From 245 - Muse of Fireon
MUSE OF FIRE
All the way back in “The Stones of Venice,” Paul Magrs set out his audio drama template: breezy character pieces, dripping in local atmosphere. Not every story of his follows this model, but “Muse of Fire” certainly does, and gives us a long-awaited seventh Doctor and Iris Wildthyme meeting to boot.
It’s Paris in the 1920s, one of the greatest places and periods for artistic achievement in human history. Legendary artists populate the salons, cafes, and bookshops – it’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Doctor, and sure enough, he arrives with Ace and Hex to take in the sights and sounds. But when they arrive, they discover a problem: a series of cruel reviews has demoralized the great artists, and one by one they are fleeing Paris. Hex, for example, meets a distraught Salvador Dali as the master throws his paintings into the Seine. And who’s behind it all? Iris, naturally, but not for the reasons the Doctor may think.
There’s not a lot going on in this story, but there isn’t supposed to be – you’re supposed to enjoy the atmosphere and the characters and not worry about the plot, and that’s right up my alley, even if it means there isn’t much to say about the story. It’s great to have Philip Olivier back – there’s no reason we can’t do “missing adventures” with Hex, after all, and Magrs really digs into the character’s early days. He’s still crushing on Ace, and he’s still earnest and trusting – and the idea of him working as a nude model is appropriately hilarious. Magrs divides the cast in two, with the Doctor and Ace on one side, Iris (and Panda) on the other, and Hex unhappily caught in the middle. Iris is her usual inscrutable, mischievous, enigmatic self – she’s clearly working to her own agenda, but the endgame is unclear. The Doctor, of course, is used to being in control, and he prejudges Iris and uses that judgment to draw conclusions. All of this builds to a suitable conclusion at Iris’s salon.
There are a couple of drawbacks to an otherwise enjoyable tale. For one, it feels particularly lightweight – it’s a great time spent in the company of fine characters, but despite the subject matter it feels almost insignificant. There’s also a problem with a supporting character: Kevin Archer (Gethin Anthony) is both overwritten and overacted, and brings down every single scene he appears in. Which is a shame, given that he appears in many scenes. Ace, too, still lacks maturity, though Sophie Aldred’s performance is quite good. These are relatively minor complaints, however – the story is quite enjoyable, the atmosphere is great, and the production, especially Jamie Anderson’s direction, is first-rate. Not every story has to be a monumental, earth-shattering tale – it’s just nice to have a unique tone that isn’t aping the TV series. Oh, and it’s great to have Iris back, and I hope this isn’t the last time.
THE WAR MASTER: THE MASTER OF CALLOUS
The problem with the first War Master set was that it tried to do way too much: in addition to telling a sweeping, galaxy-spanning Time War tale, it also gave itself the responsibility of bridging directly to the TV series and “Utopia.” As a result, it didn’t succeed at either goal. But now, after a brief appearance in the UNIT series, the War Master is back in a second set, “The Master of Callous,” that tells a smaller, self-contained story and works all the better for it.
Freeing this series of continuity obligations was a great idea. “The Master of Callous” is basically a look at one of the Master’s schemes without the Doctor around to stop him: he’s on a mission to collect a rare mineral that is quite dangerous to mine. Rather than getting it himself, he manipulates an entire colony world into doing his bidding, working from behind the scenes like an evil NA Doctor. The set is split into four stories: “Call for the Dead” and “The Glittering Prize” by James Goss and “The Persistence of Dreams” and “Sins of the Father” by Guy Adams. It’s a bit unfortunate that the first two stories are clearly better than the second two, but this is a strong set overall with no serious weak spots.
You’ll immediately notice one thing about this set: it is unrelentingly grim. The first story features a great conceit: a “wild” Ood on the colony planet Callous that carries an old-fashioned telephone receiver from person to person, asking them to answer phone calls. Because this is creepy, they rarely answer; when they finally do, the message is from the Master and he invariably talks them into suicide. See, the colony was originally founded by Elliot King (Simon Ludders) as a haven for artists, a place where they could find their muse in nature. But it sits atop a huge supply of a rare, valuable mineral, and so the region’s governor (Pippa Haywood) continually places financial demands on Elliot to force him to put his people to mining. Being close to the mineral causes deadly hallucinations, however, so Elliot resists, doing everything in his power to try to mine in other ways – but none of it works. Soon, he loses everything, including his family, and that’s when he finally answers the Ood’s phone call.
The remainder of the set tells the story of Elliot’s estranged daughter Cassandra (Maeve Bluebell Wells) who comes to the colony with her wife Martine (Sam Béart) and resolves to do what her father couldn’t and make the colony a success. And that’s when the Master shows up as well, simultaneously teaching Cassandra how to properly operate the mine – using Ood labor protected from the hallucinations with psychic blockers – and provoking conflict between the colony and the governor. This plan takes years to execute, building to one goal: separating a huge amount of the mineral from both the colony and the governor and then leaving no trace behind. While Goss does a largely brilliant job of setting this up, both in portraying Elliot’s struggles and Cassandra’s fall from grace, Adams doesn’t quite stick the landing. The third story, “The Persistence of Dreams,” is devoted entirely to Martine, alone on an asteroid relay station, slowly losing her sanity to the effects of the mineral. While Sam Béart’s performance is excellent, this is the sort of story that’s actually more effective in a long-running series. Here, we barely know Martine, and while her hallucinations and memories certainly flesh her out, the end result of the story renders that development meaningless. A different problem arises in the final story – Cassandra also loses her grip on normalcy, but both the writing and Wells’ performance are wildly over the top and unconvincing.
All that said, this is Derek Jacobi’s best performance as the Master by far. He’s brilliant, he’s cunning, and he puts forth an utterly convincing façade of kindliness over his completely amoral core. This isn’t a ridiculous plan to conquer the universe, this is a specific plan with a specific goal, and he puts forth years of effort to carry it out, bringing it to fruition with ruthless efficiency. He’s also fully in keeping with his TV portrayal and quite distinct from the other Masters. Of course, it helps that Jacobi is the best actor ever to play the part, but as a showcase for the Master it’s hard to do much better than this.
Overall, “The Master of Callous” is a strong set anchored around a fantastic performance in the title role. It’s not perfect – some of the writing is obvious, and the second half is weaker than the first – but it’s light years better than the first War Master set. It’s also arguably the best Time War-related set Big Finish has released, which is not a coincidence given how little the Time War actually features.
From UNIT - Revisitationson
I’ve complained at length about the UNIT series and its almost laughable lack of ambition: the previous set brought together UNIT, the Cybermen, and the Master, and yet it was utterly unmemorable in every way. My expectations for “Revisitations” were therefore not high, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the individual stories here are actually quite good! Unfortunately, taken as a whole, “Revisitations” has exactly the same problems as its predecessors, but at least the individual stories are entertaining.
We begin with a two-part story, “Hosts of the Wirrn” by Chris Chapman. Apparently, the Master left a Wirrn larva behind at the conclusion of the last story, and UNIT has taken it into custody for experimentation. Osgood is naturally at the forefront of this work, giving nicknames to the Wirrn and so forth, but her knowledge of insects is lacking, so UNIT strikes out to recruit an entomologist. At this point I normally complain that the new character is as paper-thin as the rest, but no: Chapman actually creates a unique, sympathetic character in Shana Siddiqui (Vineeta Rishi). She’s stuck in a boring job with a boring life, looking for a way out, and when a UNIT interview comes in the form of a talking raven, she realizes she has a unique opportunity – and her desperation to prove her worth has catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, this shows up the other characters: it is perfectly fair to say that we already know more about Shana than we have ever known about Carter, Shindi, or Bishop. (Warren Brown, incidentally, is completely absent yet again. At least they found room for him in the Lady Christina set.) I also fully expected Shana to be killed off before the end, but no: she actually sticks around, halfway transformed into a Wirrn but using a holographic avatar to maintain her UNIT career.
But this is where one of the major problems with these sets raises its ugly head: there is no continuity between stories. A half-Wirrn entomologist communicating via hologram sounds like an interesting character to keep around, but Shana doesn’t appear at all in the subsequent two stories, and is never even mentioned by the other characters. The last story even features something using a holographic avatar to interact, and nobody remarks upon the similarity! The same holds true for the other elements of the story: perhaps most significantly, Kate actually makes a serious error of judgment that leads to unnecessary death and destruction, and Shindi is audibly disturbed by it. But in the next story – which deals specifically with the relationship between Kate and her subordinates, and their views of her judgment – this mistake isn’t referenced at all!
And that’s a damn shame, because the next story, “Breach of Trust” by David K. Barnes, is easily the best individual story this range has produced. Alien refugees, a mother and young daughter, arrive on Earth, terrified of their pursuers and facing execution if they are ever captured. UNIT takes them in, even though they lie to protect themselves. But when their pursuers arrive, and demand the return of the refugees, it becomes quite apparent that Earth cannot defend itself against a potential attack. Kate is thus faced with a seemingly impossible choice: send two innocent refugees to their deaths or start an interplanetary war that Earth cannot possibly win. Ultimately, Kate makes the only decision she can: return the refugees to their people and spare the people of Earth. But Osgood disagrees, working against Kate’s orders to find another way out of the situation. If there’s one thing I dislike about Doctor Who, it’s that the Doctor’s boundless genius for finding alternative solutions means that difficult choices are largely avoided. Here, Kate has no such escape route. This is how you write drama: make your characters make difficult decisions and then deal with the consequences. If I have one quibble, it’s that Kate reverses herself right at the moment of truth, and suddenly Osgood’s alternative becomes the only way to save Earth. While it’s a great character moment for Kate, it removes some of the potential conflict if Osgood can rightly say that she disobeyed orders to save the planet, rather than over a moral disagreement.
That potential conflict, however, never actually happens. This story should have absolutely massive fallout: Carter, who helps Osgood, is brought up on charges by Shindi, and Osgood should be disciplined if not outright dismissed from service. There should be rifts between the characters, as Kate made what Osgood likely viewed as an unforgivable choice. And the next story is all about the characters’ deepest fears, how Carter fears a lack of control and how Osgood fears losing the acceptance of her colleagues. But yet again, absolutely none of this is ever mentioned! As we get into “Open the Box” by Roy Gill, it seems as though everything is forgiven and forgotten: the team is collegial once again, and the fact that they get on so well is a plot point used to resist their fears. The final story, a sequel to “The Mind of Evil,” isn’t anything special, though at least it gives us a brief look at what goes on in Josh’s head and it’s cool to have Pik-Sen Lim back as Chin Lee. But I found it nearly impossible to enjoy, because I was constantly waiting for the obvious follow-up on the previous stories that never came.
I genuinely don’t understand why Big Finish continues to pursue this storytelling style. This is simply not how modern drama is written: a serial drama that refused to develop its characters in any way or refused to have any continuity between episodes would be laughed off the air in 2019. I can’t imagine that the Big Finish writers are uniformly incapable of handling such a task – especially since they pull it off brilliantly in the Torchwood range – so it must be an editorial edict. But why? Who is served by this? This set is otherwise very good, with a truly excellent third story – so why is the material being deliberately watered down? I wish I knew.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE DREAD OF NIGHT
After “The Jabari Countdown,” a story about a small group of people trapped inside a threatening house menaced by supernatural forces, the set closes out with “The Dread of Night” by Tim Foley, a story about a small group of people trapped inside a threatening house menaced by supernatural forces. They’re not identical – the prior story went for a murder mystery feel while this is much more outright horror – but they’re similar enough to raise an eyebrow. They’re also similar in another way: they don’t feel much like New Adventures.
I’m not being overly critical, mind you: “The Dread of Night” is good, easily the best story in the set. Foley’s script keeps the cast small: only the TARDIS crew and four inhabitants of the house. The horror elements are of the creepy, psychological variety: it’s just as important to know why something is stalking the residents as it is to know how. And the reasons are revealed through slow explorations of the characters, using techniques that are well-known for a reason: set up one character as the obvious villain only to reveal something much different near the end, and so forth. Rhian Blundell and Elaine Fellows are both excellent as the sisters Isabel and Annabel, while Melanie Kilburn’s nurse Hooley is much more than she appears at the start. And the regular cast is excellent, particularly Sylvester McCoy: he really embraces the mysterious elements of his character and gives a fantastic performance. The production is great as well, especially Scott Handcock’s guiding hand as director and Joe Meiners’ sound design. This story is rich with atmosphere: there is a definite sense of creeping dread that never tips into the outright horrific.
Regarding the box set overall, it is unfortunately nothing like I expected. The novel adaptations were understandably cut down from the source material, but they captured the tone of the NAs quite well: ambitious, boundary-pushing stories that provided harrowing emotional experiences for their characters. The stories in this box set, though generally good quality, really don’t feel anything like the NAs. These are very typical Big Finish Doctor Who stories – in fact, this one in particular is quite similar to another Sylvester McCoy story from 2006. Which again begs the question: who is the target audience for this? It’s not really NA fans, since these stories aren’t really like NAs. It’s not really the classic series audience, since despite McCoy’s presence these stories feature companions that have never even been mentioned on television. And it’s not really the new series audience, since these stories are quite traditional in plot and structure even if they have one-hour running times. As a result, I don’t expect this range to last very long, and that’s a shame.
In any case, “The Dread of Night” is recommended.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE JABARI COUNTDOWN
The third story in the set, “The Jabari Countdown” by Alan Flanagan, still doesn’t feel much like a New Adventure, something that’s becoming a trend in this New Adventures box set. Fortunately, it’s a well-written, well-produced story, but there’s still very little that marks it apart from the rest.
I love the setup: the TARDIS materializes in the hold of a ship carrying a group of mathematicians and traveling to a mysterious island. World War II is raging, and everyone assumes they’re helping the war effort – and they’re not wrong, in a way. On the mysterious island is a mysterious house, and once they’re inside the mysterious attacks start. It’s all very Agatha Christie, and the Doctor, Roz, and Chris are perfect matches for that setting. Sylvester McCoy takes a playful approach to the Doctor, feigning ignorance while working everything out as the smartest person in the room. Yasmin Bannerman is confident and in control as Roz, and Travis Oliver really brings out Chris’s sense of childlike wonder and open-mindedness. The guest characters are all well drawn, especially Janine Duvitski as the dotty old grandmother with hidden depths and Leonie Schliesing as an Austrian mathematician turned actor. The only weak spot is Rupert Young, who doesn’t really connect with his character, making Fray sound broad and unconvincing – not that the script helps very much in that regard. But this is why the story otherwise works: great characters with fine performances.
Some elements, unfortunately, don’t always hang together. There’s a beautiful scene where Chris kisses Eleanor (Franchi Webb) to show that he is untroubled that she is a trans woman – but it doesn’t quite come off because the script hasn’t shown any romantic interest between them to that point. This extends to their goodbye at the end of the story – it feels like the sort of thing we’d see in the classic series, where a companion would bid a heartfelt farewell to a guest character that seemed far in excess of their actual on-screen relationship. This detail can fit in an hour-long episode, too – it’s just a matter of priorities. There’s also a surprising lack of detail when it comes to motivation – we don’t learn very much about the Jabari despite their name being on the cover, for example. And while there are some thematic links connecting the characters – they’re not all just mathematicians, they’re all alone or abandoned in some way – they don’t tie together in a satisfying way.
I keep coming back to the fact that these stories don’t feel much like New Adventures. “The Jabari Countdown” is a reasonably good, quasi-modern Doctor Who story that happens to feature two companions who were previously found only within the written word. There’s nothing seriously wrong with it, but nothing about this is ambitious or boundary-pushing. So who’s the target market for this set, exactly? I don’t think it’s me, and I adored the NAs as much as anyone. Worth a listen, but nothing special.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: VANGUARD
I have to say, I’m almost impressed. I figured the first New Adventures box set would at least try to replicate the feeling of the novels prior to settling into a groove of cranking out generic Doctor Who stories – but here we are in the second story and we’re already back to boredom and cliché. Yes, it’s “Vanguard” by Steve Jordan, and it’s utterly disposable.
I’m not going to pretend that the NAs were unimpeachable works of genius. Yes, there were a few masterpieces. Some of them were even awful. But most NAs were truly ambitious stories, with young, imaginative authors trying to take Doctor Who to new places and styles. Some were poorly written, some collapsed under the weight of their own efforts, but with rare exception you could never say that a New Adventure wasn’t trying. Even “The Pit,” widely accepted as the worst of the lot, is wildly ambitious and wide-ranging. My point is that something like “Vanguard” would never have been published in that range in a million years. Too broad and too deep for the small screen? This is notably shallower than the small screen.
The TARDIS lands on the planet Vanguard in the aftermath of a war between its two peoples: the Dauntless and the Intrepid. The robots they built to fight the war are still fighting while the few survivors hide out. The Doctor, Roz, and Chris must stop the fighting and save the remaining people. Of course, they are separated early on and have to engage with three separate storylines. Chris is put through the physical wringer. The Doctor journeys into the fantastical realm of his own subconscious. Very NA, right? No – everything is terribly, terribly bland. None of the characters are interesting: Blue (Connor Calland) and Green (Olivia Morris) are straight out of a book of clichés, the robots have been seen in a million other sci-fi stories, and Contessa (Sara Powell), supposedly the most complex of the lot, gets an interesting background that the script completely fails to engage with. There’s a brief discussion of mercy at the end of the story, but instead of surprising you it goes exactly where you expect. The day is saved, everyone is fine, time to leave. We haven’t learned anything about anyone, we haven’t done anything memorable. This is surprisingly similar to a terrible Fourth Doctor Adventure.
Which brings me back to my initial point: why are you even making these stories if you’re not going to try? Why take one of the freshest, most imaginative periods in the history of Doctor Who and reduce it to this derivative, sub-Star Trek nonsense? Why have Roz Forrester if you’re going to write her this wildly out of character? It’s a real shame. God, I hope the next two are better.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: THE NEW ADVENTURES: THE TRIAL OF A TIME MACHINE
Since we can’t have nice things, Big Finish cancelled the Novel Adaptations range due to poor sales. This is a shame, as it was arguably their best Doctor Who range – but at least we have something of a replacement with a new range of The Seventh Doctor: The New Adventures box sets. Featuring the late New Adventures crew of the Doctor, Roz Forrester, and Chris Cwej, this set features four original hour-long stories, supposedly in the style of the novels. The first of these, “The Trial of a Time Machine” by Andy Lane, is a solid gesture in the right direction but ultimately nothing spectacular.
This story is about different systems of justice and whether they afford legitimate outcomes to those who come under their influences. In case you weren’t clear on this point, the Doctor and companions have a relatively obvious conversation about the Adjudicators and their methods. Chris and Roz are proud of their careers in law enforcement, viewing the law as a way to enforce the universal rules of morality. But the Doctor disagrees: he feels that all morality is relative to the place in which you find yourself. He even hedges a bit on murder – and while that’s not entirely surprising coming from this most utilitarian of Doctors, it’s not really borne out in the story itself. Hopefully we’ll see some legitimate disagreement between the Doctor and his companions as this set continues that isn’t confined to a philosophical debate.
The central conflict is quite imaginative. Lane has dreamed up the planet of Thrantas, a civilization that has developed time travel but not faster-than-light travel. They can only travel backwards in time using ships guided by intelligent beings at their cores. Thus, they achieve long-distance space travel by placing the crew in stasis, having them travel at sub-light speed over thousands of years to their destination, and then have them travel back in time to the target. When the TARDIS lands on Thrantas, it lands simultaneously with a cargo ship – and as we’ve seen in the TV series, this is bad. The resulting collision throws the cargo ship far into the future, severely damages it, and kills some of the crew. Because Thrantasian time machines are sentient beings, they are responsible for their own collisions – and so the TARDIS is put on trial for the destruction of the cargo ship with the Doctor as its lawyer. Thrantasian justice is based upon the rulings of a central computer that is capable of looking both into the future and into the past. This computer passes judgment based on the impact on society of the act in question: if the benefit to society outweighs the harm done, the accused goes free. If the harm outweighs the benefit, the accused is punished in the same proportion.
Because the accident showed no benefit and killed multiple people, the TARDIS is easily found guilty. Naturally, the Doctor circumvents this by freeing the being at the center of the computer, upending the entire Thrantasian justice system and forcing them to start from scratch. As a result, a mistrial is declared and the TARDIS goes free. This is usually the point where you find out that the accident didn’t really happen, or was misinterpreted, but not in this story: the collision actually killed seven people and there are zero consequences for the TARDIS crew. Is this really a triumph for the Doctor? He’s justified in overturning the system because it relied upon slavery to function, but does that mean he gets a mulligan on accidentally killing people? The story doesn’t grapple with this question at all, which is almost inexplicable. Instead, it rapidly ends and just as rapidly moves on – it feels like an extra 10 minutes were lost in the editing bay. As for the slavery element, there’s a wonderful scene at the end where the Doctor wonders if the TARDIS is with him by choice or by force, and the question is notably left unanswered.
The characterization is largely good. Roz and Chris are excellent, of course, which you would expect in a story penned by their creator, though the strong bonds of absolute trust between them and the Doctor feel out of place in a New Adventure. Maratuk (Liz Sutherland-Lim) and Sydyck (Vikash Bhai), the Adjudicators’ counterparts, are drawn similarly well. The script seams show with Forsetti (Mina Anwar), however, the “court reporter” – she pops up in the story exactly when the Doctor needs someone to talk to, and vanishes just as abruptly without adding anything. This isn’t inherently bad, as endless scenes of the Doctor talking to himself grow tiresome, but the editing could be better.
Overall, “The Trial of a Time Machine” is a solid, if unimpressive, start to the box set. It’s thoughtful, with good characterization, but the writing is sloppy in places and it doesn’t grapple with its own themes nearly enough. Still, if this is the best we can get to keep the NA flame burning, I’ll take it.
From 5.3 - Entanglementon
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: ENTANGLEMENT
I enjoyed the first Early Adventure from Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, “The Ravelli Conspiracy,” which wholeheartedly embraced the Hartnell comedy historical style. Their follow-up, “Entanglement,” unfortunately takes itself more seriously, and feels bloated and creaky as a result. That said, it’s still quite entertaining and worth a listen.
I’ll be honest right off the top – this style of story doesn’t appeal to me at all. I have no connection to or experience with university culture like this, so it doesn’t speak to me and the stakes don’t make much sense. So I didn’t enjoy much of “Entanglement,” as I’m not particularly concerned about the political machinations involved with becoming a leader at a particular college. Khan and Salinsky don’t take it completely seriously, of course, but this is a situation in which overt comedy could have helped; instead, the story feels full of itself.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with the structure of the story. The Doctor, Steven and Vicki land in 1930s Cambridge, right in the middle of the disappearance of the Master of Sedgwick College and the election to replace him. Naturally, unusual things are happening – unexplained acts of violence, mysterious disappearances – and so the Doctor and companions jump in with both feet to investigate. We see the Doctor involve himself in politics, and show a surprisingly deft hand at backroom dealing – he practically manipulates an entire election by himself, much to his own delight. But he’s not infallible – the entire scheme blows up in his face. Peter Purves plays a chagrined, embarrassed first Doctor perfectly – you feel sorry for him, but it’s still entertaining to see his arrogance vanish entirely.
Vicki is basically the co-lead of this story, as she’s separated from the Doctor and Steven for much of it and makes the decisions that ultimately resolve the story. The resolution itself is brutal – trapping the bad guys in a prison dimension, possibly for all eternity? Reminiscent of “The Family of Blood,” though this is portrayed much less vengefully. Sadly, Steven doesn’t have much to do, shouldering most of the physical action, though that enables Purves to focus on his Hartnell impression.
I don’t have much more to say about this story. It’s lightweight, entertaining material, even if it feels a bit long. If you enjoy this type of story – endless well-mannered individuals roaming the grounds of a university being terribly witty to each other – you’ll like this quite a bit. If you’re more like me, it’ll probably leave you somewhat cold. Take that as you will.
TORCHWOOD: GOD AMONG US, VOLUME ONE
The Big Finish Torchwood range has been excellent from the start, and the putative “series 5,” Aliens Among Us, that they released last year was delightful. So now it’s time for “series 6,” called God Among Us, and it picks up where Aliens Among Us left off. It follows a similar format: largely standalone episodes with an arc plot running in the background, very much in the style of the first two seasons of the TV show. But the arc plot and individual character arcs carry on directly from Aliens Among Us – this is absolutely not a jumping-on point for new listeners.
“Series 5” ended with an alien “god” lurching through the Rift and threatening Cardiff and presumably Earth itself. The first episode in this set, “Future Pain” by James Goss, concerns the fight against that god as well as Colin and the Torchwood team coming to terms with Colchester’s death and the sudden reappearance of Yvonne Hartman. The “god” feeds in a sort of quantum state, consuming the future pain of its victims. Naturally, nobody has as much anticipated future pain as Jack, and so we get a fairly predictable ending of Jack overfeeding the “god” until it dies. It feels easy, almost too easy, almost as though this isn’t the actual god that came through the Rift… but we’ll come to that in the other reviews. The character work here is spectacular, seeing how the various Torchwood team members react to a friend’s funeral. I love Jack in particular – he’s unusually uncomfortable, knowing exactly how insulting it is for an immortal to attend a funeral. We also learn much more about Colin and Colchester’s relationship. It’s a great season premiere – it sets up some pieces, clears others off the board, and leaves the listener ready for more.
“More” is “The Man Who Destroyed Torchwood,” by Guy Adams, a darkly comedic story about a conservative vlogger and influencer who aims to bring down the shadowy forces controlling society. It’s Brent Hayden (Tom Forrister), and he’s exactly as awful as you’d expect: he’s rude, racist, sexist, and he lives in his mother’s basement. Yes, it’s a broad portrayal that resorts to cliché, but it’s not really a caricature: there is a disturbingly large number of people just like this. Frankly, I’m surprised he isn’t American. Tyler comes to this man pretending to betray Torchwood, but actually – and laughably easily – manipulates Brent into doing Torchwood’s dirty work. Brent is disposed of through surprisingly cruel methods, a reminder that Torchwood with Yvonne in charge is a much different organization. When it’s all said and done, we’re left with the question of just how Brent got so many followers in the first place and the identity of the mysterious woman who helped him do so.
That leads us right into “See No Evil” by John Dorney, a concept piece about an alien hunter that takes all the light from Cardiff, rendering the population effectively blind. Jack and Yvonne, with the only two functional pairs of night vision goggles, are on their own to save the day. This gives us a chance to see how they coordinate despite mutual distrust, but it’s the interactions with other characters that reward. I refer specifically to the relationship between Yvonne and Andy, which is both thoroughly unlikely and yet somehow utterly believable. Andy sees the good in everyone, and sees it in Yvonne – and that’s particularly hard to do given the cavalier way she treats him. But for Yvonne, he’s a grounded, kind person who doesn’t have the worries or responsibilities she carries – it’s complicated, it’s difficult, and it’s great writing. The darkness plot is carried off with similar skill, if a bit predictably – the fear and paranoia of the people of Cardiff is palpable through the speakers. Great stuff.
And finally we have “Night Watch” by Tim Foley, a story in which the alien Black Sun comes through the Rift and puts the people of Cardiff to sleep while it quietly (and apparently harmlessly) feeds on their mental energies. It’s here that we finally meet the real “god” – and it’s in the unassuming and disconcerting form of a woman voiced by Jacqueline King. She’s been pulling strings behind the scenes in service of a greater plan we cannot yet discern – this box set has been an excellent demonstration of arc plotting through standalone stories, very much in the vein of Torchwood’s creator. In their dreams, people are given the chance to communicate with the dead or otherwise lost, and this leads to a series of heartbreaking scenes between Colin and Colchester. Naturally, the ending leaves the listener hungry for more – I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.
This is one of the best box sets Big Finish has ever released. The plotting is skillful, the characterization is masterful, and the structure measures up well to any similar TV series you can name. Torchwood is one of their greatest ranges, and these “new series” sets see the company and its creative minds at the peak of their powers. I cannot recommend this highly enough – and don’t worry, if you need to catch up, Aliens Among Us is damn good too!
Everything about “Warlock’s Cross” is promising: it’s the conclusion of the UNIT/Daniel Hopkins trilogy, it features late-period Sylvester McCoy, it involves the return of Klein, the cover blurb is thrilling, and it’s written by Steve Lyons. And yet, despite all these reassuring elements, it’s every bit as weak as the rest of the trilogy, wasting its opportunities just as much as its predecessors.
“Today’s the day… that UNIT falls,” promises the synopsis, and absolutely nothing of the sort happens in the story. To be sure, UNIT has never been presented in a worse light – everyone involved in the organization seems to dislike it, their methods are questionable at best, and even the Doctor doesn’t escape criticism – but it never “falls.” There’s a problem, the Doctor and UNIT come together to solve it, and the Doctor leaves, just like usual, even if the tone is different. Oddly, the story sets up a “fall of UNIT” framework with an activist, Gregory Lord (Tom Milligan), trying to reveal UNIT’s secrets with Klein’s help. He’s also the audience identification character – Lyons tries to show how bad UNIT looks from the outside, and how even the Doctor’s heroics don’t look so beneficial in a certain light. But Klein leads him into a trap, and he fails.
This also completes Daniel Hopkins’ story, and unfortunately, he’s at his least interesting. While it was heart-wrenching to watch his fall from optimistic young officer to emotionally distraught survivor in “Hour of the Cybermen,” in this story he’s declined even further. Now he just wants everyone to be so miserable that they beg the Cybermen to return, and he latches on to any world-ending scheme he can find in order to do that. This sets up the main plot of the story – a crashed spaceship with a damaged AI leaking mental energy and corrupting the thoughts of those who come near it. The ship wants to leave Earth, and threaten the planet in the process – so naturally Hopkins wants to see this happen as well. Lyons tries to create a paranoid atmosphere, where you never know if the Doctor, Klein, or the rest of UNIT are possessed by the ship at any given moment – but ultimately all that tension (which isn’t much) is defused in a remarkably easy conclusion. Even a surprising fourth episode doesn’t do much to enhance the story.
As I’ve mentioned above, Klein is in this story. What a great opportunity – finally, it’s the return of the ex-Nazi scientist, or at least the alternate universe equivalent thereof. Surely, she’ll have a dramatic run-in with the Doctor? Perhaps her alter-ego’s Nazi philosophy will bleed through at the worst possible time? Maybe she actually does want to bring down UNIT from the inside? Alas, none of those things are true. Yes, everyone calls her Klein, and yes, she’s played by Tracey Childs, but otherwise this is a generic UNIT scientist character. So what’s the point of bringing her back? If Steve Lyons himself couldn’t come up with anything to do with her, maybe that should have been a hint that it was a bad idea? What a disappointment.
Ultimately, “Warlock’s Cross” fails to accomplish its goals. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a slow burn, a claustrophobic story where a group of characters slowly build tension amongst themselves until a shattering climax. But that tension never builds – director Jamie Anderson and sound designer Simon Power struggle with the uneven tone of the script. The performances are good across the board but none come in memorable roles. Even McCoy, who is at his best playing this version of the Doctor, doesn’t leave an impression. The seed of a good, entertaining story is here, but unfortunately it hasn’t bloomed.
From 5.2 - An Ideal Worldon
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: AN IDEAL WORLD
One thing I enjoy about the best Early Adventures is that they tell stories in the spirit of 1960s Doctor Who without necessarily being beholden to the storytelling conventions of the time. “An Ideal World” by Ian Potter is a slow-paced science fiction story in a classic style, but it’s still full of enough incident and character development that it never feels as though it’s treading water. Only a bizarre ending drags it down.
Exploration was a very important part of early Doctor Who, and that’s what we get for much of “An Ideal World:” the Doctor and Vicki exploring a strange new planet while Steven does the same on a spaceship in orbit. The date isn’t exactly known – it’s before either Vicki or Steven’s time – but we see a human colony ship searching for a habitable planet on which to settle. The ship’s captain is determined by popular vote, and the current officeholder is Traherne (Carolyn Pickles), a woman determined to make this planet their new home. Her actions are constrained by an ethicist, Kay (Angela McHale), tasked with ensuring the colonists’ actions do not exploit or harm intelligent indigenous life. Naturally, the TARDIS landing on the planet surface complicates matters, and soon the crew is caught in the usual web of intrigue, first accused of being saboteurs, then helping out as the true threat emerges.
This is a high-concept story, and Potter throws everything he possibly can at the script. Technology from different time periods coexists, with all the confusion that entails, all wrapped up in the idea of advancement in space travel. Vicki and Steven actually have their futuristic backgrounds put to use, while the Doctor’s alien physiology presents a problem to be solved. There’s a gestalt entity as well as giant cables anchoring the ship to the surface enabling the use of elevators. Potter uses the extended running time to dig into all of these ideas and more, fleshing them out and making the story creatively exciting. Furthermore, the characterization is first-rate: we really get a window into the relationship between the Doctor and his companions and how they think differently. We see the Doctor pushed to his breaking point, including a heartbreakingly wonderful scene where he tries to write down TARDIS instructions for Vicki when he thinks he’ll die. Steven spends much of the story separated from his friends, using his wit and intelligence to gain the trust of the spaceship crew. Despite the running time, nothing is here to pad out the length: every scene adds something to the story and it never feels as though it’s retreading old ground.
The ending, unfortunately, feels out of place. Traherne pursues a suicidal course of action, so Kay must stop her using a sedative drug. But Kay uses a lethal dose, killing Traherne, and says there was no other way – but while the story wants us to believe that, it doesn’t explain why a non-lethal dose would have been insufficient. Vicki and Steven then passionately defend Kay’s actions while the Doctor condemns them just as passionately, a conflict that arises seemingly from nowhere and feels inconsistent for all three characters. And while the Doctor condemning murder is in keeping with his character, his defense of the life forms on the planet is not – the “they’re just following their nature” argument can apply to any number of murderous Doctor Who villains that he doesn’t support. Then they turn on their heels and leave; while that sort of abrupt departure was not uncommon in the early years of the show, it feels disjointed after the slow, careful pace of the story.
Overall, though, “An Ideal World” is a fine story. Director Lisa Bowerman keeps the pace flowing through the long running time while the sound design from Toby Hrycek-Robinson is effective and convincing. The Early Adventures have finally settled into a groove – hopefully this run of high-quality stories will continue through the rest of this series and beyond.
From Ravenous 2on
Actually that wasn't as bad as I feared. I thought you'd give it a 1 🙂
THE QUANTUM POSSIBILITY ENGINE
Finally! Big Finish actually tries to do something interesting with the Ace and Mel companion pairing! At the end of the last story, Mel betrayed the Doctor and Ace, and that leads us straight into “The Quantum Possibility Engine” by Guy Adams. This story consciously adopts a comic book style, even reintroducing DWM comic villain Josiah W. Dogbolter, last heard on audio in “The Maltese Penguin.” But does it work? Sort of. It’s definitely a fun, entertaining listen, but it’s also so lightweight as to be utterly disposable.
The plot is complicated but Adams ties it together rather well. As briefly as I can: Dogbolter buys Mel’s debt from the Sperovores and uses it to blackmail her into stealing the TARDIS for him. Once he acquires it, he sends it back in time to give his scientists an effectively infinite amount of time to figure out how it works. New technology in hand, Dogbolter orders the construction of a “Quantum Possibility Engine,” something that locks the Solar System into a separate pocket of time and enables Dogbolter to rewrite events within the pocket at will. The Doctor, Ace, and Narvin (sent by the Time Lords) are exiled into the system, their personal histories rewritten, leaving Mel on her own to get the TARDIS back and save the day, even as Dogbolter has to defend the Solar System from an invading Krasi fleet. All of this works: all of the threads are tied off, everything makes sense, and the whole thing has a delightful comic book feel, making you want to turn the pages to see the next colorful splash panel. Mel in particular gets a lot to do: she’s the Doctor surrogate in this story and does a wonderful job. Adams puts her intelligence on full display: for once, she’s not just a woman with a good memory, she’s a brilliant, capable hero in her own right. She even gets some darker moments in her interactions with robot servant Hob (Wayne Forester) and Bonnie Langford pulls them off surprisingly well. I also think Dogbolter is fantastic in this: Toby Longworth gives a strong, memorable performance as a character that starts out as a simple villain but evolves some interesting shades of grey.
As entertaining as the story is, it is in desperate need of more weight. I mentioned that Narvin is in this story, and while Sean Carlsen gives his usual great performance and his interactions with Sylvester McCoy are delightful, Narvin contributes literally nothing to the story. You could cut his character out entirely and absolutely nothing about the plot would change; story elements like this are normally removed during the editing process. The Doctor, Ace, and Narvin have their histories altered: Ace works as a security officer cohabiting with her news anchor boyfriend, the Doctor is a cleaner living in public housing, and Narvin is a scientist developing new microwaves for a home appliance company. It is fun hearing them in these different situations – Narvin in particular is hilarious – but that’s as far as Adams wants to take things. Ace in particular should be horrified at the idea of being a cop, but she barely reacts at all, while the Doctor’s amnesia leaves him… almost exactly the same. The Quantum Possibility Engine is a fascinating idea, but Adams does almost nothing interesting with it, making Dogbolter seem unimaginative and wasting its potential. There’s also the question of Ace and Mel: Ace values loyalty above all else, so Mel’s betrayal should drive a massive wedge between them. The scenario is crying out for scenes between the two women, showing the rift in the TARDIS crew, but the script separates them for basically the entire running time. And then at the end, Ace essentially says “I’m mad at you but I’ll get over it,” and you know this is going to be completely forgotten by the next story featuring this group.
Overall, I enjoyed “The Quantum Possibility Engine.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with lightweight Doctor Who, but it needs to be heavier than this. Even stories like “Delta and the Bannermen” had some dark undercurrents, but this one floats away on a cloud. If you’re okay with that, you’ll love this; if you’re not, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway but, like me, find it wanting.
From Ravenous 2on
The Doctor and his companions answer a distress call and land on an abandoned, dying TARDIS to rescue the Eleven from a monster. Once there, they run away from the monster for a while and eventually escape, but there’s a twist at the end! There, now you don’t have to listen to “Seizure” by Guy Adams, the final story in this Ravenous set and the worst of the set by a long way.
This story is obviously meant to be terrifying. A dying TARDIS that has lost its pilot, slowly breaking down from within, losing control of its internal geometry, and generally feeling like a haunted house. A shadowy, hungry presence stalking the halls, striking fear in the very hearts of Time Lords. This sounds like it could be good, but Adams does nothing with the material, such that it comes across as little more than a pointless runaround. It’s a mediocre haunted house story that takes the path of least resistance – okay, so the dying TARDIS struggles to maintain its internal geometry. That’s it? Anyway, we finally come face to face with the Ravenous, and what are they? Monsters that stalk you through dark hallways and threaten to eat you. Be still my beating heart. There’s some discussion that these are ancient Time Lord nemeses, and that they only eat Time Lords because other meals aren’t sufficiently nourishing – but then the Ravenous says that it’ll eat Liv anyway so that all goes by the wayside. Naturally, the Ravenous also enjoy playing with their food, which sort of explains why it follows Liv around taunting her but doesn’t actually bother to eat her. This isn’t scary and it isn’t interesting.
The Eleven is back, and yet again it’s just Mark Bonnar doing a bunch of voices seemingly at random and then yelling “SILENCE, ALL OF YOU!” Bonnar is way over the top, because communicating “panic” in characters that are already on the border of sanity involves screaming even more than usual. The Doctor is terrified by the situation. Do you know how I know that? Because the script has him tell us that he’s scared, over and over and over again. At no point does McGann actually get to communicate this through his performance without simultaneously hammering the point home with obvious dialogue. Which is a shame, because he’s a talented performer who doesn’t need to do that. Also, remember how Helen traveled with the Eleven? I’m not sure Adams does, because they spend a good chunk of the story together and it’s barely mentioned.
Fundamentally, the problem with “Seizure” is that it wants to be a haunted house and monster story but completely fails to capture the appropriate tone for either of those categories. It’s not scary. It’s barely suspenseful. The characters don’t sound frightened. The monster is ill-defined and boring. The “dying TARDIS” material is unimaginative. At this point I’d suggest just abandoning these epic stories entirely – the number of successful attempts can still be counted on one hand and we’re 20 years in.
From Ravenous 2on
RAVENOUS: BETTER WATCH OUT & FAIRYTALE OF SALZBURG
I can’t say I was expecting this: a two-part story in the middle of a Ravenous set! A Christmas fairytale! A script that fleshes out one of our main characters! “Better Watch Out” and “Fairytale of Salzburg,” both by John Dorney, are excellent productions, separated almost entirely from the ongoing arc plot and all the better for it.
This is a Christmas story through and through. It starts with the Doctor wanting to “do Christmas” with Liv and Helen, and goes straight to a Krampusnacht celebration in Salzburg. According to legend, the Krampus is a dark reflection of St. Nicholas: while St. Nick rewards the well-behaved children with presents and merriment, the Krampus carries the badly-behaved children off to an eternity of torment in hell. (No, I wouldn’t tell my kids that either, but here we are.) Naturally, since this is a Doctor Who story, the Krampus actually exists, and menaces and destroys a good portion of the city by the time the story ends. But Dorney doesn’t tell this story like a typical Doctor Who story: most of it is told to other characters by the Doctor or a mysterious woman, and even though it’s set in the present day, Dorney uses mannered language structure to communicate a Dickensian feel. As such, we don’t know exactly how much of the story to take seriously: what really happened and what’s just part of the fairytale?
What we do know is that this is a wonderful character piece for Helen Sinclair. She’s the most proactive of the main characters and she’s the one who ultimately saves the day. Dorney takes what we’ve learned about her – she’s extensively studied ancient languages, she’s incredibly intelligent, she’s brave and determined, she’s not above sacrificing herself – and mixes it all together into an excellent script that drives her character forward. Finally, we see the extent of her affection for the Doctor and Liv and how far she’s willing to go to save the day. Much as the previous story gave us a refreshingly long look at Liv, this story does the same for Helen, cementing this as one of the strongest TARDIS crews Paul McGann has ever had.
So much of this story is about unfulfilled wishes, and how the past cannot be changed. A seemingly minor story about a cruel landlord casting tenants out into the cold becomes, with a wish, the catalyst for the entire story. The Doctor tells the story to someone who wants to change the past but cannot, using it to inspire that person to resist his fate. And when things seem to be at their worst, Liv uses a wish to save a friend, reciprocating a sacrifice she barely understands.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the resolution is both predictable and uninspiring. It’s not hard to figure out who the “bishop” is at the start of the second episode, and his eventual confrontation with the Krampus is a bit performative and surprisingly lacking in drama. I also think the fairytale esthetic jars a bit with the modern setting, though Dorney keeps the points of conflict to a minimum. Overall, though, this is an excellent two-part story. The production is first-rate, from Ken Bentley’s direction to Benji Clifford’s sound design and Jamie Anderson’s score. The characters are well-served. The atmosphere is pure Christmas. The story is rewarding. Put all that together and we’ve got one of the best McGann stories in quite some time.
From Ravenous 2on
RAVENOUS: ESCAPE FROM KALDOR
The second Ravenous set is here, but don’t expect much progression in the ongoing story: only the fourth story in the set features any arc elements. The first story, “Escape from Kaldor” by Matt Fitton, is interesting in that it’s largely a character piece but surrounds that material with a predictable, uninspiring plot.
I love what this story does with Liv. She’s one of the best original companions Big Finish has ever created, largely because she’s actually developed as a person over the course of her adventures. Bringing her back home is a great way to underline those changes. Showing her interactions with her sister Tula (Claire Rushbrook) is another great way to underline those changes as well as show where she comes from and flesh out some of the history with her father. There’s even a wonderful scene where Liv and Helen get to sit at a café and talk for a while – it’s so refreshing to have a Big Finish story that’s capable of breathing and letting the characters drive the action.
Unfortunately, this story is set on Kaldor, and that means there are robots everywhere. This, of course, means that at some point they will turn evil and start murdering the population. At this point, all Kaldor-related stories boil down to “who’s making the robots evil this time?” which is boring. The ad copy even calls them “the Robots of Death,” which isn’t actually their name but explains the lack of originality. This time, it’s an accident – a combination of two mistakes leading to a robot rampage. That’s better than another mustache-twirling villain, I suppose, but it doesn’t leave room for any depth or thematic resonance apart from some banal critiques of corporate greed. The central robot conflict should have been directly related to Liv and her relationships, but instead it’s disconnected from the character drama, and that’s unrewarding. I do like the ending, which gives the writers a free year of mysterious character development to play around with – but given that it doesn’t come up in the rest of the set, I’m not holding my breath that it’s going anywhere. Overall, “Escape from Kaldor” is a pleasantly entertaining story with some fine character work but an insufficient plot.
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE DALEK OCCUPATION OF WINTER
It’s hard to believe that we’re already into the fifth season of Early Adventures, a range that essentially replaced the Companion Chronicles but never really filled the same void. This season starts with “The Dalek Occupation of Winter” by David K. Barnes, and if the whole season is like this it’ll be great – this is a fantastic Doctor Who story.
There’s nothing particularly mold-breaking about this script. You have a colony planet locked in an endless winter, power vested in a single leader, a maniacal security chief, the population working hard in the factories, and the young “elite” being sent off to work in scientific research, rarely to be seen again. From the title, you know the Daleks are involved, and when they turn up as Power-like servants you know they’ll soon reveal themselves to be the murderous fascists they’ve always been. Yet Barnes turns the whole thing on its ear with one slight change in the formula: the people are working cooperatively with the Daleks, building more Daleks in exchange for food, without a hint of slavery.
It seems a bit out of character for the Daleks to enter into an arrangement like this, but at the same time it makes perfect sense: it costs them almost nothing to produce food for the colony while they are having tens of thousands of new Daleks fabricated. This, in turn, makes it much more difficult for the Doctor and companions to talk the people into rebellion: why should they rebel? The Daleks aren’t mistreating them, they’re feeding them and giving them jobs. Instead, they’re asked to rebel based on vague promises that the Daleks are murdering people elsewhere. This is great material for the regular cast: the Doctor, Steven, and Vicki are utterly appalled that the colonists are building new Daleks, but they, like us, have seen the pure evil that the Daleks represent. The workers haven’t, and so the TARDIS crew sound like raving lunatics. There’s a great scene where Steven tries to prove his point by taunting a Dalek, knowing the hatred bubbling just below the surface needs little excuse to come out.
I also like how Gaius Majorian (Robert Daws) keeps you on your heels. He puts up a disarming façade as a slightly confused, aging man, but underneath it he’s surprisingly ruthless. His actions make perfect sense with complete information, but without that information he’s incredibly hard to predict. I also like Jacklyn Karna (Sara Powell), chief of security, Majorian’s blunt instrument who thinks she’s the power behind the throne. Her relationship with the Daleks doesn’t make a lot of sense, but apart from that I love how Barnes develops her character.
And let’s not forget the regular characters. Peter Purves pulls double duty as usual, and he’s predictably fantastic as the Doctor – he inserts a lot of subtlety and emotion into his impression, and this story allows him to run a whole range of emotions. Steven is great as well, as is Vicki – the story separates the crew but gives each of them strong material to grapple with. The production is similarly great, both from Lisa Bowerman in the director’s chair to Toby Hrycek-Robinson in the sound design suite.
Overall, “The Dalek Occupation of Winter” is excellent. As above, it doesn’t blaze any new trails for Doctor Who, but it understands how good storytelling works. Each character is given development and thoughtful challenges, and while the plot may be a touch predictable, it doesn’t skip any essential steps. I often ask for Big Finish stories to push the boundaries, but if they’re not going to, the least they can do is be this good.
The publicity told me that I was supposed to be excited for “The Dispossessed” because it’s written by Mark Morris, but why am I getting excited for someone who has never written even an above average Doctor Who story? My skepticism was warranted – “The Dispossessed” is badly written and only superficially entertaining.
Morris is a visual writer who really enjoys horror stories. He tries his best here: an army of zombies lurching through a dilapidated building groaning “Hungry” while that same building goes through horrific physical changes, ending in its elevators transforming into giant mouths with gnashing teeth. The problem, of course, is that these things are very difficult to communicate on audio, and Morris resorts to having the characters yell descriptions of things at each other. It’s the biggest, most elementary mistake you can make when writing something like this, and to this day we still see it far too often in Big Finish stories. Where’s the script editor? Even the science fiction elements are largely clichés: alien races at war, the aftermath of the war coming to Earth, alien technology far outstripping its human counterparts, and so forth. This isn’t inherently bad – I don’t expect Big Finish to reinvent the wheel – but there’s nothing surprising, nothing unpredictable about this. Any Doctor Who fan could read a synopsis and give a broad outline of the resolution.
As for the characterization, it’s all over the map. Morris’s dialogue is stilted and awkward, and the actors sound like they’re struggling mightily with the material. Sylvester McCoy’s performance is terrible – rushing through the script, stumbling over lines, getting twisted in knots by technobabble – and a far cry from some of the utter greatness he has produced with this company. The Doctor barely even sounds concerned about Mel or Ace, sounding slightly worried then blithely dismissing his concerns. As for Mel and Ace, this story is yet another opportunity to discuss why in the hell Big Finish put this pairing together. There’s absolutely no development in their relationship and absolutely no recognition (until the awful, crowbarred-in cliffhanger at the end) that these characters have changed in any meaningful sense whatsoever from their television personas. I understand this does not make a change from the endless series of stories that preceded this one, but something, anything different would be nice. The next story, which I haven’t heard, sounds like it’ll require Mel to be different, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fail to back that up.
The production is more interesting than usual. I’m becoming a big fan of Joe Kraemer’s scores – they actually sound different, making the listener sit up and take notice of particular scenes. Jamie Anderson’s direction isn’t bad, though it’s hard to make a flat script like this one seem exciting. The supporting cast is quite good, particularly Morgan Watkins as Ruck – and I must salute Morris for incorporating a homeless couple into his script and not patronizing or demeaning them in the process. Overall, though, “The Dispossessed” isn’t up to snuff. The plot is pedestrian, the dialogue is woeful, the central performance is poor, and the characterization is nonexistent. “Red Planets” wasn’t particularly great but at least it was trying something different – this is just bland and boring. And it’s not scary! But other than that…
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: SOMEONE I ONCE KNEW
There’s always a danger in River Song stories of making the character too dependent on the Doctor. Many stories in this range have involved River trying to save the Doctor, or find the Doctor, or do a million other things with the Doctor, and lose River’s identity in the process. “Someone I Once Knew” by John Dorney avoids these pitfalls: it’s the best portrayal by far of their relationship on audio.
Another problem with these sets is their desire to satisfy continuity: since the Doctor doesn’t meet River until his tenth incarnation, the stories must concoct reasons for the past Doctors to lose their memories after meeting her. (Except possibly McCoy, which was interesting and quite fitting.) Here, Dorney just blows past that: we know right off the bat that history has been altered by the Discordia and that enables Dorney to write a fourth Doctor who has known River his entire life and is very much in love with her. This works wonderfully: it’s completely against type, both for Tom Baker and the character, and yet it fits together so well. It would be easy for Baker to ruin this by going completely over the top, but he gives a shockingly heartfelt performance instead, one of the best he’s ever done on audio. Because of his eccentric persona and heavy identification with the fourth Doctor, it’s easy to forget that Tom Baker has always been a talented actor, and this is a perfect reminder of his skills. I also love the altered memories of classic Doctor Who stories, with River involved throughout.
The only problem here is we don’t see enough of that relationship! The Doctor and River are separated for most of the story, in which one of the Discordia tries to prove his love to River in a bizarre parody of “nice guys” unable to understand why their affections are not reciprocated. That part drags, but it is redeemed by the ending, which shows the Discordia emperor, old and weary, deciding to use his powers to undo his peoples’ existence. It’s easy to dismiss this as an anticlimactic cop-out but it really works and it’s a neat way to resolve the problem. Normally I dislike alternate universe stories because of the lack of long-term consequences; here, River is clearly deeply affected by her experiences even if they didn’t “happen.” Overall, “Someone I Once Knew” is an excellent story and a great way to wrap up an above average box set.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: WHODUNNIT?
“Whodunnit?” by Matt Fitton sees the range trying something different again: we’re thrown into a story starring Melody Malone trying to solve a murder in an isolated country house, but the house and the guests are not as they seem. How this relates to the Discordia plot becomes clear by the end, but most of the story is wrapped in the murder mystery. Unfortunately, Fitton fails in his effort to tie all the disparate elements together. The plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense – Melody can’t seem to figure out specifics, as things are constantly changing – but that’s explained by the revelation that we’re in a world created by the mind of Franz Kafka. Yet this doesn’t really work: Fitton is clearly trying to show us what a murder mystery written by Kafka would look like, but this just ends up demonstrating why Kafka didn’t write murder mysteries. The two structures don’t work together – and perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps we’re supposed to just follow Melody’s frustration, but deliberately frustrating your audience without a planned payoff doesn’t work. Kafka wrote the way he did for a reason; this story is just haphazardly grafting two styles together with no greater purpose. Furthermore, you could excise this story from the set and not lose much of anything. Fortunately, this is the only disappointing entry in an otherwise strong box set.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE
The second story in the set, “Kings of Infinite Space” by Donald McLeary, is a very strong entry that actually does the things I wish more Big Finish stories would do. It sets itself up as a romp, starting with a typically brash River Song escape from danger – ha ha, it’s an android replica, you fools never expected that! But that strategy proves to be River’s undoing – she made the duplicate too well, and now the Discordia can use it to track her movements, knowing where she’ll go before she does. What follows is a chase across time and space, but one that becomes increasingly hopeless: River starts the chase arrogant and overconfident, but slowly realizes she’s in over her head. The settings get increasingly bleak, and the “planet with a forest on it” recurring gag grows increasingly bitter in tone. There’s an odd comedic streak running through the story as well, one that I think jars with the plot, but Doctor Who and its spinoffs have always leavened tragedy with humor so I’m not bothered by it. In general, though, we need more stories like this! River is actually pushed to her limits, forced to make impossible choices, and made to endure emotional strain and loss. Obviously you don’t want that in every single story, but this is a notable departure from the usual Big Finish runarounds and it’s all the better for it. More like this, please.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: TIME IN A BOTTLE
We’re into our fourth set of River Song stories, which have had their ups and downs – but this set stakes out something different, maintaining a very strong plot through all four episodes and actually does interesting things with the characters. The first story, “Time in a Bottle” by Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton, sets the pieces out on the board. The villains of the piece are the Discordia, described in the ad copy as “nihilistic time pirates” – they look like devils, and they build an empire by altering the past, changing history to remove any obstacles in their path. River joins a team led by former colleague Professor Jemima Still (Fenella Woolgar) to investigate a star system where time has stopped, and it is there that River encounters the Discordia and sets the box set in motion. The function of the story as introduction is obvious: it tends to drag under the weight of its own exposition. But that’s a relatively minor complaint: I like the structure of assembling a team and going on a quest, especially given how the rest of the stories undercut that format. The Discordia are an interesting villain – frighteningly difficult to defeat once they get their claws into you. Overall, this is a solid, promising start.
From Lady Christinaon
LADY CHRISTINA: DEATH ON THE MILE
The final story in the set is “Death on the Mile,” by Donald McLeary, and it’s basically a full-on UNIT/Lady Christina crossover. Not only is Sam Bishop in it again, we also get an appearance from UNIT contact and investigative journalist Jacqui McGee, who abruptly vanished from the UNIT sets a while back. Sam is investigating alien activity in Edinburgh while Christina is there to steal something, and naturally their paths cross as they uncover and defeat an alien plot. This time, it’s the Slitheen, who work quite well on audio – it’s easier to conceal their involvement since you can’t see the characters to know they’re large people. And while they’re not as overtly silly here as they were on television, which I’m sure will please many fans, there’s also virtually no subtlety or thematic weight here – nothing in this story even approaches the magnificent space pig scene from “Aliens of London” and that wasn’t even a big part of the plot. I do like that the story is unafraid to do actual damage, tearing down a good chunk of Edinburgh Castle and setting a volcano off in the city. There just isn’t much going on here and it’s already starting to feel repetitive.
So, is Lady Christina creatively viable in the long term, anchoring her own range of box sets? Yes, but not like this. Michelle Ryan is fantastic in the title role – she’s smart, she’s fun, she’s mysterious. But there isn’t much creativity here: she’s a thief, so let’s make every story revolve around heists! It’s a Doctor Who spinoff, so let’s make sure there’s a hidden alien threat in every story! It’s a “new series” production, so let’s cram in whatever TV elements can make it to the studio on recording day! Christina herself isn’t even that interesting: we honestly don’t learn that much about her over the four stories, but it’s impossible not to notice that her rough edges have been filed off. She’s not quite as arrogant, not quite as self-absorbed, not quite as criminal. Sure, she starts every story on a mission to steal something, but by the end she’s always at the front line trying to save the day. In other words, she’s just another analogue for the Doctor, and if there’s one thing we absolutely do not need more of it’s even more bland Doctor Who stories. Want to do a second series? Great, but do something interesting: push her to her emotional limits, present her with an impossible choice and force her to pick one, show her in love, or morose, or desperate, or betrayed. Otherwise, you’re just treading water – and I can sit in the bath and do that myself for four hours without spending thirty dollars for the privilege.
From Lady Christinaon
LADY CHRISTINA: PORTRAIT OF A LADY
“Portrait of a Lady,” by Tim Dawson, is where the set goes off the rails. It desperately wants to be a globe-spanning tale of intrigue, with plot and counter-plots all coming to fruition in a grand climax. It changes things up: Christina is nowhere to be seen in the first parts of the story, which instead follow UNIT’s Sam Bishop as he attempts to track down the mysterious El Guapo – and yes, that’s a Three Amigos reference, and no, the story doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. Even the theme music is different, promising something unique. The problems, however, are many: there’s far too much going on, too many settings and set pieces for a one-hour run time. It thinks it’s much funnier than it is: it’s not particularly witty, and the “sharp” dialogue is a poor imitation of what we got in the first story. The characters are uninteresting or outright annoying. And then there’s Sam Bishop, a character that Big Finish thinks is interesting because he’s played by Warren Brown but that no author has ever bothered to actually make interesting. He’s the most generic UNIT character of all time, largely because he’s barely in any of the actual UNIT sets – I think he gets more “screen time” in this Lady Christina set than any in his parent range! If they want this character to take off – and they very obviously do, given how he’s looming over everyone else in the cover art – they need to define him as more than “guy in a t-shirt on the cover.” Oh, there’s also a Sontaran in this story, but he’s mind-controlled and one-dimensional and a waste of Christopher Ryan. Overall, this is an over-filled, uninteresting mess. No thanks.
From Lady Christinaon
LADY CHRISTINA: SKIN DEEP
“Skin Deep,” by James Goss, gives us a totally unexpected pairing, as Jacqueline King returns as Sylvia Noble, teaming up with Lady Christina to foil an alien invasion. This story is much more about Sylvia than it is about Christina, digging into her class resentment, her desires to be part of high society and her realizations that she does not belong there for many reasons both good and bad. Christina is also somewhat unsympathetic: she spends the first half of the story befriending Sylvia, until we discover that it was all just a con to get access to valuables. The plot is the most like a Doctor Who episode – specifically a Russell T. Davies episode – of the whole set, as we see aliens, disguised as humans, introducing a new skin care product that actually facilitates an invasion of Earth. We also see Christina abandon her original plans in the face of this threat, teaming up with Sylvia to save the planet. There are a couple of missed opportunities here: first, the scenes between Christina and her father come out of nowhere and don’t land effectively; second, Sylvia and Christina never bond over their shared experiences with the Doctor. But there’s also a great moment in which Goss actually shows how Christina differs from the Doctor: her solution to save the day involves killing every invader, and Sylvia is the one who comes up with the solution that saves everyone. This isn’t dwelled upon, but unfortunately the rest of the set features absolutely nothing like it. In sum, this is still the best story in the set and definitely of its era.
From Lady Christinaon
LADY CHRISTINA: IT TAKES A THIEF
I mentioned this briefly in her Tenth Doctor Chronicles appearance, but was anyone actually asking for the further adventures of Lady Christina de Souza? Who knows – but here’s a Lady Christina box set of four one-hour stories, so let’s dig in.
I’ll provide more general criticisms in the review of the final story, but things kick off with “It Takes a Thief” by John Dorney, a breezy caper story on the French Riviera. Dorney clearly enjoys this type of story – it’s full of tricks, plots, double crosses, and an endless supply of witty dialogue. Michelle Ryan pulls it off quite well – her mannered tones fit the atmosphere perfectly – and Matt Barber is great as the upper-class twit Ivo Fraser-Cannon. I like the idea of Interpol pursuing Christina – obviously her thievery wouldn’t be confined by national borders – and the story seems to be setting up an ongoing rivalry between Christina and a certain Interpol agent. Naturally, we don’t see that character for the rest of the box set. Still, “It Takes a Thief” is fun and it’s a nice way to re-introduce Christina and her various tools and talents. Dorney remains one of the best writers currently in the Big Finish stable and he shows it again here.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: FALSE CORONETS
The box set concludes with “False Coronets” by Alice Cavender, in which the Doctor and Clara must team up with Jane Austen to prevent history from being changed. I love the structure of the story: the TARDIS first lands in the alternate future, the Doctor and Clara realize there’s a problem, and then they head back to the TARDIS and journey back to the point of divergence. From there, we join the story after the travelers have already arrived in the past, dropping us into the middle of the action. This gives the action a more immediate, vibrant feel. Unfortunately, from there the story doesn’t distinguish itself in any particular way, apart from the refreshing nature of the villain. Instead of a deranged, violent killer, the villain is a disaffected student on a gap year, which overturns the usual Doctor Who structure a bit – but the resolution isn’t particularly creative. There’s something strange with the prose, too – the dialogue in particular sounds odd throughout and doesn’t really work. Furthermore, while the story foregrounding Clara is in keeping with the era, it relies upon Jake Dudman’s impression of Jenna Coleman, which isn’t really an impression at all. It’s more evident here than in the other stories that all the voices but one are being done by one guy. On the whole, this isn’t the best box set, though it features one excellent story. Its biggest strength is capturing the feel of the Matt Smith era: each of these stories fits right into its designated period. If you’re looking for a nostalgic trip through recent Doctor Who history, this is a fine way to do it. If you’re looking for dynamic, inventive storytelling… eh.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE LIGHT KEEPERS
The third story in the Eleventh Doctor Chronicles is “The Light Keepers” by Roy Gill, and if you don’t remember who that is, he wrote the first story in the Tales from New Earth set. If you still don’t remember, I don’t blame you, because that set was pointless and dull. I mention this because “The Light Keepers” brings back the Lux, the villains from the New Earth set, and waits until the midway point to unveil their surprising presence. I shouldn’t poke fun – I’m sure there are massive Tales from New Earth fans out there who punched the air when the Lux returned – but my reaction was more of a bored shrug. Fortunately, the first half of the story is entertaining: the Doctor teams up with Dorium to investigate problems at the Maldovarium, which leads them across a planet and into a giant, hollow statue. While the journey the two take is entertaining, it doesn’t give us much of a window into Dorium, which is a shame because there’s plenty of room to expand upon the character we saw on TV. But once they arrive, and once the threat is revealed to be the Lux, the story sputters to an unexciting conclusion. If you’re at all familiar with the concept of Chekhov’s gun, you’ll see the ending coming a mile off, which doesn’t help. All of that said, there’s enough here to hold the listener’s attention, and it’s capably written and performed, but it feels perfunctory, as though a certain area of Matt Smith’s era had to be covered and any old story would do. Not impressed.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE TOP OF THE TREE
The second Eleventh Doctor Chronicle is “The Top of the Tree” by Simon Guerrier, and it’s every bit as good as we’ve come to expect from that author. It features a very simple idea grounded in a fantastic setting: a massive tree orbiting a star and bearing its own ecosystem. The Doctor, accompanied by Kazran Sardick, lands the TARDIS in the branches of the tree, and finds a tribe of humans, remnants of a colonial society. There’s very little plot: the Doctor and Kazran explore, journeying up and down the tree, and the tree’s natural life cycle creates the threats. There’s no villain to speak of, no maniac at the controls, just the impassive, uncaring force of nature. And the two travelers suffer at its expense: this is a story that makes you feel every bump, every bruise, every drop of acidic sap on the skin. If there’s one complaint it’s with the ending: Guerrier sets up an impossible situation for the travelers, telling us they’re cut off from the TARDIS with death rapidly approaching… and then the Doctor just goes and gets the TARDIS anyway and saves the day. “I had to go recover for six months before coming back to save you” is very much of this era, but it’s also dramatically unrewarding as we don’t actually see the Doctor making a sacrifice. Nonetheless, this is an excellent story, easily the best of the four.
THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE CALENDAR MAN
After volumes of narrated stories featuring the ninth and tenth Doctors, it’s Matt Smith’s turn for The Eleventh Doctor Chronicles, once again featuring Jacob Dudman as primary narrator and impressionist. The first story, “The Calendar Man” by AK Benedict, features the Doctor trying to defeat an ancient creature from Gallifreyan legend. The setup is fantastic: people on an isolated colony world are disappearing, but when they vanish they are wiped from the collective memory of the colony. Only one person remembers them, and she is dismissed as a lunatic by the other colonists. Unfortunately, when the revelation comes it’s bizarrely difficult to understand. There’s an ancient force from Gallifreyan history calling itself the Calendar Man who kills people and erases them in sync with the calendar, which is fine, but the villain’s motive is somewhat unclear and its powers and capabilities are not even loosely defined. It’s hard to feel any sense of threat, especially since the villain is defeated almost as an afterthought. Dudman’s Smith impression is utterly fantastic – it sounds like they got the real thing in studio – and Benedict expertly captures the character in prose. Amy is also there, though much less memorably. This is an odd way to start the set, but at least there’s an unusual feel to the story – it’s just a shame that the villain is very similar to an intentionally terrible Batman villain.
From 241 - Red Planetson
There’s a lot going on in “Red Planets” by Una McCormack, the latest entry in the Doctor Who monthly range from Big Finish. There’s a strong attempt at social commentary, a modern approach to music and direction, and… well, and massive chunks of the plot in which absolutely nothing happens. Okay, so it has flaws, but it’s still one of the most interesting monthly releases to come along in quite some time.
It’s London in 2017, and the Doctor and Mel are enjoying the town – but slowly discovering that the Communist Revolution spread across Europe in the 1960s and everything is under Soviet control as the socialist Republic of Mokoshia. History has been changed, and even Mel isn’t immune as she forgets the correct history in lieu of the changed version. What follows is a story of intrigue, of the Doctor and Mel encountering and escaping from spies working for both the government and a local rebellion, slowly piecing together how this world has changed and what prompted the shift in history. There’s even a manned Mars mission going on at the same time, and probably the best revelation in the script is related to that, about the only people who actually saw history change.
Meanwhile, Ace is in 1961 East Berlin, trying to get wounded British spy Tom Elliot (Matt Barber) across the border so that he can deliver secret photographs of an upcoming nuclear attack. It is this attack that changes history, destabilizing the continent and leading to a Soviet westward blitz. And history itself knows it is being damaged: the closer Tom comes to failing his mission, the more Berlin is covered in a mysterious fog full of dangerous creatures. (Are these Reapers? It’s hard to tell for sure.) But if Ace can ensure that he crosses the border, history will be preserved once and for all. This segment of the story is largely consumed with Tom and Ace learning to trust one another – and, naturally, the complications that force Ace to be the one to save the day and maintain history. As expected, she succeeds, and everything is put back to normal.
The big problem with the story is that the entire plot following the Doctor and Mel is completely irrelevant. Ace saves the day 56 years in the relative past, and the Doctor and Mel are just there to experience the consequences of Ace’s successes and failures. It doesn’t matter that the Doctor is able to talk himself out of interrogation, it doesn’t matter which side the various covert operatives are on, and the outcome of the Mars mission doesn’t matter either: it’s all going to be erased as soon as Ace succeeds. And while McCormack does a fine job of building the alternate socialist future, it’s hard to escape the feeling that none of it matters – since, obviously, the story is going to end with history being put back on the right track.
The production is worthy of mention. Jamie Anderson directs, and actually gives the story a “modern” feel – there’s a lot of rapid intercutting between scenes, interesting scene transitions, and very few prolonged dialogue scenes. Furthermore, Joe Kraemer’s score is pleasantly different from the usual: it’s orchestral, even using choral refrains in places, and actually gives the story a different sound and feel from a typical Doctor Who release. As mentioned above, the story is surprisingly uneventful, and the production keeps the attention focused. The individual episodes are also quite short, which is good – there’s no reason to force every episode to be 25 minutes long. Hopefully this is a first step down the road of abandoning the four-episode structure entirely, as there’s really no need for it after 250 audio releases.
“Red Planets” is a fascinating listen in spite of itself. McCormack builds an interesting world that you want to learn more about even though you know it won’t last. The scenes in Berlin are gripping and emotional, and the production grabs the attention. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold together very well, but if you’re looking for something different, something that doesn’t feel like every other release in this range seems to, I’d still recommend giving this a listen.
From 24 - Deadbeat Escapeon
TORCHWOOD: DEADBEAT ESCAPE
We get these Torchwood stories occasionally, individual scripts concerning none of the regular cast and exploring relationships between new or recurring characters. “Deadbeat Escape” by James Goss is one such story, about a traveler, Hywel Roberts (Gareth Pierce), who stops at a lonely inn in a rainstorm only to find it staffed by Bilis Manger. What follows is a wonderful tale: Hywel just wants to leave so he can visit his dying father, but gradually he learns that will never be possible. As he moves through the hotel, meeting the other guests, learning more about his predicament, Bilis is always there, hovering just out of shot, ever the infinitely patient, genial host. It works so well because we know that Bilis must be scheming underneath his calm exterior, but he never allows it to drop. Murray Melvin gives a fantastic performance, one of his best in the role, and Pierce is every bit a good match for him. The script works on a metaphorical level as well – the clock comparisons dominate, of course, but it’s also about Hywel’s depression and how he’s trapped in the corridors of his own mind. The ending is perhaps a bit abrupt, and the final revelation is much more grounded than the rest of the script, but that’s not really even a complaint, just an observation about how Goss wraps things up. This is the final entry in the fourth series of Torchwood audios, and the range is still every bit as strong as it was at the start. Fantastic stuff.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE BARBARIANS AND THE SAMURAI
If you think back to the first season of Doctor Who, you’ll remember that the stories were evenly split between historical stories and science fiction adventures. You may also recall that the reason they told historical stories was to fulfill an educational remit: in addition to Daleks, kids watching could also learn about the Aztecs or witness life during the Reign of Terror in France. Andrew Smith remembers these things as well, and boy does he ever show it in “The Barbarians and the Samurai.”
“The Invention of Death” was glacially slow but interesting; “The Barbarians and the Samurai” has a lot more incident but only provokes in brief moments. It’s every inch the traditional historical: the Doctor and his companions land in early 19th century Japan and are rapidly separated from the TARDIS. All they want to do is get back to the TARDIS and leave, but they become wrapped up in historical events and cannot escape until the plot is resolved. The local daimyo, Mamoru (Sadao Ueda), is secretly working with an English defector, Casper Knox (Andrew Wincott), to acquire modern weapons and use them to overthrow the shogun. Naturally, the TARDIS crew becomes involved in this intrigue, and what follows is an endless series of captures and escapes. It feels as though all four main characters are prisoners at one point or another, and all four of them also make it to the outside where they are helped by former samurai Shumei (Dan Li). Shumei, of course, used to work for Mamoru, and just as naturally is in love with Mamoru’s daughter Keiko (Susan Hingley). I don’t really need to describe any more, as there’s nothing unpredictable or surprising about the story. Perhaps the only intriguing moment comes at the end, when Mamoru accepts his defeat in contemplative, philosophical fashion, rather than lashing out in anger.
While the story isn’t interesting, Smith doesn’t let it drag – there’s a lot of running around, being captured, escaping. But what grinds it to a halt is Smith’s effort to recapture the educational remit: every single time the TARDIS crew encounters a new element of Japanese culture or history, someone is there to offer a name, definition, and brief history lesson about that element. We get brief lectures on words like shogun, daimyo, ronin, samurai, bushido, and many more, each one sounding clunky and out of place. Sure, Barbara is a history teacher, but her note-perfect expertise on Japanese history isn’t entirely believable, and while Shumei is a patient, admirable character, it doesn’t sound right for him to do this either. (There’s also a brief moment that happens in both stories in this set: Barbara introduces herself and a character that’s never heard the name Barbara before slowly sounds it out: “Bar-ba-ra?” The problem, of course, is that Jemma Powell says it like “Bar-bra,” so where do they get the third syllable?)
I’ll repeat what I said in my other review: there’s an opportunity here to push boundaries, to tell different kinds of stories featuring this new take on the original Doctor Who characters. Instead, Big Finish is choosing to hew as closely to the 1963 storytelling style as possible. I don’t mind the new voices – in fact, they’re all very good – but crowbarring them into a close approximation of 55-year-old television does nothing but underscore the fact that they’re not the original cast. Hopefully this trend will slow as this range continues.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE INVENTION OF DEATH
The First Doctor Adventures are back, and with them comes Big Finish’s slavish adherence to the storytelling conceits of the early 1960s, meaning that here we have eight episodes of Doctor Who that could have been generously told in three. The first installment in this second box set is John Dorney’s “The Invention of Death,” a story that turns around an admittedly brilliant idea: a race of aliens that are essentially living beams of light, creatures that cannot age and cannot die, and how their society and their views change when the mortal, physical TARDIS crew lands on their world.
I absolutely love Dorney’s ideas here. To write an alien race that has no concept of death is a daring move for an author, for as Ian points out in the story, it’s virtually impossible as mortal creatures to put ourselves in their shoes. Yet he largely pulls it off, introducing us to this society through self-described scientists Brenna (Michelle Morris) and Sharlan (Tracy Wiles). Take the first cliffhanger, which is wonderful: these beings play by tossing objects back and forth, much as we might toss a ball. But with no physical form and no need to fear injury, they fling razor sharp spears. When Barbara approaches a crowd at play, they want to involve her in their game, so they fling a spear at her and almost kill her. While Ian and the Doctor panic and try desperately to save her life, their hosts stand curiously, wondering why Barbara is not moving and why her body is leaking red fluid. It’s incredibly well done and it’s a fine example of drama in this old-fashioned style.
But there comes a point when something is too old-fashioned and this is an example of it. Despite the brilliance of that first cliffhanger, there really isn’t any conflict in the story until the third episode, just misunderstanding and attempts at comprehension. It’s glacially paced, with each slow discovery about the society handed out in languorous drips. The main cast are written and performed practically as parodies of themselves – but in a story this slow, every character trait has to be drawn out and emphasized, leading to regimented performances. Jemma Powell in particular sounds like she’s teaching a class on etiquette, while Claudia Grant is so breathless as Susan it’s a wonder she can get the words out. Even David Bradley, who at least shows a bit of personality, seems to approach every line reading the same way. None of this is to say that the performances are bad, of course, but it’s impossible for something this slow to avoid sounding stagey.
I know I’m going to be saying the same thing about these stories as the range progresses, but honestly, what’s the point of recasting the original cast if you’re just going to put them in stories made deliberately to sound over fifty years old? Instead of allowing them to put their own spins on the characters, you’re forcing them into traditionalist boxes, with every drip of personality dispensed over endless pages of dialogue. It’s 2018 and you have a dynamic, incredibly talented cast: why can’t we see these characters in a modern, 45-minute piece of drama?
Look – “The Invention of Death” is quite good for what it is. It’s one of the best Dorney scripts we’ve had in a while, and that’s saying something. But if you’re going to separate these stories out as their own special range, do something special with them – otherwise just call them more Early Adventures and be done with it.
TORCHWOOD ONE: MACHINES
After the success of “Torchwood One: Before the Fall,” it was only a matter of time before Big Finish returned to the Torchwood One era, and that moment has arrived with “Torchwood One: Machines,” a new box set of three stories that are much more standalone than their predecessors. It’s fairly lightweight as Torchwood goes, but the stories are generally enjoyable and we do get a window into Ianto’s history.
The first story, “The Law Machines” by Matt Fitton, is completely ridiculous. We’re thrown into the middle of a plot in which the city of London is introducing a new, robotic police force, which of course gets out of control and starts terrorizing the population. There’s no time to breathe in Fitton’s script: the characters are constantly at warp speed, trying to figure out why the Law Machines have gone rampant and how to stop them. But what evil force could be behind this? What monstrosity would release a plague of murderous robots onto the streets of London? Well, it’s happened before: that’s right, WOTAN is back, and once again playing itself. The evil supercomputer from “The War Machines” has been resurrected by an enterprising young programmer and has immediately set about taking over the world. But rather than sinking into clichés, Fitton smartly remembers that “The War Machines” was set in 1966, and portrays WOTAN as hopelessly out of touch and unfamiliar with early-2000s technology. While his avatar is talking about the internet and mobile networks, WOTAN is whisper-yelling about vacuum tubes. There’s really no depth here at all, but the breakneck pace and hilarious interpretation of a classic villain make it a worthwhile listen. It’s also one of the most enjoyable Matt Fitton scripts in recent memory, for what that’s worth.
Next comes “Blind Summit,” by Gareth David-Lloyd, which tells the story of how Ianto first joined Torchwood. He’s living in a small London flat with his father, a man I assume from the text is suffering from dementia. Ianto is broke, with no connections and a minimum wage job as a barista, and is barely staying afloat with his landlord – so even though he’s horrified by Torchwood and the things they encounter, he’s receptive to financial advances. We also get an early look at Yvonne as someone who will kidnap a man’s father to bring him on side, as well as someone who will go to a bar, pour her heart out to a random stranger to soothe her conscience, and then drug them so they forget the conversation. It’s a difficult listen – Ianto is put through the wringer and Yvonne is even more ruthless than usual – but it actually works as an origin story of sorts. David-Lloyd understands his character exceptionally well, and he’s a talented writer to boot, so why not have him pen the big Ianto stories? Great stuff.
Finally, there’s “9 to 5,” by Tim Foley, a story that seems to start in medias res with a temp named Stacey heading out from her job on a coffee run. In a particularly smart bit of writing, however, we eventually learn that we’ve experienced Stacey’s entire life, and we didn’t start in the middle. The temp agency isn’t supplying human workers, it’s supplying temporary people who are given artificial memories and are programmed to break down into goo after their tasks are complete. Stacey is one of these artificial workers, and Foley’s script embraces this idea, showing how her mind is broadened by meeting the Torchwood crew and how she realizes that the memories in her head are nothing more than lies. It’s a wonderful piece of character drama – yes, it goes back to the “Ianto does something morally questionable for the greater good and then feels awful about it” well, but when it works like this, so what? It’s great, but there’s a problem: the story is practically singing along, and then we discover that WOTAN is behind everything and it immediately turns ridiculous again. It’s a completely unnecessary twist ending that adds nothing to the story and cheapens the experience – the fact that they spent the first story gently mocking WOTAN for being uselessly out of date should have been a clue that it didn’t need to come back.
Overall, “Torchwood One: Machines” is a worthwhile box set. The first story is highly entertaining if disposable, while the latter two are both excellent character pieces. Everything Torchwood touches seems to turn to gold of late, and this is no exception.
From 23 - Instant Karmaon
TORCHWOOD: INSTANT KARMA
“Instant Karma,” by David Llewellyn, James Goss, and Jonathan Morris, is a deeply uncomfortable story. It follows Simon (Jonny Dixon), a war veteran and bus driver living with severe anger management issues. He’s in a support group, but it’s turned into a venue for venting his frustrations with the rest of the world. And then, something changes: he discovers he is able to channel the collective anger of the group into lethal psychic power, and uses this ability to kill those who annoy him. Into this comes Toshiko Sato, working alone, needing to discover his secret and stop him. The story is primarily about the relationship between Tosh and Simon: how she tries to understand him, how she tries to relate to him, how she tries to stop him. But what makes it uncomfortable is that Simon is an utterly irredeemable character. His experiences have poisoned his soul: he feels no empathy, shows no concern for his fellow human beings. His relationships with the fellow members of the group are manipulative at best and abusive at worst. And while the authors show him to be sympathetic at first, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s nothing good left in him and any sympathy is misplaced. Listening to him taking revenge on otherwise innocent people is disturbing; Dixon and the authors deserve full credit for creating this character and following him to his logical end. Naoko Mori is fantastic as well: Tosh is always a step behind the listener when it comes to Simon and she plays her revelations well. “Instant Karma” is well worth hearing, though you may need a shower afterward.
HOUR OF THE CYBERMEN
One of the enduring mysteries of Big Finish has been their refusal to return to the Cybermen of the 1980s. Even before adopting the “new series” style of Cybermen, they were much more apt to use 1960s and 1970s Cybermen – but now, with Andrew Smith’s “Hour of the Cybermen,” we’re firmly back in the ‘80s, complete with David Banks.
“Hour of the Cybermen” isn’t particularly interesting. It doesn’t do anything new with the Cybermen, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it only makes a token effort to make its new UNIT characters compelling. I don’t think Smith is going for “interesting,” though – I think he’s going for a brutal action story, and on those grounds, he delivers. Characters stomp around the scenes yelling clichéd dialogue at each other, so clichéd that I’m sure Smith is doing it on purpose. The Cyber-plan is comic book supervillainy: they have built a weapon that evaporates water, and they can use Earth’s satellite network to target it at individuals or at entire bodies of water. This means they can either torture individuals by dehydrating them, or threaten entire populations by taking their supply of fresh water. All of this is obviously in service of getting humanity to surrender to Cyber-conversion. It’s a suitably apocalyptic plan for a story like this, though it’s also the sort of thing that’s easily resolved, meaning the plot is largely four episodes of trying to get the Doctor to a computer so he can stop the whole thing.
The big story here is the return of David Banks to the role of the Cyber Leader, and he’s every bit as delightful as you’d expect. In keeping with his ‘80s portrayal, there’s absolutely no pretense of “emotionless cyborg” here: he practically growls out his dialogue, each line dripping with menace and foreboding. He doesn’t sound much like he did 35 years ago, but that’s okay, because this take on the character is every bit as entertaining. Mark Hardy also returns as the Cyber Lieutenant, and these two voices coupled with Steve Foxon’s period-appropriate sound design and music makes you feel as though you’re right back in the ‘80s on TV. Admittedly, I often criticize Big Finish for prioritizing nostalgia above all else, but this is the first time they’ve revisited this era: if we start getting endless David Banks box sets, I won’t be as forgiving.
“Hour of the Cybermen” also features the return of the new UNIT team established in “The Helliax Rift.” In that story, they were set up as antagonists: they were hostile, violent, and generally mistrusting of the Doctor. Here, that’s all out the window, as they’re a much more standard UNIT team seeking out the Doctor’s help. It makes for a more comfortable story, and it makes more sense for the Doctor to be helping them, but this is yet another example of taking potentially interesting character development and ignoring it. They even kill off one of them in an odd decision that doesn’t resonate nearly as much as it should. The only interesting element here is the return of Blake Harrison as Daniel Hopkins, the UNIT medic and only member of the team that actually liked the Doctor. He’s suffered a great loss, and as a result he’s secretly working for the Cybermen, wanting to wipe out his own emotions to eliminate his all-encompassing grief. The story doesn’t take his side, but Smith clearly views Hopkins as a sympathetic character, too consumed by his own grief to think clearly. The problem, of course, is that Hopkins is working with the Cybermen to wipe out humanity, which is the point at which any sympathy for his plight vanishes. I’ve discussed many times before how much I dislike stories that show alien races with legitimate grievances conspiring to commit genocide. Doctor Who is a series often involving apocalyptic threats to humanity, but you can’t tell those stories and simultaneously expect the listener to respect the struggle of those making those threats unless you are a very, very good writer.
Overall, “Hour of the Cybermen” is a solid story that does what you’d expect: brings back the ‘80s Cybermen and puts them in a downbeat action story. As I said above, it’s enjoyable to finally return to this era, but the story itself isn’t that great. I hope we get future appearances from Banks and Hardy, but if we do, they’ll need better material to maintain my interest.
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: THE TIME WAR: VOLUME 2
The first “The Eighth Doctor: The Time War” set summed up Big Finish’s approach to Time War material: some interesting concepts surrounded by uninspiring war clichés. Fortunately, the second set dispenses with many of the clichés – but it still fails to cover new ground, especially when it comes to character development.
Much like the first set, the first story in the box, “The Lords of Terror” by Jonathan Morris, is the best of the lot. After the events of the first set, the Doctor decides to take Bliss back to her home planet, but upon arrival they discover that the planet has been irreparably changed by the Time War. Bliss is excited to reconnect with her family, but they find her family home razed to the ground, and the Doctor even theorizes that her family may not have existed in the first place. This is a fantastic opportunity to develop Bliss as a character, and indeed her shocked reactions to the changes to her world give us insight into her character. But there’s not enough here, largely because the first set didn’t bother to give her any development at all. We’ve never seen Bliss’s family, she’s never talked about them, and we know nothing about their relationships or how they would interact. Yes, Bliss is upset to find out they are dead, but I think most people would be upset in that situation – and because we never knew what she had, we don’t know what she’s lost.
Fortunately, the story itself is quite interesting. It seems obvious what’s going on: a ravaged planet, a totalitarian government brainwashing the people into devoting their lives to fighting an unseen enemy, a leader working as a proxy for an alien power: it must be the Daleks running things from behind the scenes, especially since we know the planet was initially attacked by the Daleks. But it’s not the Daleks: it’s the Time Lords, in a clear demonstration of why they’ve become as reviled as their enemies. As I said above, this isn’t exactly original ground, but Morris focuses on the characters rather than the plot and the story excels as a result. The Time Lords have a point, after all – if their strategy could truly end the war, it might be worth the sacrifice of one planet’s history – and it’s also fascinating to see the Doctor briefly debate the wisdom of calling the Daleks for help. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a strong story that reinforces how valuable Morris’s voice still is to Big Finish.
The second story, “Planet of the Ogrons” by Guy Adams, brings back a new villain and gives a new perspective on earlier stories. It’s also incredibly, almost staggeringly fannish. As the title implies, it is indeed set on the Planet of the Ogrons, and that’s what they call it: The Planet. Adams sets out to explore the history of the relationship between the Daleks and Ogrons, fleshing out Ogron society as much as possible while still retaining their essential simplicity. We also learn that the Daleks have interfered with the Ogrons’ history during the Time War, to the extent that the Ogrons we saw in “Day of the Daleks” were apparently retroactively inserted there. So “Day of the Daleks” as we know it is actually a doctored post-Time War version of the original incident. I like the willingness to play with continuity, though it’s nowhere close to the standard set by Lawrence Miles in “Interference.”
We’re also presented with a Dalek scientist called the Hybrid, created from the genetic material of other species and blended together in a Dalek shell. The Hybrid is capable of penetrating insight, and so even though the Daleks view it as an abomination, they keep it around as a strategist. Unfortunately, the Hybrid just sounds like Nicholas Briggs whispering into the mic, but the performance is nonetheless good. We also learn that an Ogron has been created with the Doctor’s memories, which is the hook for the story, and leads to some genuinely funny scenes with “Doctor Ogron,” played expertly by Jon Culshaw. Adams goes overboard with the continuity, however, and it’s impossible to take Doctor Ogron’s death scene seriously when it’s full of winking references to regeneration scenes.
“Planet of the Ogrons” also introduces Julia McKenzie as the latest incarnation of the Eleven, fittingly now called the Twelve. (I assume the Eleven’s voice is now rattling around inside her head along with the others. What would happen if we had a story in which the Twelve actually met the Eleven? Would she hear his voice in her head while simultaneously talking to him? I want to hear this story.) Unlike the Eleven, who was constantly plagued by the voices of his prior selves, the Twelve is in much more control of herself, with only occasional hints of those voices coming to the surface. McKenzie is fantastic in the part, and the new characterization means a lot less “Silence, all of you!” dialogue. She’s also a much more ambiguous character, who at this point doesn’t seem to share her predecessor’s evil desires. There’s a lot going on in “Planet of the Ogrons,” most of it good, and it’s another strong story.
The third story, “In the Garden of Death” also by Adams, is a step down from the first two. The Doctor, Bliss, and the Twelve have been taken prisoner by the Daleks, and have had their memories temporarily suppressed. When they are on the prison grounds, they do not have their memories; when they are taken for interrogation, their memories return upon sight of the Daleks. What follows is an hour of three amnesiac characters wandering around a prison, and it’s exactly as interesting as that sounds. There should be a blanket ban on ever doing another McGann amnesia story, because we have literally dozens of those and this one adds nothing to the pile. Ironically enough, removing Bliss’s memories actually enriches her because it allows us to see the fundamentals of her character. She’s caring and sympathetic like any good companion, but she also has a scientist’s mind, eager to physically or metaphorically take things apart to see how they work. The Twelve, meanwhile, is much less interesting, because the story takes this new version of the character and strips away her memories, leaving her essentially the same as the Eleven. It’s interesting to hear her confusion over the voices she’s hearing, since we know they’re real and she doesn’t, but beyond that it's a narrative dead end. The story wraps up in a very perfunctory manner as well – in sum, it’s the worst in the set.
Finally, the box concludes with “Jonah” by Timothy X. Atack, which isn’t much of an improvement. There’s a great hook – the Doctor is the captain of a submarine! – but from there the story goes in exactly the directions you’d expect. The Daleks are trying to find a secret “weapon” buried under the surface of an ocean world, and since they have to go to the bottom of the sea to dig, I guess that means everyone has to pile into submarines. Atack also heads off the obvious criticism by establishing that the water renders advanced technology ineffectual, which is fine, but it’s all in service of the same clichéd war-movie material that we’ve heard for what is now six Time War box sets. The Time Lords, particularly Ollistra, also make a big deal out of the Doctor’s presence: they need him here, and they’ve tricked him into coming by exploiting his sympathetic nature. But that never actually comes out in the story – there’s no sense that the Doctor is here out of altruism given his largely enthusiastic participation. There’s nothing here that we haven’t heard already, except for the submarine trappings.
Big Finish has backed itself into a corner with the Time War. With the unfortunate passing of John Hurt, they can no longer do War Doctor stories, meaning their only gateway to the Time War is through the eighth Doctor. But we already know the eighth Doctor’s story, and we know it ends with him renouncing the name Doctor and taking up the mantle of a warrior. This means that he can’t push past his boundaries, or take any significant risks, because we’ve already seen the singular moment he decides to do so. We also know how the Time War ends, and that nothing stops it until the Doctor uses a doomsday weapon to wipe out both sides. With all that established, the Time War becomes merely a setting, a backdrop to tell stories, and Big Finish hasn’t shown either the willingness or the imagination to change the types of stories told in that setting. Frankly, I hope it just stops, but with the recent announcement of more War Master sets, I fear this is just going to keep bleeding out ad infinitum.
TORCHWOOD: GOODBYE PICCADILLY
Now this is fun. A quasi-sequel to “Ghost Mission,” James Goss’s “Goodbye Piccadilly” is a campy romp through the streets of 1950s Soho that reunites Andy Davidson and Norton Folgate. In “Ghost Mission,” Norton came forward in time to act as Andy’s Torchwood assessor; here, Norton brings Andy back in time to act as his own. Everything here is pitched comedically: every character is over the top, every accent is wildly exaggerated, every interaction is penned to draw maximum wit from the actors. Norton and Andy are a great pairing: Norton is wildly flamboyant yet possesses dark secrets and hidden strategies, while Andy is both conservative and honest to a fault. They should hate each other, and while they annoy one another there’s a surprising degree of respect underneath it all. Still, if you’re looking for deeper meanings or significant character interactions, this is not the story for you. It’s superficial and proud of it, happily going for the laugh in every single scene. That’s not a complaint, either: Torchwood does very well as a dark, gritty sci-fi series, but it can also be surprisingly funny. It’s nice to have stories like “Goodbye Piccadilly” that are thoroughly unafraid to laugh at themselves. Tom Price and Samuel Barnett are a great double act, the supporting cast is a delight, Scott Handcock directs well, and the sound design from Thea Cochrane captures both the era and the attitude. I wouldn’t want one of these stories every month, but every once in a while is just what the range needs.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE TACTICS OF DEFEAT
This set of Companion Chronicles ends with “The Tactics of Defeat” by Tony Jones, a story which makes you wonder why it’s in a Second Doctor box set in the first place. Rather than focusing on a character from that era, this stars Daphne Ashbrook as UNIT Captain Ruth Matheson in pursuit of a criminal named Deakin (Matthew Brenher) in the jungles of Belize. She has a recording of Zoe visiting the same location, but that recording ends with Zoe’s death – and that recording is Wendy Padbury’s route into the story.
Right off the bat, I’m not sure why they chose to feature Ruth Matheson. While I appreciate attempts to shake up a staid format, someone who purchases this box set expecting four companion-driven stories from the Troughton era is going to be very confused when this one starts. And while “Dumb Waiter” in this same set also features a character from another era, no Doctor Who fan is going to wonder who Leela is. But Ruth Matheson? Are we just working from the assumption that every listener has heard “Tales from the Vault” and/or “Mastermind?” For that matter, are there other stories I haven’t heard? A big revelation here is that Matheson is on this mission to avenge Yee Jee Tso’s character from their previous stories together – when did that happen? I know it wasn’t in a Companion Chronicle. Imagine if Bernice Summerfield and her supporting cast turned up in a Peter Capaldi story and just assumed the audience’s familiarity. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: it was a novel called Big Bang Generation and it was terrible.
All of that is of secondary importance, of course, but I addressed it first because the story itself isn’t very interesting. Deakin puts Matheson through a series of deadly challenges like he’s the bad guy from the Saw movies, and since Matheson is largely by herself, much of the story is taken up with Daphne Ashbrook monologuing awkwardly about her surroundings. Things liven up when Zoe shows up, but the grand revelations at the conclusion of the story are easy to see coming. When bizarre alien technology is revealed, explained, and immediately forgotten about, you can bet it’ll come back at the conclusion. And when we hear a recording of a character being killed, we can assume that sci-fi shenanigans will explain that we weren’t hearing what we thought we were hearing.
I don’t object to the idea of using Ruth Matheson in a Troughton story on its face, but “The Tactics of Defeat” – and what a lousy title – isn’t the way to do it. It’s dull, it’s predictable, and it’s unwelcoming – and it’s a poor ending to a shaky box set.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE IRON MAID
“The Iron Maid” by John Pritchard, the third story in the set, is best recognized for being utterly unmemorable. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe land in France during the Hundred Years’ War, and encounter a local woman who sees visions. Specifically, she envisions a maiden coming to wear a magical suit of armor and defeat the English, and she thinks Zoe is that maiden. Looks like we’re doing a Joan of Arc story, right? Actually, we’re not: the story is about a rift in time that has deposited soldiers and weapons from World War I several centuries in the past. Pritchard has a strong grasp of plotting and layers revelations throughout the script, from characters with hidden identities to forces with hidden allegiances. He also has a strong grasp of the characters – I like his take on the Doctor, who isn’t just a friend to Zoe but, in her eyes, also an inscrutable, intellectual equal. But the fundamental problem is that nothing that happens in the story is particularly interesting. The characters’ motivations are obvious, the structure is solid but devoid of surprise, and there isn’t much thematic depth to speak of despite ample opportunity. I don’t remember much about it, frankly, and I just finished listening to it. As a result, I also don’t have much to say about it. There’s certainly nothing bad about “The Iron Maid” but that, on its own, does not a successful story make.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: DUMB WAITER
The second story in the box is “Dumb Waiter” by Rob Nisbet, a tale that brings together two different eras of Doctor Who by sending Leela back in the Doctor’s personal timestream to meet the second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria. I criticized the (terrible) “Return to Telos” in the Fourth Doctor Adventures for having Jamie and Leela in the same story but not having them meet; here, they meet and interact extensively, but it still doesn’t feel all that important.
Jamie and Leela are an obvious pairing: they both view events from the perspective of a less developed society and they’re both trained fighters, though Leela is primarily a hunter and Jamie a soldier. They’re both fiercely loyal and ready to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice, and they’re both much more intelligent than their “primitive” exteriors let on. Nisbet explores this by having them fight each other a couple of times and gain a grudging respect in the process. This just isn’t very creative: it’s written well for what it is and the two actors play it very well, but that’s about the least imaginative path one could take when pairing these characters up. Other obvious moments occur: Leela at first thinks Victoria is a scared, useless girl, but a surprising act of bravery earns Leela’s respect. Leela doesn’t recognize the second Doctor and doesn’t trust him, until his actions reveal the truth of his words. Again, all of this is written well, and it’s delightful to hear Louise Jameson and Frazer Hines interact – especially with Hines playing all three members of the TARDIS crew – but I wish this had been more ambitious, like the best of the Companion Chronicles. We don’t learn anything about any of the characters that we don’t already know, and seeing them from the others’ perspectives isn’t nearly as rewarding as it should be.
As for the story itself, the setup is much better than the conclusion. I like the setting of a fancy garden party with a dark underbelly, and having different characters seeing different things is an effective way to communicate suspense. Louise Jameson goes way over the top as Mrs. De Winter, so much so that it distracts from the story. And while I appreciate the imagination on display in the conclusion, the action sequences translate poorly to audio, leading to a confusing mess of yelling and loud noises. Overall, though, there’s enough here for a recommendation, based purely on the uniting of two eras – but there’s also room for improvement.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE CURATOR’S EGG
We’re back with our annual box set of Companion Chronicles, this being the second volume of Troughton-era stories, and the set kicks off with “The Curator’s Egg” by Julian Richards. Set in the earliest days of the second Doctor’s tenure, with only Ben and Polly accompanying him, this story sees the TARDIS land on Earth years after the Dalek invasion. Once there, they find a scientific research facility dedicated to producing… cyborg dinosaurs. It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it doesn’t get any more sensible as the story progresses. The Doctor and Ben go off to sea, leaving Polly behind, and the bulk of the story is about Polly and socially awkward scientist Andrew Clarkson (Elliot Chapman) teaming up to fight Clarkson’s maniacal twin brother Zoltan (Chapman again). While Zoltan appears to be convalescing in the facility’s infirmary, he’s actually transferred his mind into a dinosaur’s body, and the story revolves around his attempts to clone his mind into multiple dinosaurs, thus making himself the sole ruler of a world solely populated by dinosaurs. This is a deeply, deeply silly story, one that wouldn’t be out of place in the bonkers, old Doctor Who Annuals of the time. But it’s not particularly funny, and it’s as shallow as a dry pond, so the silliness is more grating than entertaining. It also barely feels like a Companion Chronicle: yes, Anneke Wills is narrating, but so much of the script is full-cast it feels like an Early Adventure more than anything. I’m sure many fans will find a great deal to enjoy about this story; unfortunately, I am not one of them.
From 239 - Iron Brighton
I’ve enjoyed Chris Chapman’s work for Big Finish thus far, as he has an ability to tie seemingly unrelated settings together via intelligent plotting. Another example of this is “Iron Bright,” which starts off as a celebrity historical but quickly and successfully transforms into something else entirely, remaining thoroughly entertaining throughout.
The celebrity in question is legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (James MacCallum), and the script tells the story of his work on the Thames Tunnel underneath his father Marc (Christopher Fairbank). While the tunnel was eventually completed, Isambard left the project after a serious flood killed several workers, moving on to his own brilliant career. Chapman looked at this and saw the potential for a Doctor Who story, and it’s a good one: the tunnel was haunted! The Doctor arrives, traveling alone, as work is proceeding, and promptly encounters Brunel, along with a group of scared miners fleeing from a mysterious blue apparition in the tunnels. Brunel is a skeptic, the Doctor believes, and that provides the initial conflict between the two – but of course, being a Doctor Who story, the ghost is real. And as the ghost starts to remove supports from the tunnel, causing deadly flooding, we think we’re in for a claustrophobic story set deep underground. A good one, too, based on the first two episodes.
But much like “The Middle,” Chapman pulls the rug from beneath us as the story shifts to the alien world of Luceat. Some time ago, “windows” appeared allowing the people of Luceat to watch the people of London, but they appeared impassible. Unfortunately, appearances were deceiving, and as the Industrial Revolution commenced, the air pollution from London’s factories seeped through the windows, poisoning the people of Luceat. I loved this revelation because it sets up a complex conflict with no easy answer. The people of London have no idea that Luceat even exists, and they’re just following their development curve. Does Luceat have the right to stop them? It’s an interesting moral question, one that you could definitely see in a Star Trek episode about the Prime Directive. The script doesn’t explore the question as deeply as it probably should – the moral conflict is written off about the time that we get another “kill all humans” plan from Luceat – but it’s nonetheless an interesting attempt to bind a contemporary political issue to its historical roots through science fiction.
Some other interesting choices include the people of Luceat speaking in casual, modern dialects, juxtaposed against the 19th century English. I’m not sure this works, because it comes off as funny when the story isn’t calling for comedy, but it’s certainly memorable. I enjoyed that the first thing that came to Marc Brunel’s head when he learned of an alien world was the impulse to conquer it for the British Empire. MacCallum is wonderful as Isambard, his initial haughty superiority vanishing in the face of intelligence and wonder, and he and Colin Baker make an ideal pairing. The Doctor is great in this as well, heroic yet vulnerable, and no longer prone to correcting everyone’s grammar. The production is equally solid, both Andy Hardwick’s sound design and John Ainsworth’s direction, capturing the varied environments effectively. Overall, “Iron Bright” is a high-quality Doctor Who story that blends an interesting plot with good characterization and a solid production. More from Chris Chapman, please.
JENNY: THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER: ZERO SPACE
After a bit of a stumble in the middle, we reach the final story in the set: “Zero Space” by Adrian Poynton. Fortunately, it’s quite good! There are several great ideas here: a scientific research station in the middle of “zero space,” the station staffed entirely by clones of the same two people, their research being able to uncover the secrets of Noah’s past, and so forth. The COLT-5000 is here again, but rather than being a rather one-note character it’s actually shaded reasonably well, employing strategy other than killing anything in its path. Poynton’s script builds tension throughout, and while the revelation of what’s at the heart of the station isn’t surprising, it’s still worthwhile after everything leading up to it.
Of course, then the story ends, and the denouement is a disaster. Here’s the problem with the box set in general: they don’t do anything remotely interesting with the central character. We don’t know exactly how long it’s been since her “birth,” but we know she still has significant gaps in her knowledge – but those gaps never seriously threaten her because she has an absolute wealth of knowledge on other topics. Her characterization doesn’t go anywhere: she’s basically the tenth Doctor in female form, with perhaps a bit more inclination toward physical violence. She talks repeatedly about being bred for war, and how the Doctor showed her a better way, but at no point in any of these stories do we see her struggling with this inner conflict in any serious way. Instead, she takes literally everything in stride, always handling her challenges in the most responsible way. As the story ends, we’re just expected to accept her as a wonderful person with no evident flaws, which is boring. Noah even says something like “You really are the Doctor’s daughter,” which is just slamming the point home with no subtlety and glossing over the fact that Noah hasn’t actually met the Doctor and has no way to make that comparison.
Fundamentally, the problem is this: Doctor Who on television has rarely been this safe and unimaginative. This is a spinoff, ideally the sort of place where you can push the boundaries without the restrictions of the parent show, and yet we just have a bunch of generic stories with a generic Doctor substitute. There’s a brief cameo at the end, and while it had me smiling, it also had me wishing I could just be listening to that performer instead. That’s not good for a box set that very obviously wants to be the first in a long line. Overall, most of the individual stories in this set aren’t bad, but the overall quality of the set isn’t very good. It’s rare to have something be less than the sum of its parts, but here we are.
Oh, and the theme tune is horrendous.
JENNY: THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER: NEON REIGN
We’ve had “sleepy English street with secret aliens,” so now it’s time for Jenny to tackle “toppling dictatorial regime in an afternoon” in “Neon Reign” by Christian Brassington. The world of Kamshassa is torn apart under the rule of the Dragon Lord: the male population is hopelessly addicted to a dangerous narcotic while the female population labors in servitude. As such, “Neon Reign” is an overtly feminist tale, emphasizing how Jenny seeks to liberate the oppressed women of the world. Unfortunately, it’s also a sledgehammer-obvious tale that beats its message into your brain at every opportunity. The dialogue is stuffed with awkward, clunky phrasing designed to emphasize the sexism of the society, and even more awkward, clunky phrasing about liberation. It’s difficult for me to pan this, because I always admire Doctor Who stories that are about something more than evil dictators, and I strongly agree with the story’s message – the problem is that it’s incompetently done. The performers make the best of it, especially Georgia Tennant, but this story more than any other in the set is a real struggle to get through. There’s also a B-plot about Noah learning more about his origins, as the palace treats him like a god and gives him security clearance to any area he likes. But in the end, nothing is explained, so it’s presumably being left for future sets. This is good character development, however: laying clues throughout stories prior to the big revelation, rather than just coming out and hitting the listener in the face with a frying pan. How these wildly varying degrees of subtlety exist in the same story is unclear to me, but they do, and “Neon Reign” doesn’t work.
JENNY: THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER: PRISONER OF THE OOD
I think this is the first time we’ve heard the Ood in a Big Finish story, and John Dorney’s “Prisoner of the Ood” is a fine way to introduce them to audio. The story is quintessential Doctor Who: alien visitors wall off a suburban neighborhood and Jenny and Noah show up in the middle of the action. There are some interesting layers to the plot, though as soon as you know there’s an alien warlord on the loose it’s screamingly obvious which character is the warlord in disguise. But this isn’t intended to be a shocking plot twist; instead, “Prisoner of the Ood” is rather breezy. It even ends with a character pleasantly asking the arriving authorities who wants a nice cup of tea, which is perfectly charming until you remember that character is standing amid a literal pile of corpses of the other people on her street. That’s the problem with “Prisoner of the Ood:” its tone clashes horribly with its subject matter. The material would work as a dark comedy; here, it just seems morally questionable. Most Doctor Who stories that kill off most of the characters end on a downbeat note; this one ends blithely unconcerned about what just happened. This would be very interesting if it was a feature of Jenny’s character: perhaps a springboard to an exploration of how her attitudes differ from her father? But no, we just move on to the next story. Disappointing for a piece of drama; entirely predictable for Big Finish.
JENNY: THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER: STOLEN GOODS
When the TV episode “The Doctor’s Daughter” ended, when Georgia Tennant’s Jenny flew off on adventures of her own, everyone basically assumed it was only a matter of time before she returned. But she never returned to the TV series, so it falls to Big Finish to engineer her return, and this long-awaited box set of stories kicks off with “Stolen Goods” by Matt Fitton.
The first and most obvious question is “why was this made?” We’ll pass over the thoroughly cynical explanation of “it will sell lots of copies” and examine the artistic reasoning: why did these stories need to be told? Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer to this question. Jenny is the Doctor in all but name: she’s intelligent, witty, brave, resourceful, willing to sacrifice herself in the name of the greater good, all in all a wonderful model of what a female Doctor might look like. The obvious problem here is that we’re about to get an actual female Doctor on television, so that can’t be the selling point of Jenny’s series. Instead, she needs to stand out as a character in her own right, and we’ll return to this question in the final review.
This story serves as a reintroduction to Jenny, and does so in an oddly stereotypical fashion: her ship breaks down and an unscrupulous mechanic attempts to swindle her out of her money. The swindle is orchestrated by Garundel, the slimy con artist voiced by Stuart Milligan doing his best Paul Lynde, returning to audio for the first time in quite a while. He’s great, but this is still the sort of problem Jenny should solve in about eight seconds, and after dawdling for half the episode she does exactly that. Matters are complicated by the introduction of the COLT-5000 (Siân Phillips), a robot bounty hunter tasked with capturing Jenny, and Noah (Sean Biggerstaff), a young man with a mysterious past and no memory of his identity. There’s not much to the plot – just a lot of running away once the COLT-5000 shows up – but “Stolen Goods” serves as a successful introduction of the major players in the set and an entertaining listen to boot.
TORCHWOOD: WE ALWAYS GET OUT ALIVE
I’m running out of superlatives for the Torchwood range, because we have another great release in “We Always Get Out Alive” by Guy Adams. It’s a two-hander, starring only Eve Myles and Kai Owen, and Gwen and Rhys spend virtually the entire story stuck in a vehicle together. They’ve just defeated an alien threat, setting a remote camp ablaze in the process, and now they’re driving back to civilization – but unbeknownst to them, the threat survived and is along for the ride. The entire story shines a light on their relationship: Rhys thinks Gwen revels in danger, Gwen thinks he’s overbearing, and they argue extensively about these things, but they deeply love one another and that love shines through every conversation, even as their alien companion starts turning them against one another. Adams has a perfect handle on both characters’ voices, which enables him to peel back the superficial and really explore their marriage. I’d be happy with just listening to these characters talk for an hour, but there’s also a wonderful horror component, as Gwen and Rhys slowly start to lose their grip on reality due to the creature’s influence. There’s a great moment when Rhys loses his sight, and Gwen leaves him alone in the car, that’s genuinely frightening, as Kai Owen really brings home his character’s sense of abandonment. The sound design from Richard Fox and Lauren Yason is excellent as well, creating a creepy atmosphere. It’s not a perfect story, as it does get repetitive, and it’s arguably too long even for its running time, but those are minor complaints. Overall, “We Always Get Out Alive” is another in a long line of excellent Torchwood stories, showcasing the talent of the main cast and the skill of Big Finish’s production.
From Season 7 Part 2on
THE AGE OF SUTEKH
This isn’t the first time that a promising Big Finish first half has crashed into wreckage in the second; given the quality of the first half, however, “The Age of Sutekh” by Guy Adams is among the most disappointing. Sutekh has returned, and the Doctor and Leela must stop him from destroying the universe. If that sounds generic and uninteresting to you, you’re right!
So, Sutekh: arguably the most memorable, most threatening one-off villain in the entire history of televised Doctor Who. Sure, the Egyptian trappings showed the classic horror influences behind “Pyramids of Mars,” but Sutekh was memorable even beyond that: an ancient god, confined to a chair yet able to affect reality itself with the power of his mind. From what little we learn of the Osirians, they were frighteningly powerful, and the Doctor’s terrified reaction to Sutekh’s presence tells us all we need to know about him. The fourth Doctor was the most superhuman of the classic series Doctors, yet in that story Sutekh poses a legitimate threat, one that may cost the Doctor his life. Here, in “The Age of Sutekh,” all of that is undone. Sutekh is now a disembodied consciousness – not sure when that happened, but I’ll roll with it – who still aims to destroy the universe. Yet he’s weak, so he has to act through a human agent – but unlike Scarman, Rania (Sophia Myles) is able to resist his conditioning from time to time. In fact, she’s the one who stands up to him during his final defeat – it’s a great moment for her but it makes Sutekh much less impressive. Gabriel Woolf’s performance is less menacing and chattier, which is distracting. Adams also crowbars in a fight scene between Sutekh and Leela, which provides amusement when she compares him to a horse but is otherwise utterly stupid. And then there’s Tom Baker, who gives arguably his most unhinged performance since he started working with Big Finish. He yells, makes strange noises, and generally sounds like he isn’t taking anything seriously – and while that would be fine for a comedy script, it completely undercuts the intended seriousness of this one. The Doctor isn’t taking Sutekh seriously, so why should we?
Honestly, that’s the best way to describe “The Age of Sutekh:” remarkably ill-judged all the way around. Nothing about it particularly works, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and it wastes the return of a classic Doctor Who villain. I genuinely enjoyed “Kill the Doctor!” but this is a massive disappointment. Still, the box set contains two genuinely good stories and a third that is at least interesting, so it’s worth it on the whole – just not for the final story.