Recent Reviews

  • From Styre on Tales from New Earth

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: THE CATS OF NEW CAIRO

          And so we come to the end of the prolonged tale of Devon, Hame, and the Lux in “The Cats of New Cairo” by Matt Fitton. Right when it starts, there’s a strong implication that Devon will either be killed or otherwise removed from the action… and then nothing like that happens. We finally get a small glimpse into what distinguishes Devon as a New Human when we see how the Cats can control him, but we don’t really learn much about the Cats or their society despite spending most of the story there, apart from meeting the camel-like Dromedans who worship them and getting a brief glimpse into their religious hierarchy. Ultimately, one of the largest problems with the set is that the various alien races don’t sound or act particularly alien. There are exceptions – the one Solar Bear we spend time with is unique and memorable – but all the Cats here blend together, even James Dreyfus as the Most Exalted High Persian. This is a reasonable conclusion to the story of the attempted Lux invasion, although even with the Doctor largely absent from the action it’s still up to him to save the day at the end. I’m left with this question about “Tales from New Earth:” why was this box set produced? It doesn’t tell us anything particularly new or interesting about any characters or settings we know, it doesn’t introduce any compelling characters that we could see again in the future, it doesn’t offer any sort of thematic depth or complexity, and its storytelling is uninspiring and straightforward. It’s generic, competent, middlebrow science fiction with a few Doctor Who trappings slapped on the front. If that’s what you want, pick it up; if you want something you’ll remember for more than a day or two, look somewhere else.

    5/10

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    2018/05/17 at 4:53 am
  • From Styre on Tales from New Earth

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: THE SKIES OF NEW EARTH

          “The Skies of New Earth,” by Paul Morris,” is the best of the four stories in the set, mainly because it’s the only one that tries to be about something. It seems like it’s going to follow a routine path, with an evil corporation trying to achieve monopoly control over energy production, but things take an abrupt right turn when a corporate officer is shown the dangers of his plan… and repents! Of course, this is just in service of bringing the Lux to the forefront once again as the cackling villains of the piece, but it’s genuinely surprising to see a character like that show some moral independence. There are also some fascinating ideas on display: the Bird People of Nest City are fairly generic, but the ice clouds overhead, inhabited by jetpack-flying Solar Bears, are another matter entirely. Toby Hadoke is great as Oscar McLeod, too, a genuinely fun character who actually feels unique. The Doctor turns up in this one as well, and while he’s not as disruptive as he was in the New Forest, it still immediately becomes his story whenever he’s in a scene. I’m wondering about the editing, though: at one point, Devon remarks that he’s never felt as out of place as he does in the Bird society, where everyone is suspicious of him because of his human heritage. It’s an interesting idea to explore – but in the story immediately prior to this, he’s the only human among the Trees and Termitons and they’re all immediately suspicious of him as well! I can understand a continuity error like this between stories separated by significant production time, but two adjacent stories in the same box? Still, that’s a minor complaint that doesn’t detract from a generally interesting story.

    7/10

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    2018/05/17 at 4:52 am
  • From Styre on Tales from New Earth

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: DEATH IN THE NEW FOREST

          The second story, “Death in the New Forest” by Roland Moore, takes Devon on a trip to the New Forest, home to Trees from the Forest of Cheem, for two reasons: to investigate mysterious deaths for Hame and to pay his respects to his late boyfriend’s family. That second reason is ripe for drama: we can expect to learn quite a bit about Devon from how he interacts with the family and vice versa. Naturally, those expectations are immediately quashed as Devon discovers the entire family has been murdered. So instead of any character development, we get a rather routine murder mystery that pairs Devon up with Sapling Vale (Yasmin Bannerman), a descendant of Jabe because of course she is. We meet the ancient enemies of the Trees, the Termitons, giant termites that want to devour the Trees. It’s the sort of thing that Russell T. Davies might have come up with, except it’s lacking in any sense of irony, instead played perfectly straight. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the Termitons weren’t generic cackling villains, but they are, and so their relationship with the Trees isn’t at all interesting. Lastly, the tenth Doctor shows up, and immediately takes over the entire story. Kieran Hodgson voices the Doctor as well as Devon, and while his Tennant impression is actually rather good, it once again draws a line under how desperate Big Finish is for new series-related content. There was a chance here to tell original, interesting stories, but no – it’s the second story in the box and we’re already back to generic Doctor Who tales. Moore really writes the Doctor well, which is actually something of a disadvantage – he’s such a dynamic, interesting character that you immediately lose interest in the one you’re supposed to be following.

    Dreary.

    4/10

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    2018/05/17 at 4:52 am
  • From Styre on Tales from New Earth

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: ESCAPE FROM NEW NEW YORK

          I often wonder if Big Finish actually planned out this new series material or if most of it is just a panicked reaction to the realization that none of the regular actors are available or interested. Either way, we’re definitely reaching the bottom of the barrel with Tales from New Earth, a box set of stories whose only defining feature is that they take place on the titular planet. (Oddly, the ad copy describes “The End of the World” as being part of “the New Earth setting.” This is akin to describing “Frontier in Space” as being set on Spiridon.) With only Novice (now Senator) Hame (Anna Hope) along as a recognizable character, Tales from New Earth presents a compelling challenge: create new characters in a largely unexplored world without the benefit of the audience’s familiarity or sympathy. Unfortunately, and yet entirely predictably, the challenge itself is much more interesting than the results.

    The first story is “Escape from New New York” by Roy Gill, a title inspired by the classic John Carpenter film. But if you’re expecting a pulse-pounding, action-filled adventure from the title, think again, because the title has practically no relevance whatsoever. Instead, we have a glacially slow adventure starring Hame and Devon Pryce (Kieran Hodgson), an elevator repairman in training, and a story featuring an alien race trying to convert the population in part by using the elevator control panels. If that sounds monumentally uninteresting, you’re right. Hame was an unmemorable character on TV, and that largely continues here – she’s principled and heroic and that’s about it. Devon is the main character for the set, and there’s nothing interesting about him. This story establishes that Devon has a tree boyfriend named Thorn (Matthew Jacobs-Morgan) but promptly kills him off to drive the plot, which kills off an entire thread that could have been used to develop the main character. “Escape from New New York” is in many ways a test: can Big Finish craft a science fiction world with original characters and make it compelling? Evidently the answer is no.

    3/10

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    2018/05/17 at 4:51 am
  • From Styre on Ravenous 1

    RAVENOUS: HOW TO MAKE A KILLING IN TIME TRAVEL

    “How to Make a Killing in Time Travel,” by John Dorney, is the second story in the Ravenous set and only a marginal improvement over the first. While it’s a much more entertaining story, it once again has virtually nothing to do with the ongoing plot, and features the principal characters complaining about this very point just in case you wanted to enjoy it on its own terms.

    The Doctor and Liv have located Helen, but (of course) a disturbance in the vortex pulls the TARDIS off course and onto the space station Scapegrace. Brilliant yet awkward scientist Stralla Cushing (Judith Roddy) is building a time machine to further the financial goals of billionaire Cornelius Morningstar (Roger May), and the effects of this machine render the TARDIS unable to leave the station. All the Doctor and Liv need to do is shut it off long enough to depart, but this becomes impossible when Stralla kills Morningstar and a madcap murder mystery breaks out. Dorney struggles to capture a consistent tone: there are times when this story feels like outright slapstick, others when it feels satirical, and still others when it suddenly takes itself completely seriously. This makes for an entertaining, surprising listen, which is good, but it doesn’t feel particularly rewarding by the end.

    Rather than follow the murder investigation, we largely follow Stralla, who makes her overall situation worse each time she solves an immediate problem. Everyone seems to know she killed Morningstar, or at least strongly suspect – this is the sort of thing the Doctor can figure out in about eight seconds and it certainly seems like he does so. Indeed, the Doctor and Liv largely seem irritated with having to deal with this, which neatly illustrates the problem: the scale of the story isn’t big enough. When the Doctor and Liv act like this is beneath them, you agree with them – this isn’t significant enough to warrant our favorite Time Lord’s involvement. It’s just an obstacle, an imposition along the path to finding Helen and the Eleven. And while it’s an entertaining imposition, the script leans into this concept, to the point that the story ends with Liv essentially asking “Can we go now?” The characters are entertaining enough, the screwball plotting is fun, but ultimately this story feels lightweight and disposable. I understand that the box set format forces the listener to purchase all four stories, but shouldn’t the first two stories in a new range do something to hook the listener? Having listened to the entire set, you can very easily skip both this story and its predecessor and not miss a single thing. That may have been okay at one time but it’s now 2018 and serial drama doesn’t work that way anymore.

    5/10

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    2018/05/15 at 8:29 pm
  • From Styre on Ravenous 1

    RAVENOUS: THEIR FINEST HOUR

    With Doom Coalition completed, and the new Time War sets floating around, the story of the eighth Doctor, Liv, and Helen continues in a new series of box sets: Ravenous. If history is any indicator, we’ll find out why it’s called Ravenous somewhere around the third box set. Doom Coalition ended with the titular Coalition defeated, their plans foiled – but the Eleven escaped, taking Helen along in a battle TARDIS. And that’s where we pick up in “Their Finest Hour,” by John Dorney: the Doctor and Liv desperately trying to find their friend. The Doctor dashes about the TARDIS controls, brilliantly programming a way for the ship to determine Helen’s location, and then… they have to wait for the TARDIS to perform the calculations, so they wander off to World War II to have a jolly, pointless adventure with Winston Churchill! It will probably come as no surprise that I didn’t like it.

    “Their Finest Hour” feels like a time-filler, like the sort of story that’s produced to fulfill an episode order but that doesn’t actually advance the plot in any meaningful way. In my experience, however, these time-filling episodes don’t normally feature as the series premieres! It’s fun to hear Ian McNeice’s Churchill with someone other than a new series Doctor – these are the sorts of crossover elements they should do more often, rather than bringing back random guest stars to headline box sets – but the script doesn’t even do anything interesting with him, it just leans heavily into cliché. Churchill wants to use the TARDIS to end the war, the Doctor must be sure not to tell Churchill how the war ends, and so forth. Dorney draws attention to the fact that Liv is from the far future by showing her not knowing who Winston Churchill was, but then doesn’t do anything with this idea. Wouldn’t it be interesting to give Churchill a crisis of confidence? If he’s forgotten, does that mean he loses the war? But no, let’s not do that.

    Instead, it’s time for a laughably uninspired alien invasion plot. An invisible alien spaceship is flying around destroying British military installations, leading everyone to assume they’re in league with the Nazis. At least the story isn’t quite so lazy as to go down that road, but the path it chooses isn’t much better: everyone flies around in airplanes for a while until Liv finally radios the alien homeworld and some other aliens show up to solve the problem. There’s no brilliant deduction by the Doctor, no dangerous face-to-face confrontation, no heroic moment of personal risk by the companion – just a quick radio communication and the plot’s over. Don’t worry, though, because there also isn’t any character development to speak of. Churchill is at his most generic, the Doctor and Liv don’t do or say anything unusual, and the only two guest characters of any importance are two Polish fighter pilots who only show the briefest amount of interest. Most of the story is consumed with characters in airplanes yelling at each other over radios, which is incredibly grating on the ears. It’s rare for the actual experience of listening to a Big Finish story to be unpleasant, but this is an example.

    This story is pointless. It’s generic, reheated Doctor Who, utterly bereft of creativity or invention. I struggle to accept that John Dorney wrote this: it’s unquestionably the worst Doctor Who script he’s ever written, coming across instead as Nick Briggs on autopilot. The plot is boring, the resolution is laughable, the characters barely meet the definition – and this is the first story in a brand-new range of adventures! What on earth were they thinking? Who thought this was a good idea? It’s not quite down there with “Minuet in Hell” or “Zagreus” but this is one of the worst Paul McGann stories in a long, long time.

    2/10

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    2018/05/12 at 5:19 am
  • From Styre on 19 - The Death of Captain Jack

    TORCHWOOD: THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN JACK

    It’s amazing that we’re already onto the fourth series of Torchwood releases, and that the average level of quality has remained so high throughout – which is why “The Death of Captain Jack” by David Llewellyn is such a disappointing start to the fourth series. This story marks the return of Captain John Hart (James Marsters), a fellow former Time Agent who appeared in the second Torchwood TV season. It follows a simple conceit: since Captain John is such a fun, over the top character, wouldn’t it be delightful to watch him rampage through history, killing or having sex with everything in sight? What if he even managed to change history and lived through the events of Torchwood in Jack’s place? If you’re thinking this sounds exactly like “He Jests at Scars…,” the Doctor Who Unbound story starring the Valeyard, you’re right! But if you thought that, you might also remember that “He Jests at Scars…” was awful, and so is “The Death of Captain Jack” for the same reasons. Since all of this takes place in a parallel universe, there are no consequences for our characters. Oh, Captain John just killed Rhys! So what? What’s the point of the story? Evidently there’s no point beyond being silly – and that’s fine to an extent because it’s very funny in places, but an hour of bawdy vignettes with no greater purpose is a waste of time. Yep, they all waggled their eyebrows and now they’re having sex with each other. Again. Great.

    4/10

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    2018/05/10 at 7:04 pm
  • From Styre on 236 - Serpent in the Silver Mask

    SERPENT IN THE SILVER MASK

          The monthly Doctor Who range rolls on with “Serpent in the Silver Mask” by David Llewellyn, a future-set murder mystery that isn’t particularly surprising but is constructed well enough to remain entertaining. It’s a fun, lighthearted tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously, resulting in a breezy, pleasant listen that doesn’t stick around in the memory.

    The Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric land on the tax haven Argentia just in time for the funeral of billionaire mining magnate Carlo Mazzini. Present at the funeral are all of Carlo’s various heirs, and each of them has a marked interest in retaining Carlo’s fortune – and so it is that they start turning up dead under increasingly mysterious circumstances. This scenario is like catnip to the Doctor, of course, so he jumps in with both feet, and soon the entire TARDIS crew is living out what could be a bizarre Agatha Christie story. It’s important to remember that the tone is supposed to be lighthearted: there are moments where the Doctor’s companions remind him that someone has been murdered and perhaps he should be more serious, but these moments don’t lead to anything in particular. If you’re not expecting them to, you’ll be better off. That said, Peter Davison is audibly having a ball playing the Time Lord detective, and it’s nice to hear some of that “youthful enthusiasm” out of the fifth Doctor that we don’t hear very often anymore.

    The mystery is eventually solved, and while the killer’s identity comes as a surprise, it’s drawn from a reasonable list of suspects: we don’t shockingly discover that the third extra from the left is the killer. It’s difficult to sympathize with the killer’s motives because the Mazzinis are largely drawn as Scooby-Doo caricatures, but everything lines up and largely makes sense. Samuel West plays the entire Mazzini family in a succession of silly voices that had me grinning throughout – this is a fantastic way to save money on casting! It sounds cynical, but when the result is this good, I’m not going to criticize. We also get a nice little romantic subplot for Tegan, which is probably the most believable part of the script: it’s not maudlin or overblown, just two people meeting under unusual circumstances and forming a connection. We know, of course, that Tegan isn’t going to stay behind, but Llewellyn gives her a plausible reason to do so such that her choice feels consequential.

    Credit should also go to Phil Cornwell – his turn as the gruff, by-the-book Superintendent Galgo is good, but he’s absolutely hilarious as robot steward Zaleb 5, whose mix of information and advertising never gets old. Nyssa and Adric are also in this, and neither gets much to do, though it’s fun to see Nyssa’s background in polite society actually put to good use. The play is also delivered with an energy that never gets boring, which should tell you that the director is the talented Barnaby Edwards. Overall, if you want a lighthearted, entertaining Doctor Who murder mystery, “Serpent in the Silver Mask” is your jam. If you’re looking for something any more substantial, it won’t be – but this sort of thing is enjoyable every once in a while.

    Recommended.

    7/10

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    2018/05/09 at 5:55 am
  • From Styre on Gallifrey: Time War

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: DESPERATE MEASURES

    “Desperate Measures,” by Matt Fitton, is a disappointing end to the Gallifrey: Time War set, largely because it abandons the daring, dangerous feel of the other stories in lieu of much more standard Gallifrey-related intrigue. This story, more like any other, feels like an exercise in box-checking, designed to get everything to line up smoothly with the TV series. We all remember that Rassilon unexpectedly returned in “The End of Time,” but at least to me, “what political circumstances on Gallifrey led to them resurrecting him?” is not a question worthy of an hour-long dramatization. Once again we’re into the weeds of Time Lord electoral politics, and once again it’s not interesting because they’re making the rules up as they go along. It’s also a sledgehammer-obvious satire of the recent US presidential election, with a highly-qualified female candidate foiled at every turn by an inexplicably popular warmongering fanatic. This would perhaps have been more interesting had the election lasted longer than about ten minutes of the overall running time, but as it stands, it’s just eye-rolling. The lessons of the previous two stories – take interesting characters and put them in challenging situations – aren’t followed here, and therefore the finish feels rote and uninspired. There’s certainly nothing awful here; Fitton’s scripts are always competent. But he rarely produces truly inspired material, and this is another example of that trend.

    5/10

    Scott Handcock directs the set, and the sound design and music are handled throughout by Russell McGee and Ioan Morris respectively. The production is generally excellent – Big Finish is proud of this release and rightfully so.

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    2018/04/21 at 7:15 pm
  • From Styre on Gallifrey: Time War

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

          The third story in the set, and the second excellent one, is “The Devil You Know” by Scott Handcock, which once again takes us away from Gallifrey and into the company of two characters we know: the so-called War Master and Leela. This works for two reasons: first, these are two compelling characters, one that we know intimately and one that we’re still getting to know. Second, they are played by two exceptional actors, and Derek Jacobi and Louise Jameson are fantastic together. As with most other Time War stories, this yet again involves the search for a secret weapon, but Handcock has a fantastic conceit for the story. Finnian Valentine (Bryan Dick), the fighter whose secrets they seek, has been split into two people by the effects of the Time War, each with a different personality. And so Leela and the Master separate the two Valentines and interrogate them separately. Leela isn’t very good at it, of course: she’s too honest, too open, and too quick to anger. The Master, conversely, is almost too good – but then he’s not even there to complete Romana’s mission, he’s there to serve his own ends. As events spiral out of control and the Master gets his way, the story doesn’t pull any punches: under the genteel exterior, this Master is a ruthless killer like all of his fellow incarnations, and he does exactly what you’d expect him to in this situation. The ending is fantastic, too – you know where it’s heading but it’s still shocking when it gets there. This set is so unlike Big Finish: they’re taking pieces off the board and making consequential decisions, and as a result it feels like the most “important” new series material they’ve released.

    9/10

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    2018/04/21 at 6:01 pm
  • From Styre on Gallifrey: Time War

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: SOLDIER OBSCURA

    The middle two stories in this set are the best, and it’s no coincidence that they follow a similar format: throwing two well-known characters together and seeing what happens. The first of these, and second in the set, is “Soldier Obscura” by Tim Foley. In this story, Braxiatel and Ace journey to a Time Lord research station in the Obscura, a warped region of space-time, on a CIA mission to recover a weapon for the war. The Obscura is so dangerous that merely looking upon it drives the viewer insane, something we see put horrifyingly to the test as the story progresses. Brax is at his most morally questionable in this story: from the beginning, he has his own agenda, and he’s so opaque in the face of Ace’s questioning that he rivals the seventh Doctor in his frustrating refusals to answer. One of his old Time Lord instructors, Danna (Zulema Dene), is the lone person on the station – and she’s taken to drawing nature murals on the shutters as she cannot look outside. She’s lost her edge over the years, and that means her usefulness to Brax’s scheme is reduced – but the Daleks are en route and all three of them must be prepared to fight. I won’t venture too far into spoiler territory, but Brax is utterly ruthless here. When Ace challenges him, calling him a coward, his response is terrifying. Furthermore, Ace’s fate really underscores how things have changed with the arrival of the Time War: we don’t know what happened to these characters during the war, and so Big Finish is free to show real, frightening consequences. Great stuff.

    8/10

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    2018/04/10 at 11:00 pm
  • From Styre on Gallifrey: Time War

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: CELESTIAL INTERVENTION

          My biggest complaint about both the Gallifrey and the Time War ranges from Big Finish relates to their relative lack of ambition: one deals with the most ancient and powerful race in the universe, the other deals with the largest conflict in history (multiple histories, in fact), and both represent their subject matter as relatively ordinary. And now they’re finally joining forces in “Gallifrey: Time War,” a prospect that admittedly did not fill me with confidence. While the first story in the set, “Celestial Intervention” by David Llewellyn, confirms some of my fears, it’s good enough to overcome the limitation.

    There’s a theme running through “Celestial Intervention” about the importance of accepting refugees held against the possibility of damaging security. This is a political debate happening in the real world, and here it comes up when the Daleks destroy an entire civilization, leaving only five thousand survivors out of billions. These survivors implore the Time Lords to give them asylum lest the Daleks hunt them down. Llewellyn’s script addresses this with appropriate seriousness, but one argument troubled me: several characters contend quite seriously that Gallifrey does not have the infrastructure to support these refugees, and that admitting them would cause social upheaval when the food ran out. This took me straight out of the story: we are expected to believe that the ancient, powerful society of Time Lords, capable of manipulating the course of history itself, and that importantly is not yet at war with the Daleks, does not have sufficient resources to take care of an extra five thousand people? I’m not sure they understand how small a number that is: most countries on Earth could support an extra 5000 people right this moment, yet the entire Time Lord society cannot? This seems like a small point, and in isolation it is, but it’s reflective of how the Gallifrey range has long since stripped any feeling of grandeur from Time Lord society. Remember, this is the same society that will soon prosecute a war so large and so terrible that they will be hated throughout the universe for being just as bad as the Daleks… and the food has run out before the war even starts?

    All that aside, though, “Celestial Intervention” is a good political drama. The government has been divided into three equal parts: the High Council, the War Council, and the CIA, and all must agree on major courses of action. The President (Pippa Bennett-Warner), however, is clearly in cahoots with the War Council and its leader, General Trave (Paul Marc Davis), which leaves Romana, Narvin, and the rest of the CIA on the outside looking in. The plot is small-scale – it basically involves Romana, Narvin, and Leela discovering s secret War Council plan – but it expertly captures the increased feelings of paranoia swirling around Gallifrey as war grows inexorably closer. It’s a very good series opener that lays the groundwork for something that could grow much more significant in rapid fashion, and I enjoyed it.

    7/10

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    2018/04/10 at 6:47 pm
  • From Styre on The Churchill Years Vol 2

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: CHURCHILL VICTORIOUS

          The second Churchill Years box comes to a close with “Churchill Victorious” by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. As the title implies, it’s VE Day, and London is alive with revelry over the final defeat of the Nazis. But Churchill isn’t celebrating; instead, he’s contemplating Operation Unthinkable, his secret plan to attack the Soviet forces and push them back out of the West. Finally, he decides to take in the celebration, dons a ridiculous disguise, and heads out into the streets to watch his countrymen rejoice. This is one of the best parts of the story, listening as Churchill attempts to string up some bunting and manages instead to fall over and hurt himself. But of course, he has a secondary motive: investigating recent power cuts. And he finds those power cuts happening in an abandoned tavern occupied by an alien bounty hunter. And so, he must team up with a local couple to defeat this bounty hunter, and the ensuing conflict is quite entertaining, as Churchill tries to inspire his companions while simultaneously maintaining his unconvincing disguise. Unfortunately, when the Doctor enters the story, it immediately starts to retread the same ground as “Human Conflict,” with Winston torn between his duty and the Doctor’s advice. With the outcome predetermined, there’s not much drama, but a reasonably lighthearted story like this doesn’t need to get too heavy. “Churchill Victorious” is a fun way to pass an hour, and it’s worth hearing, but I still can’t escape the feeling that these sets are being commissioned in order to make use of the license and not because anyone has a particularly compelling story idea.

    7/10

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    2018/04/10 at 6:46 pm
  • From Styre on The Churchill Years Vol 2

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: I WAS CHURCHILL’S DOUBLE

          It’s been a while since I’ve been able to complain about an Alan Barnes script, but “I Was Churchill’s Double” is a perfect opportunity. Despite the presence of narration from not one but two Churchills, Barnes still manages to write leaden, unconvincing dialogue and completely over-explain the visuals. There’s a reference in here to a fascinating “counter-counterfactual” essay Churchill wrote in the 1930s, but all the reference does is demonstrate a lack of understanding of the source material and of American Civil War history. That reference is there because this story is ostensibly about parallel universes, but the dramatic revelation is that the so-called parallel universe isn’t a parallel universe at all! Instead, it’s… an artificial universe inside a mirror. Well that’s certainly a meaningful enough difference around which to write a story! The two Churchills are basically identical, insofar as we don’t see enough of the “alternate” one to detect any meaningful differences. The ninth Doctor is there, of course, and already stuck in the mirror, and he’s deliberately obtuse and confusing when it comes to explaining what’s happening. This doesn’t serve any purpose other than to frustrate the listener. Sure, there’s some redeeming material here: McNeice is having fun, the plot is light and never gets bogged down, and the conclusion is relatively neat. But it’s still confusing and poorly written, and easily the weakest story in the set.

    4/10

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    2018/04/10 at 6:46 pm
  • From Styre on The Churchill Years Vol 2

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: HUMAN CONFLICT

          I always enjoyed Iain McLaughlin’s work in the Doctor Who range, and “Human Conflict,” his script for the Churchill Years, is easily the best of the second set. It deals with a theme that this series keeps returning to: would Churchill be willing to use alien weapons of mass destruction to end the war, costing millions of innocent German civilian lives in the process? There isn’t much drama, since we already know the answer, but McLaughlin and McNeice do a great job of presenting Churchill’s inner conflict. I think the story drifts into more questionable moral territory in the second half, when Churchill and a Nazi officer are compelled to team up to drive off an alien arms dealer. In order to make both characters sympathetic, Churchill excuses his own actions as those of a leader forced to make impossible decisions while the Nazi says he’s a soldier following orders. While this is a common theme in war stories and indeed in real life – subordinates not receiving the same blame as their commanders – it feels uneasy when applied to a Nazi officer. I do like Churchill immediately turning on the enemy as soon as their common opponent is eliminated, which seems more in keeping with what we know of his character. There isn’t much new in “Human Conflict:” it’s a very traditional new series story concluding with the Doctor lecturing both sides of a conflict on the better course of action. Still, it’s written well and it’s occasionally thought-provoking, which sets it apart from most of its fellows.

    7/10

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    2018/04/10 at 6:45 pm
  • From Styre on The Churchill Years Vol 2

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: YOUNG WINSTON

          The Churchill Years: one of the most obviously desperate scrambles by Big Finish to find something to do with the new series license given the practical impossibilities of getting modern-era Doctors and companions into the studio on a regular basis. The first set was pleasantly inoffensive, and the second set carries on that noble unambitious tradition.

    The first story, “Young Winston” by Paul Morris, features Ian McNeice’s Churchill telling us a story in flashback of an adventure he had as a young man during his time in Cuba and during the years afterward. The setup is odd, in that McNeice narrates but young Churchill is played in the flashbacks by Iain Batchelor – and while Batchelor is fine, McNeice is better, and having both present just underscores the differences between the two. The story is also notable for its inclusion of Madame Vastra, who teams up with young Churchill to search for a mysterious alien artifact. And the eleventh Doctor is around as well, popping up occasionally to save the day. The problem, as with most of these Churchill stories, is that nothing particularly interesting happens. We don’t learn anything about the Doctor or Vastra, the plot is Doctor Who boilerplate, and the potential intrigue of a romance for Winston isn’t pursued. This is also one of a few recent Big Finish excursions to Latin American locales, and the Cuban accents here aren’t especially convincing. All that being said, there’s nothing wrong with “Young Winston,” but when your selling point is nothing more than Vastra’s presence in the story, there isn’t much to recommend it.

    6/10

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    2018/04/10 at 6:45 pm
  • From Styre on 235 - Ghost Walk

    GHOST WALK

    I’ve lamented the traditionalist leanings of Big Finish Doctor Who many times in the past; I don’t think there’s any reason at this point to insist that stories be told in 25-minute episodic chunks with cliffhangers. But if they’re going to stick with the format, it’s nice when authors try to push the boundaries a bit, and that’s what James Goss does with “Ghost Walk,” a story told from multiple perspectives across multiple time periods.

    The story is told primarily from the perspective of Leanne (Fenella Woolgar), a woman who leads tourists on “ghost walks” – tours of “haunted” catacombs and other such things. And while the hauntings on these tours are faked, the twist is that Leanne is herself haunted by a real ghost: the ghost of the fifth Doctor. We then see in flashback as the TARDIS lands in a recently sealed catacomb and the crew is confronted by the ghostly presence of Sabaoth (Stephen Greif), an incorporeal alien who feeds directly from the life energy of those unlucky enough to venture too close. To save his companions, the Doctor constructs a device that sends Adric and Nyssa back in time – and would have done the same for Tegan if she hadn’t stayed behind. From here, Goss presents four different perspectives: the “current” perspective of Leanne, the flashback to the Doctor and Tegan in the catacombs, and the separate adventures of Adric and Nyssa in the past.

    Most interesting is Nyssa’s story, as she wakes in the past and immediately finds herself the target of a witch hunt, with her only protection coming from the local Reverend Matthew (Sacha Dhawan). But Matthew’s household staff continues to suspect her, and when Nyssa rejects Matthew’s romantic advances, she finds even his protection failing. It’s a surprisingly dark look at human nature: everyone is deeply suspicious and cruel, and the only kindness Nyssa experiences comes from a man with ulterior motives. When Matthew abandons her and she is taken away to be drowned, it’s genuinely hard to listen – Sarah Sutton’s anguish is utterly convincing and Nyssa’s inability to control the situation is disturbing. While the listener knows that the Doctor will inevitably appear to save the day, Goss actually introduces some doubt, so harrowing is Nyssa’s position. Adric’s scenario, by contrast, is much more mundane, as he’s sentenced to death for stealing bread. It’s a brutal form of justice to be sure but it doesn’t carry the same dramatic weight.

    The structure of the story is effective as well: it’s a particular skill to tell a story from multiple perspectives without running in place, and Goss is very good at it: each scene reveals new information while simultaneously providing conflicts for the characters and yet not feeling repetitive. I’m sure part of this is down to director Barnaby Edwards, who has always been one of the most kinetic directors in the Big Finish stable, but it all starts with Goss’s script.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Woolgar is particularly good in this story, and as such the focus on her character did not help me enjoy the conclusion. It’s also the sort of conclusion that involves the characters standing around yelling at each other – after such a tight, compelling script, the unfocused and confusing ending doesn’t fit at all and lets down the story. But that’s a surprisingly minor complaint, as what we get is still thematically fitting. The production is excellent as usual – I’ve already mentioned Edwards’ direction but the sound design from Daniel Burnett and score from Benji Clifford are quite effective. Overall, “Ghost Walk” is the sort of story I want more of: it spends time getting to know the characters, it doesn’t follow ultra-traditional narrative structure, and it’s about more than just another megalomaniac trying to destroy the universe. It’s not perfect – the ending is a particular letdown – but it’s another strong entry in what’s becoming a very good run for the monthly range.

    8/10

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    2018/04/02 at 7:34 pm
  • From Styre on Aliens Among Us Part 3

    TORCHWOOD: ALIENS AMONG US: VOLUME 3

    After the surprise ending to the second volume, I admit I had my concerns about Aliens Among Us being able to stick the concluding set, especially given some of Big Finish’s struggles in that realm over the years. I shouldn’t have worried, as Aliens Among Us: Volume 3 is every bit as good as its predecessors and sets up even more interesting things for the future.

    The set picks up where the last one left off, with Tim Foley’s “Poker Face,” a story that basically isolates the Torchwood team with Yvonne and has them interact as she tries to take control. We’ve seen how capable and ruthless Yvonne can be, both on television and in the recent Torchwood One set, and she’s no different here, using a combination of friendliness and professionalism to impress the Torchwood team. While she’s not an objectively better choice than Jack, she’s significantly more trustworthy to the team in the present moment. Jack has kept his involvement with Red Doors a secret, and Yvonne blowing that open is all it takes to topple Jack from his perch atop the organization. It’s all a setup, of course, but it’s executed so elegantly even Jack doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late. The story doesn’t leave the listener with much idea of Yvonne’s end game – she’s come from a different universe, which might be Pete’s World, but that’s not established either. But that’s all window dressing for a story that takes the characters we’ve come to know and sets them against one another with fine results.

    The second story, “Tagged” by Joseph Lidster, is a much more traditional Torchwood story, except of course it features Yvonne in charge. The central idea is exactly the sort of thing that Lidster does best, with something exploiting the grief and fear of ordinary people to cause havoc. Serena (Kezrena James) is a fascinating character in that she’s utterly sympathetic and yet there’s no question that she’s guilty of various crimes. It’s also an exploration of how Torchwood is different with Yvonne in charge: she views her team as a means to an end, as an ultimately disposable tool to accomplish mission objectives. This is exactly how she treats Orr, using their unique abilities to gain access to the threat and ignoring the very real consequences. Of course, Yvonne is sympathetic to Orr after the fact, but she never apologizes and that’s the crux of the matter. Jack, for all his bluster and lack of organization, would never view a team member as disposable or view that sort of mental torture as an acceptable risk. The story of “Tagged” isn’t the most interesting, but it’s a good look into how things at Torchwood have changed.

    “Escape Room” by Helen Goldwyn is the third story, and it’s also a standalone tale that takes an entertaining approach to a Torchwood story: what if the team went to an escape room as part of a team-building exercise? Well, naturally it’ll turn out to be an alien trap and their lives will be put in serious danger! If you’ve ever seen any of the Saw films, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect: a serious of deadly (and frankly ludicrous) traps designed to take advantage of relationships and personality flaws to drive the Torchwood team apart. It’s also an interesting mix of people, as it’s more of a couples night: Ng/Gwen and Rhys paired up with Colchester and Colin. Both Rhys and Colin are given opportunities to shine, and Rhys in particular is entertaining because he hasn’t had much chance in this series to be part of the team. This is probably the most disposable story of the entire series, and it’s certainly the most self-contained, but it’s still worthwhile for how it puts the characters in a tough situation and lets them work it out organically.

    Lastly, the series comes to a close with “Herald of the Dawn” by James Goss. Those expecting a definitive conclusion will not get one, as it ends on a cliffhanger that practically guarantees a sixth series at some point in the future. (This is a good thing, given the quality on display here.) We’ve had references to God from the Sorvix; here, we see that same god forcing its way through the rift. We also get one of the most interesting uses of Orr in the range: as Orr copies the desires of the people around them, when they are surrounded by religious fanatics desperate to see their god’s herald, Orr becomes that herald. Whether this is Orr’s “purpose” or just a coincidence is left unclear, but it adds a fascinating dimension to the character all the same. We also get a resolution of sorts to the Ng/Gwen dilemma, but this is the most unsatisfying part of the story: Gwen has had a lot of time trapped in her own head to think, and so she has decided to… quit! Since we haven’t seen much of Gwen in this series, this comes completely out of nowhere and doesn’t have nearly the impact that it should. Still, it sets up an interesting potential dynamic for the next series – or it just gives Eve Myles a way to quit doing these. I guess we’ll find out. Overall, “Herald of the Dawn” is a fine “season finale” – but now we need to hear the next season!

    I really can’t speak highly enough of Aliens Among Us. While the Torchwood range has been almost uniformly excellent, this “series five” took a step beyond the individual releases. We have new, well-developed characters in a new, well-developed Cardiff, and everything grows and changes over the course of twelve episodes. If this had been on television we’d be calling it the second-best Torchwood season behind Children of Earth. It’s mature, modern drama, and it’s one heck of a present to Torchwood fans. If the Doctor Who ranges could produce something like this I’d be over the moon.

    8/10

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    2018/03/27 at 11:54 pm
  • From Wirrn on 081 – The Kingmaker

    The Kingmaker was not only my first Big Finish historical story, but my first EVER historical story. And at the same time it wasn’t.

    If I were to say the first word that popped into my head about this story, it would be fun. It literally rewrites history without having an impact on anything major. Beware, SPOILERS AHEAD…

    Basically, the Master is in it, but he’s really Shakespeare who stowed away on the TARDIS. The 2 princes are princesses and are mistaken by Peri for robots because they are wearing codpieces – medieval dildos basically. Shakespeare is trapped in the past and killed at a famous battle but goes down in history as Richard the 3rd whilst old Rickie boy lives out his life as Shakespeare . George, Earl of Clarence never got killed, he was given a new identity instead : Uncle Clarry. You cannot say that The Kingmaker is bulging with originality and comedy. I laughed so bloody hard at the image of a hunchback wildly chasing Shakespeare round ye olde London with a sword.

    Overall, a brilliant pseudo-historical piece and an orgasmically good piece of comedy and only episode 4 seems to lose the fantastic mystery about who killed the princes in the tower .

    9/10

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    2018/03/22 at 5:35 pm
  • From Wirrn on 079 – Night Thoughts

    Night Thoughts written by Ed Young was one of my earliest Big Finish stories, in fact it was my second! I shamefully admit that on first listen, I found it boring and confusing, and left too many loose ends. Only the third issue remains. Night Thoughts is a wonderfully creepy story and is very well-paced. It is filled with atmosphere, eeriness, and after the first death, the story is filled with mystery and suspicion. One of the most delightful things is how the script for this story and the story itself is so engaging, that the fact that a moment of action or any drama happens rarely bears little consequence. You are constantly trying to piece together what is going on, with a brief reminder every now and then that the setting is filled with danger. And that is absolutely fine. i’m not calling it boring, it’s far from it. Like I say, it’s gripping, and the progression of the story makes it a fine and entertaining piece of horror/ science fiction.

    For me, the most remarkable thing about this sublime audio adventure is the characterisation and acting. Each of the characters has a dark secret to hie, and that makes them even more realistic. I find the interactions particularly fascinating in this story because they squabble like any ordinary person. The fact that they are like ordinary people makes them so EXTRAordinary- in Doctor Who, characters are often given unrealistic and distinct personalities, which works, but it’s nice to have a cast that truly feel like regular human beings.

    And then we have the mains- the Doctor, Ace and Hex. Hex is particularly, and in my opinion, quite thankfully given the centre of attention for most of the first episode. The Harvest focused on him, but he was very naive in comparison to later on his travels, Dreamtime was just a pile of crap, and he was introduced too late in LIVE 34, even though his limited appearance was much-loved by me. Here, especially in episode 1, he is focused on a lot, encountering the hooded figure, his strange dream, finding Hartley’s eyes cut out. Lots of brilliant stuff. Ace and the Doctor are also brilliant as usual. I think that it’s safe to say that Ace is well-utilised as well, though she often is, so I won’t really go into too much detail. Sylvester McCoy portrays a wonderfully dark and secretive version of the Doctor’s seventh incarnation, a lot like in The Curse of Fenric. All in all, fantastic performances all-round.

    In summary, I have no choice but to give this story a 9.5/10. It’s only downfall is that it leaves too many loose ends and doesn’t explain itself properly.

    Go to comment
    2018/03/21 at 8:00 pm
  • From Styre on The Diary of River Song Vol. 3

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE FURIES

    I like the ambition of this set, I really do. I like that it’s actually trying to tell a story about River wrapped around her origin story, fleshing out her background instead of just throwing a bunch of Doctor Who stories at us with a different lead character. But as things come to a conclusion in Matt Fitton’s “The Furies,” I feel as though this is a missed opportunity. Part of this is due to the source material: Kovarian, on TV, was a thinly-drawn cipher of a character with unsubtle motivations. Here, they try to flesh her out beyond that, but “is insane and wants to kill the Doctor” just isn’t an interesting foundation. Fitton tries to give her fears and motivations beyond the obvious but unfortunately it doesn’t come off. There’s also the issue of River’s clone “siblings” – here, Brooke (shouldn’t it be Brook?) and the others are portrayed as crazed, immature killers lacking even an ounce of subtlety. They’re more annoying than threatening, which isn’t good. Fitton also tries to throw in complications in the form of the Deterrent and the titular Furies, but these elements are confused, adding little to the story apart from complication. The resolution to the “dead Doctor” plot is the only possible one, and yet again it ducks the moral dilemma. River agonizes over the possibility of sacrificing Andrew to save the Doctor in the previous story, knowing the Doctor would never approve – so naturally the decision is taken out of her hands here and another character does it for her. Of course, River actually does seem to make the decision to not sacrifice Andrew, but since you can’t kill off the Doctor, that doesn’t work dramatically. I didn’t like “The Furies,” despite its potential. The set is worth hearing for the first and third stories alone, but I’m still not sure this range justifies its own existence.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2018/03/13 at 12:07 am
  • From Styre on The Diary of River Song Vol. 3

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: MY DINNER WITH ANDREW

          From the title, you might think John Dorney’s “My Dinner with Andrew” is in some way related to or inspired by “My Dinner with Andre,” the brilliant 1981 Louis Malle film. They’re both set in restaurants, and that’s where the similarities end. Instead, “Andrew” is a time-hopping romp through various hours at a multi-dimensional restaurant that engineers time so that it always has tables available. It’s not quite as good as the first story, but it’s one of two high-quality tales in this set – Dorney has a strong grasp of this sort of time travel plotting and never lets the pace flag or get boring. Peter Davison plays a double role, both as the Doctor and as “unimportant” man Andrew, and the accent and nervousness he adopts as Andrew set the two characters apart quite effectively. It’s also nice to have an audio story featuring River and the Doctor in which River isn’t pining after him and is instead taking control of events. I’ll get to this a bit more in the next review, but Madame Kovarian shows up in this and she’s practically unrecognizable from her (brief, unmemorable) television portrayal. I also like how Dorney structures the story, modeling each scene after the various courses in a high-end meal; it’s pretentious as hell, but the various scenes actually match the course descriptions so it works. And Jonathan Coote is fantastic as the maître d’, his comedic turn underpinning every scene. Despite the events at the conclusion, this feels a bit disposable, but it’s very well written, well performed, and a lot of fun to boot. Great stuff.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/03/08 at 5:22 am
  • From Styre on The Diary of River Song Vol. 3

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: A REQUIEM FOR THE DOCTOR

    After a delightful opening story that allowed us to see River in a different light, the script ended with River needing emotional support. Naturally, she seeks out the Doctor for this, and that leads us to Jacqueline Rayner’s “A Requiem for the Doctor,” which is a boring, generic Doctor Who story in the middle of a River Song box set. I’ve made this point in prior reviews, but I think these sets approach the Doctor/River relationship in a backward manner. It’s hard for River to seem independent if she’s constantly pining after the Doctor or unable to center herself without the Doctor present, and of course since these sets don’t have Matt Smith available they must keep coming up with convoluted reasons why River can meet, say, Peter Davison’s Doctor despite repeated insistence on television that such an encounter would be impossible. It’s also boring – we did this with Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker and now Davison acting befuddled by this mysterious woman who likes to kiss them. And since the older Doctors cannot, by definition, have relationships with River, these audio stories are always one-sided and uninteresting. In this story, the Doctor is traveling with new companion Brooke (Joanna Horton), who is instantly jealous of the connection the Doctor and River appear to share. There’s a potentially interesting story here – imagine if we paired River with actual TV companions – but here it’s all in service of the arc plot, which comes to a head in a loud, overdrawn, obvious conclusion that would have had Steven Moffat crucified if he’d attempted it on television. You may think from this brief review that I did not care for “A Requiem for the Doctor.” You are correct. It’s time to stop using the Doctor in these sets and let River stand on her own as a character.

    3/10

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    2018/03/07 at 12:15 am
  • From Styre on The Diary of River Song Vol. 3

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE LADY IN THE LAKE

    A poorly executed plot twist can ruin an otherwise promising story. A brilliant plot twist, on the other hand, can produce something special. Nev Fountain is one of the best Big Finish has at this particular skill – think “Omega” and smile – and he’s at it again here in “The Lady in the Lake,” the first story in the newest Diary of River Song set. I won’t spoil anything, but the best twists are those that are surprising on first listen yet obvious in retrospect, and the clues are all here, including one right out in front of the story. Apart from that, we’re in fascinating territory: River tracking down her “family,” clones of her created to replicate her Time Lord characteristics. The basic question Fountain asks is “what if you could regenerate but didn’t know why,” and the answer is that you’d probably start or join a religious cult. Cynical, but utterly believable, and the “Great Lake” is a fantastic character, caught between confusion and utter determination. (Though the name is a bit distracting because I live next to one of the Great Lakes, but I digress.) And don’t forget the setting, Terminus Prime, a custom suicide studio for the wealthy. Want to end your life? Be sacrificed by an evil cult, or eaten alive by a dragon, or lose a chess game to Death on a beach! It’s a smart critique of monetary excess taken to a logical extreme. Overall, “The Lady in the Lake” is fantastic. It’s smart, layered, surprising, and gives us a look at River at her most independent and ruthless. It’s still a privilege after all these years to be getting Nev Fountain scripts.

    9/10

    Go to comment
    2018/03/03 at 6:09 pm
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 1

    THE DEMON RISES

    My biggest concern with “The Mind Runners” was the sheer number of ideas it set up with no promise of resolution. In the conclusion, “The Demon Rises,” also by John Dorney, my concern was addressed in a curious manner: some of those plot threads were simply left unaddressed. The mind runners are almost completely left out, apart from a surprise revelation right at the conclusion concerning mind running, and the Digitals and their plot to “upgrade” the population out of their organic bodies just… disappear. This leaves Mr. Shift, who’s still around, and the power drain, which means it’s time for a twist: the evacuation rocket is actually a massive trap designed to drain the life energy from everyone inside. Who engineered this trap? Why, it’s the city of Chaldera itself, because it’s not a city at all, it’s a massive alien creature who hunts by… convincing people to build a civilization out of it and live inside it, I guess. And it’s dying, so after the rocket eats everyone and drains their energy, it will be launched with the creature’s eggs to start the whole process over again on countless other worlds. Pretty complex, right? Sounds like the sort of thing that could take four episodes to explore, but no, it’s introduced midway through the third episode at the expense of everything else – at least until Mr. Shift turns up at the end in a very predictable plot twist.

    I’m also curious about Dorney’s characterization of the Doctor here. He’s definitely in “Pyramids of Mars” intense-alien mode, which is perfectly fine, but the conclusion of the story feels odd. The Doctor executes multiple plans designed to stop the creature’s scheme but keeps giving it outs along the way – and it keeps rejecting those and trying to continue surviving. So finally, with all other options exhausted, the Doctor gleefully executes the city, complete with triumphant “THAT’S how you kill a city!” taunt as it dies. This isn’t entirely out of character, though only the two Bakers could get away with it, but it jars with the rest of the story. It’s also a bit inconsistent philosophically: if this is truly how the creature reproduces, why shouldn’t it be allowed to try? Do we believe that a food chain ends when sentience begins? Dorney throws in a convenient line about how there are probably thousands of these creatures on other planets who are much more benign, but it just screams cop-out. When “The Trial of a Time Lord” is more willing to engage with the Doctor’s morality than you are, you should ask yourself why.

    Just as in the first story, Nicholas Briggs directs and Jamie Robertson handles the sound design, and both are up to Big Finish’s usual standards of excellence. Overall, I can’t say I’m a big fan of “The Demon Rises.” It’s confused, it’s way too busy, and it doesn’t engage with its own questions. It’s certainly not boring, as Dorney keeps throwing so much at the listener, but it’s not rewarding. I applaud the ambition but not the execution.

    6/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/28 at 4:31 am
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 1

    THE MIND RUNNERS

          “The Mind Runners” by John Dorney is the sort of story that promises more than it delivers. It’s the first half of a four-part story, so of course nothing is resolved – but despite introducing at least three potential sources of conflict, nothing really happens in either episode.

    On the planet Chaldera, a lack of energy means a lack of entertainment for the young, some of whom amuse themselves by “mind running” – using devices to insert themselves into other people’s minds and live their experiences. But something has gone wrong, and the mind runners are dying, victims of apparent suicides. Are they suicides? Are they being killed? Did they “run” with the wrong minds and learn something they shouldn’t have? Or did they run the legendary evil consciousness known as the Night Mind, which may or may not even exist? These are all interesting questions, and a great basis for a story. This story also includes Mr. Shift, a former scientist who was killed in a teleporter accident and transformed into a crazed killer who can morph his body into different forms. Now he’s stalking the mind runners and trying to kill them all, while being terribly theatrical about it. One would assume he is related in some way to their activities, but he gives no indication one way or the other. And then we have the Digitals, former inhabitants who have upgraded themselves into machine consciousnesses, and lurk underground preparing for the day when they will emerge and convert everyone to their form. And all the while we’re hearing about the failing power supply and how the planet will have to be evacuated at some point in the near future.

    I’m giving the story some slack because it’s the first half of a greater whole, but that is a ton of plot material thrown at the listener and virtually none of it is given any development. The Doctor, Leela, and K9 meet some mind runners, but rather than getting involved in the plot, they waste an entire episode tracking them through the streets and sewers. It’s fun to imagine what, if any, relationship exists between the mind runners and Mr. Shift and the Digitals and the Night Mind, but the story does nothing to point us toward a possible answer. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I’m worried that it will be very difficult to reach a satisfactory conclusion in the second half. Another problem is that the ideas just aren’t very interesting: projecting yourself into someone else’s mind is hardly groundbreaking and we don’t even see it happen in the story. Mr. Shift is fun but he seems devoid of motivation. And a group wanting to convert a population to machine consciousness is something we’ve seen about a hundred times before in any Cyberman story you care to mention.

    As for the production, it’s solid as usual. Nicholas Briggs directs again, and does it well, and Jamie Robertson is always reliable when it comes to music and sound design. My only complaint is with the filter on the voices of the Chalderans, which makes them hard to understand and doesn’t serve much of a point. Overall, I’m feeling cautious about this story – it’s not bad, but it packs a lot in, and it doesn’t seem all that interesting. Hopefully things will pick up for the conclusion.

    Recommended tentatively.

    6/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/27 at 4:28 pm
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 1

    THE CROWMARSH EXPERIMENT

          The thing about “The Crowmarsh Experiment,” by David Llewellyn, isn’t that it’s particularly brilliant or innovative. In fact, it’s a fairly clichéd, obvious science fiction story. The thing about “The Crowmarsh Experiment” is that it actually tries to do something other than “generic Doctor Who runaround” in a Fourth Doctor Adventure, which automatically sets it apart from its colleagues.

    You’ve heard this story before. Not this specific one, with these specific characters, but if you’re any sort of science fiction fan you’ve heard this story before. Leela is captured by an alien computer and her mind is wired into a virtual reality space while her body is slowly drained of energy. While trapped in this reality, she begins to question her own sense of self, and whether she’d be better off staying in the false reality even knowing she would ultimately sacrifice her own life. There is absolutely no ambiguity here: the story shows Leela’s capture right up front, and from the moment she wakes up in the “dream” she knows something is wrong. The entertainment for the listener therefore comes from Leela herself: how she deals with this new reality. And this is a good decision on Llewellyn’s part because it allows us to enjoy Leela as a three-dimensional character rather than a knife-happy savage. The best writers understand that Leela is very intelligent, and both the script and Louise Jameson’s performance communicate this brilliantly as we watch her work her way through the difficulties she encounters. The virtual reality setting also gives us a great performance from Tom Baker – the restrained Dr. Stewart shows that the Doctor’s eccentricity is indeed an acting choice on Baker’s part, even if it does line up well with his own personality.

    The problem is that while this is a good character piece for Leela, there’s not much in the way of drama or conflict. We know essentially what’s going on right from the start, so there’s no mystery: the question is simply how Leela is going to figure out what’s happening and escape. This would work if the character drama was sufficiently intense, but it’s not: Leela faces virtually no conflict whatsoever in the first episode, and the second episode chooses to introduce drama by bringing back Marshall (Damien Lynch) as Leela’s false husband Colin. What’s that? Who’s Marshall? You know, the guy Leela abruptly fell in love with at the end of “Requiem for the Rocket Men” and who promptly died in “Death Match?” Yes, it’s that same mediocre, underwritten character from three years ago, and the listener is expected to remember him because there’s absolutely no explanation given. I suppose, since I always criticize Big Finish for never following up on significant character moments, I should give them credit for actually showing some consequences – Leela was actually affected by their relationship! – but three years later and seemingly at random is really pushing the boundaries of acceptability.

    Nicholas Briggs directs again, and the excellent performances across the board are at least due in some part to his efforts. Jamie Robertson’s sound design is similarly good. “The Crowmarsh Experiment” is a good story, and it’s a great Fourth Doctor Adventure by comparison to its fellows. But it’s not particularly deep, it relies upon an odd continuity reference from years ago, and it’s not innovative except when compared to this range’s normal dreary output. Still, there’s very little in the way of serious faults and I recommend giving it a listen if you’re desperate for good fourth Doctor material.

    Recommended.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/27 at 4:27 pm
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 1

    THE SONS OF KALDOR

          There’s not much to say about “The Sons of Kaldor” by Andrew Smith, the first release in the seventh series (and new box set format) of Fourth Doctor Adventures. As with basically every Fourth Doctor Adventure that brings back a character (in this case, the titular Robots of Death) from that era, it’s straightforward, plodding, obvious, and boring.

    The structure of the story is probably the best part, because Smith at least tries to layer revelations into the script to keep it moving. I like the progression from discovering Commander Lind (Martha Cope) in stasis to learning that she’s an intelligence officer in a civil war to learning that the war ended over a year ago and her side lost. But there’s nothing thought-provoking here: Smith tries to add some texture by showing that Lind’s society was tilted heavily toward the rich, but promptly erases it by introducing Rebben Tace (Oliver Dimsdale), a man with a tragic backstory who grew up to be a sadistic totalitarian maniac. It is neither smart nor subtle; it’s just there.

    However, in spite of Smith’s efforts to keep the pace moving, the two-episode format significantly hurts the story. When you always have to build to a cliffhanger at the story’s midpoint, it’s very difficult to keep the first part from feeling tedious and the second part from feeling overstuffed. And all of the revelations come in the second part, as is standard for this range, making it feel rushed. There’s no room to explore what it really means for the robots to gain sentience, apart from the usual pontificating about how they are now living beings and must be protected. Instead, the immediate threat to their safety is resolved and the Doctor and Leela promptly leave. The small population of sentient robots is still on a planet ruled by people who hate them and want them eradicated, and who now know where they are, but I’m sure they’ll figure it out, right?

    Nick Briggs directs and it’s fine. Jamie Robertson does the sound and it’s fine. The robots sound like they did on TV. We get lots of references to Vocs and Super-Vocs and Dums. Robophobia isn’t mentioned, which is weird given the new society’s pathological hatred of robots, but there’s only room for so many references in one story, I suppose. Whatever. You could write “A Doctor Who story starring Tom Baker” as the synopsis and be done with it.

    Blaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/27 at 4:27 pm
  • From Styre on 234 - Kingdom of Lies

    KINGDOM OF LIES

          The 2018 release year kicks off with a main range Peter Davison trilogy, and the first of these is “Kingdom of Lies,” from Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. Similar to their recent Early Adventure “The Ravelli Conspiracy,” this story has an offbeat tone; unlike that story, “Kingdom of Lies” doesn’t quite achieve consistency and feels disjointed.

    I very much like the plot structure of this story. I think the four-part format has become obviously outdated, and the fact that we’re still forcing three cliffhangers into every story in 2018 just makes me roll my eyes – but Khan and Salinsky make each episode distinct enough that the format adds to the enjoyment of the story. They follow the age-old strategy of dividing up the TARDIS crew, and it works remarkably well. It’s fun to hear Tegan and Adric paired up for most of the running time because of the self-aware relationship between their characters: Matthew Waterhouse plays Adric as a teenager needling Tegan for amusement; Janet Fielding comes across like an annoyed older sister. There’s affection underneath it all, in other words, and it works quite well. That the Doctor and Nyssa pair well is in no way a secret, but I particularly like their relationship here, where Nyssa dives into their assumed assassin roles with both feet and has to drag the Doctor along with her. It’s rare to see that Nyssa’s aristocratic tone is actually an acting choice by Sarah Sutton, but it definitely comes out here.

    For the most part, Khan and Salinsky write with an absurdist, comic tone. The relationship between Duke Sebastian (Jonathan Firth) and Duchess Miranda (Charlotte Lucas) has degraded to the point that they’ve drawn a line across their entire kingdom dividing it in half, and anyone who crosses the line is arrested by the other side. While the Duke is effete and indecisive, the Duchess is prone to emotional outbursts and much more determined and calculating. And while the story seems as though it will be entirely about this conflict, by the third episode the Doctor is playing marriage counselor to the royal couple in a particularly amusing scene. There are also the Duchess’s parents, Lord (Tim Bentinck) and Lady (Richenda Carey) Crozion – Lord Crozion is a warmongering gambling addict while his wife is mostly put-upon and irritated by him. “Kingdom of Lies” is a fun listen for the first three episodes, as the authors slowly introduce more and more about these absurd characters and blend the TARDIS crew and their cover stories in perfectly.

    The problem comes in the fourth episode, when the mysterious assassin known as The Scorpion (Patsy Kensit) shows up. At this point, the story loses its absurdist bent and shifts into a very traditional, predictable corridor runaround. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but the tone of the final episode is all over the place, and that sinks it. Kensit’s performance is dead serious, but her lines aren’t: when she says “Goodbye, losers!” without even a hint of irony, it just sounds confusing. There’s also a moment at the end of the story where the Doctor is presented with a seemingly impossible choice. This, again, is played with the utmost seriousness: suddenly the companions are tearfully begging the Doctor not to become a murderer, and so forth. It’s wildly out of place with the rest of the story, and even on its own terms it’s not convincing: we know Big Finish isn’t suddenly going to break the mold and show the Doctor killing in cold blood. It’s confusing and unsettling, neither of which are appropriate feelings given the rest of the story.

    Overall, though, “Kingdom of Lies” is entertaining. The first three episodes are quite good, the regular cast gets a lot to do and they’re all on top form, and the guest cast has a lot of fun with the material. Barnaby Edwards has always been one of Big Finish’s best directors and his work here upholds that standard, while the sound design from Martin Montague and the music from Andy Hardwick match the story expertly. It’s just unfortunate that the final episode is such a confused, disjointed letdown – but that’s not a reason to sink the story’s score entirely.

    Recommended, with reservations.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/27 at 4:25 pm
  • From Styre on The First Doctor Adventures Vol. 1

    THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE GREAT WHITE HURRICANE

          While I enjoyed “The Destination Wars,” the first story in this box set, I recognized some potential problems that could cause issues with less sophisticated scripts. Unfortunately, such a script is here, “The Great White Hurricane” by Guy Adams, which leaps from the heights of its predecessor and crashes in a massive pile of burning wreckage.

    I do not understand the desire to adhere so closely to the stylistic choices of the early 1960s in this set. While it worked in the first story, largely due to interesting inclusions like the Master and some high-concept science fiction, here the new range leaps head-first into the historical genre. There hasn’t been a “pure historical” in the TV series since 1982, despite countless stories set in the past since then, and producer after producer has explained why: it’s just more interesting to add science fiction elements. Big Finish has carried the historical torch, however, and they’ve often been successful. But their best historicals usually involve famous historical figures or challenging, dramatic parts of history; here, in “The Great White Hurricane,” the threat is… a snowstorm. A terrible snowstorm, to be sure, and one that led to hundreds of deaths of people trapped by the snowfall, but still a simple weather event. Lest you think I’m underplaying it, basically every character spends the final two episodes outside in the storm and nobody apart from Susan suffers any ill effects. Heck, Ian suffers a “severe concussion” at the start of the story, and then wanders around in the snowstorm with only an occasional bout of nausea to hold him back. In other words, the only serious source of drama in the story isn’t taken at all seriously by the story itself, and that’s a problem.

    The performances are another significant problem. The story is set in New York, which means it’s time for Big Finish American accents. I have no idea how many of the performers are American, but they are once again working from the idea that everyone that lives in New York talks like they just got off the set of Newsies. There is one immigrant, Rosalita (Carolina Valdes), who is probably Puerto Rican or Dominican based on the historical period, but everyone else speaks in broad “New Yawk” tones. This was a heavy period of immigration, especially in New York, and we should be hearing Irish or German or Italian accents, not just hearing occasional last names reminiscent of those countries. Instead, it’s a caricature of reality. And then there’s the main cast: while Jamie Glover gets away with it, even though he sounds just like Tim Treloar’s Jon Pertwee impression, Jemma Powell and Claudia Grant spend so much effort trying to speak with perfect diction that they fail to make their characters sympathetic or even listenable. Barbara comes across as a know-it-all while Susan sounds like a breathy caricature of royalty.

    Even the various plot strands are wholly uninteresting. Susan is captured at the beginning by a dangerous gang member – except he’s really a relatively innocent young person, on the run from a crime he didn’t commit. The Doctor teams up with the kid’s older brother to find him. The scenes between the Doctor and the brother are the best in the story, underplayed beautifully by David Bradley, but they are few and far between. By the end, the Doctor has convinced the rival gangs – brutal and murderous in real life – to put their differences aside and work for the betterment of their society, with all the subtlety of a grade school morality play. Worst of all is the plot involving Ian and Barbara. While Ian recovers from his concussion, they meet Rosalita in the hospital, and she makes references to her alcoholic ex-husband and her young child. When they leave, gasp! The ex has taken her son away, and is fleeing on a train! But the train is bogged down in the snow and is stuck on the elevated tracks! However will the people get down? Oh look, a man with a ladder! But he’s a jerk who demands payment up front! Then Ian shames him into cooperating with his words, and then Rosalita shames her husband into giving her son back with her words. If the Doctor’s material was grade school level, this is barely out of kindergarten.

    So, what did I like about “The Great White Hurricane?” Well, the production, once again from director Nicholas Briggs and sound designer Howard Carter, is fine. David Bradley and Jamie Glover are great, and the Doctor gets some wonderful little scenes. But apart from that, there’s nothing here to appreciate. The story is so fixated on slavishly recreating early 1960s television that it forgets to be entertaining, the actors are more concerned with nailing their accents than actually performing, the accents themselves are largely silly and distracting, and the story is so boring and childish it stands as a very good argument against doing historical stories in the future. This is one of my least favorite Big Finish releases in quite some time; it’s a shocking waste of the opportunities afforded by this new concept and it’s almost completely devoid of entertainment value.

    Stay far, far away.

    2/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/13 at 7:58 am
  • From Styre on The First Doctor Adventures Vol. 1

    THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE DESTINATION WARS

    The inexorable progression of time inevitably means that fewer and fewer actors from the classic series of Doctor Who will be available to record new material for Big Finish, and that has left the company in a dilemma over the years: how do they continue to tell stories from those eras? First came the Companion Chronicles, which circumvented the absence of the first three Doctors by having their companions tell stories of adventures to the audience. Next, Big Finish turned to impressions, first through original actors like Peter Purves and Frazer Hines and later through new actors like Elliot Chapman and Tim Treloar. Finally, with the release of “The First Doctor Adventures,” they’ve crossed the final boundary: recasting old roles with new interpretations, not impressions.

     

    I’ll talk about this a bit more in my review of the second story, but rather than conducting their own casting search, Big Finish hired the four actors who played the original cast in “An Adventure in Space and Time:” David Bradley as the Doctor, Claudia Grant as Susan, Jemma Powell as Barbara, and Jamie Glover as Ian. It’s an interesting decision, given that the companion actors barely appear in that film and that they weren’t cast for their abilities to play the companion characters – but at least David Bradley has since become the third actor to portray the first Doctor on television. Generally, though, the casting is successful, especially Bradley and Glover. If I have one complaint about Bradley it’s that he makes the Richard Hurndall mistake of assuming Hartnell was grumpy and irritable all the time and losing the first Doctor’s endearing sense of humor – but nonetheless it’s a good take on the character.

    I’ll also come back to this in the next review, but there’s a conscious decision here to recreate 1960s television as closely as possible and I don’t like it. There’s no reason for every episode to be 25 minutes long and end in a cliffhanger, there’s no reason for everyone to use perfect received pronunciation, and there’s no reason to deliver the stories at the theatrical, often glacial pace of their predecessors. If you’re going to recast the roles to this extent, blow the whole thing up, don’t force a square peg into a round hole.

    Fortunately, Matt Fitton’s script for “The Destination Wars” is very good, and papers over some of the difficulties inherent in the format. I love little details like Ian and Barbara hearing that it’s “Space Year 2003” and just assuming they’re 40 years in their own future while the Doctor and Susan look on with amusement. I love that they’re unafraid to use the Master in a story set in this era, and to drop more hints about his relationship with the Doctor back on Gallifrey, and indeed make suggestions about why he took the title of Master in the first place. I love James Dreyfus in the role, classically villainous in the Roger Delgado sense, with a deep, eerily soothing voice. I love the simplicity of his plan: seed the ideas for new technology, then time travel into the future and reap the benefits, and repeat until he can fix his TARDIS. I also love how that plan allows us to see the people of Destination at different points in their lives, like a spin on the central plot device of “The Ark.” It’s one of the better scripts Fitton has produced, and it’s a strong debut for this range. The production, with director Nicholas Briggs and sound designer Howard Carter, is also quite strong. Overall, “The Destination Wars” overcomes some self-inflicted limitations by asking some interesting questions and showing us brand new sides of beloved characters. If everything in this range was like “The Destination Wars,” I’d be thrilled even in spite of my concerns.

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/13 at 7:57 am
  • From Styre on The War Master - Only the Good

    THE WAR MASTER: THE HEAVENLY PARADIGM

    And so the War Master box set comes to a close with “The Heavenly Paradigm” by Guy Adams, a story that both ties together the set and links it directly with the TV show – and struggles to maintain coherency as a result. The Master’s plan is as convoluted as you’d expect: there’s a hidden Time Lord weapon on Earth that, when activated, will end the Time War by rewriting the Daleks’ history to make them nice. But the weapon requires an unrealistically high amount of paradox energy to power up, so the Time Lords never used it. The Master saves Cole Jarnish from certain death, creating a paradox, and then lets him save an entire planet that should have been destroyed, creating an exponentially larger one. He then plugs Cole into the machine, and uses his paradox energy to start up the machine and attempt to end the Time War. On television, the hints at the Master’s past in the Time War were quite interesting. He fought on the front lines, he saw something indescribably horrible when the Dalek Emperor took control of the Cruciform, and he fled and went into hiding rather than continuing to fight. “The Heavenly Paradigm” essentially rewrites these ideas and does so for the worse. As we’ve seen in this set, the Master isn’t really fighting in the War, he’s working at the periphery. This story shows us the Cruciform incident – which the Master watches via remote as the Heavenly Paradigm backfires. And we see his decision to flee and use a Chameleon Arch, which is not a panicked, cowardly decision but rather a calculated one driven by fatigue. All of this is in character for the Master, of course, but the TV show strongly implied the Time War changed him, whereas even at the end of this set he’s basically the same he’s always been. It’s also awkwardly written, as the ending feels more like clearing the decks to get us into “Utopia” than it does a fitting conclusion to the box set. In many ways, this set is as much of a letdown as the War Doctor sets, and yet again proves Russell T. Davies right – we shouldn’t have told Time War stories in the first place.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/08 at 4:03 pm
  • From Styre on The War Master - Only the Good

    THE WAR MASTER: THE SKY MAN

    The third story, “The Sky Man” by James Goss, is the best of the four. It’s also the one that least involves the Master, which doesn’t speak well of the box set. Cole Jarnish, appalled by the effects of the Time War, demands from the Master the opportunity to save an otherwise-doomed world. After some negotiation, they land on a planet that has abandoned advanced technology in an attempt to avoid the attention of the Time War. The Master retreats to start a vineyard and Cole is left to help the people. What follows is a fairly basic story of this type: initially mistrustful, the people learn to accept Cole as he repairs things and improves their way of life. But when the Time War comes, in the form of temporal fallout that acts much like nuclear fallout, they turn on him even as their society crumbles. Jonny Green is fantastic in this: he always seems to be a step behind, and the increasing desperation in his actions comes across convincingly in his performance. The end of the story is shocking: in a final gamble to save the people, he locks them in support suits that they can never remove and even includes emotional suppressors to stop them panicking. As a result, the people decide coldly to seek out those who damaged their planet and destroy them. It’s the Cybermen, in other words. It has apparently been said they’re not supposed to be Cybermen, but Doctor Who has lately embraced the idea that “Cybermen” tend to evolve wherever technology outpaces morality, and “The Sky Man” is a perfect example of this. I mentioned in my previous review that I don’t like how this set sidelines the Master, and that definitely happens here, as he spends the entire story tending to a vineyard. His insistence upon drinking the wine at the conclusion is sinister, and it illustrates his manipulative, goal-oriented mind, but this feels like a story that should be told later, after the character has been established. Nonetheless, “The Sky Man” is a very strong, emotional story and easily the best in the box.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/07 at 7:25 pm
  • From Styre on The War Master - Only the Good

    THE WAR MASTER: THE GOOD MASTER

          The second story, “The Good Master” by Janine H. Jones, is an improvement on the first simply because it’s not quite so predictable and clichéd. It also asks interesting questions about the Master: is he capable of good deeds? Is he capable of altruism? In this story, he’s working on the planet Arcking as a doctor, healing Time War refugees while waiting out a plan to take command of the mysterious force that keeps the planet from harm. Here, he meets med-tech Cole Jarnish (Jonny Green), who becomes his de facto companion for the remainder of the box set. Since the Master is a genius, it’s no surprise that he’s a capable physician – but he actually appears to exhibit compassion toward his patients, even if inside he’s always planning his next move. Unfortunately, the story’s approach to this material isn’t very clear: I have no problem with ambiguity, but I’m genuinely unsure if the Master is supposed to be showing a softer side. I also don’t like the storytelling devices we’re seeing in each story: first, the Master pretends to be the Doctor; second, he pretends to be a doctor; third, he removes himself entirely from the action. I’ll get to that more in my next review, but this is the only time we’ve seen the Jacobi Master outside of five minutes at the end of “Utopia” – shouldn’t we have more of him at center stage, not in disguise or on the sidelines? Still, this is a solid story that makes me want to learn more about this Master, even if those answers never come.

    6/10

    Go to comment
    2018/02/06 at 1:06 am
  • From Styre on The War Master - Only the Good

    THE WAR MASTER: BENEATH THE VISCOID

    We learned on television that the Master fought in the Time War, so it’s no surprise that Big Finish wanted to explore this time period under their new series license – but it was quite a coup for them to secure the participation of Derek Jacobi, who returns to the role he made so memorable in mere minutes of screen time. Naturally, when it was time to select the author to lead off the range and set the tone, they chose… oh lord, really? Yes, it’s Nicholas Briggs, and he provides exactly the same Dalek war story he’s been telling for over a decade now. This time, the Daleks have invaded the ocean planet Gardezza, and they have chased the inhabitants under the water (the Viscoid), where they now lead a resistance against the Daleks. You know how this story goes by now, so I won’t elaborate. The unique factor is the Master, recovered from the ocean in an escape capsule – and he immediately claims to be the Doctor. Due to the raging Time War, Nius (Jacqueline King) and her people know the Doctor by reputation, and immediately grant the Master access to their technology. Through flashback, Briggs recounts how the Master was captured by the Daleks and offered to give them his TARDIS in exchange for his life. So he’s on Gardezza searching for it – but of course he’s working to his own agenda, trying to betray the Daleks and regain his freedom. It’s an odd decision to introduce this character by having him pretend to be someone else, but it does allow the story to underscore the differences between the Doctor and the Master: namely, that the Master’s first priority is always and forever himself. There’s nothing surprising or particularly exciting about “Beneath the Viscoid” – the “twist” at the end is a welcome dose of brutality but it’s hardly something you won’t see coming. And the end of the story leads into a Gallifrey box set that isn’t out yet. Still, Jacobi is great, and Briggs at the very least lays the groundwork for a new take on the Master.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/29 at 8:29 pm
  • From Styre on 4.4 - The Wreck of the World

    THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE WRECK OF THE WORLD

    The final Early Adventure of 2017 is “The Wreck of the World,” by award-winning playwright Timothy X. Atack. The script is an interesting mix of elements: it features some of the best character work in the range and yet doesn’t do anything else particularly compelling.

    I understand that the classic series framing means that Big Finish can’t push the boat out too far when it comes to established characters, but too often they go in the opposite direction, relentlessly refusing to say anything interesting, especially outside of the Companion Chronicles. This is not the case here, specifically when it comes to Zoe: Atack is one of the only authors (Simon Guerrier also among them) to directly engage with her history on the Wheel, specifically the “programming” she experienced after being separated from her family. The story introduces us to Twenty (Adam Newington), a human subject to the same training – and we watch as he builds a rapid bond with Zoe, their similarity drawing them together. Perhaps most significant is the moment Zoe describes learning to cry, something that nicely reinforces just how different she is to a “normal” human. Yet we also see how much her TARDIS travels have humanized her, as she stands in contrast to Twenty’s more mechanical view of the world. (There’s also an actual robot wandering around, showing the most distant end of the spectrum.) Wendy Padbury gives a very strong performance – like in her Companion Chronicles, she’s clearly energized by the opportunity to do more than the usual precocious genius routine.

    There’s also an interesting relationship for Jamie with Porthintus (Don McCorkindale), a holy warrior who communicates almost entirely through violence yet reveals hidden depths with each conversation. By the time he reveals that he knows the TARDIS crew are time travelers, and that he even knows what happened at Culloden, you want to learn more about him – so of course that’s when he sacrifices himself and is never mentioned again. Jamie then spends the rest of the story right back in his predictable behaviors. It’s disappointing, because there was room to flesh Jamie out just like Zoe.

    The story itself is fairly generic. The TARDIS lands on a deserted ship, which turns out to be a lost colony ship that has been adrift for close to a million years. The first episodes are spent exploring, and encountering a salvage crew that has also discovered the ship – and then of course the colonists are resurrected as zombies, there’s an evil force powering it, a cult worshipping the force, and so on. It’s very traditional sci-fi horror material. Fortunately, Atack and the production team present this material in effective fashion: despite the immense size of the ship, events feel increasingly claustrophobic. There are also great performances from the supporting cast, especially Richenda Carey’s two-faced turn as Professor Blavatsky.

    Overall, “The Wreck of the World” is a strong story, one of the strongest in the Early Adventures range. It’s worth hearing just for its treatment of Zoe, fleshing out a character with a ton of potential who has often been underserved. And it’s an effective, suspenseful horror story to boot. In spite of all that, it’s still pretty shallow, keeping it from the highest grades – but I’d recommend this to any Doctor Who fan.

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/22 at 2:19 am
  • From Styre on Graceless - Series 1

    GRACELESS: THE END

          I suppose I’m just going to have to get used to Marek being a focal point of this series despite having done horrible, exploitative things to the main characters without a hint of apology. “The End” crystallizes a lot of what this series has been about, specifically judgment and consequences: how much do you judge people on their actions compared to their intent? Simon Guerrier writes Abby and Zara as generally good people: they have a strong idea of right and wrong, they have appealing personalities, they try not to offend, and so on. And yet, they have committed horrible atrocities, whether through mistake or corruption. Are they good people? Can they make up for the pain they have caused? Should they even try? All good questions, and all questions I’m hoping will be dealt with in future series.

    And yet I keep coming back to Marek, despite the fact that the series is clearly asking the same questions about him. I think the big mistake here was making his crimes recognizable: I don’t know anyone that was killed when a space station blew up and took a hundred thousand lives, but I certainly do know people who have been the victims of sexual assault. And that’s not to say that anyone who commits a terrible act is automatically irredeemable: there are many examples of people who committed crimes, then turned their lives around and became productive members of society. The common factor in their redemption, however, is a clear recognition that their crimes were bad actions that hurt people and a desire for forgiveness. This is what we see from Abby and Zara, which is why I sympathize with them. But we don’t see that from Marek, so I don’t sympathize with him. And that wouldn’t be bad if the series portrayed him as an irredeemable jerk that the sisters are simply using for their own purposes, but it clearly wants us to root for him as part of this dysfunctional team. I don’t like it, at all, and unless it changes I’m going to keep taking points off.

    Apart from that, “The End” gives us another difficult character in Kreekpolt (Michael Keating), a space pirate desperate to save his daughter’s life, even though she has suffered irreparably fatal burns. He will travel the length of time and space to find treatment for her, and will do whatever it takes to get it. Some of his actions are deeply immoral, but everything he does is driven by his love for his daughter and his inability to let go. When he is finally able to save her, he gives up his life for her without a moment’s hesitation. And so we come back to the same question: is he a villain? There’s no easy answer, but the story doesn’t take a side: it simply presents a vibrant, detailed character and lets the audience make up its own mind, and that’s great writing.

    I’m looking forward to the second series of Graceless. I think Guerrier has created a fascinating group of characters and I’m eager to see where he takes them. I just wish something could be done with the one misguided character in the bunch.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/18 at 9:45 pm
  • From Styre on Graceless - Series 1

    GRACELESS: THE FOG

          The contrast between “The Sphere” and “The Fog” couldn’t be greater. Gone is the wild frontier of the Sphere, with its fast pace and frank sexuality, and in comes the very Doctor Who-like country village of Compton in 1912. Instead of the morally questionable Marek, Abby and Zara are supported (after first being accused) by Daniel (David Warner), the local justice of the peace. He’s a quiet, thoughtful man, one who deeply understands the thought process of the mob and knows how to protect the falsely accused. He’s also deeply rational: the first thought that comes to his head when he sees the sisters’ clearly supernatural powers is “witchcraft” but he dismisses it in lieu of a better explanation. Unlike Marek’s sleazy opportunist, Daniel is more of a paternal, protective figure – and David Warner is great in everything so he sells the role completely.

    The plot also seems more traditional at first. A mysterious, cold fog that prevents people from coming or going surrounds the village, and the people are slowly disappearing. Is a killer on the loose? Does a monster lurk in the fog? Are the two sisters responsible? The non-traditional revelation is “none of the above” – it’s not a creature or a force or anything like that, it’s merely the after-effect of a disastrous meteor strike that wiped out the village. And it seems as though Abby and Zara had nothing to do with it – they’re simply caught in the wake of the destruction, trying to solve a mystery that isn’t there and save people who can’t be saved. There’s a fatalism to this story, but it’s a kindly fatalism: the people vanish when they realize they’re already dead. In other words, accepting their fate allows them to cross over, and the story doesn’t engage with what, if anything, may be waiting on the other side. “The Fog” is more about seeing how characters react to a difficult situation than it is about the resolution, and it makes the sisters seem more and more like real people and not artificial creations. Much better than the opening act.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/18 at 9:42 pm
  • From Styre on Aliens Among Us - Part 2

    TORCHWOOD: ALIENS AMONG US: VOLUME TWO

          I admit I wasn’t expecting the “fifth series” of Torchwood, Aliens Among Us, to be quite this effective. Yes, the characters were created under the aegis of Russell T. Davies, and yes, the writers and production staff involved are quite talented, and yes, the Big Finish monthly series is excellent – but despite all of that, this new series has easily surpassed all but one of its predecessors and has me quite excited to learn the final outcome early next year.

    The first story in the set, “Love Rat” from Christopher Cooper, deals largely with a disease that makes its sufferers uncontrollably desire sex. We saw something similar to this in the TV series, but it’s handled more adeptly here – after a surprisingly graphic opening sex scene, we find Jack waking up in a morgue. From there, the Torchwood team has to work backwards to find out what happened, while Jack somehow manages to be even hornier than usual. This eventually leads to an unwise dalliance with Gwen – but then of course it’s not Gwen at all, it’s “Ng” possessing her body. We get a glimpse of Gwen’s internal monologue at that moment, and it’s predictably amusing – but I’m curious to see any potential fallout. We also look into Gwen’s home life with Rhys, and how he can’t seem to relate to her any longer – we know that it’s because she’s been possessed, but Rhys just thinks Torchwood has caused a permanent change that is slowly wrecking their marriage. The actual plot of this story is resolved rather quickly, but the character work more than makes up for it.

    The second story, “A Kill to a View” by Mac Rogers, is probably the best. Colchester and his husband Colin have moved into a luxury apartment building with a horrifying secret: the residents can move into nicer units if they murder the current occupants. It’s a twist reminiscent of “Paradise Towers,” except here the caretaker isn’t Richard Briers, it’s Bilis Manger! Yes, he’s at it again, using the tower block as a conduit to open the Rift and allow something through that will remove Earth’s new alien inhabitants. Rogers executes these plot elements with a deft hand, but the real strength of the story is in its characters, Colchester in particular. Here we see three distinct layers to his character: the gruff exterior, the kind-hearted husband on the inside, and, deep down, the cold-blooded killer that emerges when his family is threatened. Paul Clayton is fantastic in this story, making Colchester possibly the most interesting member of the Torchwood team. I don’t know if Rogers has written anything else for Big Finish, but based on this they should be signing him on for the long term. Utterly magnificent.

    The third story, “Zero Hour” by Janine H. Jones, offers a very Torchwood take on the modern gig economy. I was a bit confused by the opening, in which Tyler is smitten by Hasan (Sacha Dhawan), a deliverer – it makes a deliberate point that events are repeating themselves in identical fashion, then never mentions it again. Is this supposed to be a comment on mundanity or did they just edit out a plot thread? In any case, once the story gets going, we follow Tyler as he infiltrates Deliverables, an Uber-like service for package delivery. Employees pick up packages from a central distribution hub and follow precise directions to deliver them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Inefficiencies are punished either through docked pay or (because it’s Torchwood) through murder. Jones’ commentary is very smart: the employment opportunity provided by the service is challenged by the brutal working conditions and the utterly unforgiving supervision. I like the revelation about the true nature of the company, and I like how easily Tyler gets wrapped up in his work. It’s very much “what if Torchwood met Black Mirror” in all the best ways.

    Lastly, there’s “The Empty Hand,” by Tim Foley. This is a very traditional whodunit – Andy Davidson is confronted with seemingly incontrovertible proof that he murdered a refugee in cold blood, but has absolutely no memory of even meeting the victim, never mind murdering him. What follows is an in-depth look into Andy’s mind – Gwen tries desperately to exonerate him, Rhys keeps an eye on him, and Jack works toward his own goals in the background. Unfortunately, this story isn’t as deep or interesting as some of the others – yes, we learn that there’s a dark side to Andy, but it’s not all that dark, and the resolution to the whodunit is very straightforward. It’s not that Andy is a two-dimensional character, it’s just that this story doesn’t give him much shade, which is a shame given all the attention focused on him. More interesting is the conflict between Jack and the rest of Torchwood – he’s pursuing his own agenda, they don’t really trust him, and he’s audibly sick of being the one in charge. The cliffhanger that follows is stunning, and hopefully the resolution will remain free of gimmickry.

    Scott Handcock directs all four episodes, with the sound design coming from Steve Foxon and the music from Blair Mowat and Steve Wright. Volume 2 is a significant step up from Volume 1, which was very good in its own right. I’ve raved about Big Finish’s Torchwood stories since they started, and if “Aliens Among Us” can stick the landing, it might establish itself as the best of the lot. This is excellent audio drama and well worth hearing.

    9/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/18 at 9:40 pm
  • From Styre on Graceless - Series 1

    GRACELESS: THE SPHERE

          I admit my first reaction to Amy and Zara in the Key 2 Time series from Big Finish was not “gosh, I wish they had their own spinoff” – but on reflection, it makes sense. Two women with supernatural abilities, constrained only by their own understanding, with malleable personalities that imprint their surroundings on their moral compasses? Yes, that can definitely work. And Simon Guerrier writing it? Sign me up.

    There’s a lot to like about “The Sphere,” the first story in the series. I enjoy the idea of the Sphere itself: a “private satellite complex” that is constantly building outward in an infinite expansion of hotels, casinos, and red light districts. At its center, it is the most corrupt; at the outside, only a thin floor separates you from the vacuum of space beyond. It’s a metaphor for how it shapes Abby (not Amy anymore for many reasons) and Zara: a corrupt moral core constantly building new outward appendages, with the sisters trying to escape into a neater, cleaner place. And while the story plays off the roles the sisters took in the Doctor Who range, it immediately undercuts them: “The Sphere” is all about Abby being corrupted, falling victim to her surroundings the same way her sister did. This is smart, effective writing.

    Unfortunately, it’s also problematic. Here we have a science fiction series with two compelling female leads, so what do we do in the very first episode? Make one of them pregnant, of course! I rolled my eyes so far back they almost got stuck. And the sexual messaging here is deeply misguided. Zara arrives on the Sphere first, and with no money or belongings to her name, she takes up with Marek (Fraser James), who offers her lodging in exchange for sex. She agrees. Later, when Abby arrives, Marek offers her the same proposition, and only some quick thinking avoids the same outcome. If it stopped there, it would be fine – but instead, Zara ends up falling in love with Marek and having his child, while Abby comes to regret avoiding his advances and goes back to have sex with him. Then Zara makes a comment about his “talents” and… ugh. I understand what’s happening here: Guerrier is trying to show how the influence of the Sphere is changing how the sisters think. Abby, for example, initially repulsed by Marek’s advances, starts to find him attractive even as she thinks less and less of the people of the Sphere in general. But that still leaves you with the image of two women developing feelings for an unapologetic rapist, and that means something, even if those women are really pan-dimensional alien creations. The way the story tries to soften Marek really doesn’t sit well in light of this, either.

    All that being said, I want to hear more. “The Sphere” is a fine opening episode that clearly establishes our two main characters while Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington turn in excellent performances. I also like that this series will be unafraid to deal with mature topics and themes – it’s very refreshing to hear something Doctor Who-related that isn’t called Torchwood acknowledge that sex is a real thing that people do with each other. I just wish they hadn’t gone to the sex and pregnancy wells in the first episode.

    Deeply flawed but I’m very curious to continue.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/18 at 9:39 pm
  • From Styre on 233 - Static

    STATIC

    It’s refreshing to have a monthly range trilogy be good from start to finish, and that’s what we get as this trilogy wraps up with “Static” by Jonathan Morris, a strong, atmospheric tale that tries to spook the listener and occasionally succeeds. A couple of significant flaws keep it from the highest level of Big Finish, but it’s well worth hearing.

    The Doctor, Constance, and Flip land near a caravan park in the middle of nowhere in 1980s England, near a place called Abbey Marston. (Is Morris a Red Dead Redemption fan?) A young couple, Joanna (Pippa Nixon) and Andy (Scott Chambers), along with caretaker Percy (David Graham), are the only people staying there, trying to save their relationship from the traumatic death of Joanna’s sister Susannah (Jo Woodcock). It turns out that the area around Abbey Marston is unique in one particular way: strong, powerful memories of the dead can temporarily bring them back to life, emerging from a dense fog. There’s not much to say about the plot, although the trip back to WWII is both an effective use of time travel and Constance’s background, but there are some significant character beats that merit discussion.

    The process through which the dead return is exploited by a race called the Static, and while it’s far too complex to explain here, it ends with the Static inhabiting duplicate bodies of the dead. Naturally, they’re evil and must be stopped, etc., but prior to that, when the Doctor thinks they are inhabiting the actual bodies of the dead, he is absolutely appalled. Let the dead rest in peace, and so on – which is exactly the opposite position from his ninth incarnation in “The Unquiet Dead.” There, he’s furious that Rose would even suggest it’s a bad idea – at least until he discovers those aliens are also evil and want to take over the world. I know it’s too abstract a connection to flesh out directly, but wouldn’t it be great if we got some Time War stories about the Doctor’s shifting moral priorities? I live in hope.

    More significant is the Doctor’s decision to command the younger Percy to abandon his life to that point and serve as caretaker of the resurrection zone. Since the Doctor experiences events in reverse order, it fits what he knows to be true, but it’s an uncommonly callous decision. His companions even point this out, but when Percy (naturally) perishes heroically, the Doctor reveals that some of Percy’s last thoughts offered thanks. This is an incredible cop-out by Morris: Percy spends much of the story visibly unhappy about his situation, and having him come to a totally unearned catharsis seems to be nothing more than a way to prove that the Doctor was right all along. Why not a story in which the Doctor makes a difficult decision that saves the day but earns lifelong anger from and is never forgiven by the object of that decision? Why not then show the Doctor struggling with this? I know Morris is more than talented enough to write that story, after all. Or is it down to Colin Baker himself, who seems content to play his Doctor as a cuddly old grandfather who no longer has any challenging or difficult facets to his personality?

    And while there was no time to explore it in this story, here we see a massive, irreversible change to Constance, as she exits the story in a “sham” body, having died in a fire before being resurrected. Going forward, she should be dealing with severe trauma and even an identity crisis. Will future stories with this crew fully embrace and explore the fallout of this story? Or will it be largely ignored? Sadly, I fear the latter.

    Let me be clear, though: “Static” is a very good Doctor Who story. Director Jamie Anderson, along with sound designers Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian, has produced an incredibly atmospheric, spooky tale. The acting is strong across the board, particularly from Lisa Greenwood, who gives one of her best-ever performances as Flip. This is helped by Morris respecting the character, of course; it’s always refreshing when the writers don’t treat Flip like a complete fool. The ad copy is just comically over the top, so don’t trust it when it says ludicrous things like “Static” being on the same level as “The Chimes of Midnight” – but don’t let that deter you, as this is definitely worth hearing.

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/17 at 8:33 pm
  • From Styre on U.N.I.T. - Encounters

    UNIT: ENCOUNTERS

    Since this current range of UNIT stories began, it has been marked by a lack of ambition. Generic action movie plots coupled with a regular cast of characters seemingly allergic to anything resembling development have caused the range to remain entertaining yet largely uninteresting, the third box set excepted. But at least the scope has been wide: each set has told a single story, spread out over multiple episodes. The most recent set, “Encounters,” throws that format out in favor of four individual hour-long stories, and the change does nothing to improve the quality of the stories.

    There is a brief common thread running through the stories, that of a secret group called the Auctioneers dealing in black market exchanges of alien specimens and technology. But that’s just a backdrop – we learn that they exist and we learn what they do, but if they’re ever dealt with it’ll be in a future set. Instead, we start with “The Dalek Transaction” by Matt Fitton, in which a Central American guerrilla group captures a severely weakened Dalek and attempts to sell it to these Auctioneers to fund their rebellions. The UNIT crew goes undercover as rival buyers in an attempt to secure the Dalek, but naturally things go wrong, the Dalek escapes, and a desperate struggle begins to recapture or kill it before it kills everyone. There’s really nothing new on display here – Nicholas Briggs gives a particularly strong performance as the Dalek, and it’s interesting to see how dangerous a Dalek can be even when separated from its shell, but for the most part this is a runaround in a slightly different setting. Fortunately, they found someone of Hispanic descent in Karina Fernandez to play guerrilla leader Captain Gonsalves; unfortunately, her accent is, shall we say, distracting.

    The second story, “Invocation” by Roy Gill, is the best of the four. It’s a haunted house story that actually fleshes out Kate’s character and manages to be convincingly spooky in the process. Of course, there’s a rational explanation for the supernatural events, but it’s nice to see this range depart from the military framework and tell a new kind of story. Jemma Redgrave gets to act, too – both here and the final story demonstrate that her flat performance is a deliberate choice, here because her fearful acting is both convincing and a surprising departure from how we know Kate. I would love an entire set full of stories like this instead of the return of Axos or whatever.

    I enjoyed “The Sontaran Project” from Andrew Smith, largely because the Sontarans consistently remain interesting. While the Ice Warriors are largely honor-bound sci-fi clichés, the Sontarans’ single-minded, absolute focus on war can make them fascinating characters. In this story, after a lone Sontaran scout is captured by the Auctioneers, his battle group comes looking for him. But rather than deciding to destroy the Earth or kill all humans, Marshal Skar (Dan Starkey) just wants to discover what happened to his missing soldier. It takes a bit of argument, but Shindi quickly talks the Sontarans down, and they work together to discover the missing Commander Merx (Starkey). It’s a well-executed war story that uses the Sontarans well – I just wish there was more meat to it, as “find the Sontaran” describes basically the entirety of the story. We get a bit of insight into the Auctioneers, as well as exposure to their Overseer (Matthew Cottle), at least. Still, this is very entertaining, and a good showcase for Ramon Tikaram.

    The final story, “False Negative” by John Dorney, starts off in shocking fashion: Josh and Osgood are sleeping together and they have Sam Bishop tied up in a closet! So of course, we find out we’re in a parallel universe, because the status quo can never, ever change. Dorney presents a farcical runaround: Josh and Osgood have accidentally traveled into a parallel universe, possibly but not necessarily the one from “Inferno,” and they must avoid running into themselves as they try to find a way home. Everyone is different in this universe: Kate is incompetent, Shindi is belligerent and sadistic, Josh is awkward and indecisive, and Osgood is cold and cruel. Oh, and Sam is dead. See, they couldn’t get Warren Brown in for this set, so Sam Bishop is off on assignment or something. It’s probably telling that at no point over any of the four episodes did I find myself missing his character or indeed even noticing that he wasn’t around. Anyway, the best parallel universe stories are used to teach us about our own world and to learn more about the characters we know through their funhouse mirror reflections. But “False Negative” doesn’t do that; it’s more lighthearted and silly than anything else. It’s entertaining for what it is, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

    That’s how I feel about UNIT: Encounters as a whole: it’s another missed opportunity. Every story starts and ends with the status quo, just like every story in the range before this. The lone significant character change in the entire UNIT range – Josh’s plastic skeleton – is mentioned I think once in the first story and never again. Modern drama doesn’t work this way anymore, but the only Doctor Who-related place Big Finish is even trying to do anything different is in the Torchwood range. The next set is supposed to feature Cybermen and the War Master – well that’s cool, but is anything interesting going to happen along the way? As of right now, my guess is “no.”

    6/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/15 at 10:41 pm
  • From Styre on The Tenth Doctor Adventures Vol. 2

    COLD VENGEANCE 

    I’m not sure there’s a Doctor Who recurring alien race less interesting than the Ice Warriors. Ever since the New Adventures fleshed out their culture into a Klingon analogue, stories featuring the Ice Warriors have almost exclusively involved lots of stomping, wheezing conversations, and last-minute appeals to a deeply-held sense of honor. Such is the case with “Cold Vengeance” by Matt Fitton, a boring story that lets the entire box set down and closes it on an uninspiring note.

    Fitton is trying so hard to emulate Russell T. Davies in this story that the cracks start to show. The alien menace isn’t entirely unsympathetic, one of the main guest characters is a young working-class woman, there’s family dynamics at play, social commentary, and comic relief mixed in. It feels weird to be saying this about the “new” era of Doctor Who, but we’ve seen all of this before and none of it feels new. And it doesn’t even attempt to do something different with the Ice Warriors: they’ve been woken up after generations spent in hibernation, and now they’re ready to take revenge on humanity! What, again? As the story progresses, we learn that Lord Hasskor (Nicholas Briggs) has a legitimate reason to be angry with humanity, but as usual with these stories it’s hard to feel any sympathy with someone whose first solution is genocide. And the ending is quite stupid: “Rrrgh! I will destroy all humans!” cries the Ice Lord, but then the working class human woman says “Wait, did you know there are Ice Warriors living on our planet?” and the Ice Lord says “I did not, the attack is off!” The other characters do ask why she waited until the end of a 45-minute episode to reveal this utterly crucial information, and the response is that nobody let her get a word in edgewise, which would be a good answer if it was even remotely true! To allow a character to have story-ending information for the entire running time requires a very capable script, and “Cold Vengeance” is not that.

    The set starts strongly, proceeds to an entertaining runaround, and then crashes and burns with this. It’s disappointing, but five out of six good stories for David Tennant is still a good hit rate. Tennant is delightful, diving back into the role and happily devouring the scenery. Billie Piper, on the other hand, starts off sounding distinctly uncomfortable, and she never really manages to recapture Rose’s voice. But her lines are distinctly Rose, and as the stories continue and her confidence increases she ultimately vanishes back into the role. Just be ready for the occasional moment where it sounds like Piper is recording in a completely different location from everyone else and has no idea what she’s doing.

    Overall, “Cold Vengeance” isn’t good. Fortunately, the box set is still worth getting, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the Tennant era.

    4/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/08 at 4:02 pm
  • From Styre on The Tenth Doctor Adventures Vol. 2

    THE SWORD OF THE CHEVALIER

    I’m impressed with Big Finish’s work to keep these Tenth Doctor Adventures as true to the era as possible, and “The Sword of the Chevalier” from Guy Adams comes through in spades in that department. This is a classic Russell T. Davies-era celebrity historical, in which the Doctor and Rose become involved with a historical figure just in time to fight off an alien menace. The historical figure in this case is the Chevalier d’Éon (Nickolas Grace), a French diplomat and spy living in exile in London. D’Éon presented as male and female at different points in a very long life (during this story she presents as female) and her story is fascinating – a person whose gender identity was important in an era when “gender identity” wasn’t even a concept. Grace’s performance in the role is utterly fantastic, mixing bravado and sensitivity in a realistic manner.

    In keeping with the show’s generally mature outlook on issues of gender and sexuality, “The Sword of the Chevalier” doesn’t engage with the central “mystery” that surrounded d’Éon at the time. Rose questions it briefly, and the Doctor rightly points out that d’Éon is presenting as female and living her own truth, unbound by the opinions of outsiders. With that out of the way, we embark on a swashbuckling tale of the Doctor and friends battling alien slavers. While there’s a dark, interesting concept at the heart of the slavers – a collective self with one member dead – it’s not explored to any great extent. In fact, the plot is quite thin, and the resolution is the sort of thing that would have seemed audacious at the time but now feels overused, especially after the Moffat era. Adams represents d’Éon as a fascinating character, but she’s the heart of the piece – the remaining supporting cast is thinly sketched. The Doctor and Rose are straight out of the middle of season 2, and Tennant and Piper are clearly doing their best to get back there, but as with “Infamy of the Zaross” they’re very static and we learn nothing about either one. “The Sword of the Chevalier” is an entertaining, fast-paced story with a great guest role, but it’s paper-thin and doesn’t have much of anything else to offer. But it’s good enough that it’s well worth hearing.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/08 at 4:02 pm
  • From Styre on The Tenth Doctor Adventures Vol. 2

    INFAMY OF THE ZAROSS

    The first set of Tenth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish was a roaring success, reuniting David Tennant and Catherine Tate in three stories that culminated in a masterpiece. Volume 2 is finally here, and it reunites another of the series’ most beloved pairings: Tennant and Billie Piper. Yes, it’s the tenth Doctor and Rose, back together again to travel the universe battling the forces of evil – and, naturally, the first story returns them to contemporary Earth.

    “Infamy of the Zaross,” by John Dorney, is a smart story that comes the closest to recapturing the feel of the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era. Jackie Tyler witnesses the start of what appears to be an alien invasion, so she places an emergency call to her daughter and the TARDIS arrives shortly thereafter. (Or rather, in a clever bit of plotting from Dorney, it’s been there the whole time, and the Doctor has been waiting until after Jackie makes the call to reveal himself.) The story follows two parallel threads: the invasion itself and the relationship between Jackie’s friend Marge (Rosie Cavaliero) and her daughter Jess (Beth Lilly), and both threads are surprisingly layered.

    The invasion seems unusual from the start: the initial landing is halted and started over so the alien leader can give a better reading of his speech. The pre-credits sequence basically ruins the surprise – it’s a staged invasion for a reality TV show – but watching the Doctor investigate and react to his findings is the essence of Doctor Who, and Tennant’s indignation at the casual disregard for human life is straight off the TV screen. I also enjoyed how Dorney gave the Zaross a chance at redemption without offering them absolution or presenting them as misunderstood – honest writing is almost always more valuable in that way. The other thread is RTD in every way: Marge has no respect for her daughter, and that lack of respect is self-reinforcing, as Jess has no desire to better herself because she’s internalized her mother’s criticism. When Rose appears, and takes the lead as a hero, Marge tries to use this as another example of Jess’s failures – but Rose intercedes and tells Jess she’s important, thus breaking the cycle. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t need to be: honest, raw human emotion like this was a hallmark of Doctor Who in this era, and it’s great to have it back.

    Speaking of emotion, here we encounter the biggest problem with this story and indeed the set as a whole: there is absolutely no depth to the Doctor or Rose and absolutely nothing interesting happens to either one of them. On television, this era was always sure to include notable character moments in almost every episode, even if they weren’t tied to the plot. Here, the Doctor and Rose are cheerfully adventuring together with neither tension nor chemistry between them. It’s no coincidence that a horde of shippers embraced the Doctor and Rose as an item, but you’d never understand why if you listened to this story. For that matter, you’d never understand why anyone became romantically involved with anyone else – “Infamy of the Zaross” is as resolutely chaste as the classic series.

    Overall, though, this story is a success, and a great way to start off the set. It’s smart, it’s relevant, it’s layered, and it feels like the soundtrack to a missing TV episode. I just wish it went for something a bit deeper.

    Recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2017/12/11 at 9:15 pm
  • From Styre on 4.3 - The Morton Legacy

    THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE MORTON LEGACY

    The third release in the fourth series of Early Adventures is “The Morton Legacy” by Justin Richards, and like every other Justin Richards script in history, you should already know what to expect. There’s a workmanlike, competently structured plot, an accurate yet shallow capturing of the regular characters, and some sort of superficial revelation intended to make the story seem more surprising than it is. Hooray?

    Perhaps most surprising about “The Morton Legacy” is just how threadbare the plot is. The Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie land in 1860s London, but their explanations are quickly soured when the TARDIS is stolen. They track it back to the estate of antiquarian Josiah Morton (David Sibley) where they are promptly embroiled in a murder mystery which they must solve to reclaim the TARDIS. We’ll start with the absolutely contrived way in which Richards keeps the crew stranded: though they know Morton just picked the TARDIS up off the street that same day, they decide not to tell him it’s theirs because, if they do, he’ll realize it has value and refuse to give it back. As the story progresses, we learn that Morton is an eminently reasonable and fair-minded person who almost certainly would have given the TARDIS back had they asked. But they didn’t, so the story lasts four episodes instead of four minutes.

    This would be acceptable if the plot was interesting, but it isn’t. Morton is embroiled in a legal dispute over his collection of rare artifacts, but the litigants are being murdered one by one. The police accuse Morton of murder, leading to an awful “if he’s arrested, we’ll never get the TARDIS back!” cliffhanger that depends on the TARDIS crew being unable to breach a locked door – but the cliffhanger is easily resolved when the Doctor asks the police if they have any evidence whatsoever and they say no and leave. This is followed by some excruciatingly slow investigations involving a large gemstone that appears to have supernatural powers. The twist is a good one in theory: this is actually a pure historical! The Doctor’s suspicions are proven utterly wrong when it turns out the killer is a human being using human methods. This would be great if it was used to make a point about how the Doctor sometimes misses the obvious by immediately looking for alien involvement in even the simplest situations, but there’s no point here, it’s just a simple plot device. As a result, it makes the characters look stupid – not a single one of them even considered any other possibilities.

    The characters are what you’d expect. Polly gets kidnapped, Ben gets in fights, Jamie falls in unrequited love with Morton’s daughter. The Doctor is oddly helpless – he doesn’t figure anything out until the end, when almost everyone is dead. The supporting characters are thinly sketched, engagingly performed but utterly predictable. The production is fine – Lisa Bowerman directs an engaging historical setting, while Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design is effective in spite of a somewhat intrusive score. Overall, there’s not much more to say about “The Morton Legacy.” It’s bland, inoffensive Doctor Who that’s more entertaining than watching paint dry for 2 hours. If that’s all you need, have at it, I guess.

    Snore.

    5/10

    Go to comment
    2017/12/07 at 7:26 pm
  • From Styre on 232 - The Middle

    THE MIDDLE

    The second release in this year’s Colin Baker trilogy is “The Middle,” from Chris Chapman. It’s a great riff on Logan’s Run that addresses its central concept with honesty, provides incisive social commentary and only falls down slightly at the end. In other words, it’s the best Colin Baker story in a long time.

    The Doctor, Constance, and Flip land in the underground colony of Formicia, looking to take some time off and celebrate Constance’s birthday. At first, it appears the population spends its time in leisure and luxury, with no responsibilities – until the crew notices that nobody in Formicia seems to have reached middle age. This is where we learn how this society is structured: from birth to age 35, you have no responsibilities. At age 35, you are taken away to the Middle, a giant tower at the heart of the colony where the important work of management is done. And lastly, when you reach age 70, you are sent into the military, where you fight in giant mechanical suits until you are either killed or die of old age. Chapman structures these revelations brilliantly: the entire first episode seems to be presenting the Logan’s Run scenario where people are executed on their 70th birthday. It’s only after the Doctor – who confuses the age-detecting machines, naturally – is put through the process that we discover the truth. And by centering the story around Constance’s 35th birthday, Chapman has an effective way to keep the crew apart, with each member in a different stage of the society.

    As the story progresses, we learn more and more about Formicia. The military is there to keep the colony safe from outside invaders who seek to slaughter the population. It is stocked with elderly people through pragmatism: instead of sacrificing the young to the horrors of war, why not the old, who have already lived full lives and contributed to society? It also allows the Doctor to fight the system from within, though unfortunately this sounds almost identical to the eighth Doctor going through boot camp in the recent Time War box set. That’s not Chapman’s fault, of course, but it does feel like retreading old ground. But all of that pales before the revelations in the final episode, which frame the story in an entirely new light. I think this is the only significant flaw in “The Middle,” in that the revelation about Formicia is almost too huge to take entirely seriously – but I’m not one to fault a story for ambition. There are also plot-related nitpicks, if you’re interested in that sort of thing – but I’m not.

    Chapman also does very well with the characterization. Colin Baker has seemed progressively neutered over the past few years, but this story allows him to summon up his moral indignation and rage against the horrors of an unjust society. Constance’s military background enables her to take to the Middle like a fish to water, and of course Flip fits in just fine in the lap of luxury. Chapman also writes a little friction between Constance and Flip, though it’s more like an older sibling rolling her eyes at her little sister than anything else. It’s a bit of a dangerous line to walk, since you don’t want to make Flip irritate the audience at the same time she irritates Constance, but Chapman basically pulls it off.

    Jamie Anderson directs a relatively fast-paced story, while the sound design from Joe Meiners and the score from Jamie Robertson ably support the effort. Overall, “The Middle” is a very successful story. It presents a fascinating society and keeps the revelations coming at a pace that holds the listener in rapt attention. It nails the regular characters and shows a sympathetic guest cast at the same time. It’s well-produced, well-made, and well-acted. I wish that a story like this could be the norm in the monthly range instead of an outlier, because this was genuinely good.

    Highly recommended.

    9/10

    Go to comment
    2017/12/06 at 7:20 pm
  • From Styre on The 8th Doctor: Time War

    THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: THE TIME WAR: VOLUME ONE

    “The Eighth Doctor: The Time War” has been on the schedule for quite some time, but only recently was it announced as the first in an ongoing series. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is intended to replace the War Doctor series following the unfortunate passing of John Hurt. It shares many of the characteristics of that series, for better and for worse – there’s some fantastic material for Paul McGann, but its lack of imagination once again proves Russell T. Davies right about the Time War.

    Over the course of four stories, the box set follows the adventures of the Doctor and a group of ordinary travelers whose lives are turned upside down and inside out by the Time War. The stories, written by John Dorney and Matt Fitton, follow a consistent through-line, but occasional moments of greatness are balanced by questionable decisions. The first story, Dorney’s “The Starship of Theseus,” is also the best. The title refers to the philosophical question of the Ship of Theseus: if every component part of a greater whole is replaced over time, is the result still the same object or a new creation? Dorney’s script applies this concept to a person’s life: what happens when a person’s history is rewritten? The script doesn’t really ask the “are they the same person?” question – though the starship is in fact called “Theseus” – but it puts the listener right in the heart of the matter in its treatment of the Doctor and his companion. When the story begins, the Doctor is traveling with a young woman named Sheena (Olivia Vinall). As the story continues, the Doctor addresses her by different names while his tales of how they met continue to shift. Finally, she vanishes from the play entirely and nobody remembers that she even existed. It’s a shockingly effective device, expertly seeded through the script and hitting like a ton of bricks. History is changing because the Theseus is caught in the fallout of the Time War, and even the ship itself changes from a luxury space-liner to a ship full of desperate refugees. Things get less interesting when the Daleks show up, but the story is rescued because it wholly embraces the utterly ludicrous conceit of space trolls living in hyperspace tunnels demanding tolls for passage.

    If the rest of the stories followed suit, this would be an amazing set. Unfortunately, the set slowly shifts to telling more ordinary war stories. “Echoes of War” by Fitton is the second story, featuring the Doctor and the refugees from the first story traveling across a jungle planet in search of shelter. But a Dalek is trapped with them, and its damaged casing coupled with Time War fallout means it no longer has its memories. So the travelers must work with the Dalek without accidentally jogging its memory, lest it wake up completely and kill them all. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the recent Companion Chronicle “Across the Darkened City,” you’re right – it’s basically the same story. It retreads the “can a Dalek be good” ground, and the tension it creates is undercut somewhat by the fact that the travelers just have to avoid saying the word “Dalek.” The story is thrilling enough to be entertaining, but it’s crying out for more depth.

    The low point is the third story, Fitton’s “The Conscript.” For some reason, they decided that the Time War needed a “new recruit” story, so the Doctor is forcibly conscripted into the Time Lord army. There’s a drill instructor, a sadistic underling, and every clichéd sequence you’ve seen since Full Metal Jacket killed the genre. Yes, there’s a bit where Time Lord recruits march while chanting to the “I don’t know but I’ve been told” cadence. The Doctor doesn’t want to cooperate, of course, but complies when the platoon is punished in his place. The end of the story makes a play for relevance, when we learn the essential hopelessness of the war, but it doesn’t make the preceding hour any more interesting. If you really want to see the Doctor go through boot camp, I guess this is the story for you – but why do we need to reduce the Time War once again to 20th century war clichés?

    Fortunately, things pick back up at the end, with Dorney’s “One Life,” which attempts to tie the overarching plot up in a neat bow and largely succeeds. We spend the first story in pursuit of a Time Lord renegade we simply assume is the Doctor; here, both we and the Doctor learn that he was never the renegade in question. In fact, the renegade is potentially the way for the Time Lords to win the war: he has the ability to alter the course of history using nothing but his mind. Rather than use this awesome power to end the war, he goes into hiding, using a Chameleon Arch – so naturally we discover that he’s been in the story the whole time as one of the supporting characters. There’s some good characterization here – the renegade exhibits a ton of pathos as he tries to construct an ordinary life for himself, Ollistra cares only about ending the war as quickly as possible, and the Doctor positions himself furiously between them, understanding the desire to end the war but not wanting to force that viewpoint on another. The big flaw here is that the renegade is too powerful, and as such the story doesn’t provide a truly satisfying explanation of why he didn’t win the war. If he possessed a literal weapon, and didn’t want to carry it into battle, it would sit more easily – but as he can literally rewrite reality itself, that explanation doesn’t satisfy me. I understand the slippery slope argument and not wanting to act like a god, but ending the greatest and most destructive war in the history of existence is hardly something that necessarily leads to seeking universal domination on one’s own.

    After Sheena is unceremoniously written out, we’re introduced to our actual new companion for this range: Bliss, played by Rakhee Thakrar. Unfortunately, she’s totally unmemorable. I kept waiting for her to set herself apart from her comrades and make it obvious why the Doctor wants her around, but no. Hopefully she’ll get some actual material to perform in future sets. Overall, The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, Series 1, is a mixed bag. When it’s blazing new trails into the Time War, it’s excellent; when it’s retreading old ground or regurgitating war clichés, it’s tedious. Thankfully, Paul McGann is excellent throughout. Furthermore, this is much better than any of the War Doctor sets. But yet again, I ask: was RTD right? Is it possible to dramatize the Time War? Or will every attempt fall frustratingly short? I suppose we’re going to find out.

    7/10

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    2017/12/04 at 4:11 pm
  • From Styre on 4.2 - The Outliers

    THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE OUTLIERS

    The second of this year’s Early Adventures comes from Simon Guerrier, which is always a good sign. “The Outliers” brings the Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie to an underground mining town on an alien planet, and slowly builds the suspense into an interesting, if morally questionable finish.

    I’ll start with the setting, which is fantastic. The TARDIS lands on a mining colony, which is so massive that it constructs housing in each excavated section to house additional workers and increase productivity. There’s no sky, just a massive rock ceiling far above, and everything exists in what must be a perpetual state of gloom. Deep in the colony, the streets of one of its towns are flooded, and the houses are empty. Naturally, there’s an alien creature abducting people, and just as naturally the Doctor and his companions are thought responsible for the disappearances. In this way, there’s very little that’s unexpected about the story – it’s much like “The Savages” or “The Sensorites,” where the humans turn out to be the bad guys and the alien outsiders turn out to be the victims.

    There’s one particular twist that complicates matters, however. We discover that the alien creatures living in the water have been taking the human miners, and we also discover that they have been doing so because they feel threatened by the human intrusion onto their world. The mining technology, in fact, is quite capable of wiping them out entirely. But rather than capturing the humans and holding them captive, the aliens, in a desire to learn more about their “enemy,” have been dissecting (vivisecting?) them. The Doctor stumbles upon a room full of human body parts, organized into piles by type – and it’s implied that thousands of people have disappeared in this manner. Given that most of those that disappeared were, presumably, ordinary mine workers, it’s remarkably cold how quickly the story writes them off in the interests of sending everyone home happy. Neither the Doctor nor his companions seem particularly bothered by the slaughterhouse – I don’t mind stories where an evil villain gets his or her just desserts, but these are largely innocent victims. I don’t mind exploring this idea, either, but at least half of one episode should have given over to this moral debate if this was the direction they intended. Instead, it’s brushed aside as the story rushes through the denouement in typical Troughton-era fashion.

    Of course, if there was a ton of incident in the story and there wasn’t room for such a debate, I’d understand – but this is one of the slowest-burning Big Finish stories in recent memory. And it works quite well: Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design skillfully uses silence to enhance the creepy nature of the script, while the moments of action spring out effectively at the listener. Guerrier’s characters, while drawn from archetypes, are hardly one-dimensional; even the “villain,” Richard Tipple (Alistair Petrie), is operating from conflicting and interesting motivations. This isn’t surprising, given that Guerrier remains one of the best writers in the Big Finish stable, but it’s always nice to hear stories like this set in an era that didn’t like to focus too much on its characters.

    The regular cast is fantastic as well. Frazer Hines plays the Doctor, of course, as well as Jamie, and his Troughton impression is simply effortless by this point. Anneke Wills handles the bulk of the narration, which plays to her strengths, and Elliot Chapman continues to acquit himself as a superior Ben Jackson. Add in Lisa Bowerman’s fine direction and you’re looking at a very strong story. As above, the ending raises questions that were perhaps unintended, but that’s the only flaw in an otherwise intriguing script and excellent production.

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

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    2017/11/05 at 10:29 pm
  • From Styre on 231 - The Behemoth

    THE BEHEMOTH

    Marc Platt’s “The Behemoth” gives us something we haven’t had in a while: a pure historical featuring Colin Baker. As you’d expect from this author, it’s a smart story that spends a great deal of time developing its environment. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly slow and features a surprisingly low amount of incident and character development.

    “The Behemoth” is evidently based on a true story of a Dutch captain, Van Der Meer (Giles New), and his captive rhinoceros, Lady Clara. But it’s actually about different possessive relationships in 18th century England. Central among these relationships is Sir Geoffrey Balsam (Glynn Sweet), who owns a massive brassworks operated by slave labor. His sister, Mrs. Middlemint (Georgina Moon), has one of his slaves, Sarah (Diveen Henry), as a servant. While slavery provides “The Behemoth” with its most obvious social commentary, as well as the moral imperative for the Doctor and his companions to intervene, the script doesn’t examine it beyond the superficial level. It’s a very traditional tale of an oppressed people finally rising up and overthrowing their oppressors, but it shies away from showing any of the truly horrifying elements of the slave trade. I understand that there are probably content guidelines restricting Big Finish from showing things like that – and Platt isn’t a visceral writer in any case – but without that, the message is a fairly anodyne “slavery is bad.” Okay, cool.

    The script’s exploration of the treatment of women is much subtler. Mrs. Middlemint is, on the surface, a clichéd portrayal of a vapid lady of means, but Platt includes interactions that demonstrate her capability and intelligence. Yet these qualities are being suppressed, largely by her brother, in the interest of protecting her from herself. This sort of paternalistic thinking is one of many ways that women were denied equal place in society, and Platt’s script illuminates this in a subtle, intelligent fashion. Mrs. Middlemint’s final victory is easily the most cathartic in the story as a result. Of course, there’s also Titus Craven (Liam McKenna) physically abducting Flip and dragging her off to become his wife – this is, shall we say, much less subtle. But while Craven viewing women as property isn’t that surprising, the way that most people automatically take his side is much more shocking.

    This is the first full story to feature Constance and Flip together in the TARDIS. I made this comment in my review of “Quicksilver:” “If the next story with this TARDIS crew shows Constance and Flip laughing and carrying on like old friends, it will be a crushing disappointment.” Well, here we are in that next story, and sure enough, Constance and Flip are laughing and carrying on like old friends. “Quicksilver” was appealing in large part because of the differences between the two women, and how they had to learn to tolerate one another. To see that entirely abandoned in their first full story together is disappointing, but entirely expected from Big Finish. And it’s a shame, because they’ve been giving Lisa Greenwood much better writing since her return to the monthly range, a trend that continues in this story.

    As far as the plot goes, there’s virtually nothing to discuss. The story’s pace is positively glacial, with very little happening episode-to-episode. Platt fleshes out a very believable setting and populates it with detailed characters, which helps a great deal, but the story isn’t deep enough and the regular characters aren’t served well. Jamie Anderson really captures the feel of the era from the director’s chair, and the sound design from Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian is quite believable. Overall, “The Behemoth” is a solid story, worth a listen – but is too flawed to become any more than that.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2017/10/23 at 6:57 pm