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TORCHWOOD: THE GREEN LIFE
At first glance, a crossover between Torchwood and classic Doctor Who seems uneasy – the tones are radically different, after all. But in David Llewellyn’s “The Green Life,” the pairing works surprisingly well. As the title implies, it’s a sequel to “The Green Death,” and it features Jo Jones (née Grant) and Jack Harkness investigating the return of the giant maggots to Llanfairfach. The story doesn’t tell us how they got together, but it quickly flags up the differences in approach: while they both want to accomplish the best outcome for humanity, Jo wouldn’t hurt a fly but Jack will shoot whatever gets in his way. Their arguments are a bit overwrought, but John Barrowman and Katy Manning have great chemistry and so it’s quite entertaining to listen to them bicker. With Stewart Bevan in the cast you’d expect the surprise return of Cliff, but instead he’s playing an old enemy and doing a fantastic job of it. There’s also a wonderful moral dilemma at the end of the story: what do you do when you uncover a plot, run by giant maggots, duping humanity into consuming food they wouldn’t want, but when you also realize the plot is feeding millions and not really hurting anyone? Suddenly, the companions’ positions are reversed: Jo is outraged and determined to stop it while Jack is pragmatic and willing to let it continue under supervision. Llewellyn really understands these characters, bringing their competing philosophies to the fore without making it sound overly forced. Jo and Jack work together surprisingly well. Ultimately, this is still rather slight for a Torchwood story, but it’s thoughtful enough and the performances and the nostalgia carry the day.
From Ravenous 3on
RAVENOUS: THE ODDS AGAINST
The third Ravenous set wraps up with “The Odds Against” by John Dorney, a bizarre story that doesn’t accomplish much and seems to exist purely as a setup for the fourth and final set. It’s a small-scale production, with only the regular cast, the Nine, the Eleven, and the Ravenous in attendance, and yet it’s set on top of the dimensional gateway that separates the Ravenous from our universe. The first half of the story is little more than stalling for time, as the Doctor and companions encounter the mysterious Abbot – but since he’s the only other character in the story you know something is up with him, and sure enough he’s actually the Nine in disguise. The Nine discovered that the Ravenous cannot eat him – they consume regeneration energy and his regenerations don’t work properly – and thus he’s working together with them to lay a trap for the Doctor. When the Eleven discovers this, he is appalled at the Nine’s selfishness: he’s immune to the Ravenous and the only think he can think to do is take revenge on the Doctor? It’s fantastic to hear the Nine and the Eleven talking to each other, especially when different incarnations talk to themselves – though it really underscores how good John Heffernan’s take on the character is compared to Mark Bonnar’s increasingly tired performance. It’s also increasingly clear that the Eleven is not an interesting villain: strip away the multiple personalities and the Eleven is just another megalomaniac. And while this story is fast-paced and entertaining, it’s all setting up for the final scene, in which the Eleven declares that he’s… going to be even more evil, I guess? This entire box set feels superfluous: you could lop off the middle two stories and not affect the plot in any meaningful way, and you could easily condense the other two stories into one. The words “treading water” come to mind.
From Ravenous 3on
I’m growing quite tired of a particular type of Doctor Who story, of which “L.E.G.E.N.D” by Matt Fitton is an example: the Doctor and his companions encounter a famous writer and the story revolves around that writer’s works. It always comes across as an effort by the author to demonstrate just how much they know about the writer in question. This time, the celebrity writers are the Brothers Grimm, and we have fables and fantasy coming to life thanks to an alien supercomputer. We also have the Eleven in a companion role and both Helen and Liv repeatedly saying how bad that idea is. Perhaps Fitton should have listened to his characters, because the Eleven is entirely pointless if he doesn’t pose a threat. At least they’ve toned down the “Silence, all of you!” outbursts but his dialogue follows a pattern: there are only so many times you can hear the Six scream about murder and mayhem before you get sick of it. The larger problem is that the Ravenous are now on the loose, and so a story like this feels superfluous: there’s no real justification for why the characters are here solving this problem when they are supposedly being pursued to the death by an army of ancient, slavering beasts. Nothing interesting or important happens, the story isn’t particularly compelling, and the performances are largely desperate and in search of substance. It’s not an actively terrible story or anything like that but there’s absolutely no reason for it to exist. At least the ridiculous fan-pleasing scripts like “Companion Piece” are entertaining.
From Ravenous 3on
RAVENOUS: COMPANION PIECE
The second story in this set is “Companion Piece” by John Dorney, a fannish conceit to end all other fannish conceits: the Nine goes through history and attempts to kidnap every single one of the Doctor’s companions! They’re all trapped in an inescapable prison, separated out by incarnation of the Doctor, which means we get cameos from Frazer Hines to Katy Manning to Matthew Waterhouse (and beyond) of companions demanding their release. But since it’s a McGann story at heart, we spend most of our time with Liv, Helen, River Song, a version of Bliss from before the Time War, and the returning Charlotte Pollard. As River knows the Doctor better than anyone, the Nine is using her to learn his next targets – but she’s working against him, secretly assembling a group of companions ideally suited to escape his prison. Obviously, the appeal here is listening to this diverse group of companions finally coming together to solve a problem. Dorney skillfully blends nostalgia with plot: Bliss, for example, has never met the Doctor, while Charley is exactly how we remember her. There are also a lot of fun little nods to continuity: Charley occasionally gets shuttled from wing to wing, and while she thinks it’s because she’s a temporal anomaly, it’s probably actually because the Nine can’t decide whether to put her in the Colin Baker or Paul McGann sections. So it’s definitely fun, but the problem is that there isn’t much to it. We don’t really learn much of anything about these companions, nor do they spend any time comparing experiences. The theme seems to be that the Doctor’s companions are all capable people who are good in a crisis and not just wastes of space who ask “What is it, Doctor?” every five seconds – which is fine, but if you know who any of these people are then you know that already. The end completely took me out of the story, though – River recovered Katarina’s dead body from space and put it in a special coffin?! Her residual mental energies lead to the Nine’s defeat? This is, put simply, silly – the holy reverence fandom holds for Katarina, a character that appeared in five whole episodes of Doctor Who, never made sense to me, and to give her this significant a role in a story in which she otherwise doesn’t appear is illogical and doesn’t work. Oh, and she’s obviously played by a new actor (Ajjaz Awad), so you don’t even recognize her voice. Overall, this is a fun story with a lot of nostalgia that hangs together reasonably well but doesn’t hold up under close inspection. It’s refreshing after the intensity of the first story.
TORCHWOOD: NIGHT OF THE FENDAHL
Big Finish’s Torchwood range has really made a name for itself through bold, imaginative storytelling that actually pushes the boundaries of the series we saw on television. So, naturally, in this new series of monthly releases it’s time to… put them up against a bunch of Doctor Who monsters? The first of these is “Night of the Fendahl” by Tim Foley, which attempts to put a darker spin on “Image of the Fendahl” and somewhat succeeds. A small group of horrible people makes snuff films, but when they film their latest effort at Fetch Priory, the Fendahl is awakened! Eve Myles stars, and Gwen spends the vast majority of the story under the influence of the Fendahl, until she… just decides she doesn’t want to be and easily overcomes its control. So, there’s not much to the plot, but the atmosphere and themes are fairly compelling. It’s an incredibly dark story – only Gwen is a decent human being among the entire cast – that really wants to take a stand against exploitative treatment of women. Yes, this is accomplished as all of the exploiters are brutally murdered, but it still doesn’t feel right, largely because the script is constantly leering at Gwen. This is mostly done through the eyes of the filmmakers, but occasionally Gwen herself comments on just how revealing her costume is. Yes, we get it, she’s half-naked. The story is perhaps best at reflecting the banality of evil: none (well, almost none) of the snuff producers are cackling evil villains, they’re just human beings doing awful things to make money. It’s disturbing, it’ll make you feel a bit unclean, but it doesn’t go as far as some of the other stories in the range and it feels exploitative in spite of itself. Fortunately, Eve Myles rescues it with a fantastic lead performance, but otherwise this isn’t a great start to the new release year.
From Ravenous 3on
RAVENOUS: DEEPTIME FRONTIER
The third Ravenous set kicks off with “Deeptime Frontier” by Matt Fitton, a story that picks up from where the previous set left off. The Doctor and his companions are trapped and surrounded by the Ravenous – but they escape, and find their way to a Time Lord research station on the edge of the vortex. There, they encounter Rasmus (Damian Lynch), an old friend of the Doctor, and Visteron (Tania Rodrigues), a scientist Rasmus “convinced” to aid him in a mining project. Unfortunately, the Ravenous track them down, and much of the story is simply the various characters menaced through the station. Fitton gives the story a decent horror atmosphere, aided ably by Benji Clifford’s sound design and Jamie Robertson’s music – but this is very much a “base under siege” story with all the usual details. I’m also not particularly scared of the Ravenous, as I think their “evil clown” look is ridiculous and their halting “evil monster” dialogue is cliched in the extreme. Tasked with designing a creature so ancient, so dangerous that it stimulates a primal fear response in the oldest and most powerful race in the universe, and this is what you come up with? Compare to “State of Decay,” a story that communicated Time Lord terror much more effectively. The McGann sets seem to be getting less ambitious as they go along, which is worrying – but the non-arc stories are usually strong so I’m excited for those.
GALLIFREY: TIME WAR, VOLUME 2
The first volume of Gallifrey stories set in the Time War featured four largely standalone stories, each involving a different character from the range. For the second volume, even though the four stories are all written separately, we are told one consistent story: the return to power of Rassilon and the fall of Gallifrey from democracy to dictatorship. Romana and Narvin are there to fight against it, but their efforts ultimately prove futile.
An oppressive atmosphere of paranoia quickly settles over the listener and does not disperse. Rassilon introduces the Internal Defense Unit (IDU) to serve as, essentially, his secret police, and over the course of the set brings all the various Time Lord agencies under the umbrella of the War Council. His only goal is to defeat the Daleks and win the Time War, and thus anything not directly related to fighting the war is irrelevant and unnecessary. It’s a bit different from real-world dictatorships in that the existential threat to society warned of by the leader is actually real, but the effects are the same: rights are progressively snuffed out as anything in defiance of the war effort is ultimately prohibited. The authors do a great job of compounding this sense of hopelessness as the stories proceed – and since we know that Rassilon “wins” in the end, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
The first story, “Havoc” by David Llewellyn, is a fairly straightforward tale of a Time Lord traveling back from the future to warn of the damage Rassilon will cause if allowed to proceed unrestrained. While the resolution of that plot is largely unmemorable – and the “it’s actually one of our own future selves!” revelation is highly predictable – this story serves more to set the table for future events. We see the formation of the IDU, we see Rassilon consolidating power into his War Council, we see the emergence of Cardinal Mantus (Samuel Clemens) as Rassilon’s top deputy. We also see how Livia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) has lost virtually all independence as Prime Minister. Lastly, we see that the CIA under Romana has become a forgotten agency, with its most important work usurped by the War Council or the IDU.
This leads us into “Partisans” by Una McCormack, which sets up the primary conflict of the set. The planet Ysalus is consumed by civil war, with two nations attempting to destroy one another with others caught in the middle. But what neither side knows is that their planet is rich in a rare mineral oil, one that serves as an essential component of Dalek technology. And if one side wins the war, the other will retaliate with apocalyptic technology that will destroy everyone, leaving the raw materials behind for the Daleks to collect. It’s a little unclear why the vastly more powerful Daleks haven’t moved in force on this planet in the first place, but the Time Lords must intervene to stop the Daleks from acquiring their prize. Romana devises a plan to intervene in typical Time Lord fashion: infiltrate the planet and shape history from within, guiding Ysalus toward the most favorable outcome. But the War Council differs: Rassilon aims to destroy the planet utterly, to send a message to friends and enemies alike that Gallifrey is not to be trifled with. So we follow Narvin and a War Council agent as they work toward these opposing goals. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but it’s a good political drama that really brings Romana and Narvin’s frustrations to the fore.
After the situation on Ysalus is resolved, the aftermath is dealt with in “Collateral” by Lisa McMullin, in which Rassilon escalates the situation by proposing Ysalus be wiped completely from history, and Romana and Narvin must work behind the scenes to stop him. There’s not much to add about the story, except that the ending is particularly bleak – as we know Rassilon eventually presides over the destruction of Gallifrey, we know that Romana and Narvin cannot defeat him here, and that knowledge playing out in real time is quite affecting.
Finally, we have “Assassins” by Matt Fitton, in which Romana, pushed beyond her limits by Rassilon’s utter lack of morals, decides to assassinate the Time Lord President Eternal. I won’t ruin the specific outcome of her plan – though we know definitionally that Rassilon doesn’t die – but this is exactly the sort of drama we should be seeing: characters pushed to their limits and forced to make impossible choices. Not every episode must be a life-or-death struggle, but character is built on conflict, and we learn more about Romana and Narvin (and, to a lesser extent, Livia) in this story than we have in a long time as a result. I also like Fitton’s central concept of a race of assassins whose entire existence is paradoxically due to the Time War itself, and their only purpose is ending it. Very entertaining stuff here, and seeing Rassilon’s true colors as a paranoid zealot with a messiah complex is actually quite frightening.
Overall, “Gallifrey: Time War, Volume 2” is a strong release that uses its setting to the full. Instead of endless battles or increasingly ridiculous time weapons, we watch as the politics of Gallifrey are permanently shifted in a direction that we know ultimately leads to disaster. I’m curious about where the next set is going to go as it appears to be leaving Gallifrey, but that’s for another time. For now, count this a success.
COMIC STRIP ADAPTATIONS: DOCTOR WHO AND THE STAR BEAST
The second and final adaptation in the set is of “Doctor Who and the Star Beast,” also originally by Pat Mills and John Wagner and also adapted by Alan Barnes. This story is famous for two reasons: introducing Sharon, the first black Doctor Who companion, and the memorable villain Beep the Meep. Beep has appeared on audio before, way back in the Doctor Who Magazine special release “The Ratings War,” but this is the first audio dramatization of his first comics appearance.
The word that keeps coming to mind to describe this story is “juvenile.” There’s no complexity whatsoever to the plot: Beep’s ship crashes in Yorkshire, he evades capture by his pursuers by hiding with a local family, and he eventually returns to his ship, tries to escape, and fails, thanks to the Doctor and two local kids. This is all the plot you need for a 30-page comic story, where so much is described through the visuals, but a two-hour audio drama requires some sort of subplot so it doesn’t feel stagnant. Unfortunately, Barnes’ adaptation decisions are largely cosmetic and the story really drags. Fortunately, Barnes’ habit of having his characters describe every last thing in front of their eyes is somewhat kept in check during the story, but it’s not in service of anything greater.
The entire appeal of Beep the Meep is that he’s a fuzzy, adorable little alien creature who’s actually a murderous, megalomaniacal killer out to slaughter whole planets and species. He plays up his cuteness to distract those around him from his evil plots. He also has a fun little song that he sings that actually contains homicidal intent. “Beep’s Song” was first put to audio in “The Ratings War” and we have callbacks to it here that amply reward long-time listeners. But there’s nothing particularly interesting about Beep, especially once you get past the revelation that everyone knows is coming. Bethan Dixon Bate plays the Meep, and while the constant cries of “Meep! Meep!” are meant to be ingratiating I found them irritating.
Look, I know “The Star Beast” is incredibly nostalgic for Doctor Who fans who read it when it came out. And there’s stuff to like here: Sharon and Fudge are incredibly appealing characters, Beep is a villain you can’t help but notice, and the sound design is once again quite good. But it simply doesn’t appeal to me: it’s simplistic, it’s childish, and it deals almost entirely in juvenile themes. If the DWM comic had never been published, and “The Star Beast” was first heard as a random Big Finish monthly release, I very much doubt anyone would have noticed it. But if the comic resonates with you and you really want to hear what it sounds like on audio, you’ll probably love this to death. Sadly, I do not.
COMIC STRIP ADAPTATIONS: DOCTOR WHO AND THE IRON LEGION
For a time, Big Finish featured a Doctor Who Novel Adaptations line, audio adaptations of classic Doctor Who novels from the Virgin era. Despite the consistently high quality of this range, it apparently didn’t sell, based as it was on twenty-year-old spinoff novels with a relatively low readership. But now we have a new range of adaptations: forty-year-old Doctor Who Magazine comic strips! I’m not sure what’ll make this range successful, but let’s jump in with the first story, “Doctor Who and the Iron Legion,” originally by Pat Mills and John Wagner and adapted to audio by Alan Barnes.
Adapting a comic strip is a radically different task than adapting a novel. A novel contains a massive amount of prose, both description and dialogue, and must be reduced significantly to fit in a two-hour running time. A comic strip, on the other hand, contains a ton of visual information over a relatively short amount of space – in this case, 32 pages – and thus must be expanded and adapted to the dialogue-heavy audio format. Based on this, you would think Alan Barnes would be the perfect writer for the job: he wrote several acclaimed DWM comics and has also written and edited Doctor Who audios for 20 years. The problem is that Barnes, even after all this time, still thinks like a comic book writer and still struggles to write convincing audio dialogue. The same old issue rears its head in this story: characters describing everything they’re seeing in excruciating detail. No matter what’s happening, a character will be along to describe in great detail exactly what they see, even if they’re talking to someone who can see the same things. Barnes thinks in terms of impressive visuals but has never figured out how to put them across in an audio script – and it still ruins my enjoyment, every single time.
Which is a shame, because otherwise this story is a ridiculously good time. It’s full-on, unhinged season 17 Tom Baker, bellowing and laughing his way through the story with a massive grin on his face – and Barnes pairs it well with over-the-top comic book worldbuilding. I also like the structure of the story, the scale of which grows with each passing episode. Nothing about it feels realistic at all, which works quite well: the over-the-top dialogue and kitschy atmosphere are really quite entertaining, like watching a gloriously unashamed B-movie. Barnes adds two characters – the bickering Stockbridge couple Doug (Steve Hansell) and Viv (Esther Hill) – who give the plot an extra anchor and fit well with the tone of the piece. Much credit should also go to the production – Alistair Lock’s sound design and music are both excellent, matching both the epic nature and the humor of the script. Overall, “The Iron Legion” is a solid, fun adaptation let down by its continued reliance on awkward descriptive dialogue. It’s not the best story I’ve heard but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
THE MONSTERS OF GOKROTH
It’s the landmark 250th Big Finish monthly Doctor Who release, and to celebrate this milestone, they’ve done… absolutely nothing! Given their track record in other anniversary releases, it’s probably for the best that “The Monsters of Gokroth” by Matt Fitton isn’t packed to the gills with anniversary content – but unfortunately the story isn’t very good.
It may not be an anniversary release, but it’s still time to exhume yet another long-buried element of classic Doctor Who: an entire trilogy of releases featuring the return of Jessica Martin as Mags from “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy!” Even though the bottom of the barrel is getting rough from all the scraping, this still has potential: there are potentially lots of interesting stories to tell about a woman who is essentially a reluctant werewolf. Fitton has a great way to reintroduce the character: she’s traveled to the planet Gokroth to meet a scientist who may have the key to halting her metamorphoses, and the Doctor has followed her there. We never quite get an explanation of why the Doctor is doing this, but it feels like he’s tying up loose ends as he approaches the end of his seventh life. And this specific element of the plot resolves in an interesting fashion, as Mags is forced to confront her nature and decide whether her transformations can be stopped without changing her fundamental identity. If the story was all about this, it would have been fantastic, because Mags has depth rarely seen in classic series companions. Martin is great, too – her delivery feels more modern and less theatrical than most of those around her.
Unfortunately, most of the story is given over to a boring retread of any number of Frankenstein movies. A scientist’s castle up on a hill, mysterious and abhorrent experiments being performed within, and a town of backward, hostile people at the base who inevitably march on the castle with pitchforks! The scientist has an assistant named (I)Gor! There’s a carnival barker with a freak show and sinister motives! We also have monsters who irritatingly and loudly grunt all their dialogue in broken English, because how else should a monster sound? In the first two minutes of the story, Mags is given this line: “It’s not the monsters out there that scare me, it’s the one inside.” That is the level of subtlety at which the story operates: absolutely none whatsoever.
And that would perhaps be tolerable if the story was fun to listen to, but the production is abominable. The supporting cast is regularly asked to scream, growl, and bellow their lines, and it doesn’t work. The sound design is incomprehensible, all roars and transformation effects, which actually means it’s a good thing that the script is so unsubtle because otherwise you’d have no idea what was happening. I really don’t have much more to say about “The Monsters of Gokroth” – it’s too long, it’s hard to follow, it’s padded out ridiculously, and it’s irritating on the ears. Thankfully there’s Jessica Martin and some potentially interesting material featuring her character and her relationship with the Doctor, because otherwise this is hard going.
THE KAMELION EMPIRE
The fundamental problem with Kamelion as a character is that there’s apparently only one type of story you can do with him: he is possessed by some malign influence that twists him to its own ends. Big Finish gave it the old college try, and the trilogy ends with “The Kamelion Empire” by Jonathan Morris, which finally gives us the Kamelion origin story we… always wanted? Sure!
Morris always has interesting ideas rolling around in his brain and this script features some fine examples. Kamelion is from the planet Mekalion, once ruled by a race called the Kamille. When disaster struck the planet, the Kamille uploaded their consciousnesses into a machine called the Locus and created androids as vessels for their minds when they left the machine. Kamelion is, of course, one of these androids. So that’s why every Kamelion story involves him being possessed: because that’s literally what he was built for! Morris also presents an interesting idea that the Kamelion were used for diplomatic purposes: first as ambassadors, and then as infiltrators, subtly working their way into positions of power and controlling planets remotely for the Kamille. Yet they rule benevolently, and it all sounds rather benign – until the Doctor asks what happens to uncooperative planets and the answer is what it always is: genocide.
The big problem with “The Kamelion Empire” is its structure. Everything in the previous paragraph is described in the first two episodes, in which very little happens but we spend a great deal of time learning about Kamelion and his home world. But when Kamille warlord Chaos is unleashed the story takes a very wrong turn. Gone is all the subtle worldbuilding; taking its place is a dreary runaround featuring one of the most one-note villains in the history of Big Finish or indeed Doctor Who as a whole. Chaos stomps around, yelling and cackling – and then Morris decides to set much of the final two episodes on the TARDIS so we can hear Chaos stomp around the art gallery power station! The main console is destroyed, so the Doctor journeys to the secondary control room from season 14! It’s a weird, continuity-obsessed sequence that just feels dry and tired. And the denouement isn’t much better: it’s a long, labored setup for “The Five Doctors.” The TARDIS lands on the Eye of Orion, there’s an explanation for the new console, and it ends with Kamelion instructing the TARDIS crew to pretend as if he isn’t on board. We know why nobody mentioned Kamelion after “The King’s Demons:” the robot didn’t work! But in case you were wondering, now we have a scripted reason for it.
The characterization is quite strong throughout. This is very much the cranky, sarcastic later fifth Doctor, and Davison always enjoys playing the character that way. Turlough does what he always does, though his inevitable betrayal of the TARDIS crew is so transparently false that nobody falls for it except the bellowing one-dimensional maniac. Job done, I guess? And then there’s Tegan, who still wants to put Kamelion off the ship, but learns once and for all in this story that he’s her friend. Heartwarming, sure, but she was right in the first place – Kamelion is much more trouble than he’s worth. Also, the Doctor makes it very clear that his friendship with Kamelion is forever ended, which is why, at the end, he… builds him a special zero room and allows him to stay aboard the TARDIS indefinitely?
There’s a lot of good material in “The Kamelion Empire.” The characterization is great across the board, we learn a number of interesting things about Kamelion and his people, and Morris engages in some fantastic worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the plot is threadbare and the villain is laughably terrible while the story shies away from really engaging with its themes of identity. On balance, it’s fine, but I’ve heard better and so have you.
From The Eighth of Marchon
THE EIGHTH OF MARCH: NARCISSUS
“Narcissus,” by Sarah Grochala, is a UNIT story, but it differs from the others in an important way: it is set later in the UNIT timeline, sometime after “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion.” In that TV story, we never found out which Osgood, human or Zygon, survived “Death in Heaven,” and the Zygon two-parter leaves it even more ambiguous, a state of affairs thematically designed to mirror the human/Zygon stalemate engineered by the Doctor. Here, all that ambiguity is tossed out the window: the human Osgood survived the first story and, while the other UNIT personnel cannot tell the true Osgood from her Zygon counterpart by sight, they know one is a Zygon and make use of her shapeshifting abilities when necessary. None of this is necessarily bad, but it drastically alters the status quo from TV in a way that seems less interesting – yes, the idea of a Zygon UNIT operative is fun, but is it worth the cost of the Osgood ambiguity? (“The Osgood Ambiguity” should be the title of a future story.) Ingrid Oliver is fantastic in this – she has multiple scenes in which she plays both Osgoods in conversation, and it’s never difficult to understand or to follow. Apart from all that, the story is fairly standard UNIT fare: an alien is hijacking a dating site to abduct and use the beauty of its users as an energy source. It’s just Kate, Josh, and Osgood in this one, and it’s a neat little piece that doesn’t outstay its welcome. My only complaint is that Kate and Osgood both get “crisis of confidence” scenes that feel out of character for both women, taking me out of the story – but apart from that this is solid. It’s probably the best story in the set, though unfortunately that’s not a high bar to clear. I’m curious to see if this heralds a jump forward in time for the UNIT range or if this is a one-off.
From The Eighth of Marchon
THE EIGHTH OF MARCH: INSIDE EVERY WARRIOR
“Inside Every Warrior,” by Gemma Langford, is something like a backdoor pilot for the upcoming Paternoster Gang audios. We haven’t heard these characters together on audio – Vastra was in a Churchill Years story and Strax showed up in Jago & Litefoot, but separately – and it’s delightful to have them together again. This is the clear strength of Langford’s story: she expertly captures the relationships between each member of the group, and spends a lot of time on the nuances and subtleties of Vastra and Jenny’s marriage. All three characters support one another in various ways, and all three are variously saved by the others over the course of this story. I particularly enjoyed how involved Jenny was with the plot, as she’s often been the overlooked character of the three – but no such trouble here, and Catrin Stewart is at home being at center stage in a story like this. Unfortunately, while the characterization is the clear highlight of the story, the story itself isn’t very good. Pinch is written as such an over the top misogynist – and is played that way by Nigel Fairs – that it’s obvious he’s not going to be the true villain of the piece. And the plot is thinly-sketched at best – there are neat ideas like draining fluids from characters into cocktails with pun titles, but it barely hangs together and is honestly rather difficult to follow. The sound design is partially to blame here – multiple scenes degenerate into cacophonies of sound effects and yelling and leave the listener in the dark. Overall, though, “Inside Every Warrior” is entirely worth hearing as a solid audio debut of the Paternoster Gang.
From The Eighth of Marchon
THE EIGHTH OF MARCH: THE BIG BLUE BOOK
After a disappointing opening story, The Eighth of March follows it with a story featuring Benny and Ace: “The Big Blue Book” by Lizzie Hopley, presumably part of that “New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield” range I haven’t heard.
(Continuity question separate from the review: when exactly does this take place in Ace and Benny’s relationship? At one point, Benny defers to Ace’s knowledge of the TARDIS, stating Ace has been traveling in it a lot longer than she has – but didn’t Ace leave in “Love and War,” the same story in which Benny first joined? Yes, Ace later rejoins the TARDIS crew, but at what point would Benny’s lack of knowledge of the TARDIS lead her to defer?)
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: “The Big Blue Book” is absolutely dreadful, one of the worst things Big Finish has ever produced. It’s badly written and badly performed. There’s a cool idea at its heart – alien technology that imprisons people by turning them into books and storing them in a massive library – but absolutely nothing interesting is done with this idea at any point. This is supposed to be a story featuring Ace and Benny, but Benny gets turned into a book within the first five minutes and we don’t hear Lisa Bowerman for the majority of the run time. As a result, much of the story is consumed with Ace wandering around talking to herself. Carrying a solo audio story for multiple minutes is a supremely difficult job for a performer, and unfortunately Sophie Aldred isn’t at all up to the task. She’s not always alone, though – sometimes she’s accompanied by Vassa (Rosemary Ashe), a deeply, deeply irritating creature that Ashe plays like a cackling fantasy gremlin. The plot is also nonsensical – it’s basically a runaround that could fill a 15-minute story at best. There’s virtually no characterization, the library idea isn’t meaningfully explored – it’s hard to express just how irritating and unrewarding this story is. It should not have been released.
From The Eighth of Marchon
THE EIGHTH OF MARCH: EMANCIPATION
To commemorate International Women’s Day, Big Finish released a special Doctor Who box set: “The Eighth of March,” hitting the shelves on that date and featuring four stories starring prominent female Doctor Who characters, all written and directed by women. This is an admirable effort for a company whose record on female representation was generously described as “questionable” for much of their existence – though to be fair their record in that department has improved significantly over the past few years. Unfortunately, the first story, “Emancipation” by Lisa McMullin, is not very good. It’s a Diary of River Song story, judging from the theme music, and it features River infiltrating a Galactic Heritage convention by posing as Romana. Leela is there, however, on a separate mission from the Time Lords, and she obviously knows River is not Romana. The two must learn to trust each other as they attempt to save a princess from a sacrificial altar. The plot is fairly straightforward and the twists are predictable, at least until the end. It falls down in the interactions between the leads: neither River nor Leela distinguish themselves, and their relationship boils down to River deciding to interfere in history and Leela telling her it’s a bad idea. Yes, at one point Leela holds River at knifepoint, but then River asks her not to so she stops and it’s never mentioned again. River, of course, knows everything about Leela based (presumably) on the Doctor’s stories, but that knowledge never factors into the story in a meaningful fashion. It feels like a missed opportunity, and that’s before the ending, where two episodes’ worth of plot are condensed into about 10 minutes for no particular reason. Had the story ended after the initial rescue it would have been fine – did they need to pad out the running time? In any case, a disappointing start.
From God Among Us 2on
TORCHWOOD: GOD AMONG US, VOLUME TWO
Picking up right where its predecessor left off, the second volume of “series six” of Torchwood also picks up the same level of quality. I’m continually impressed with these Torchwood stories, how they capture a modern storytelling sense while simultaneously staying true to the characters we know – and this “new” Torchwood team now feels every bit as natural and believable as the originals.
The latest set kicks off with “Flight 405” by Lou Morgan, an interesting little story that reintroduces Norton Folgate to the Torchwood team and makes Samuel Barnett a member of the regular cast. An airplane vanished from the sky over 60 years ago, but now it’s coming back thanks to the Rift, and the alien technology aboard will destroy a good chunk of Earth if the plane crashes. Naturally, it’s up to Norton and Andy to save the day, and this time Yvonne is along for the ride as well. There’s a lot going on in this story that sets up the rest of the set, but the draw here is the interplay between the characters. It’s great to have Norton back, and Morgan’s script wisely brings back his dynamic with Andy – and Andy’s “it’s complicated” relationship with Yvonne leads to some fantastic dialogue. “Flight 405” is a slight story, and the resolution doesn’t entirely make sense, but it’s still a strong way to start off the set while reacquainting the audience with old friends.
The second story, “Hostile Environment” by Ash Darby, is one of the darkest, most affecting Torchwood stories ever told. Tyler’s life has fallen apart, to the point that he has become homeless, and though he insists to himself that his homelessness will only last for a few days, days rapidly become weeks and weeks rapidly become months. Early on, he meets a homeless woman, Kirsty (Jessica Hayles), who takes him under her wing and teaches him how to survive on the streets. All of this is played completely straight, with a haunting sense of realism – Tyler spirals into depression as he learns that more fortunate people barely even notice the existence of the homeless and nobody has any desire to help him. Of course, there’s a sci-fi twist: someone has invented an app that scans homeless people and sends converted Sorvix drones after them, giving them the choice of being a pharmaceutical test subject or death by fire. Tyler is constantly scanned by well-meaning people, and the drugs keep him in a constant haze, unable to think clearly to find a way out of his situation. The comparison to street drugs is painfully obvious, yes, but it’s no less effective as a result. But the most effective moment comes at the end, when Tyler’s life is finally back in order and he has the opportunity to return Kirsty’s kindness. His decision leaves you feeling sick, but it’s thematically perfect. This is a masterpiece.
The third story, “Another Man’s Shoes” by Tim Foley, is a complete departure from the second, and an old standby for science fiction television: the body swap episode! Andy and Yvonne swap bodies, which leads to Yvonne taking a performance review on Andy’s behalf and botching it horribly, while Andy learns the secrets Yvonne has been hiding from Torchwood. Jack and Colchester switch places, which doesn’t come off quite as well: John Barrowman adopts an English accent but Paul Clayton doesn’t adopt an American accent and the questions of intimacy between Jack and Colin feel repetitive after the previous set. But when Norton and Tyler switch bodies, it completely makes up for any deficiencies in the other pairings – while I’ve seen this idea in other sci-fi properties, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a body-swap story in which two people that swapped bodies have sex with each other. It’s raunchy, it’s hilarious, and Samuel Barnett and Jonny Green mimic each other so well you forget the body swap even happened. There’s some important information in this story, but it’s mostly a pleasant palate cleanser after its predecessor.
And that leads to the conclusion, “Eye of the Storm” by David Llewellyn. It’s full to bursting with plot, and it’s probably too convoluted, but it flies along on its own confidence so well that it’s hard to notice. There’s an abandoned Sorvix power station at the bottom of the ocean leaking energy, people are turning to stone, the airplane from “Flight 405” is back, the Committee is reintroduced, we get to learn more about God, and there’s also a massive action set piece in the sunken power station in which our heroes fight to save the world. Llewellyn keeps almost all of the balls in the air successfully, and the cast is clearly having a great time: this is one of the first times we’ve heard this new Torchwood team actually working together as a cohesive unit and it’s delightful, even if one of them ends up betraying the others and the Committee’s tentacles are visible in every part of the story. All of that leads to a fantastic cliffhanger: a massive tsunami is about to hit Cardiff, destroy most of the city, and kill countless thousands of people. I genuinely have no idea how this is going to wrap up but I’m very excited to find out.
Overall, volume 2 of “God Among Us” isn’t quite as strong as volume 1, but it’s still an excellent listen featuring one of the best Torchwood stories in Big Finish history. The production team is running on all cylinders and I expect a fantastic conclusion in the third volume. I’ve often complained about Big Finish oversaturating the market with mediocre stories; if they can keep this level of quality up they can do as much Torchwood as they want.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE PERFECT PRISONERS
And so we come to “The Perfect Prisoners” by John Dorney, the “season finale” that also wraps up the Syndicate arc plot running through this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures. Perhaps the best thing about this series is that they’ve finally abandoned the obsessive drive for nostalgia that characterized the first seven series and aren’t merely trying to recapture the feeling of watching Doctor Who in 1977. I’m genuinely pleased about that, but to replace it instead with a story that basically requires a detailed knowledge of a long, complicated, largely-missing story from 1965 is an interesting decision. At least it’s not presented like a 1965 story, so thank heaven for small mercies.
The central concept turns around the Dream Machine, a device that alters your perception of reality. Implanted into the brains of everyone on Earth, it enables the creation of an unknowing slave caste: while they are actually being worked to death in a factory, they believe they are working a highly-paid, luxurious job. The story takes pains to indicate that the Dream Machine is not a mind control device but merely something that alters your perception – and thus it doesn’t really make any sense. The device doesn’t alter physical reality, so what exactly are the slaves perceiving when they are being worked to death in a factory? Their bodies must actually be doing the physical labor and making the movements to manipulate the real-life machinery, and they must be doing this consciously as they are not being mind-controlled, so what are they seeing that makes them think they’re on a beach? We also see characters start to break free when they notice inconsistencies. It’s a fascinating idea – the perfect prisoner is one who doesn’t know she’s a prisoner – but it doesn’t make much sense as executed.
We discover Ann’s real identity here: she’s a deep cover sleeper agent for the SSS whose real name is Anya Kingdom. Is she related to Sara Kingdom? We never find out! Yes, in a story that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of each delegate in “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” we leave this character’s heritage a mystery, apart from a couple of vague hints from the Doctor. Still, that’s not that important – but by the end of the story, when we realize that not only was Ann a false personality but Anya was also the victim of perception-altering brainwashing, it becomes clear that we know almost nothing about Anya Kingdom at all. It’s curiously unrewarding, and while the Doctor’s decision not to travel with her makes perfect sense – and is excellently performed by Tom Baker – it leaves an empty feeling.
That feeling pervades all four episodes, as the story proceeds at such a lightning pace and with such a heavy amount of exposition that it never has time to breathe or get to know its characters. And while, on balance, this has been the best series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, I still hesitate to call it “good” – it’s just more in line with the usual sort of thing Big Finish produces. Dorney is quite good at writing character pieces, or stories built around an expectation-subverting twist, but he’s not nearly as good at this sort of all-singing, all-dancing action spectacular. As I’ve said with a lot of stories in this series, “The Perfect Prisoners” is an entertaining listen, and it’s certainly not a bad story, but there isn’t much to it.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: FEVER ISLAND
“Fever Island,” by Jonathan Barnes, is, from one point of view, a James Bond pastiche, but from another it’s a Doctor Who story. Scientific experiments have released energy from another dimension that brings imagination to life, focused primarily on Jason Vane (Gethin Anthony), a Bond-like member of “Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” He’s cool, he’s suave, he’s elegant, he has a dastardly Russian opponent, he has weapons and gadgets – you know the drill, and Anthony plays the part well. But of course none of it is real, to the point that when he narrates his own adventures the people around him can hear him doing it. And that’s why I don’t think the satire holds up very well: it’s viewed at a remove by the regular characters. Rather than gently mocking the spy genre from within, the script is essentially pointing and laughing at it. Admittedly, there’s room for some fun performances: Tom Baker as the evil Okulov is a particular delight. There’s also a bit of philosophy, as K9 suddenly wonders what it’s like to dream – and how do you explain that to an artificial life form? I wish the story would spend more time on questions like that, but it’s more interested in danger and melodrama. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but coming on the heels of a similarly over-the-top story it’s a bit much. Also, as predicted, the revelation that Ann is a sleeper Time Agent has absolutely nothing to do with the story – and while that was quite predictable it’s still disappointing. Still, “Fever Island” is an entertaining way to pass an hour, and for this range to be even consistently entertaining is quite an achievement.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: TIME’S ASSASSIN
If you thought the first half of this story was ridiculous, you ain’t seen nothing yet. “Time’s Assassin,” by Guy Adams, turns the knob to 11 and keeps it there for the entire running time, cramming in so much incident, so much over-the-top villainy, and so much fan service that it’s impossible to keep track of everything. It’s an interesting story in that the characters are taking everything quite seriously but the author clearly isn’t – this is a nonsensical tribute to “The Daleks’ Master Plan” featuring the “return” of Zephon, a man who thinks he’s Mavic Chen, Varga plants, and a star turn from Blake Ritson as possibly the maddest mad scientist in Doctor Who history. I don’t even know how to review this, so I’ll just talk about the big revelation: Ann Kelso is actually a sleeper Time Agent on a mission against the mysterious Syndicate! This explains her occasional personality lapses as well as her acceptance of futuristic technology, and in committing two murders we see the lengths she is willing to go to complete her mission. Fortunately, there are only two stories left in this set – the final one in two parts – so there won’t be much time to return to the status quo. I’m still not at all confident that Big Finish will be able to satisfactorily complete an arc like this, since like always it appears they’re leaving everything until the final episodes, but at least we have one big revelation out of the way. Perhaps now we’ll see more from Ann besides “generic companion who likes asking questions.” Returning to “Time’s Assassin,” I really don’t know what to say. It’s impossible not to be entertained because of the frantic pace and endless barrage of information, but I’m not sure it actually holds together as a story. Ultimately, I enjoyed listening to it, and that’s the deciding factor.
We have a surprising break from the usual format in the monthly range – #248 contains two, two-part stories: “Black Thursday” by Jamie Anderson and “Power Game” by Eddie Robson. Both feature the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and Kamelion, and both tell what is apparently the only possible Kamelion story: he comes under the malign influence of someone or something dangerous. “Black Thursday” is similar to “Black Orchid” in that it’s a two-part Davison historical, but rather than a murder mystery we have Kamelion running amok. The TARDIS lands in 1902 in a Welsh coal mine right before a massive explosion collapses the mine, kills several workers, and injures several more. Most of the first episode involves the Doctor and his companions trying to save as many miners as possible, and while Anderson writes the supporting characters well and gives them an appropriate amount of pathos, “carrying people out of a mine” feels rather unimportant for a Doctor Who story. Things pick up in the second half, as a woman’s grief at losing her family overwhelms Kamelion and he resolves to take revenge on the mine owner. The desperate struggle to find him is entertaining enough, but the ending is dreadful. Kamelion carries the owner’s daughter up a building like a robotic King Kong and there’s lots of screaming and wailing by the supporting cast in an unimpressive, unimaginative soap opera revelation. I’m not sure what the point of this story is. We don’t learn anything interesting about the historical period – surely everyone knows that coal mining was a horrendously dangerous occupation – and the regular characters, Kamelion included, are used in the most obvious possible ways. Much like “Black Orchid,” this feels like filler, but it’s not even as good.
I know that there are a lot of Doctor Who stories, and that they often take inspiration from their fellows, but seriously, what story am I describing: One of the Doctor’s companions is abducted via teleport and forced to compete in a game show (based on the game shows of the time) that appears innocuous at first but turns out to be deadly. It’s “Bad Wolf,” right? Well, it’s also “Power Game,” and while there are some differences, the similarities are hard to ignore. The biggest twist is that the evil host of the game show is actually Kamelion, under the influence of an alien being trying to bring dangerous materials from its universe into our own. Robson does a fine job with the characters: he really captures the individual voices of the regulars and the 1980s supporting characters all have unique, recognizable personalities. The plot is straightforward and entertaining, even if it never really hits any surprising beats. My question is about Kamelion: honestly, why is the Doctor keeping him around? Literally every single time the TARDIS lands, something takes control of him and he becomes a serious danger to everyone around him. I understand the desire to teach Kamelion, a sentient being, to interact with the universe in a controlled, healthy manner, but at some point, the Doctor is just willfully endangering the people around him by bringing Kamelion along. I also understand that Kamelion isn’t going to be in every Davison audio, and so the writers want to use him while they can, but isn’t there any other story we can tell? How about a story that takes advantage of his shapeshifting abilities without incorporating a malign psychic influence? But these complaints aren’t really about “Power Game,” which is a solid, entertaining piece of Doctor Who, even if it doesn’t feel wholly original.
From Missy Series 01on
I imagine Missy is a difficult character to write. Unlike her various Master predecessors, her motives aren’t always clear and her morality is cloudy at best, especially when you get to series 10 on TV. So after a guest appearance in a River Song set, Missy gets her own Big Finish box set, and it’s an interesting effort that is largely successful.
Big Finish has assembled an all-star writing team for this set, starting with frequent original and spinoff contributor Roy Gill’s “A Spoonful of Mayhem.” This story leans hard into the “evil Mary Poppins” idea, showing us Missy trapped in Victorian London and forced to work as a governess. The story is wisely told from the perspective of her charges, Oliver (Oliver Clement) and Lucy Davis (Bonnie Kingston). To them, Missy appears to be a character straight out of a fairy tale, teaching them mysterious secrets and showing them hidden, magical parts of London. It’s very Neil Gaiman, with mythological figures existing just out of sight and around the corner, and Missy is the door between the two Londons. Michelle Gomez is fantastic, showing Missy’s complexity – she’s utterly self-interested, of course, but her relationship with Oliver and Lucy almost feels affectionate in places. Or maybe it’s simply that she decides not to murder them for no reason. Either way, it’s a strong opener.
John Dorney handles the second story, “Divorced, Beheaded, Regenerated,” which gives us a pairing we’ve never seen before: Missy and the Meddling Monk. It’s the Rufus Hound Monk, naturally, and he pairs shockingly well with Gomez, constantly thinking he has the upper hand while Missy dismisses him with withering disdain. We learn the Monk survived the Time War in a very similar fashion to Missy, using a Chameleon Arch to disguise himself as a human – except he was on Earth, and has since involved himself in human history, going so far as to impersonate Henry VIII. The plot is silly in a good way, but the attraction here is the interaction between the two Time Lords. I absolutely love that Missy refers to him as the Meddling Monk despite having no reason to know him as a monk – and that he’s utterly frustrated that everyone calls him that because of one encounter with the Doctor. This might be Dorney’s funniest script – it’s an onslaught of witty dialogue and cutting comebacks that is based in a deep understanding of what makes the two Time Lords tick. It’s the highlight of the box set for sure.
The next story is “The Broken Clock” from Nev Fountain, and it features the metatextual approach to the format we’ve come to expect from him. The story opens as an episode of “Dick Zodiac’s America’s Most Impossible Killers,” a satirical – and absolutely terrible – American true-crime series that reenacts famously unsolved mysteries. I’m assuming this is supposed to be a parody of “Unsolved Mysteries” itself, but the parody is so over the top and intentionally terrible that it falls somewhat flat. It honestly feels a bit mean-spirited toward American TV – but an era of American TV that died out thirty years ago. I certainly hope this isn’t supposed to be satirizing more recent true crime podcast efforts like “Serial,” because if it is, it completely misses the mark. Fortunately, as the story progresses the parody elements fade into the background. We learn that the characters are trapped within this recreation, and that the narrator actually has mental control over what happens. In a delightful twist, the murderer – the man with a pointed beard – is revealed as a sentient TARDIS that fled Missy’s malign influence. Unfortunately, in its search for a new pilot, it has led several humans to their deaths. The story hints that the killer is a previous incarnation of the Master, so this revelation is quite surprising, not to mention affecting. Overall, it’s a smart, entertaining story that would have been better served to turn down the parody a bit.
Finally, we have “The Belly of the Beast” by Jonathan Morris, a story that turns almost entirely around its plot twist and what that tells you about Missy. Fortunately, that twist is quite insightful. Missy has enslaved the inhabitants of a peaceful planet and transported them to a mine, where she puts them to work excavating an ancient artifact. The story follows the perspective of one of these slaves, Aleyna (Abbie Andrew), as she tries to rebel against Missy, liberate her people, and flee servitude. There’s even a rebel force for her to join in her efforts to escape. The grand revelation is shocking, especially since we learn it through Aleyna’s eyes – the entire slave workforce was cloned, and nobody was abducted from anywhere. The clones have no history, no inherent desire to rebel. Indeed, everything about them was created by Missy, out of boredom with a two-year excavation process. Instead of sitting around checking daily progress reports, now she has a “rebellion” to fight. Instead of mindless labor, she has individuals desperate to return to their world of origin. It’s all for her own amusement – and when she finally gets what she wants and the project is complete, she leaves the slaves to die and the story ends. As a result, it’s unrewarding, but it’s supposed to be – it’s impressive how completely Morris subverts the listener’s expectations. And just in case you found yourself liking Missy in the first three stories, this is a reminder of just how cruel she can be.
Overall, this is a strong box set. It does not fall into the usual Big Finish trap of telling traditional stories; these are all ambitious and even experimental in their own ways. There isn’t even a weak entry – there were elements I didn’t care for but nothing that brought down an entire story. Between the recent War Master set and this, Big Finish may have something with this character, whether it’s the Master or Missy, and I’m genuinely interested to hear more.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: TICK-TOCK WORLD
While I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of the historicals in the First Doctor Adventures, the sci-fi stories have been significantly better. Perhaps that’s due to the content being a much better match for the format: the slow 1963 style of drama lends itself better to a careful explanation of a sci-fi concept than it does to a historical epic. This brings us to “Tick-Tock World” by Guy Adams, which is probably the weakest of the three sci-fi First Doctor Adventures but still much better than its historical counterpart.
There isn’t much plot here – “Tick-Tock World” is a story almost entirely about its concept, a world on which time runs differently and ghosts of potential futures appear to warn people of their fates. Adams, following the house style, takes a long time to reveal what’s going on, so much so that the first two episodes are basically ghost stories. No explanation is given beyond this being the peculiar nature of the place the TARDIS crashed, but fortunately the story doesn’t need more than that. This is, instead, a character piece, something I’ve seen described as this cast’s version of “The Edge of Destruction,” and something that holds up quite well. The Doctor is separated from his companions for most of the story, and they are trapped on a dying world, pursued by creatures eager to devour them. And it’s genuinely great: we get to see Ian, Barbara, and Susan all pushed beyond their limits, gaining a window into the deepest elements of their personalities. We see just how deeply devoted Ian and Barbara are to one another, and we see how desperate Susan is for family and connection beyond her grandfather. The supporting characters are unfortunately not given anywhere near the same development – that’s the weakest part of the story, but Adams’ work with the regulars helps make up for it.
We also get to see the Doctor surrounded by alternate versions of himself, something which naturally irritates the hell out of him but also gives us a look into his relationship with his companions and with his granddaughter. He’s naturally protective of Susan, unwilling to let her spread her wings, wanting to keep her safe from the horrors of the universe – he’s just like any other (grand)parent in that respect, but it’s still fascinating to see how much love and fear hides below his gruff exterior. And then there’s the big selling point: one of the alternate, older versions of Susan is played by Carole Ann Ford herself. It’s a real credit to Claudia Grant that they sound like the same character at different ages – her performance isn’t much like Ford’s at all but she’s still recognizable. And while it’ll never be the same as William Hartnell, hearing Ford and David Bradley interact should warm the heartstrings of any fan.
This isn’t a perfect story – the plot is threadbare and the supporting characters are thinly sketched at best. But it’s a great look into this TARDIS crew and their relationships – and while the characters aren’t going to remember the details of this story, I hope future authors keep these scenes in mind as we flesh out this new cast.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE PHOENICIANS
The pattern is now well-established for these recast First Doctor Adventures: each set contains two four-episode stories, one of which is a historical and one of which is a sci-fi tale. This is in keeping with the series format in its first season, but is also indicative of how this range has absolutely no ambition in 2019 beyond telling stories made to sound exactly 56 years old. And that’s where we find “The Phoenicians,” by Marc Platt, a carbon copy of other historical stories without an original thought in its head.
Most historical stories involve a well-known historical period or well-known historical figure. Almost all of them involve the TARDIS crew getting wrapped up in events beyond their control, unable to change things and simply wanting to escape. Here, the TARDIS lands in ancient Tyre, where they meet Pygmalion – not the mythological figure known from various plays and operas, but the king of Tyre whose sister Dido eventually founded Carthage. This isn’t particularly well known, but there’s nothing wrong with learning about a new era of history – except Platt doesn’t distinguish Phoenicia in any particular way and decides to portray Pygmalion and Elissa (later Dido) as petulant, irritating teenagers.
The first episode goes as these things usually do, with the TARDIS crew getting in over their heads and a cliffhanger ending with at least one of their lives in danger. But from there, nothing really happens in the story – the pace is glacial, there’s very little peril, and it’s not clear why the characters are even sticking around. They have the ability to leave from the middle of episode three, and for some reason they choose not to – there’s nothing keeping them there, they’re not enjoying themselves, and they sound bored, but they stick around for another 45 minutes for… reasons? Of course, historicals with low levels of plot incident can still be great – look at Big Finish’s own “Farewell, Great Macedon” for a perfect example – but those stories require excellent character work. Here, we learn nothing about our regular characters, except for an extended “are Ian and Barbara together???” subplot that sounds like a 12-year-old wrote it. And our only two guest characters of note, Pygmalion (Jo Ben Ayed) and Elissa (Ajjaz Awad), are incredibly childish, and the actors pitch their performances to be as irritating as possible.
In short, we have a dreadfully boring story with irritating characters and little incident. This is every bit as bad as “The Great White Hurricane” and significantly worse than “The Barbarians and the Samurai” – but I guess if Big Finish really want to ape the 1960s, they might as well strangle the historical genre to death just like Doctor Who itself did.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: CONCEALED WEAPON
The easy way to write River Song is as an analogue for the Doctor: someone who makes the right choices, who outsmarts the bad guys, and who saves the day in the end. The challenging way is to recognize the very real differences between River and the Doctor, both in terms of morality and competence, while still maintaining River’s character. She tries and often fails to find the “other way” that saves everyone; the Doctor virtually always finds it. She occasionally resorts to violence and death to escape trouble; the Doctor (at least in the modern series) never does. And that brings us to the Master: the Doctor virtually always defeats the Master, but can River do the same? We’ve seen her in an uneasy truce with Missy, we’ve seen her run circles around Beevers and Roberts – but in “Concealed Weapon,” by Scott Handcock, she’s up against the War Master at the height of his powers and things do not go to plan. Every time the Master shows up in the modern series, disaster strikes and the Doctor barely wins. Multiple encounters have ended with companions departing or even the Doctor regenerating. And this makes sense: the Master was conceived as the Doctor’s Moriarty; the two were intended to be intellectual equals. All of this is to say that I loved “Concealed Weapon” because the Master proves this by outsmarting River. Yes, she foils his plan, but he manipulates her throughout like the NA Doctor at his finest, and by the end of the story even has River unwittingly carrying out his plans. Handcock’s script handles this well: River is every bit as capable and intelligent as always but the Master retains the upper hand. Unfortunately the rest of the story is a letdown: the plot isn’t very interesting, the pacing is off, the guest performances aren’t good, and there are odd mistakes like a character sucked into naked vacuum and yet somehow still being able to gasp for breath and say “Not like this.” But the River/Master relationship is a true highlight and “Concealed Weapon” is the best story in the set.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE LIFEBOAT AND THE DEATHBOAT
“The Lifeboat and the Deathboat” by Eddie Robson is the headline-grabber of this set: it features the return of Eric Roberts to the role of the Master for the first time since the 1996 TV movie. It’s genuinely cool that Big Finish got him to do this, as you don’t hear a lot of Oscar-nominated Hollywood actors in Doctor Who audios, but unfortunately, he sounds like he did this in an hour to pick up a check. The Master in the TV movie was wildly over the top and camp – “I always dress for the occasion” and such – but here he’s subdued and bitter after decades of isolation. This would be fine if the script dug into his psychology, but Robson instead opts for the “is this really the Master?” angle which means the script can’t reveal too much. The revelation that he’s been the Master the whole time is indeed surprising, but that’s largely because we’ve never had a Master defined by bored, flat line readings. The story is utterly ridiculous – VHS tapes of 1980s teen movies inexplicably factor prominently – and yet uninteresting, as virtually nothing significant happens and the characters mostly just explain the plot to each other. It is interesting to hear how well River takes to accompanying the Master, as this is the only story in the set in which she doesn’t know the Master (and Missy) is a Time Lord in advance – but Alex Kingston’s energetic performance jars with Roberts’ attempt and sounds bizarre as a result. Admittedly, I have no idea if Roberts’ performance is a deliberate acting choice or simply due to a lack of interest, but either way it doesn’t work and therefore neither does the story as a whole.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: ANIMAL INSTINCT
“Animal Instinct,” by Roy Gill, takes River into the classic series era once again for a meeting with the Geoffrey Beevers Master – and yet Gill puts a smart twist on the idea. River is actually on an archaeological mission – it’s amazing how often we forget why she’s “Professor” in the first place – and when she discovers an ancient tomb containing a two-hearted individual in stasis, she expects to exhume the Doctor, but gets a completely different Time Lord instead. This is definitely the less serious Beevers Master that we’ve seen in the Fourth Doctor Adventures – the story almost plays as though they wanted Roger Delgado or Anthony Ainley but couldn’t have them. This Master is a gentleman killer, suave and debonair, always ready with a witty aside, not the snarling murderer desperately clinging to life we remember from television. At one point, he effortlessly climbs a tree! But all of this works because the story smartly presents this Master as a man caught out of his comfort zone. He thinks he’s in a classic series Doctor Who story but he’s actually caught in a modern story and he hasn’t a clue how to react. River’s playful, sexually charged conversation is completely alien to this Master, and he’s constantly on the back foot as a result. It’s no surprise that the story ends with River rather easily outsmarting him. Most interesting, though, is that the story tries to show us the darker side of River’s morality but she ultimately doesn’t do anything the Doctor didn’t do in the classic series. Overall, this is a solidly entertaining story that generates a lot of enjoyment from the unlikely pairing of lead characters.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE BEKDEL TEST
After the surprisingly impressive fourth series, which largely stayed away from Doctor Who continuity, The Diary of River Song jumps back in with both feet in its fifth series: in each story, River encounters a different incarnation of the Master. The first story in the set, “The Bekdel Test” by Jonathan Morris, brings River together with Missy in Michelle Gomez’s first audio appearance. Missy, like River herself, is one of those characters that was largely (if not entirely?) written by Steven Moffat on television, and so it’s up to Morris to ape Moffat’s style. He largely succeeds, but there’s a surprising amount of continuity on display. The story is entertaining: first River, then Missy, are brought to an “inescapable” prison as part of a marketing plan. If even they can’t escape, nobody can, that sort of thing. But the problems arise from the title and the subject matter. The title is obviously a play on the Bechdel Test, a rough estimate of whether a particular work gives its female characters definition apart from how they relate to men. It’s disconcerting enough to have a male author write a story called “The Bekdel Test,” but Morris basically seems to mock the idea, as the first conversation between River and Missy is quite long and is entirely about the Doctor! Indeed, the entire rest of the story is about the Doctor – it turns out the prison brought River and Missy there to attract the Doctor after all – and even though River and Missy solve the problem on their own and the Doctor never shows up, they’re both still defined almost entirely in terms of their relationship with the absent male lead. It almost defies description how ill-considered this is, especially in light of the title. It’s a solid story apart from that – honestly, if it had a different title, I probably wouldn’t be this critical. But it doesn’t.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE FALSE GUARDIAN
The first half of this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures ends with “The False Guardian” by Guy Adams, the first half of a two-part story that is spread over two box sets because profit. It’s obvious from the first minute that something is going on with new companion Ann Kelso – suddenly, she’s obsessed with tracking down the Sinestrans from the first story and she’s growing increasingly irritable and impatient with the Doctor. She also exhibits a subtle (but not as subtle as they think) familiarity with future technology, meaning that at this point I’m just waiting for the grand revelation that she’s actually not a 1970s police officer after all. This isn’t in keeping with her portrayal in the previous two stories, but at least they’re (apparently) trying something different. All this happens in a story that appears to be… a bizarre sequel to “The Daleks’ Master Plan!” It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s also incredibly entertaining. Adams slowly parcels out story developments – Varga plants, the planet Kembel, someone who thinks he’s Mavic Chen – but never provides a direct link until the final, inexplicably entertaining cliffhanger. I’m curious about how this ends – will the darkly comedic tone continue? Will the sense of looming disaster pay off? Will we find out what, exactly, is going on with Ann? I’m actually eager to find out, which is a rare feeling in this range.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS
“The Enchantress of Numbers,” by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, is a unique, fascinating story that actually puts a modern spin on a Tom Baker story, and as such I have no idea how the script made it past the editing stage. It’s a “celebrity historical” like we see on TV, but it features a lesser-known historical celebrity: Ada Lovelace, a mathematical prodigy influential in the early development of computers and the only legitimate child of Lord Byron to boot. That she isn’t better-known is a commentary on how society ignored the achievements of women; sadly, the extent of her influence is unknown but many regard her as the first computer programmer. Finty Williams gives a great performance as a woman who sadly doesn’t recognize her own importance, but the Doctor’s clear admiration of her talents is all we need to understand. The plot is almost too ridiculous for words, but it works incredibly well: an alien virus, based on block transfer computation, has time traveled back from the future in an attempt to change the course of history, intending to take Ada’s notes on computing and translate them into physical reality, starting the computer age early with Ada as its greatest pioneer. Naturally, this will completely alter the course of human history and thus the Doctor is compelled to stop it, but it’s also a wonderful metaphor about Ada herself: if only we’d listened properly to her, the story appears to argue, we could be so much further along. Incidentally, I haven’t talked about Ann much in these last two stories, as she hasn’t had anything to do except act a bit rude and perform the usual companion tasks. She’s such a non-factor that they’re probably keeping some grand revelation in store for us – otherwise, this is the worst new companion rollout Big Finish has ever done. But that doesn’t really take away from “The Enchantress of Numbers,” which is quite good.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: PLANET OF THE DRASHIGS
If you dig deep enough into Doctor Who, you can find an homage to practically anything, and this time around we’re checking the Jurassic Park box with Phil Mulryne’s “Planet of the Drashigs.” The Doctor and Ann land on DrashigWorld, a place where an entrepreneur (Jeremy Clyde) has brought together every known species of Drashig to entertain the visiting public. Keeping a bunch of Drashigs in captivity is stupid enough, and there has already been a fatality – but the park is also experimenting on the Drashigs, trying to get inside their minds and learn how they think. This story really is Jurassic Park in microcosm, and most of it is spent running around the park trying to control a Drashig outbreak before everyone is eaten. It’s silly, it’s action-packed, and everyone takes it deeply seriously, which makes the whole thing feel vaguely ridiculous. That said, the pace never flags, making the story a very easy, entertaining listen. I’m surprised it took Big Finish this long to get around to a story featuring the popular creatures from “Carnival of Monsters,” but I’m thankful they didn’t try to blow this up into a four-part story: it’s thin enough as it is and doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s not much to say about “Planet of the Drashigs,” so if you want to see Doctor Who do Jurassic Park for 45 minutes in fairly entertaining fashion, take a listen, but it’s certainly not required.
THE THIRD DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE TYRANTS OF LOGIC
To close out the fourth set of Third Doctor Adventures, we get what fans have been clamoring for: an adventure that finally pits the third Doctor against the Cybermen. It’s a surprisingly big deal – yes, he encountered them in The Five Doctors, and yes, there was a Companion Chronicle (“The Blue Tooth”), but this is the first full-length, full-cast encounter between the two. Even the books never did it, something that surprises me to this day. The result of all this is “The Tyrants of Logic” by Marc Platt, and it has a number of good elements, but like a lot of Platt’s output it leaves you wishing there had been more to it.
The setup is fairly basic: the Doctor and Jo arrive at an abandoned mining colony on a planet called Burnt Salt. Very few people are left, including Gusta (Linda Marlowe), who owns the local tavern, and Chad (Jeff Rawle), her partner and entertainment for the bar patrons. The colony was abandoned after the Cyber Wars, and the remnants of the conflict are seen in the survivors: Gusta has a cybernetic eye, and Chad plays music directly from his implants. Also present at the colony is Hollisen Grier (Ronan Summers), a Cyber-hunter tasked with eliminating any remaining Cybermen and investigating mysterious deaths. There’s also a research facility headed up by Professor Marian Schaeffer (Carolyn Pickles) but that doesn’t come into play until the second half. And into all this, the Cybermen arrive, trying to recover the Cyber-Leveler that arrived on the planet in an armored crate. Platt sketches the characters broadly but effectively; each is sympathetic in their own way with clearly understandable motives. The supporting cast gives good performances across the board as well. As with most Platt scripts, the plot tends to meander along, but everything makes sense and hangs together logically. It is, in short, a well-constructed story.
And yet I find myself thinking that there isn’t much to it. Platt has tackled the Cybermen before, of course, most famously in “Spare Parts,” and one consistent element through his and others’ Cyber-stories is the horror of conversion and the loss of individuality. Given that there have been over 50 years of these stories, it’s important to blaze new trails when featuring the Cybermen – but “The Tyrants of Logic” just seems repetitive. There’s a moment where the Doctor challenges the Cybermen on the importance of emotion – check. There’s a horrifying vision of a half-converted person – check. There’s a base-under-siege mentality and a presentation of the Cybermen as an implacable force inexorably advancing – check. The most interesting idea on display is naturally the only thing we haven’t seen before: a “Cyber-smoke” that contains nanobots that perform the initial stages of conversion, readying its victims for the final stages. The Doctor is infected, and we see how the conversion process affects his mind – Treloar emotionlessly repeating the rules of logic is a creepy thing to hear. Apart from that, it’s all stuff we’ve heard before – and we’re not too far removed from a TV story that provided a fresh, exciting take.
On the production front, everything is successful as usual. Nicholas Briggs directs both stories, Jamie Robertson scores both stories, and Martin Montague contributes the sound design to this one while Benji Clifford does the job for “The Rise of the New Humans.” Overall, I’m not sure how to rate “The Tyrants of Logic.” It’s certainly not a bad story, but it’s overly long and it doesn’t have much to say that we haven’t heard before. It’s certainly thrilling to hear a full-on Pertwee vs. Cybermen story after all these years, and for many fans that alone is worth the price of admission – but after you’ve experienced hundreds if not thousands of Doctor Who stories, this seems curiously empty.
THE THIRD DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE RISE OF THE NEW HUMANS
We’re back into the Third Doctor Adventures, and we’re well into “x meets y” style of plotting – but fortunately the stories are written by Guy Adams and Marc Platt. First up is “The Rise of the New Humans” by Adams, which leads the Doctor and Jo into a confrontation with the Doctor’s old nemesis the Monk. While it’s good, it also demonstrates how challenging drama is too often avoided in Doctor Who in general and at Big Finish in particular.
The Doctor and Jo travel to a remote country hospital to investigate the death of a mutated man recently treated there. Once there, they discover technology far in advance of the 1970s among other evidence of experiments carried out on the patients. The Doctor immediately suspects that the mysterious Chief Administrator is in fact the Master, but instead discovers that it is the Monk, in his Rufus Hound incarnation. The Monk is working with Dr. Kurdi (Mina Anwar), the head physician, to conduct experiments into the human immune system, attempting to augment it to make humans instantly responsive to any threatening stimulus. Fall off a building? Grow wings before you hit the ground. Sink to the bottom of a lake? Grow gills before you drown, and so forth. Unlike the Master, the Monk isn’t fronting a global domination scheme – he’s just doing this to sell the treatment for profit. Sadly, however, the plot goes in that direction anyway: when the so-called New Humans realize that they’re practically invulnerable, they decide to conquer the planet and convert the population to be like them. And so it’s up to the Doctor, Jo, and the Monk to stop the disaster from occurring. It’s very basic, straightforward Doctor Who plotting that Adams executes will his usual skill. I love the Monk in this, especially when he points out that he’s not actually called the Monk. I think Tim Treloar’s Pertwee impression is his best yet, and Katy Manning is always wonderful.
My problem isn’t with the story as executed, it’s with what the story isn’t. There’s a moment early in the story, before the plot has been fully revealed, when the Doctor, Jo, and the Monk discuss his use of future technology to cure ailments untreatable in the 1970s. The Doctor is naturally appalled with this violation of the laws of time and declares that this must stop. The Monk counters that he’s saving lives and asks if the Doctor really wants to disconnect all the machines and sentence the patients to death. Jo is torn, and even appears to agree in part with the Monk’s position. And then… nothing. That conflict is disregarded and the story continues down the world-domination path, in which disconnecting the patients is objectively the right decision and the Doctor comes up with a way to cure them all anyway. The problem is that the original problem is much more interesting than what we end up with. That’s a decision the Doctor should be forced to grapple with: would he disconnect patients from lifesaving technology to protect the web of time? If he chooses to keep them alive, what other consequences does he face as a result? How does his decision impact his relationship with his companion? Is the Monk right? How important are the laws of time? Perhaps we can even grapple with the new series concept of a fixed point in time. But instead of presenting the characters with difficult or even impossible choices and seeing how they react, we disregard all that and give them a straightforward problem with an obvious solution, and that’s disappointing.
All of this is not to say that “The Rise of the New Humans” is bad. It’s not: in fact, it’s quite entertaining. But it’s ultimately disposable, and it could easily have been so much more than that.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE SINESTRAN KILL
We’re into the eighth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, the range that has produced one truly excellent story in over 50 tries, and we’re finally trying something new: Tom Baker gets a new companion. It’s an exciting future, full of potential, until you listen to “The Sinestran Kill” by Andrew Smith and realize they’re making this move as risk-free as possible.
The new companion is played by Jane Slavin, a friend of Tom Baker who’s been in what seems like every one of his audio stories. She’s WPC Ann Kelso, a police officer who encounters the Doctor in a gangland incident. And that’s all we know about her. She’s nice, she’s patient, she’s inquisitive – she’s an excellent police officer, in other words, but that’s about the extent of what we learn. I’m sure they’ll reveal more about this character as the series continues, but this is her introductory story – we need more than “occupation.” Again, it might be 1979 in the story, but it’s 2019 in the real world – think of every companion introduction we’ve had in the modern series and realize just how underdeveloped Kelso is after these two episodes. It’s disappointing but entirely in keeping with Big Finish’s approach to this range. Still, Tom Baker is quite pleased with having Slavin as his companion, and as long as the actors are having a jolly old time that’s all that matters, right?
The format is a bit interesting, if only because the fourth Doctor is wildly out of place in any sort of formal setting, police investigations included. I love Frank Skinner as DCI Neilson, someone who knows the Doctor from UNIT and just wants him to leave the police alone and let them get on with their work. I also love the central concept of a man in witness protection turning out to be an alien already in witness protection on Earth. But Smith doesn’t do anything interesting beyond that: the story is rote, unimaginative Doctor Who, complete with unnecessarily over the top villain and implausible conclusion. As with so many other releases in this range, most of my review boils down to “That was indeed a Doctor Who story,” which doesn’t bode well for the future. Still, there’s plenty of time and room for improvement, and at least the Doctor/companion dynamic is friendly and appealing, so we’ll see where this goes.
DEVIL IN THE MIST
To kick off the 2019 release year, the Big Finish monthly range turned to Cavan Scott to reintroduce Kamelion to the series. Kamelion may be the single least-explored “companion” from the classic series, as even the novels barely touched upon him. The result, “Devil in the Mist,” is a decent if uninspiring reintroduction, but it struggles with enough problems that it never truly becomes good.
Kamelion is a decent enough idea: a sentient robot that can change its appearance to look like virtually anyone, controlled by telepathic commands. We first saw him in “The King’s Demons,” in which he was controlled by the Master to impersonate King John – and then not again until “Planet of Fire,” where he was once again controlled by the Master. I suppose it’s inevitable, then, that Scott writes a story in which Kamelion is controlled by other minds, but it’s already making the character feel one-note. As Gerald Flood passed away thirty years ago, a recast was necessary, and so Big Finish turned to talented impressionist Jon Culshaw. His performance is excellent; he explains in the extras that he started from Flood’s performance and made it a bit more natural and less mannered to reflect Kamelion’s time away from King John. But the material isn’t there to tell us much about him, as he spends most of the story under the control of one person or another.
Scott structures the script so that it never slows down: we split time between a prison ship and a dangerous alien world, and the pace (and Ken Bentley’s direction) never flags. It’s positively frantic at times, though some of the yelling and running around, especially in episode four, is incomprehensible. The cast is also quite small: apart from the TARDIS team, there are only three other characters, one of whom drops off the map halfway through. I also like how the script misleads you: the villain of the piece is telepathic war criminal Nustanu (Simon Slater), so you automatically assume he’s the one possessing Kamelion, but the actual answer to the possession is much subtler and more complicated. Sadly, that’s all replaced by a second, much more straightforward possession in the final episode that doesn’t come off nearly as well. The last episode falls into a well-known trap characteristic of other Doctor Who stories: the story leaves all the explaining to the end, so the final episode must be both full of exposition and action that resolves the plot, leaving it feeling garbled and the first three episodes feeling slight.
The character work is quite good, particularly for Tegan. It’s easy to write her as the stereotypical “mouth on legs” but Scott imbues her with more depth, fleshing out her sarcasm and hostility as manifestations of her emotions. Turlough doesn’t get much to do. The story tries to do something new with the Doctor: he is paralyzed from the waist down in a spaceship crash and must now operate without the ability to walk. At first, the story embraces his emotions: he tries to put on a brave face for his companions, but ultimately passes out while desperately trying to warn Turlough that he may soon regenerate. The problem, though, is that the Doctor’s newly-acquired disability doesn’t meaningfully impact the narrative. How do we move the Doctor around? Oh, just build a hover-sled from the spaceship wreckage. Mere minutes later, he’s already figured out how to super-power the sled to fly far into the air and save Turlough from falling from a cliff. And by the end, he’s figured out how to heal himself. It’s perfectly in keeping with the Doctor’s character to figure things like this out, and I’m certainly not suggesting an ableist narrative of the Doctor being utterly unable to function as a consequence of his injury – but none of it feels earned. Look to the TV show: when Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was blinded, we spent a few episodes watching him adapt to his inability to see. And while we know the fifth Doctor must eventually regain the ability to walk, there’s no law saying it had to happen by the end of this story. You’ve got a trilogy of stories – explore it! Don’t cram it all into an episode and a half! Think of how much we could learn about this Doctor and his companions! But instead, we immediately hit the reset button, and it’s off to the next story, with paralysis left as a minor inconvenience that happens occasionally.
Sadly, I didn’t particularly care for this story. I appreciate its ambition, I like how it tries to flesh out the Doctor, Tegan, and Kamelion – but I think it falls short. The last episode is overcrowded. The story throws out some fascinating ideas but doesn’t meaningfully grapple with them. It’s certainly not boring – this is not the usual carbon-copy Big Finish monthly release – but I still don’t think it works.
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE CRASH OF THE UK-201
The latest series of Early Adventures wraps up with “The Crash of the UK-201” by Jonathan Morris, a story that gives us a glimpse of a previously unexplored part of Doctor Who: Vicki’s life before her ship crashed prior to “The Rescue.” And it’s good, though it struggles against its biggest problem: it has no reason to be 4 episodes and well over 2 hours long.
If you saw “Father’s Day” on TV, you’ve seen “The Crash of the UK-201,” except shorter and better. Nonetheless, “Crash” is a fantastic look into Vicki, a character we’ve only ever learned about through Companion Chronicles. Due to an accident on the TARDIS, Vicki wakes up in her cabin on the UK-201 near the day it is fated to crash on Dido. Given this chance to rewrite history, she takes it: Steven appears on board shortly thereafter, and he is able to repair Bennett’s sabotage of the engines and pilot the UK-201 out of Dido’s atmosphere and back on course. (The story never indicates whether this is in the past or future relative to Steven’s history, but given the ease with which Steven effects these repairs, I’m assuming he’s from Vicki’s future.) This has what seems to be a wonderful effect: the crew survives, the ship proceeds to arrive at the colony Astra, and Vicki goes on to live a long, happy life, first with her father and later with her husband and children. Unfortunately, mysterious hooded creatures haunt her, and while they don’t look or sound like the Reapers from “Father’s Day,” they seem to have the same purpose: erasing paradoxes from the timeline.
Vicki has the ability to keep traveling back in her personal history, and so, having done it once, she keeps trying to fix “mistakes.” But these decisions have consequences. Her father is killed in a disaster at an observatory, but Vicki meets the doctor that tries to save him, and they later fall in love and are married, living a happy life with two children. But when she tries to go back and save her father, history changes, and she no longer falls in love and has a family. Yet when she tries to put that right, the essential randomness of sexual reproduction means that her two children are no longer the same children she had on a previous attempt. This is the thematic core of the piece: life is determined by a series of random events that chain together to establish our histories. Some of these events are wonderful, some are tragic, but together they form our lives. And if we had the power to change individual events, we would forever change the tapestry, and our lives would become unrecognizable. Vicki learns this the hard way – she tries and tries to engineer a perfect life for herself but realizes no matter what she does she will experience pain and loss. This is a fantastic theme, and Morris captures it well – but he belabors the point.
This story could have been told in two episodes. By the time Vicki is cycling back through her life for the 5th time, the story passes the point of feeling important and instead starts to feel tedious. We know what’s happening, we know what ultimately has to happen to return things to normal, and we spend the second half of the story in a holding pattern. When Vicki finally decides to return things to normal, we have to sit through multiple false starts before she even gets that right. This isn’t the sort of story we would have seen on TV in the 1960s, but the obvious padding fits right in with Doctor Who of that period and is unnecessary in a modern audio drama.
Fortunately, the performances carry us through the tedium of the story’s second half. Maureen O’Brien is excellent throughout, really selling Vicki’s alternating happiness and frustration. Peter Purves handles most of the narration as well as a supporting role for Steven, and he’s excellent as usual. Lisa Bowerman directs well, and Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design nicely captures the different time periods. The major selling point for “The Crash of the UK-201” is learning more about Vicki, and O’Brien’s performance is the reason to stick around. Sticking around, unfortunately, is the tough part.
THE HUNTING GROUND
I’m entirely unsure what kind of story “The Hunting Ground,” by AK Benedict, wants to be. The synopsis and the setting hint at a story that will follow the Scandinavian noir pattern, the introduction and characterization of the Doctor hint at a fairy tale style, and the plot and resolution are generic, boring Doctor Who. In other words, it’s a confused, subpar story, one that needed a lot more time with an editor.
The Doctor lands in Iceland and stumbles across a murder scene, immediately becoming Inspector Yrsa Kristjansdottir (Amy Beth Hayes)’s chief suspect. As usual, that conflict takes about five minutes to resolve, but we seem to be settling into a pattern: the atmosphere is bleak, Yrsa is downbeat, there are hints about her father’s mysterious death – we’re heading into a murder mystery in the “Wallander” vein, right? The Doctor and Yrsa discuss “hidden folk” and trolls, so here’s your Doctor Who twist: a dark murder mystery about supernatural creatures of myth. That sounds awesome! Unfortunately, the story never pursues any of these avenues, taking an abrupt right turn into generic Doctor Who: there’s an alien hunter, a client of an evil corporation, pursuing prey on Earth, and the Doctor needs to stop it.
You might well say that an alien hunter pursuing prey on Earth sounds a lot like the recent season premiere “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” and you wouldn’t be wrong – the similarities between the Hunter (Michael Griffiths) and Tim Shaw are obvious. But while that story introduces new characters you want to learn more about, this one does no such thing. If you remember the popular guest character DI Menzies, you’ll recognize Yrsa, who is exactly the same save for being played by a different performer. Yet the Doctor invites Yrsa along with him in the TARDIS for some reason in a confusing, disjointed ending scene. The whole story is like this: incongruous elements rammed together without a great deal of coherence. The two main plot threads – Yrsa’s father, and the Hunter and the parent company – trundle happily along until the final episode when they awkwardly (and predictably) come together.
There are some interesting elements. Benedict leans into the magical aspects of the tale, with constant references to the hidden folk and a portrayal of the Doctor tantamount to wizardry. He can speak the language of inkjet printers and he has a gadget for every situation, including a wolf translator, that gets him out of each cliffhanger. There’s nothing wrong with this – in fact, a story that really embraced this tone would be uncommonly interesting – but the atmosphere of the story completely fails to carry it off. It doesn’t feel Nordic at all: even if you’re going to shy away from the “noir” feel, the sound design should at least communicate a wintry chill, but it doesn’t. Nor does it feel magical. In fact, it doesn’t feel like much of anything; if you changed a few lines you could set this story literally anywhere and it would work practically as well.
The cast is fine. Hayes gives a very appealing performance and Griffiths amuses as the arrogant Hunter. Will Hislop and Joe Jameson go for the double-act thing as the two-headed Marficks, though they’re not as funny as the script thinks they are. This is the first time in a long time, however, that I’ve found a Colin Baker performance utterly boring. His playful interactions with Yrsa at the beginning sound like they’re building toward an interesting relationship, but all the bumps are rapidly smoothed out and Baker settles right into his cuddly old grandpa persona. The script, which plays up the Doctor’s alien nature, could really use a spiky, provocative lead performance, but instead it gets the same thing Baker has been turning in several times a year. I don’t know if this is on Baker, the director (John Ainsworth), both, or neither, but it’s another letdown in a story full of them.
Overall, “The Hunting Ground” is a failure. It never figures out what sort of story it wants to be and, as a result, lurches from tone to tone and setting to setting with little regard for consistency or entertainment value. The story isn’t interesting, the lead performance is dull, the atmosphere is nonexistent… there’s very little to recommend here. All in all, just another monthly range story to throw on the massive pile of bad, forgettable Doctor Who.
From 245 - Muse of Fireon
MUSE OF FIRE
All the way back in “The Stones of Venice,” Paul Magrs set out his audio drama template: breezy character pieces, dripping in local atmosphere. Not every story of his follows this model, but “Muse of Fire” certainly does, and gives us a long-awaited seventh Doctor and Iris Wildthyme meeting to boot.
It’s Paris in the 1920s, one of the greatest places and periods for artistic achievement in human history. Legendary artists populate the salons, cafes, and bookshops – it’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Doctor, and sure enough, he arrives with Ace and Hex to take in the sights and sounds. But when they arrive, they discover a problem: a series of cruel reviews has demoralized the great artists, and one by one they are fleeing Paris. Hex, for example, meets a distraught Salvador Dali as the master throws his paintings into the Seine. And who’s behind it all? Iris, naturally, but not for the reasons the Doctor may think.
There’s not a lot going on in this story, but there isn’t supposed to be – you’re supposed to enjoy the atmosphere and the characters and not worry about the plot, and that’s right up my alley, even if it means there isn’t much to say about the story. It’s great to have Philip Olivier back – there’s no reason we can’t do “missing adventures” with Hex, after all, and Magrs really digs into the character’s early days. He’s still crushing on Ace, and he’s still earnest and trusting – and the idea of him working as a nude model is appropriately hilarious. Magrs divides the cast in two, with the Doctor and Ace on one side, Iris (and Panda) on the other, and Hex unhappily caught in the middle. Iris is her usual inscrutable, mischievous, enigmatic self – she’s clearly working to her own agenda, but the endgame is unclear. The Doctor, of course, is used to being in control, and he prejudges Iris and uses that judgment to draw conclusions. All of this builds to a suitable conclusion at Iris’s salon.
There are a couple of drawbacks to an otherwise enjoyable tale. For one, it feels particularly lightweight – it’s a great time spent in the company of fine characters, but despite the subject matter it feels almost insignificant. There’s also a problem with a supporting character: Kevin Archer (Gethin Anthony) is both overwritten and overacted, and brings down every single scene he appears in. Which is a shame, given that he appears in many scenes. Ace, too, still lacks maturity, though Sophie Aldred’s performance is quite good. These are relatively minor complaints, however – the story is quite enjoyable, the atmosphere is great, and the production, especially Jamie Anderson’s direction, is first-rate. Not every story has to be a monumental, earth-shattering tale – it’s just nice to have a unique tone that isn’t aping the TV series. Oh, and it’s great to have Iris back, and I hope this isn’t the last time.
THE WAR MASTER: THE MASTER OF CALLOUS
The problem with the first War Master set was that it tried to do way too much: in addition to telling a sweeping, galaxy-spanning Time War tale, it also gave itself the responsibility of bridging directly to the TV series and “Utopia.” As a result, it didn’t succeed at either goal. But now, after a brief appearance in the UNIT series, the War Master is back in a second set, “The Master of Callous,” that tells a smaller, self-contained story and works all the better for it.
Freeing this series of continuity obligations was a great idea. “The Master of Callous” is basically a look at one of the Master’s schemes without the Doctor around to stop him: he’s on a mission to collect a rare mineral that is quite dangerous to mine. Rather than getting it himself, he manipulates an entire colony world into doing his bidding, working from behind the scenes like an evil NA Doctor. The set is split into four stories: “Call for the Dead” and “The Glittering Prize” by James Goss and “The Persistence of Dreams” and “Sins of the Father” by Guy Adams. It’s a bit unfortunate that the first two stories are clearly better than the second two, but this is a strong set overall with no serious weak spots.
You’ll immediately notice one thing about this set: it is unrelentingly grim. The first story features a great conceit: a “wild” Ood on the colony planet Callous that carries an old-fashioned telephone receiver from person to person, asking them to answer phone calls. Because this is creepy, they rarely answer; when they finally do, the message is from the Master and he invariably talks them into suicide. See, the colony was originally founded by Elliot King (Simon Ludders) as a haven for artists, a place where they could find their muse in nature. But it sits atop a huge supply of a rare, valuable mineral, and so the region’s governor (Pippa Haywood) continually places financial demands on Elliot to force him to put his people to mining. Being close to the mineral causes deadly hallucinations, however, so Elliot resists, doing everything in his power to try to mine in other ways – but none of it works. Soon, he loses everything, including his family, and that’s when he finally answers the Ood’s phone call.
The remainder of the set tells the story of Elliot’s estranged daughter Cassandra (Maeve Bluebell Wells) who comes to the colony with her wife Martine (Sam Béart) and resolves to do what her father couldn’t and make the colony a success. And that’s when the Master shows up as well, simultaneously teaching Cassandra how to properly operate the mine – using Ood labor protected from the hallucinations with psychic blockers – and provoking conflict between the colony and the governor. This plan takes years to execute, building to one goal: separating a huge amount of the mineral from both the colony and the governor and then leaving no trace behind. While Goss does a largely brilliant job of setting this up, both in portraying Elliot’s struggles and Cassandra’s fall from grace, Adams doesn’t quite stick the landing. The third story, “The Persistence of Dreams,” is devoted entirely to Martine, alone on an asteroid relay station, slowly losing her sanity to the effects of the mineral. While Sam Béart’s performance is excellent, this is the sort of story that’s actually more effective in a long-running series. Here, we barely know Martine, and while her hallucinations and memories certainly flesh her out, the end result of the story renders that development meaningless. A different problem arises in the final story – Cassandra also loses her grip on normalcy, but both the writing and Wells’ performance are wildly over the top and unconvincing.
All that said, this is Derek Jacobi’s best performance as the Master by far. He’s brilliant, he’s cunning, and he puts forth an utterly convincing façade of kindliness over his completely amoral core. This isn’t a ridiculous plan to conquer the universe, this is a specific plan with a specific goal, and he puts forth years of effort to carry it out, bringing it to fruition with ruthless efficiency. He’s also fully in keeping with his TV portrayal and quite distinct from the other Masters. Of course, it helps that Jacobi is the best actor ever to play the part, but as a showcase for the Master it’s hard to do much better than this.
Overall, “The Master of Callous” is a strong set anchored around a fantastic performance in the title role. It’s not perfect – some of the writing is obvious, and the second half is weaker than the first – but it’s light years better than the first War Master set. It’s also arguably the best Time War-related set Big Finish has released, which is not a coincidence given how little the Time War actually features.
From UNIT - Revisitationson
I’ve complained at length about the UNIT series and its almost laughable lack of ambition: the previous set brought together UNIT, the Cybermen, and the Master, and yet it was utterly unmemorable in every way. My expectations for “Revisitations” were therefore not high, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the individual stories here are actually quite good! Unfortunately, taken as a whole, “Revisitations” has exactly the same problems as its predecessors, but at least the individual stories are entertaining.
We begin with a two-part story, “Hosts of the Wirrn” by Chris Chapman. Apparently, the Master left a Wirrn larva behind at the conclusion of the last story, and UNIT has taken it into custody for experimentation. Osgood is naturally at the forefront of this work, giving nicknames to the Wirrn and so forth, but her knowledge of insects is lacking, so UNIT strikes out to recruit an entomologist. At this point I normally complain that the new character is as paper-thin as the rest, but no: Chapman actually creates a unique, sympathetic character in Shana Siddiqui (Vineeta Rishi). She’s stuck in a boring job with a boring life, looking for a way out, and when a UNIT interview comes in the form of a talking raven, she realizes she has a unique opportunity – and her desperation to prove her worth has catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, this shows up the other characters: it is perfectly fair to say that we already know more about Shana than we have ever known about Carter, Shindi, or Bishop. (Warren Brown, incidentally, is completely absent yet again. At least they found room for him in the Lady Christina set.) I also fully expected Shana to be killed off before the end, but no: she actually sticks around, halfway transformed into a Wirrn but using a holographic avatar to maintain her UNIT career.
But this is where one of the major problems with these sets raises its ugly head: there is no continuity between stories. A half-Wirrn entomologist communicating via hologram sounds like an interesting character to keep around, but Shana doesn’t appear at all in the subsequent two stories, and is never even mentioned by the other characters. The last story even features something using a holographic avatar to interact, and nobody remarks upon the similarity! The same holds true for the other elements of the story: perhaps most significantly, Kate actually makes a serious error of judgment that leads to unnecessary death and destruction, and Shindi is audibly disturbed by it. But in the next story – which deals specifically with the relationship between Kate and her subordinates, and their views of her judgment – this mistake isn’t referenced at all!
And that’s a damn shame, because the next story, “Breach of Trust” by David K. Barnes, is easily the best individual story this range has produced. Alien refugees, a mother and young daughter, arrive on Earth, terrified of their pursuers and facing execution if they are ever captured. UNIT takes them in, even though they lie to protect themselves. But when their pursuers arrive, and demand the return of the refugees, it becomes quite apparent that Earth cannot defend itself against a potential attack. Kate is thus faced with a seemingly impossible choice: send two innocent refugees to their deaths or start an interplanetary war that Earth cannot possibly win. Ultimately, Kate makes the only decision she can: return the refugees to their people and spare the people of Earth. But Osgood disagrees, working against Kate’s orders to find another way out of the situation. If there’s one thing I dislike about Doctor Who, it’s that the Doctor’s boundless genius for finding alternative solutions means that difficult choices are largely avoided. Here, Kate has no such escape route. This is how you write drama: make your characters make difficult decisions and then deal with the consequences. If I have one quibble, it’s that Kate reverses herself right at the moment of truth, and suddenly Osgood’s alternative becomes the only way to save Earth. While it’s a great character moment for Kate, it removes some of the potential conflict if Osgood can rightly say that she disobeyed orders to save the planet, rather than over a moral disagreement.
That potential conflict, however, never actually happens. This story should have absolutely massive fallout: Carter, who helps Osgood, is brought up on charges by Shindi, and Osgood should be disciplined if not outright dismissed from service. There should be rifts between the characters, as Kate made what Osgood likely viewed as an unforgivable choice. And the next story is all about the characters’ deepest fears, how Carter fears a lack of control and how Osgood fears losing the acceptance of her colleagues. But yet again, absolutely none of this is ever mentioned! As we get into “Open the Box” by Roy Gill, it seems as though everything is forgiven and forgotten: the team is collegial once again, and the fact that they get on so well is a plot point used to resist their fears. The final story, a sequel to “The Mind of Evil,” isn’t anything special, though at least it gives us a brief look at what goes on in Josh’s head and it’s cool to have Pik-Sen Lim back as Chin Lee. But I found it nearly impossible to enjoy, because I was constantly waiting for the obvious follow-up on the previous stories that never came.
I genuinely don’t understand why Big Finish continues to pursue this storytelling style. This is simply not how modern drama is written: a serial drama that refused to develop its characters in any way or refused to have any continuity between episodes would be laughed off the air in 2019. I can’t imagine that the Big Finish writers are uniformly incapable of handling such a task – especially since they pull it off brilliantly in the Torchwood range – so it must be an editorial edict. But why? Who is served by this? This set is otherwise very good, with a truly excellent third story – so why is the material being deliberately watered down? I wish I knew.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE DREAD OF NIGHT
After “The Jabari Countdown,” a story about a small group of people trapped inside a threatening house menaced by supernatural forces, the set closes out with “The Dread of Night” by Tim Foley, a story about a small group of people trapped inside a threatening house menaced by supernatural forces. They’re not identical – the prior story went for a murder mystery feel while this is much more outright horror – but they’re similar enough to raise an eyebrow. They’re also similar in another way: they don’t feel much like New Adventures.
I’m not being overly critical, mind you: “The Dread of Night” is good, easily the best story in the set. Foley’s script keeps the cast small: only the TARDIS crew and four inhabitants of the house. The horror elements are of the creepy, psychological variety: it’s just as important to know why something is stalking the residents as it is to know how. And the reasons are revealed through slow explorations of the characters, using techniques that are well-known for a reason: set up one character as the obvious villain only to reveal something much different near the end, and so forth. Rhian Blundell and Elaine Fellows are both excellent as the sisters Isabel and Annabel, while Melanie Kilburn’s nurse Hooley is much more than she appears at the start. And the regular cast is excellent, particularly Sylvester McCoy: he really embraces the mysterious elements of his character and gives a fantastic performance. The production is great as well, especially Scott Handcock’s guiding hand as director and Joe Meiners’ sound design. This story is rich with atmosphere: there is a definite sense of creeping dread that never tips into the outright horrific.
Regarding the box set overall, it is unfortunately nothing like I expected. The novel adaptations were understandably cut down from the source material, but they captured the tone of the NAs quite well: ambitious, boundary-pushing stories that provided harrowing emotional experiences for their characters. The stories in this box set, though generally good quality, really don’t feel anything like the NAs. These are very typical Big Finish Doctor Who stories – in fact, this one in particular is quite similar to another Sylvester McCoy story from 2006. Which again begs the question: who is the target audience for this? It’s not really NA fans, since these stories aren’t really like NAs. It’s not really the classic series audience, since despite McCoy’s presence these stories feature companions that have never even been mentioned on television. And it’s not really the new series audience, since these stories are quite traditional in plot and structure even if they have one-hour running times. As a result, I don’t expect this range to last very long, and that’s a shame.
In any case, “The Dread of Night” is recommended.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE JABARI COUNTDOWN
The third story in the set, “The Jabari Countdown” by Alan Flanagan, still doesn’t feel much like a New Adventure, something that’s becoming a trend in this New Adventures box set. Fortunately, it’s a well-written, well-produced story, but there’s still very little that marks it apart from the rest.
I love the setup: the TARDIS materializes in the hold of a ship carrying a group of mathematicians and traveling to a mysterious island. World War II is raging, and everyone assumes they’re helping the war effort – and they’re not wrong, in a way. On the mysterious island is a mysterious house, and once they’re inside the mysterious attacks start. It’s all very Agatha Christie, and the Doctor, Roz, and Chris are perfect matches for that setting. Sylvester McCoy takes a playful approach to the Doctor, feigning ignorance while working everything out as the smartest person in the room. Yasmin Bannerman is confident and in control as Roz, and Travis Oliver really brings out Chris’s sense of childlike wonder and open-mindedness. The guest characters are all well drawn, especially Janine Duvitski as the dotty old grandmother with hidden depths and Leonie Schliesing as an Austrian mathematician turned actor. The only weak spot is Rupert Young, who doesn’t really connect with his character, making Fray sound broad and unconvincing – not that the script helps very much in that regard. But this is why the story otherwise works: great characters with fine performances.
Some elements, unfortunately, don’t always hang together. There’s a beautiful scene where Chris kisses Eleanor (Franchi Webb) to show that he is untroubled that she is a trans woman – but it doesn’t quite come off because the script hasn’t shown any romantic interest between them to that point. This extends to their goodbye at the end of the story – it feels like the sort of thing we’d see in the classic series, where a companion would bid a heartfelt farewell to a guest character that seemed far in excess of their actual on-screen relationship. This detail can fit in an hour-long episode, too – it’s just a matter of priorities. There’s also a surprising lack of detail when it comes to motivation – we don’t learn very much about the Jabari despite their name being on the cover, for example. And while there are some thematic links connecting the characters – they’re not all just mathematicians, they’re all alone or abandoned in some way – they don’t tie together in a satisfying way.
I keep coming back to the fact that these stories don’t feel much like New Adventures. “The Jabari Countdown” is a reasonably good, quasi-modern Doctor Who story that happens to feature two companions who were previously found only within the written word. There’s nothing seriously wrong with it, but nothing about this is ambitious or boundary-pushing. So who’s the target market for this set, exactly? I don’t think it’s me, and I adored the NAs as much as anyone. Worth a listen, but nothing special.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: VANGUARD
I have to say, I’m almost impressed. I figured the first New Adventures box set would at least try to replicate the feeling of the novels prior to settling into a groove of cranking out generic Doctor Who stories – but here we are in the second story and we’re already back to boredom and cliché. Yes, it’s “Vanguard” by Steve Jordan, and it’s utterly disposable.
I’m not going to pretend that the NAs were unimpeachable works of genius. Yes, there were a few masterpieces. Some of them were even awful. But most NAs were truly ambitious stories, with young, imaginative authors trying to take Doctor Who to new places and styles. Some were poorly written, some collapsed under the weight of their own efforts, but with rare exception you could never say that a New Adventure wasn’t trying. Even “The Pit,” widely accepted as the worst of the lot, is wildly ambitious and wide-ranging. My point is that something like “Vanguard” would never have been published in that range in a million years. Too broad and too deep for the small screen? This is notably shallower than the small screen.
The TARDIS lands on the planet Vanguard in the aftermath of a war between its two peoples: the Dauntless and the Intrepid. The robots they built to fight the war are still fighting while the few survivors hide out. The Doctor, Roz, and Chris must stop the fighting and save the remaining people. Of course, they are separated early on and have to engage with three separate storylines. Chris is put through the physical wringer. The Doctor journeys into the fantastical realm of his own subconscious. Very NA, right? No – everything is terribly, terribly bland. None of the characters are interesting: Blue (Connor Calland) and Green (Olivia Morris) are straight out of a book of clichés, the robots have been seen in a million other sci-fi stories, and Contessa (Sara Powell), supposedly the most complex of the lot, gets an interesting background that the script completely fails to engage with. There’s a brief discussion of mercy at the end of the story, but instead of surprising you it goes exactly where you expect. The day is saved, everyone is fine, time to leave. We haven’t learned anything about anyone, we haven’t done anything memorable. This is surprisingly similar to a terrible Fourth Doctor Adventure.
Which brings me back to my initial point: why are you even making these stories if you’re not going to try? Why take one of the freshest, most imaginative periods in the history of Doctor Who and reduce it to this derivative, sub-Star Trek nonsense? Why have Roz Forrester if you’re going to write her this wildly out of character? It’s a real shame. God, I hope the next two are better.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE TRIAL OF A TIME MACHINE
Since we can’t have nice things, Big Finish cancelled the Novel Adaptations range due to poor sales. This is a shame, as it was arguably their best Doctor Who range – but at least we have something of a replacement with a new range of The Seventh Doctor: The New Adventures box sets. Featuring the late New Adventures crew of the Doctor, Roz Forrester, and Chris Cwej, this set features four original hour-long stories, supposedly in the style of the novels. The first of these, “The Trial of a Time Machine” by Andy Lane, is a solid gesture in the right direction but ultimately nothing spectacular.
This story is about different systems of justice and whether they afford legitimate outcomes to those who come under their influences. In case you weren’t clear on this point, the Doctor and companions have a relatively obvious conversation about the Adjudicators and their methods. Chris and Roz are proud of their careers in law enforcement, viewing the law as a way to enforce the universal rules of morality. But the Doctor disagrees: he feels that all morality is relative to the place in which you find yourself. He even hedges a bit on murder – and while that’s not entirely surprising coming from this most utilitarian of Doctors, it’s not really borne out in the story itself. Hopefully we’ll see some legitimate disagreement between the Doctor and his companions as this set continues that isn’t confined to a philosophical debate.
The central conflict is quite imaginative. Lane has dreamed up the planet of Thrantas, a civilization that has developed time travel but not faster-than-light travel. They can only travel backwards in time using ships guided by intelligent beings at their cores. Thus, they achieve long-distance space travel by placing the crew in stasis, having them travel at sub-light speed over thousands of years to their destination, and then have them travel back in time to the target. When the TARDIS lands on Thrantas, it lands simultaneously with a cargo ship – and as we’ve seen in the TV series, this is bad. The resulting collision throws the cargo ship far into the future, severely damages it, and kills some of the crew. Because Thrantasian time machines are sentient beings, they are responsible for their own collisions – and so the TARDIS is put on trial for the destruction of the cargo ship with the Doctor as its lawyer. Thrantasian justice is based upon the rulings of a central computer that is capable of looking both into the future and into the past. This computer passes judgment based on the impact on society of the act in question: if the benefit to society outweighs the harm done, the accused goes free. If the harm outweighs the benefit, the accused is punished in the same proportion.
Because the accident showed no benefit and killed multiple people, the TARDIS is easily found guilty. Naturally, the Doctor circumvents this by freeing the being at the center of the computer, upending the entire Thrantasian justice system and forcing them to start from scratch. As a result, a mistrial is declared and the TARDIS goes free. This is usually the point where you find out that the accident didn’t really happen, or was misinterpreted, but not in this story: the collision actually killed seven people and there are zero consequences for the TARDIS crew. Is this really a triumph for the Doctor? He’s justified in overturning the system because it relied upon slavery to function, but does that mean he gets a mulligan on accidentally killing people? The story doesn’t grapple with this question at all, which is almost inexplicable. Instead, it rapidly ends and just as rapidly moves on – it feels like an extra 10 minutes were lost in the editing bay. As for the slavery element, there’s a wonderful scene at the end where the Doctor wonders if the TARDIS is with him by choice or by force, and the question is notably left unanswered.
The characterization is largely good. Roz and Chris are excellent, of course, which you would expect in a story penned by their creator, though the strong bonds of absolute trust between them and the Doctor feel out of place in a New Adventure. Maratuk (Liz Sutherland-Lim) and Sydyck (Vikash Bhai), the Adjudicators’ counterparts, are drawn similarly well. The script seams show with Forsetti (Mina Anwar), however, the “court reporter” – she pops up in the story exactly when the Doctor needs someone to talk to, and vanishes just as abruptly without adding anything. This isn’t inherently bad, as endless scenes of the Doctor talking to himself grow tiresome, but the editing could be better.
Overall, “The Trial of a Time Machine” is a solid, if unimpressive, start to the box set. It’s thoughtful, with good characterization, but the writing is sloppy in places and it doesn’t grapple with its own themes nearly enough. Still, if this is the best we can get to keep the NA flame burning, I’ll take it.
From 5.3 - Entanglementon
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: ENTANGLEMENT
I enjoyed the first Early Adventure from Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, “The Ravelli Conspiracy,” which wholeheartedly embraced the Hartnell comedy historical style. Their follow-up, “Entanglement,” unfortunately takes itself more seriously, and feels bloated and creaky as a result. That said, it’s still quite entertaining and worth a listen.
I’ll be honest right off the top – this style of story doesn’t appeal to me at all. I have no connection to or experience with university culture like this, so it doesn’t speak to me and the stakes don’t make much sense. So I didn’t enjoy much of “Entanglement,” as I’m not particularly concerned about the political machinations involved with becoming a leader at a particular college. Khan and Salinsky don’t take it completely seriously, of course, but this is a situation in which overt comedy could have helped; instead, the story feels full of itself.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with the structure of the story. The Doctor, Steven and Vicki land in 1930s Cambridge, right in the middle of the disappearance of the Master of Sedgwick College and the election to replace him. Naturally, unusual things are happening – unexplained acts of violence, mysterious disappearances – and so the Doctor and companions jump in with both feet to investigate. We see the Doctor involve himself in politics, and show a surprisingly deft hand at backroom dealing – he practically manipulates an entire election by himself, much to his own delight. But he’s not infallible – the entire scheme blows up in his face. Peter Purves plays a chagrined, embarrassed first Doctor perfectly – you feel sorry for him, but it’s still entertaining to see his arrogance vanish entirely.
Vicki is basically the co-lead of this story, as she’s separated from the Doctor and Steven for much of it and makes the decisions that ultimately resolve the story. The resolution itself is brutal – trapping the bad guys in a prison dimension, possibly for all eternity? Reminiscent of “The Family of Blood,” though this is portrayed much less vengefully. Sadly, Steven doesn’t have much to do, shouldering most of the physical action, though that enables Purves to focus on his Hartnell impression.
I don’t have much more to say about this story. It’s lightweight, entertaining material, even if it feels a bit long. If you enjoy this type of story – endless well-mannered individuals roaming the grounds of a university being terribly witty to each other – you’ll like this quite a bit. If you’re more like me, it’ll probably leave you somewhat cold. Take that as you will.
TORCHWOOD: GOD AMONG US, VOLUME ONE
The Big Finish Torchwood range has been excellent from the start, and the putative “series 5,” Aliens Among Us, that they released last year was delightful. So now it’s time for “series 6,” called God Among Us, and it picks up where Aliens Among Us left off. It follows a similar format: largely standalone episodes with an arc plot running in the background, very much in the style of the first two seasons of the TV show. But the arc plot and individual character arcs carry on directly from Aliens Among Us – this is absolutely not a jumping-on point for new listeners.
“Series 5” ended with an alien “god” lurching through the Rift and threatening Cardiff and presumably Earth itself. The first episode in this set, “Future Pain” by James Goss, concerns the fight against that god as well as Colin and the Torchwood team coming to terms with Colchester’s death and the sudden reappearance of Yvonne Hartman. The “god” feeds in a sort of quantum state, consuming the future pain of its victims. Naturally, nobody has as much anticipated future pain as Jack, and so we get a fairly predictable ending of Jack overfeeding the “god” until it dies. It feels easy, almost too easy, almost as though this isn’t the actual god that came through the Rift… but we’ll come to that in the other reviews. The character work here is spectacular, seeing how the various Torchwood team members react to a friend’s funeral. I love Jack in particular – he’s unusually uncomfortable, knowing exactly how insulting it is for an immortal to attend a funeral. We also learn much more about Colin and Colchester’s relationship. It’s a great season premiere – it sets up some pieces, clears others off the board, and leaves the listener ready for more.
“More” is “The Man Who Destroyed Torchwood,” by Guy Adams, a darkly comedic story about a conservative vlogger and influencer who aims to bring down the shadowy forces controlling society. It’s Brent Hayden (Tom Forrister), and he’s exactly as awful as you’d expect: he’s rude, racist, sexist, and he lives in his mother’s basement. Yes, it’s a broad portrayal that resorts to cliché, but it’s not really a caricature: there is a disturbingly large number of people just like this. Frankly, I’m surprised he isn’t American. Tyler comes to this man pretending to betray Torchwood, but actually – and laughably easily – manipulates Brent into doing Torchwood’s dirty work. Brent is disposed of through surprisingly cruel methods, a reminder that Torchwood with Yvonne in charge is a much different organization. When it’s all said and done, we’re left with the question of just how Brent got so many followers in the first place and the identity of the mysterious woman who helped him do so.
That leads us right into “See No Evil” by John Dorney, a concept piece about an alien hunter that takes all the light from Cardiff, rendering the population effectively blind. Jack and Yvonne, with the only two functional pairs of night vision goggles, are on their own to save the day. This gives us a chance to see how they coordinate despite mutual distrust, but it’s the interactions with other characters that reward. I refer specifically to the relationship between Yvonne and Andy, which is both thoroughly unlikely and yet somehow utterly believable. Andy sees the good in everyone, and sees it in Yvonne – and that’s particularly hard to do given the cavalier way she treats him. But for Yvonne, he’s a grounded, kind person who doesn’t have the worries or responsibilities she carries – it’s complicated, it’s difficult, and it’s great writing. The darkness plot is carried off with similar skill, if a bit predictably – the fear and paranoia of the people of Cardiff is palpable through the speakers. Great stuff.
And finally we have “Night Watch” by Tim Foley, a story in which the alien Black Sun comes through the Rift and puts the people of Cardiff to sleep while it quietly (and apparently harmlessly) feeds on their mental energies. It’s here that we finally meet the real “god” – and it’s in the unassuming and disconcerting form of a woman voiced by Jacqueline King. She’s been pulling strings behind the scenes in service of a greater plan we cannot yet discern – this box set has been an excellent demonstration of arc plotting through standalone stories, very much in the vein of Torchwood’s creator. In their dreams, people are given the chance to communicate with the dead or otherwise lost, and this leads to a series of heartbreaking scenes between Colin and Colchester. Naturally, the ending leaves the listener hungry for more – I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.
This is one of the best box sets Big Finish has ever released. The plotting is skillful, the characterization is masterful, and the structure measures up well to any similar TV series you can name. Torchwood is one of their greatest ranges, and these “new series” sets see the company and its creative minds at the peak of their powers. I cannot recommend this highly enough – and don’t worry, if you need to catch up, Aliens Among Us is damn good too!
Everything about “Warlock’s Cross” is promising: it’s the conclusion of the UNIT/Daniel Hopkins trilogy, it features late-period Sylvester McCoy, it involves the return of Klein, the cover blurb is thrilling, and it’s written by Steve Lyons. And yet, despite all these reassuring elements, it’s every bit as weak as the rest of the trilogy, wasting its opportunities just as much as its predecessors.
“Today’s the day… that UNIT falls,” promises the synopsis, and absolutely nothing of the sort happens in the story. To be sure, UNIT has never been presented in a worse light – everyone involved in the organization seems to dislike it, their methods are questionable at best, and even the Doctor doesn’t escape criticism – but it never “falls.” There’s a problem, the Doctor and UNIT come together to solve it, and the Doctor leaves, just like usual, even if the tone is different. Oddly, the story sets up a “fall of UNIT” framework with an activist, Gregory Lord (Tom Milligan), trying to reveal UNIT’s secrets with Klein’s help. He’s also the audience identification character – Lyons tries to show how bad UNIT looks from the outside, and how even the Doctor’s heroics don’t look so beneficial in a certain light. But Klein leads him into a trap, and he fails.
This also completes Daniel Hopkins’ story, and unfortunately, he’s at his least interesting. While it was heart-wrenching to watch his fall from optimistic young officer to emotionally distraught survivor in “Hour of the Cybermen,” in this story he’s declined even further. Now he just wants everyone to be so miserable that they beg the Cybermen to return, and he latches on to any world-ending scheme he can find in order to do that. This sets up the main plot of the story – a crashed spaceship with a damaged AI leaking mental energy and corrupting the thoughts of those who come near it. The ship wants to leave Earth, and threaten the planet in the process – so naturally Hopkins wants to see this happen as well. Lyons tries to create a paranoid atmosphere, where you never know if the Doctor, Klein, or the rest of UNIT are possessed by the ship at any given moment – but ultimately all that tension (which isn’t much) is defused in a remarkably easy conclusion. Even a surprising fourth episode doesn’t do much to enhance the story.
As I’ve mentioned above, Klein is in this story. What a great opportunity – finally, it’s the return of the ex-Nazi scientist, or at least the alternate universe equivalent thereof. Surely, she’ll have a dramatic run-in with the Doctor? Perhaps her alter-ego’s Nazi philosophy will bleed through at the worst possible time? Maybe she actually does want to bring down UNIT from the inside? Alas, none of those things are true. Yes, everyone calls her Klein, and yes, she’s played by Tracey Childs, but otherwise this is a generic UNIT scientist character. So what’s the point of bringing her back? If Steve Lyons himself couldn’t come up with anything to do with her, maybe that should have been a hint that it was a bad idea? What a disappointment.
Ultimately, “Warlock’s Cross” fails to accomplish its goals. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a slow burn, a claustrophobic story where a group of characters slowly build tension amongst themselves until a shattering climax. But that tension never builds – director Jamie Anderson and sound designer Simon Power struggle with the uneven tone of the script. The performances are good across the board but none come in memorable roles. Even McCoy, who is at his best playing this version of the Doctor, doesn’t leave an impression. The seed of a good, entertaining story is here, but unfortunately it hasn’t bloomed.
From 5.2 - An Ideal Worldon
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: AN IDEAL WORLD
One thing I enjoy about the best Early Adventures is that they tell stories in the spirit of 1960s Doctor Who without necessarily being beholden to the storytelling conventions of the time. “An Ideal World” by Ian Potter is a slow-paced science fiction story in a classic style, but it’s still full of enough incident and character development that it never feels as though it’s treading water. Only a bizarre ending drags it down.
Exploration was a very important part of early Doctor Who, and that’s what we get for much of “An Ideal World:” the Doctor and Vicki exploring a strange new planet while Steven does the same on a spaceship in orbit. The date isn’t exactly known – it’s before either Vicki or Steven’s time – but we see a human colony ship searching for a habitable planet on which to settle. The ship’s captain is determined by popular vote, and the current officeholder is Traherne (Carolyn Pickles), a woman determined to make this planet their new home. Her actions are constrained by an ethicist, Kay (Angela McHale), tasked with ensuring the colonists’ actions do not exploit or harm intelligent indigenous life. Naturally, the TARDIS landing on the planet surface complicates matters, and soon the crew is caught in the usual web of intrigue, first accused of being saboteurs, then helping out as the true threat emerges.
This is a high-concept story, and Potter throws everything he possibly can at the script. Technology from different time periods coexists, with all the confusion that entails, all wrapped up in the idea of advancement in space travel. Vicki and Steven actually have their futuristic backgrounds put to use, while the Doctor’s alien physiology presents a problem to be solved. There’s a gestalt entity as well as giant cables anchoring the ship to the surface enabling the use of elevators. Potter uses the extended running time to dig into all of these ideas and more, fleshing them out and making the story creatively exciting. Furthermore, the characterization is first-rate: we really get a window into the relationship between the Doctor and his companions and how they think differently. We see the Doctor pushed to his breaking point, including a heartbreakingly wonderful scene where he tries to write down TARDIS instructions for Vicki when he thinks he’ll die. Steven spends much of the story separated from his friends, using his wit and intelligence to gain the trust of the spaceship crew. Despite the running time, nothing is here to pad out the length: every scene adds something to the story and it never feels as though it’s retreading old ground.
The ending, unfortunately, feels out of place. Traherne pursues a suicidal course of action, so Kay must stop her using a sedative drug. But Kay uses a lethal dose, killing Traherne, and says there was no other way – but while the story wants us to believe that, it doesn’t explain why a non-lethal dose would have been insufficient. Vicki and Steven then passionately defend Kay’s actions while the Doctor condemns them just as passionately, a conflict that arises seemingly from nowhere and feels inconsistent for all three characters. And while the Doctor condemning murder is in keeping with his character, his defense of the life forms on the planet is not – the “they’re just following their nature” argument can apply to any number of murderous Doctor Who villains that he doesn’t support. Then they turn on their heels and leave; while that sort of abrupt departure was not uncommon in the early years of the show, it feels disjointed after the slow, careful pace of the story.
Overall, though, “An Ideal World” is a fine story. Director Lisa Bowerman keeps the pace flowing through the long running time while the sound design from Toby Hrycek-Robinson is effective and convincing. The Early Adventures have finally settled into a groove – hopefully this run of high-quality stories will continue through the rest of this series and beyond.
From Ravenous 2on
Actually that wasn't as bad as I feared. I thought you'd give it a 1 🙂
THE QUANTUM POSSIBILITY ENGINE
Finally! Big Finish actually tries to do something interesting with the Ace and Mel companion pairing! At the end of the last story, Mel betrayed the Doctor and Ace, and that leads us straight into “The Quantum Possibility Engine” by Guy Adams. This story consciously adopts a comic book style, even reintroducing DWM comic villain Josiah W. Dogbolter, last heard on audio in “The Maltese Penguin.” But does it work? Sort of. It’s definitely a fun, entertaining listen, but it’s also so lightweight as to be utterly disposable.
The plot is complicated but Adams ties it together rather well. As briefly as I can: Dogbolter buys Mel’s debt from the Sperovores and uses it to blackmail her into stealing the TARDIS for him. Once he acquires it, he sends it back in time to give his scientists an effectively infinite amount of time to figure out how it works. New technology in hand, Dogbolter orders the construction of a “Quantum Possibility Engine,” something that locks the Solar System into a separate pocket of time and enables Dogbolter to rewrite events within the pocket at will. The Doctor, Ace, and Narvin (sent by the Time Lords) are exiled into the system, their personal histories rewritten, leaving Mel on her own to get the TARDIS back and save the day, even as Dogbolter has to defend the Solar System from an invading Krasi fleet. All of this works: all of the threads are tied off, everything makes sense, and the whole thing has a delightful comic book feel, making you want to turn the pages to see the next colorful splash panel. Mel in particular gets a lot to do: she’s the Doctor surrogate in this story and does a wonderful job. Adams puts her intelligence on full display: for once, she’s not just a woman with a good memory, she’s a brilliant, capable hero in her own right. She even gets some darker moments in her interactions with robot servant Hob (Wayne Forester) and Bonnie Langford pulls them off surprisingly well. I also think Dogbolter is fantastic in this: Toby Longworth gives a strong, memorable performance as a character that starts out as a simple villain but evolves some interesting shades of grey.
As entertaining as the story is, it is in desperate need of more weight. I mentioned that Narvin is in this story, and while Sean Carlsen gives his usual great performance and his interactions with Sylvester McCoy are delightful, Narvin contributes literally nothing to the story. You could cut his character out entirely and absolutely nothing about the plot would change; story elements like this are normally removed during the editing process. The Doctor, Ace, and Narvin have their histories altered: Ace works as a security officer cohabiting with her news anchor boyfriend, the Doctor is a cleaner living in public housing, and Narvin is a scientist developing new microwaves for a home appliance company. It is fun hearing them in these different situations – Narvin in particular is hilarious – but that’s as far as Adams wants to take things. Ace in particular should be horrified at the idea of being a cop, but she barely reacts at all, while the Doctor’s amnesia leaves him… almost exactly the same. The Quantum Possibility Engine is a fascinating idea, but Adams does almost nothing interesting with it, making Dogbolter seem unimaginative and wasting its potential. There’s also the question of Ace and Mel: Ace values loyalty above all else, so Mel’s betrayal should drive a massive wedge between them. The scenario is crying out for scenes between the two women, showing the rift in the TARDIS crew, but the script separates them for basically the entire running time. And then at the end, Ace essentially says “I’m mad at you but I’ll get over it,” and you know this is going to be completely forgotten by the next story featuring this group.
Overall, I enjoyed “The Quantum Possibility Engine.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with lightweight Doctor Who, but it needs to be heavier than this. Even stories like “Delta and the Bannermen” had some dark undercurrents, but this one floats away on a cloud. If you’re okay with that, you’ll love this; if you’re not, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway but, like me, find it wanting.
From Ravenous 2on
The Doctor and his companions answer a distress call and land on an abandoned, dying TARDIS to rescue the Eleven from a monster. Once there, they run away from the monster for a while and eventually escape, but there’s a twist at the end! There, now you don’t have to listen to “Seizure” by Guy Adams, the final story in this Ravenous set and the worst of the set by a long way.
This story is obviously meant to be terrifying. A dying TARDIS that has lost its pilot, slowly breaking down from within, losing control of its internal geometry, and generally feeling like a haunted house. A shadowy, hungry presence stalking the halls, striking fear in the very hearts of Time Lords. This sounds like it could be good, but Adams does nothing with the material, such that it comes across as little more than a pointless runaround. It’s a mediocre haunted house story that takes the path of least resistance – okay, so the dying TARDIS struggles to maintain its internal geometry. That’s it? Anyway, we finally come face to face with the Ravenous, and what are they? Monsters that stalk you through dark hallways and threaten to eat you. Be still my beating heart. There’s some discussion that these are ancient Time Lord nemeses, and that they only eat Time Lords because other meals aren’t sufficiently nourishing – but then the Ravenous says that it’ll eat Liv anyway so that all goes by the wayside. Naturally, the Ravenous also enjoy playing with their food, which sort of explains why it follows Liv around taunting her but doesn’t actually bother to eat her. This isn’t scary and it isn’t interesting.
The Eleven is back, and yet again it’s just Mark Bonnar doing a bunch of voices seemingly at random and then yelling “SILENCE, ALL OF YOU!” Bonnar is way over the top, because communicating “panic” in characters that are already on the border of sanity involves screaming even more than usual. The Doctor is terrified by the situation. Do you know how I know that? Because the script has him tell us that he’s scared, over and over and over again. At no point does McGann actually get to communicate this through his performance without simultaneously hammering the point home with obvious dialogue. Which is a shame, because he’s a talented performer who doesn’t need to do that. Also, remember how Helen traveled with the Eleven? I’m not sure Adams does, because they spend a good chunk of the story together and it’s barely mentioned.
Fundamentally, the problem with “Seizure” is that it wants to be a haunted house and monster story but completely fails to capture the appropriate tone for either of those categories. It’s not scary. It’s barely suspenseful. The characters don’t sound frightened. The monster is ill-defined and boring. The “dying TARDIS” material is unimaginative. At this point I’d suggest just abandoning these epic stories entirely – the number of successful attempts can still be counted on one hand and we’re 20 years in.