave – though she does finally pick it up by the final episode – about whom we learn virtually nothing. You’ve got Osgood, and while Ingrid Oliver’s performance is very good, there’s really nothing to her other than “awkward yet heroic geek.” And then we have the new supporting characters, like Colonel Shindi (Ramon Tikaram), and Captain Carter (James Joyce), and Lieutenant Bishop (Warren Brown). Who are they? What are they like? Well, Carter’s a bit reckless, but other than that? Are these supposed to be the new recurring characters? Because right now they come across as a faceless group of generic soldiers – how fitting that they’re fighting Autons, right? And then there’s Simon Devlin (Steve John Shepherd), one of the most generic villains in recent memory. Shepherd chews the scenery to shreds, aided by no-really-they-wrote-this lines like “SEIZE HIM!” and drooling over “my master” and so forth. And then there’s Jacqui McGee (Tracy Wiles), perhaps the only interesting character because of her unusual relationship with UNIT. How can you write over three hours of modern audio drama without even attempting to get in the heads of your characters?

If there’s one good thing about “UNIT: Extinction,” it’s the global scale and believable design of the action. It’s nice to have a global invasion threat that doesn’t focus exclusively on London, and here we have scenes in Mongolia and Puerto Rico, among other locations. The music and sound design from Howard Carter is similarly expansive and inspiring, as is Ken Bentley’s direction. I also very much appreciated Bentley (and the scripts) allowing the sound design to tell the story – there are multiple action scenes without characters standing around describing everything, and it’s still quite clear what’s going on. Imagine that! That said, the ending is still a disappointment: after three episodes of globe-trotting action, the solution is to grab the anti-plastic from “Rose” out of the Black Archives and toss it in the Nestene tank? Really? This is both the initial foray into new series territory and the start of a new series of box sets. It should be ambitious, it should be inspiring, it should be insightful – instead, it’s a well produced but totally unimaginative action epic that stays in the mind mere moments after the credits roll. If this were a TV pilot, I wouldn’t bother with episode 2.

Mediocre.

5/10

1.3 – Forgotten Lives – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Tuesday 17 November 2015 4:11 pm

TORCHWOOD: FORGOTTEN LIVES

It’s looking increasingly like this first series of Torchwood audios is something special, as the third release, Emma Reeves’ “Forgotten Lives,” is a third straight home run for this new series. Set years after the events of Miracle Day, this story shows us that, no matter how much they try, Gwen and Rhys will always be haunted by Torchwood. A story about mind-swapping aliens isn’t anything new, but setting it in a dementia treatment center is a morbid stroke of genius: who’s been swapped and who’s just seeing their faculties failing? It also allows Jack to be in the story without John Barrowman, and I have to say that Philip Bond is surprisingly convincing as Jack despite the superficial lack of similarities. “Forgotten Lives” is a relentlessly downbeat story, leavened with occasional bouts of humor, that doesn’t shy away from the natural consequences of its plot. Sure, the day can be saved, but at how great a personal cost? Almost every character has skin in the game, and nobody gets out unscathed. Eve Myles and Kai Owen are fantastic throughout – really, only a few questionable acting choices from the supporting cast keep this from a perfect score. Many people wondered if Torchwood had run out of gas after Miracle Day; so far, this series is proving there are countless miles left in the tank.

Excellent.

9/10

7.0 – Intervention Earth

Posted by Styre | Gallifrey | Thursday 12 November 2015 9:19 pm

Times change…

Romana is approaching her final term of office, and hopes to leave her world in a state of peace and harmony. Narvin is concerned about the implementation of a controversial Precog programme, one that seeks to predict the Time Lords’ future. Ace is an operative for the Celestial Intervention Agency, having learned the art of interference from one of the best…

And somewhere, across the stars, an ancient force is stirring: one of the Time Lords’ greatest heroes is returning to our universe. But he may also prove to be their greatest threat.

When the history of Earth is threatened, and an ancient conspiracy reaches the heart of Time Lord government, can even Romana’s closest allies truly be trusted?

Time will tell… but by then, it may already be too late.

6.3 – Ascension – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 12 November 2015 9:16 pm

GALLIFREY: ASCENSION

Wait a minute – so the entire previous episode was a Matrix simulation? I understand it’s all part of a long game that is paid off at the climax of Justin Richards’ “Ascension,” the final part of Gallifrey VI, but really? 33% of the length of the box set is spent in a false environment? It’s also entirely unclear about the mechanics of the situation: how the Axis emptied directly into the Matrix, how the other universes are tied together, how Slyne got so intimately involved with the Daleks, and so forth. Was Romana actually in the Matrix trying to save the fake Gallifrey for years before she woke up Leela and Narvin or was that all part of the illusion as well? This isn’t a very good story, and it’s not very good because it does a terrible job of explaining itself. The Daleks’ plan makes absolutely no sense, even though it’s good to have them back in the action – pull any of the obvious loose threads and the whole thing falls apart. It’s structured well enough, with surprises stacked on top of surprises, but my overall feeling was one of confusion rather than excitement. And the ending is stunningly misplaced. I have absolutely no problem with the Gallifrey series tying into the start of the Time War, but really – Narvin starts it by accident? Complete with a labored joke? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the Gallifrey series ends (for now) with a thud. Frankly, I’m just happy that some of the set was entertaining.

Sigh.

4/10

6.2 – Renaissance – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 12 November 2015 9:16 pm

GALLIFREY: RENAISSANCE

So after the Daleks gave the Gallifrey series a much needed and long awaited shot in the arm in “Extermination,” we follow it up with a story featuring exactly four (and a fifth at the end) characters on an otherwise deserted Gallifrey? It’s an interesting decision, and actually a fairly successful one, that marks James Goss’s “Renaissance.” They’re finally back on the original Gallifrey, which is now devastated by the Dogma virus and haunted by monstrous survivors, both of which are basically written out and solved between scenes. This allows the story to get on with its own devices, but it’s pretty unrewarding to anyone looking for an actual resolution to the cliffhanger from all the way back in the third series. It’s also full of unnecessary, distracting continuity references that I think are supposed to be subtle hints toward the conclusion but actually come off as gigantic warning sirens. But the central idea is fantastic: a future incarnation of Romana flees the Time War into Gallifrey’s history in an attempt to change the future and make Gallifrey more prepared to confront the battles ahead. She even brings the entire Citadel back with her. And the new Romana is fantastic – Goss keeps the character recognizably the same person but completely changes Romana’s characteristic iciness, leading to a more emotional figure that will happily give hugs. Juliet Landau is equally fantastic casting, too. I’m not enamored with the ending, though – after a quiet, slow-burning story like this, having all the characters standing around screaming descriptions to each other is rather deflating and robs the scene of most of its tension. But in spite of all that, you can’t get more exciting than that cliffhanger! Overall, much more flawed than “Extermination,” but still worth a listen. I’m curious to see how this ends, which is something I didn’t expect to say coming into this set.

6/10

6.1 – Extermination – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 12 November 2015 9:15 pm

GALLIFREY: EXTERMINATION

After two interminable box sets in which our beloved regular characters wander pointlessly around various alternate universes, Gallifrey VI finally brings them home. The first story in the set, Scott Handcock’s “Extermination,” features the Daleks laying waste to the alternate Gallifrey of the fifth box set, and as you’d expect, it’s… wait a minute, it’s actually good? Yes, and almost entirely because of the Daleks, who give the series the kick of energy it has desperately needed for years. It’s true that the Dalek plan is their usual “conquer all possible universes,” this time through the Axis, but their mere presence is enough to cast a fearful pall over the proceedings. With a rampaging, deadly menace around every corner, things finally feel dangerous – and it helps that Handcock gathers a number of characters from Gallifrey V and immediately kills them off. This was also Big Finish’s first toe in the water of new series-related material, as these Daleks are meant to be the same as seen on TV, and that’s immediately apparent from how terrified the characters are of them. No “Bye bye, Davros!” silliness here. All the tension between the characters from the past two sets is chucked out the window, and for good reason – this is much more interesting than any of that. There’s also a great scene where Romana interrogates a captive Dalek and the changes in her personality are readily apparent. There are some flaws – the sound design of the Dalek blasts doesn’t really match the (OTT) screams from the cast, and there’s very little here we haven’t seen before – but to finally have a Gallifrey story with this kind of energy is incredibly refreshing.

More like this!

8/10

1.2 – Fall to Earth – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 5 November 2015 12:23 am

TORCHWOOD: FALL TO EARTH

If these Torchwood audios continue on this early run of quality, this will be a special range. After the superlative “The Conspiracy” kicked things off, James Goss’ “Fall to Earth” marks the second release, and it’s every bit as thrilling. It’s a simple concept: Ianto is trapped on a crashing spaceship and his only available help is an outsourced telemarketer that happens to call him at the worst possible time. Goss structures events with assured elegance, piling on disaster after disaster without ever veering too far over the edge into silliness. I particularly enjoyed the idea of Ianto being menaced by (essentially) a zombie Richard Branson. The biggest strength, though, is Zeynep (Lisa Zahra), the aforementioned telemarketer, who is both Ianto’s lifeline and his connection back to the real world outside of Torchwood. Zahra’s performance is exceptional, switching effortlessly back and forth between insurance sales and researching spaceship manuals, and by the end of the play the listener is genuinely concerned about her fate. Gareth David-Lloyd is also fantastic, stepping back into the role like he never left it – admittedly, it’s weird to hear Ianto this hysterical, but then again he’s bleeding to death in a crashing spaceship, so it makes sense. Scott Handcock directs, with sound design from Neil Gardner and another fantastic score from Blair Mowat. Overall, “Fall to Earth” is a very strong story with great characters and a thrilling plot.

Highly recommended.

9/10

2.2 – The Forsaken – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 4 November 2015 1:04 am

THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE FORSAKEN

You know what you’re going to get from Justin Richards when it comes to Doctor Who: a very traditional story with good characterization of the regulars but very little thematic significance or depth. And that’s pretty much what you get with “The Forsaken,” the second story in the second series of Early Adventures – except that this one seems even more slight than usual.

There’s very little for me to say about this story because Richards doesn’t want to say anything about it himself. There’s a huge deal made out of the fact that, by random coincidence, Ben’s father (Oliver Jackson) is among the soldiers encountered by the TARDIS crew. They have to keep him alive – if they don’t, Ben might cease to exist! How will Ben interact with a man who will become his father in just under a year? What will we learn about Ben by getting this unique look into his personal history? None of these questions or concerns are addressed after his identity is revealed. Frankly, “Jacko” could have been any generic soldier character and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to the story.

These concerns continue throughout. This is the first trip that I can recall by the Doctor to the Pacific theater of World War II, specifically as the Japanese are pushing the British out of Singapore. Certainly, since this is a new environment for the series, it is rife for exploration – but it could be set in almost any jungle at any time period in history for all the difference the setting makes. The only relevant feature is the fact that they’re on an island, automatically isolating the people from rescue and the villain from escape. Speaking of the villain, we learn that he is one of the Forsaken, a race that travels to war-torn planets and feeds on the fear of the population. So we know how they eat, which is vaguely interesting, but if you want to know anything else about this alien race or how they operate, you won’t learn it here. All the creature does is run around saying evil things and killing people. You can write a successful story around a relentless, single-minded killer, but this certainly isn’t one.

I commented before that the casting of Elliot Chapman as Ben was a success, and it continues here – it’s difficult not to forget that you’re not listening to Michael Craze, as Chapman has great chemistry with Frazer Hines and Anneke Wills. I’m not a fan of these stories making the second Doctor such a major part of the scripts, however. Hines’ Troughton impression is effective in small doses, but when you have entire scenes between the second Doctor and Jamie, it rapidly becomes apparent that this Doctor is just Frazer Hines putting on a different voice. There are moments, particularly in long sentences, when Hines just reverts to his natural accent. It would benefit these stories to be formatted more like the Companion Chronicles, and not just because the Companion Chronicles were (thus far) clearly superior.

I don’t know what else to say about “The Forsaken.” The TARDIS lands, some dangerous things happen, they solve the problem, and they leave. Absolutely nothing interesting or thought-provoking happens in the interim. So what’s the point of it all? Just to grind out yet another generic Doctor Who story to fill a release slot? Are we really already at that point in the Early Adventures? I shudder to think what’ll happen when they inevitably extend this range to 12 months a year. Oh, I did like the score from Toby Hrycek-Robinson. It was unique, memorable, and effective. So that’s something.

Blah.

5/10

205 – Planet of the Rani – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Sunday 1 November 2015 6:45 pm

PLANET OF THE RANI

The second release in the late 2015 Colin Baker trilogy, Marc Platt’s “Planet of the Rani” is largely a disappointment. It takes a number of interesting images and wastes them on a flat plot and a miscast villain, marking an unfortunate return to poor form for the monthly range.

The Rani reminds me a lot of the Valeyard, in that they are both characters that sound quite interesting on paper but rapidly devolve into generic nonsense once put on screen. The concept of the Rani, an amoral scientist who conducts bizarre biological experiments without any regard for consequence, is interesting, and a brilliant Time Lord scientist should make a good recurring nemesis for the Doctor. I enjoyed her debut story, “The Mark of the Rani,” quite a bit – she’s just trying to experiment on humans, and the Doctor and the Master keep turning up and interrupting her. The problem comes in her next story, when she’s trying to construct a giant brain to conquer the universe. Then, in the last Big Finish Rani story, “The Rani Elite,” she’s… trying to construct a giant brain, again. At least here she’s not trying to conquer or destroy the universe, but most of the plot of “Planet of the Rani,” as the title implies, involves the Rani trying to regain control of her adopted home Miasimia Goria. Why do these “villain” stories always involve conquering something? And why don’t they involve better characterization?

That’s the real problem here – the characters are all so flat. This is Constance’s first journey in the TARDIS, and she gets a lot to do – she’s separated from the Doctor after the first episode and spends most of the story as the Rani’s de facto companion. That’s potentially interesting material, but we don’t learn anything about her in the process. Sure, she’s military, and has the corresponding attitude, but what motivates her? What is she getting out of her travels with the Doctor? Okay, so her husband went missing – well we’re not going to learn anything about that on Miasimia Goria, so can we please learn something else? Fortunately, Platt does flesh out the relationship between the Doctor and the Rani a bit: we learned how the Doctor foolishly developed a dangerous microbe while at the Academy and how the Rani didn’t care about the potential consequences of using it. But even this revelation seems to come out of nowhere, and the story doesn’t spend enough time on the moral implications of the Doctor developing the “ablative” in the first place.

And then there’s the biggest problem: Siobhan Redmond is terribly miscast as the Rani. The only time in four episodes that she is convincing is in the moment of emotional attachment to her lost “son” – beyond that, her readings are consistently flat and tonally mismatched. Part of this is down to the writing and direction: she’s clearly playing up the “amoral scientist” angle, but Platt’s script is full of stereotypical villain dialogue that would be perfect for Kate O’Mara’s portrayal. I don’t usually harp on casting decisions because Big Finish almost always gets it right, but this is a bad mistake that needs to be rectified.

There are some interesting images scattered throughout, as one would expect from a Marc Platt script. The stone forest is particularly imaginative, for example. Furthermore, the first episode featuring the Rani’s prison break is considerably more exciting than the rest of the story. So it’s not all bad. But this is yet another main range story that isn’t good enough, and I still don’t know why this is happening. It took 15 years for Big Finish to get around to the Rani, and both efforts have been subpar.

Mediocre.

4/10

Doom Coalition 1

Posted by Styre | 8th Doctor New Adventures | Tuesday 13 October 2015 8:06 pm

EPISODE 1: THE ELEVEN written by Matt Fitton

When one of Gallifrey’s most notorious criminals attempts to escape from prison, Cardinal Padrac turns for help to the Time Lord who put him there in the first place.

EPISODE 2: THE RED LADY written by John Dorney

A London Museum holds the key to many secrets from the past. But some secrets are so deadly they should remain locked away. Forever.

EPISODE 3: THE GALILEO TRAP written by Marc Platt

With a mysterious plague sweeping through Florence, a rampaging alien behemoth comes between the Doctor and the answers he seeks.

EPISODE 4: THE SATANIC MILL written by Edward Collier

Long buried animosities come boiling to the surface on an ancient and powerful satellite, in a final confrontation that could have unimaginable consequences.

Review of the entire set by Styre

Doom Coalition 1 – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Tuesday 13 October 2015 8:04 pm

DOOM COALITION

THE ELEVEN

I was never a big fan of “Dark Eyes,” the series of box sets starring Paul McGann that took the place of Big Finish’s old Eighth Doctor Adventures. They were driven heavily by technobabble, and tonal inconsistencies plagued the series. Fortunately, the final release in that series was the best of the lot, which bodes well for “Doom Coalition,” the new box set series. The first episode of the first box is “The Eleven,” written by Matt Fitton, and it’s largely an introductory piece that establishes the main players around a fairly traditional capture-and-escape plot.

“The Eleven” of the title is a Time Lord criminal dealing with a unique mental condition: he is in his eleventh incarnation, yet all ten of his previous selves are awake and fighting for position in his brain. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s largely insane, with only his eighth self appearing at all on the other side of the bounds of sanity. They do take pains to point out that this condition isn’t the cause of his insanity in itself, but I can’t imagine that it helps. Mark Bonnar plays the Eleven, and by that I mean he plays all eleven incarnations at once. It’s a very good performance – he powers through his scenes, papering over any inconsistencies with the force of his acting. It is, however, somewhat difficult to get over the fact that his arguments with his previous selves are composed entirely of the same actor doing a series of silly voices. And all of those arguments end the same way, with Bonnar yelling something like “All of you, silence!” The story is barely an hour long and it’s practically a running gag already. It’s also sledgehammer-obvious that he’s a twisted parallel of the Doctor himself: the Three is patrician, the Six is a maniac, the Eight is the most “human,” and so forth. Oh, and he steals a TARDIS at the end and flees (apparently) to Earth in the 1960s. I’m dubious about where this is going, but it certainly has the potential for greatness, so we’ll see.

The story is set on Gallifrey, and as usual for Big Finish, nothing particularly imaginative is done with the ancestral seat of the most ancient and powerful race in the universe. I understand that they want to maintain the bureaucratic feeling of the Gallifrey series, and I like the references to Romana changing the face of Time Lord politics, but it’s still a dreary setting. Here we have the Time Lord prison in the heart of the Capitol, the place where some of their most dangerous criminals are kept, and… the cells are kept in a slightly different time zone and the doors have “ultra-locks” on them. That’s it? I’m not asking for “The Book of the War” here but can’t we have something a little more interesting? Fitton also employs a device I don’t normally like: driving the plot forward by introducing a new aspect of Gallifreyan law. This is fine when it resolves a necessary obstacle – allowing the Doctor to avoid a murder trial in “The Deadly Assassin,” for example – but here it powers the entire story. Apparently, in a time of crisis and with the President away, the highest-ranking individual remaining may declare himself or herself Acting President without a vote – and wouldn’t you know it, the Eleven was technically on the High Council during his first incarnation! I don’t like this because it makes the story feel like it’s making things up as it goes; yes, it puts us in the Doctor’s shoes a few steps behind the Eleven, but there’s absolutely no sense of limit or control to the plot.

Despite all of that, there’s a lot to like in “The Eleven.” Some of the Eleven’s previous incarnations are genuinely disturbing, and if they’re allowed to come to the fore for more than just arguments, this could be a fantastic villain. He’s also unpredictable: I didn’t see the final scene ending the way it did. The performances are excellent across the board: I’ve already mentioned Mark Bonnar, and Paul McGann seems particularly invested in this, while Nicola Walker continues to give revelatory performances. Liv seems like a real person who actually reacts believably to the story – she’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites of Big Finish’s original companions. Kiani (Bethan Walker) is a bit too earnest at times, but that sets up the surprising conclusion so I’m not complaining. And the prologue, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor imprisoning the Eleven, is note-perfect and a fantastic introduction. Ken Bentley directs the whole set, while Wilfredo Acosta provides solid sound design. Overall, “The Eleven” is a very promising start that succeeds in spite of its few flaws. I’m excited to see where this goes, and that’s a great endorsement for a premiere.

Recommended.

7/10

THE RED LADY

One of the major problems with the Dark Eyes sets was their tendency to wander: they aimed to tell one coherent story spread across four set pieces, but almost always felt unfocused, unsure which path they wanted to take. Judging from “The Red Lady,” by John Dorney, this first Doom Coalition set will not suffer from the same issue: it’s an incredibly well told story that barely involves the arc plot at all.

The Doctor and Liv travel to 1960s London in pursuit of the Eleven, and while there, they become embroiled in an unrelated adventure. Sometimes I wonder if this is the ideal way to do Doctor Who arc plotting: an overall objective punctuated by adventures along the way. The series has frequently struggled with stronger narrative links, and that’s been true on television, on audio, and in the novels. And the arc plot is fairly silly here: the Doctor has to track a temporal anomaly to a stone tablet, which he must decode to find a message from Galileo? I understand the Eleven is insane, but really? The Master would be proud of that one.

The central concept of “The Red Lady” is brilliant: a mysterious woman appears in works of art to the first person to view them, and then steadily haunts that person, appearing to emerge from the art itself before finally killing them. It’s a ghost story, in essence, with strong elements of “The Ring” and the Matt Smith story “The Time of Angels.” Best of all, it’s genuinely scary: the tension is ratcheted up throughout, as each character starts to perceive the Red Lady and realizes their doom is drawing closer. We see the ultimate threat through the tragic demise of Walter (David Yelland) – and isn’t it nice to have a supporting character characterized this well? He’s actually sympathetic despite having some less appealing qualities, and his death is a genuine blow.

“The Red Lady” also introduces a new companion character in Helen Sinclair, a linguist and historian trying to assert herself in a male-dominated field in a misogynistic time. She’s classic companion material – smart, resourceful, sympathetic, funny – but Dorney doesn’t beat you over the head telling you how great she is, opting instead to show her suitability for the TARDIS crew through her actions. Some of the writing is a bit overwrought – her initial confrontation at work with a superior is almost a caricature of close-minded 1960s attitudes – but for the most part this is a great introduction. Hattie Morahan is a fine casting choice as well, portraying Helen as a mature, capable human being. My only complaint is that her voice is a bit too similar to Nicola Walker’s, but I’ll get used to it.

McGann and Walker are great in this, too. It’s a common strategy to have either the Doctor or the companion afflicted by the alien threat, but both of them at once? Dorney also continues his wonderful habit of effectively concealing information that seems so obvious in retrospect – of course the original collector was blind, why didn’t I figure that out? But perhaps best of all is the story’s refusal to be explained: we never find out who or what the Red Lady is and there is no last-minute technobabble describing what happened. While I appreciate the rational bent of Doctor Who for the most part, we need more stories like this – the Doctor doesn’t need to know all the answers.

Overall, “The Red Lady” is an excellent story, one that builds a great deal of confidence for this “Doom Coalition” series. It’s well written, scary, and it introduces a promising new companion to boot. More like this, please.

Highly recommended.

9/10

THE GALILEO TRAP

The third episode in the first Doom Coalition set, “The Galileo Trap,” comes from Marc Platt. After two high-quality installments to open the set, this story is a bit more sedate – not much happens and it seems to exist largely to set up the final part. Fortunately, some strong character work helps to elevate it above the purely mundane.

This is new companion Helen’s first journey in the TARDIS, and Platt’s script doesn’t shy away from showing her enjoying her new surroundings. As a qualified historian, she has a familiarity with Renaissance Italy, and it’s fun to listen to her marvel at the new sights while simultaneously understanding what’s going on around her. Unfortunately, she also immediately discovers what it means to be one of multiple companions: sometimes there really isn’t much for you to do. Granted, she’s out of her depth, while the Doctor and Liv are both well equipped to deal with alien incursions, but Helen mostly trails around in the background asking an occasional question. I have a good sense of her personality at this point but I’d like to know more about what experiences have informed her viewpoints, and there’s not much to learn from a story like this.

The best part of the story by far is John Woodvine’s Galileo. The famous astronomer is written and performed with much more depth than the usual historical celebrity figure: his story is layered with truths and lies, and his motivations are complicated and sometimes unclear. He obviously values his friendship with the Doctor, but he’s still willing to betray him to maintain a semblance of family life, even if he knows his “daughter” is really an alien mercenary. It’s very easy to describe a character as a genius; it’s much more difficult to create that impression, and Platt certainly does so with Galileo, who is basically the smartest person in any room.

The plot, such as it is, is very slight. Intergalactic mercenaries insert themselves into Renaissance life, monitoring Galileo for the next time the Doctor pays him a visit. From there, they aim to capture him and bring him to the Eleven. The Doctor vanquishes them – and then heads off to meet the Eleven anyway! I’m not saying this doesn’t make sense, but it does give a strong impression that this story didn’t really need to be here. On top of that, the mercenaries aren’t particularly interesting characters – Harry Myers in particular goes almost comically over the top – and together “The Galileo Trap” feels like it’s treading water until the finale.

It’s worth a listen, though, even if only to hear how the stage is set for “The Satanic Mill.” The script is exciting and economical, and as mentioned above, the character work is largely quite strong. In the Dark Eyes sets, a story like this would have been about the best we could hope for. In the early days of Doom Coalition, if this is the “floor,” we’re still in for a treat.

Recommended.

6/10

THE SATANIC MILL

The problem with writing epic conclusions to serialized stories is that you need to make the finale live up to the promise of the preceding episodes. I’ve complained at length about Big Finish’s pattern of failure in this situation, and the issue rears its ugly head yet again in Edward Collier’s “The Satanic Mill,” the final story in the first Doom Coalition series and a very disappointing conclusion to an otherwise entertaining set.

When the Eleven was introduced in, um, “The Eleven,” the character demonstrated serious promise. A Time Lord displaying the personalities of each of his incarnations is a concept ripe for exploration. In that first story, presenting the villain on a surface level was acceptable because it was his introduction – the fact that he doesn’t do much more than argue with himself didn’t bother me too much. Unfortunately, he’s exactly the same in “The Satanic Mill.” Get ready for more scenes involving Mark Bonnar arguing with himself in funny voices, then yelling “SILENCE, ALL OF YOU!” before continuing with his plans. He is neither interesting nor threatening; we learn nothing about him nor does he present any danger greater than that of a thousand other Doctor Who megalomaniacs.

He’s basically the Master with different trappings, in other words. His plan is utterly ludicrous: he constructs a space station inside the orbit of Mercury to house a stellar manipulator with which he intends to destroy the Sun. But he needs a Time Lord to power it, and he wants to use the Doctor for the purposes of irony. Now, Doctor, you shall be responsible for the destruction of your favorite planet! Mwa ha ha! But he needs the Doctor to actually show up and try to stop him, so he adds more nonsense to the plan to draw the Doctor in. But didn’t he hire a gang of space mercenaries to capture the Doctor in the story just before this one, thus obviating the need for a more elaborate plan? You may remember that, but Collier doesn’t, so the Eleven models his space station after a workhouse, complete with indentured workers, to compel the Doctor to intervene. This is saved largely because it’s a cool image, but really – powering your ancient Time Lord weapon by forcing a bunch of people to walk on treadmills?! Perhaps this is a consequence of contracting a brand new author, who has apparently never been credited with anything else, to write the final installment in the first box set of a new series. How curious.

The final confrontation is pretty weak as well. The Eleven straps the Doctor to his machine, argues with him for a while, and then runs off to savor his victory – and leaves the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver behind, unguarded, along with a worker that’s been helping the Doctor! Does the Eleven have a “really, really stupid” incarnation we haven’t heard yet that took over in that moment? Also, this is the final story in a box set named “Doom Coalition 1” – would it kill them to hint, even once, over four hours of drama, at what the Doom Coalition is? Or what the Eleven’s plan is, besides “kill the Doctor with irony?” Could they maybe have ended the story on a less awkward note than the Doctor declaring it time for a holiday?

There is some material here worth hearing, fortunately. The story wisely pairs up Liv and Helen, giving them their own obstacles to overcome. The actors have fantastic chemistry and the characters work together quite well – it’s a nice contrast between Liv’s pragmatism and Helen’s brash idealism. The set in general is also directed very well by Ken Bentley and features very solid sound design from Wilfredo Acosta. But overall, “The Satanic Mill” is a weak ending to an otherwise strong set, featuring generic Doctor Who villainy and very little to pique the interest. Hopefully future Doom Coalition sets will be closer to “The Eleven” and “The Red Lady” than they are to this.

Subpar.

4/10

DWM 448 – The Revenants – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Thursday 8 October 2015 2:25 pm

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE REVENANTS

After several full-cast releases, Doctor Who Magazine turned to the Companion Chronicles for its periodic free subscriber audio stories. The last of these to date was “The Revenants,” from Ian Potter, a story that was eventually released for purchase as part of “The Light at the End” limited edition set. It’s a creepy story with a ton of atmosphere that unfortunately slows down too much in the second part but still remains well worth hearing.

Separated from the Doctor and the TARDIS, Ian and Barbara are forced to walk across a dangerous marsh in the dying light of day’s end, trying to find shelter and avoid being sucked under the mud. That’s almost the entirety of the first episode, but Potter’s script makes it work: it’s incredibly dramatic, remaining gripping throughout, the threat of the marsh feeling shockingly real. The sound design is a particular pleasure, making everything realistic and believable – it’s one of BF’s best productions in recent memory, in fact. And this was for a DWM freebie! After they’re rescued, the tension doesn’t let up, because that’s when the Revenants show up.

“The Revenants” is in many ways modeled after a classic horror film. There’s the initial sequence in the marsh to build tension followed by the onslaught of what are essentially peat zombies, and the characters working together against the clock to find a way to defeat them. It’s genuinely unnerving for much of its running time, with the eerie score contributing to the disturbing feeling. Unfortunately, once Ian and Barbara are reunited with the Doctor, and after the initial Revenant attack, the story grinds to a halt so the characters can have an endless conversation about how to stop their attackers. Yes, it’s a great example of scientific inquiry to show their thought processes, and it’s very Doctor Who to have everyone miss the obvious solution, but about the only interesting thing in the entire sequence is the Doctor advocating for a quite permanent solution.

There’s actually a framing device here, and it’s quite pleasant: an older Ian is taking the ferry to Orkney to visit some old friends, and he tells a stranger a tale to help pass the journey. The placement of the story is curious: it’s right after Susan’s departure in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” so the Doctor is still understandably upset. This is implied to be the reason for his erratic behavior, but later in the story we learn that he spent years waiting for his timeline to align with his companions – so is he still upset? It’s unclear. There are even hints at the end that he was waiting much longer than that, which are interesting, especially for this incarnation. I also liked the Doctor taking the mantle of the ancient Wissfornjarl, and Barbara calling him out for playing the role of a god after the events of “The Aztecs.”

William Russell narrates, and I don’t need to tell you that his performance is generally excellent. It’s a bit confusing when he’s voicing the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara all having a conversation but that’s a limit of the format more than anything. Sharon Small is the guest performer, turning in a solid performance – though I actually liked her more on the ferry than in the bog! As mentioned above, the design is the star of the show: Toby Hrycek-Robinson deserves some sort of medal for both his sound design and his music, which create one of the most effective atmospheres I can remember in a Companion Chronicle. Overall, “The Revenants” is a strong release, especially for something that was originally released for free. It’s a great scary story for a quiet night.

Recommended.

7/10

6.12 – The Rings of Ikiria – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 7 October 2015 5:18 am

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE RINGS OF IKIRIA

The second release in three slots for author Richard Dinnick is also the final Companion Chronicle in the sixth series. “The Rings of Ikiria” returns to the traditional bent the series has taken of late, and while it’s a solid piece of drama, it’s at its best when it focuses on its lead character.

This is the second and, to date, final Companion Chronicle starring Richard Franklin as Mike Yates. This is unfortunate because the story actually tries to dig into one of the most interesting, underexplored supporting characters of the entire program. Yates’ betrayal in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and subsequent redemption in “Planet of the Spiders” is an underappreciated bit of characterization that has largely been unaddressed by the audio stories. Here, we finally get a look into Yates’ thought processes: how he never felt like he belonged in any particular group until he joined UNIT, how he trusts the Brigadier more than anyone else, and so on. This is largely new territory for this character, but it’s quite welcome: the format of the Companion Chronicles allows us to get into the companions’ heads, and that is exactly what “The Rings of Ikiria” does with Yates. Franklin’s readings are great, especially in the scene where the Brigadier threatens to reassign Yates from UNIT; you can feel the heartbreak in each line along with the depth of his feeling for his superior.

The problem is with the story itself: it is utterly traditional. A powerful alien intelligence has journeyed to Earth to tempt humanity with something that will lure us under its spell, and only the Doctor and his companion(s) stand in the way. The first episode is fine: Yates watches things spiral out of control with no apparent way out, with his investigations proving increasingly fruitless. But in the second episode, when the Doctor is re-introduced, Yates takes a back seat to the action. The Doctor comes up with a plan to defeat the invading Ikiria (Felicity Duncan) and instructs Yates on a specific part of it. This instruction is not dramatized, so the listener has no idea what Yates is trying to accomplish while he switches out one gem for another. Yes, this is certainly portraying what it’s like to be a 1970s companion – doing what the Doctor says without any idea what the hell is going on – but it’s hardly interesting drama when the character we’ve been following for 60 minutes has little to do with the resolution. And all of the interesting character work is thrown out: there’s barely any follow-up on Yates’ feelings about his friends after this story. Could this be one of the moments that eventually factors into his decision to betray UNIT? Sure, it could be, but you’ll never know from listening to this story.

I also don’t like the title. “The Rings of Ikiria” sounds poetic but it’s actually incredibly literal: there is a character named Ikiria that hands out rings to people. “The Claws of Axos” wasn’t actually about giant claws, you know? I have a lot of time for the production, though, especially the haunting score from Richard Fox and Lauren Yason – the Companion Chronicles aren’t known for their music but this is a particularly successful entry in that department. Overall, “The Rings of Ikiria” is a solid Pertwee-era tale that promises much in the character department but fails to deliver. It’s worth listening to if you want a traditional tale, but if you’re looking for much more than that you should probably look elsewhere.

Solid, unmemorable.

6/10

6.11 – The Jigsaw War – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Monday 5 October 2015 7:12 pm

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE JIGSAW WAR

The penultimate story in the sixth series of Companion Chronicles is the second Eddie Robson script in three slots. This one, “The Jigsaw War,” is a very strong release, using a nonlinear narrative to actually get into its characters’ heads.

Much like “Binary,” “The Jigsaw War” eschews the traditional Companion Chronicle narrative in favor of a full-cast style that incorporates two actors playing multiple parts into the fiction. So it’s not Jamie doing an impression of the Second Doctor, it’s actually the Doctor speaking through him. Likewise, Dominic Mafham plays both the colonial leader Moran and the true villain of the piece, Side. I like this because it gives the two-hand structure even more depth, allowing us to view the game from outside perspectives as well as those of the players.

After a few, more traditional, plot driven stories, “The Jigsaw War” is entirely about Jamie McCrimmon and his relationship with the Doctor. We see the foundations for his trust in the Doctor and the true depth of it: even in the face of significant evidence, he is unwavering in his support for his friend. But we also get to see Jamie as an intelligent human being, defined by more than his Scottish heritage and 18th-century upbringing. Much like Leela, authors have often put him into the “noble savage” box – meaning he’s brave, he’s heroic, and he’s lovable, but he’s also kind of an idiot. This story, however, requires Jamie to put together a series of discrete observations and deduce an unlikely solution, and he takes to the problem like a fish to water. Frazer Hines is great, naturally, but that goes without saying at this point.

The non-linear narrative is also put to good use. Of course, the non-linearity is the focus of the plot, as Jamie has to put the segments into the proper order, but by presenting the segments in this way we get to see Jamie’s trust in the Doctor put to the test. Taken in order, he would have no reason to distrust his own perceptions, nor would he have any reason to doubt the Doctor; the rearranged scenes, on the other hand, bring both of those issues to the fore. Narratives like this should never be gimmicky, and Robson shows a very good reason for telling the story in this manner.

I’m also a fan of the plot itself, which comes across as an attack on the veiled racism that drives anti-immigrant sentiment. We’ve all heard that sort of thing before – “sure, they seem like nice people now, but get enough of them together and look out!” – and of course the Doctor is going to react against it. But I also like that Robson doesn’t turn the humans into obvious villains: from everything they know, this race is indeed dangerous in large numbers, and they’re not being violent just for the sake of asserting dominance. I also approved of the final reversal: the revelation that they aren’t actually violent in large numbers, but their “god” alters others’ perceptions in order to keep them imprisoned. He’s the real villain, not the manipulated humans – and Jamie figuring that out is the key to finding the true solution to the puzzle.

The production is solid as ever, from Lisa Bowerman’s direction to the sound design from Howard Carter. But the script – including the narrative – is the star of the show. This is great work from Eddie Robson, and a return to form for the Companion Chronicles.

Highly recommended.

9/10

6.10 – The Wanderer – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Friday 2 October 2015 4:33 am

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE WANDERER

The tenth installment in the sixth series of Companion Chronicles, Richard Dinnick’s “The Wanderer,” takes us back to another Hartnell-era historical setting, with all the grand scale that implies. Yet again, however, there’s nothing particularly striking about this story: it’s well told, it holds the attention, and the lead actor is great, but it seems like more should be expected from this most experimental of ranges.

Much of the story is built around concealing the identity of its guest star until a grand revelation shortly into the second episode. Let’s see – we’re in Siberia, there’s a traveling mystic with a mighty beard who speaks of visions, people call him a “mad monk,” his name is Grigori – who could this possibly be? I can’t imagine – oh, it’s Rasputin! Bless my stars! Sarcasm aside, it is entirely predictable, but fortunately Tim Chipping’s performance as the Russian mystic is very strong. He’s a sympathetic, troubled character, who seems hungry for knowledge and power but seeks only to use that power to benefit others. Credit to Dinnick for not beating around the bush when it comes to the benefits of future knowledge: Rasputin directly references Hitler and the Holocaust when he names tragedies he could avert. Yes, it’s a bit grim for a series like Doctor Who, but if we’re going to have a serious moral debate about the perils of changing history, we shouldn’t ignore the very real events in that same history. As the story wraps up and the information grows too much for Rasputin, I think Chipping goes too far over the top – but that’s a small blemish on an otherwise excellent performance.

Speaking of excellent performances, William Russell narrates, and his voice is yet again a reason in itself to listen to this story. About the only weak spot is the Hartnell impression, which isn’t as convincing as usual, but otherwise his performance is unimpeachable. Dinnick expertly captures the feeling of these early stories: Ian’s earnest appeals to Rasputin’s sense of justice would probably sound overwrought in later eras, but here they work well, especially with Russell’s voice behind them. What the story doesn’t need is the giant scorpion men, who seem to show up only to keep the plot moving, pointlessly kill off a supporting character, and don’t sound much different from Cybermen.

The production is solid as ever, with Lisa Bowerman in her usual director’s chair and sound designer Andrew Edwards providing a suitably dramatic score. But the biggest problem faced by “The Wanderer,” as with the last couple of Companion Chronicles, is that it doesn’t do anything to set itself out from the crowd. It’s a celebrity pseudo-historical, and it’s a well-written and dramatic piece, but it’s predictable and unsurprising. It’s worth hearing for William Russell, of course, but beyond that it’s just sort of… there.

Solid.

6/10

6.09 – Binary – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 30 September 2015 3:47 pm

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: BINARY

From Eddie Robson comes “Binary,” the ninth release in the sixth series of Companion Chronicles, and one of the more unique uses of the format. The story itself isn’t especially interesting, but the performances and style manage to hold the attention throughout.

“Binary” is one of a rare few Companion Chronicles that isn’t narrated at all. Instead, it is a true “full-cast” audio production starring Caroline John as Liz Shaw. It is also unusual in that it features three cast members instead of the usual two – ironic, given the title. It’s great to hear John’s voice in this sort of story: she was always a very capable narrator but this is like hearing the soundtrack to a brand new Liz story. Hopefully there will be another attempt at this format before the range finishes; I think variety benefits every range, no matter how successful.

As for the story, it’s fairly straightforward as these things go: Liz is attempting to repair an alien computer in a UNIT vault when she is miniaturized and trapped inside it, forced to repair it from within. There’s an AI with questionable motives, a horde of “monsters” running around trying to kill her, missing scientists also trapped inside, and so forth. And in keeping with the season 7 aesthetic, she’s faced with a moral dilemma, discovering that the situation isn’t as black-and-white as she thought. The title is a clue about the story: it can refer to the two aspects of the computer’s AI, or Liz’s decision whether to stay with UNIT or head back to Cambridge. It also refers to the format, as every scene is a dialogue between either Liz and Childs (Joe Coen) or Liz and Foster (Kyle Redmond-Jones). The problem is that none of this is especially interesting: the plot is entirely predictable, especially once the computer’s projection ability is revealed, and we don’t actually learn anything new about Liz. Yes, she’s far too qualified to be the Doctor’s assistant, and yes, she’s frustrated by this and wants to go back to Cambridge where she’ll be appreciated. This isn’t revelatory at all and yet it’s the foundation of the story.

As mentioned above, the performances are excellent across the board, especially John. Liz was always an underappreciated companion and it’s great to have a story that puts the formidable talents of both the actor and the character at the forefront. Both Coen and Redmond-Jones are threatening and sympathetic in turn; there’s no over-the-top villainy to be found here. Lisa Bowerman ably directs the piece, and the sound design from Matthew Cochrane is so minimalist it’s hard to notice. Another peculiar feature of “Binary” is that it features no incidental music. I’m not sure why that decision was made, because it adds nothing to the story, but at least it doesn’t actively hurt it either. Overall, “Binary” is another solid, unmemorable story. Its two biggest selling points are Caroline John’s performance and the oddities of the format; otherwise, there’s not a lot going on here.

Not bad.

6/10

6.08 – The Selachian Gambit – Review by Styre

Posted by Styre | Recent Reviews | Wednesday 30 September 2015 12:52 am

THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE SELACHIAN GAMBIT

The eighth release in the sixth series of Companion Chronicles is “The Selachian Gambit” from prolific Doctor Who novelist Steve Lyons. It’s a lighthearted, largely inconsequential story, but it spends enough time in the presence of a fun TARDIS crew to be entirely worthwhile.

There’s not a great deal to say about the plot of “The Selachian Gambit:” it’s a bank heist episode. The Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie visit a bank in order to get money to pay a parking fine when Selachian robbers in search of the contents of the vault raid the bank. The usual tropes apply: there’s a hostage negotiator, a person (the Doctor) on the inside trying to prevent a disaster from ensuing, the villains threatening the bank manager to open the vault lock, and so forth. There’s a Doctor Who twist, of course – the vault is dimensionally transcendental – but that doesn’t alter the plot from its clichéd course. You’ve seen this movie before, in other words – heck, you even saw a Doctor Who bank heist episode recently in “Time Heist.”

If you’ve seen it all before, you’ll need other elements to make the story entertaining; fortunately “The Selachian Gambit” has those. This is an early season 4 story with a crowded TARDIS, and Frazer Hines pulls triple duty, playing Jamie, the Doctor, and Ben. There’s quite a bit of full-cast material here along with the narration, and Polly is separated from the other three about halfway through, so there’s quite a bit of Frazer Hines playing almost everyone in a scene. He’s talented enough to make it work, although as with every other time his Troughton impression gets extended airing, it grows less convincing with each passing minute. Anneke Wills is along to play Polly and some of the supporting parts – and even narrate her own segments of the story – which lends the story a great deal of period authenticity. And even though half the cast isn’t actually there, there is a palpable sense of affection in the performances: you can really visualize the actors enjoying the hell out of recording this. That more than anything else elevates the production from feeling generic.

There really isn’t any framing device on offer – it’s just first person narration from the two companions. It’s structured quite well, which is unsurprising from an old hand like Lyons – the story builds to appropriate peaks throughout. But given just how clichéd it is, there isn’t much more to say about it. The title and marketing copy makes it seem as though the Selachians will play a significant role, and while they are indeed the villains of the piece, they could be any generic warmongering alien race and nothing would change. Frankly, I never found them that interesting in the novels, but here they really are just indistinguishable heavies.

Kudos as usual to the production, from director Lisa Bowerman to sound designer Alistair Lock. Overall, “The Selachian Gambit” is a solid Doctor Who take on a traditional bank robbery story. It’s a fun way to pass an hour, and there’s not much more to say about it than that.

7/10

1.6 – More Than This

Posted by Styre | Torchwood | Tuesday 29 September 2015 12:51 am

Gwen meets Mr Pugh, the one man who can say no to Torchwood…

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