SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
With the first Unbound release concentrating upon the Doctor himself and his behavior while restricted on Gallifrey, it is no surprise that the second took the listener to the series’ most familiar stomping ground: Earth. Here, in Jonathan Clements’ inversion of the Pertwee era, another simple question is asked: what if the Doctor’s exile had started in 1997?
Clements adopts a strategy used previously by David Bishop in his Who Killed Kennedy: he examines the events of the Pertwee era through bystanders’ eyes, allowing the listener to hear of events in much the same way as they would have done had they seen them on the news. Except this time it’s different: rather than reading of real-time journalistic accounts, we hear the aftereffects of UNIT action without the Doctor’s temperate influence. Clements brings a stunning amount of continuity to bear on this play, but it works: we learn about how almost every TV invasion story was handled by UNIT without the Doctor, and the results are never pleasant: from craters across America to a giant lake in the heart of London, it is apparent that, with the Doctor absent, UNIT resorted to its usual explosive methods to eliminate its adversaries.
As such, this is a much less attractive 1997 than that through which we lived. The story takes place on the eve of the Hong Kong handover, and the China on display is a massive world power with scary military technology — the threat of war is constantly audible in the background, even if it’s never overt. This allows for a much more hard-bitten UNIT, which is also conveyed well by Clements — I can see why he was drafted to write for the recent UNIT miniseries.
The second Unbound Doctor is easily the least distinctive, but that is not to say that David Warner’s performance is lacking in any way. He’s not the upright, moralizing Pertwee Doctor, but rather something more unnerving; he’s just as desperate to escape his exile but he doesn’t appear to have the same difficult moral hurdles to overcome. Shifting from threatening to appealing with ease, Warner slips into his role remarkably quickly: you can feel him chafing against the limits of life on Earth, and the only time he sounds perfectly at home is discussing the outer limits with a monk. Warner is also the most accessible of the Unbound Doctors, so it’s no surprise that his Doctor drew the most fan demands for a return — or indeed that those demands will apparently be satisfied.
The more obviously changed character is the Brigadier, who has retired to Hong Kong in disgrace after apparently being drummed out of the corps with an honorable discharge. Setting the play in 1997 also allows Nicholas Courtney to play up his age, and he brings a downtrodden, saddened Brigadier to the ear — but unlike his counterpart, he hasn’t fallen into the abyss of fatalism, as seen in his heroism as the play progresses. Courtney is stellar in the role, as this Brigadier bears his disgrace with a quiet dignity — but, like the Doctor, rises to the bait when challenged.
There are really only two significant supporting characters in Sympathy for the Devil, both of whom have great significance to Doctor Who as a whole. Ke Le, pronounced quite similarly to Keller, and usually known as the Master, is brought to the audio stage by the legendary actor Sam Kisgart, who bears a strong anagrammatical resemblance to one of the new series writers. “Kisgart” is exceptional — rather than the forthright nature of Delgado or Ainley, or the brink-of-death insanity of Beevers and Pratt, this Master absolutely relishes his mania. It’s smug, languid evil, and “Kisgart” pulls it off effortlessly — it shouldn’t, but it *works* so well when he says the classic Master lines. Second of the important supporting characters is Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, played by upcoming tenth Doctor David Tennant. I wasn’t a particular fan of Tennant’s performance in Colditz, but here he’s amazing — the Colonel is as complex a military character as you’ll find, showing contempt for the Brigadier, sympathy for yet command over his underlings, and absolute desperation to escape at the conclusion. He’s also hilarious — his exhortation of a soldier to look at the sun and use it for light had me laughing. Unfortunately, the other supporting characters range from annoying to insignificant, but the story isn’t particularly concerned with them.
Gareth Jenkins provides some of the most “realistic” real-world sound design I’ve heard from Big Finish — the background sound is amazingly constructed, right up to the final scene. Andy Hardwick’s score is also well-produced, lending the play a suitably epic feel. And Gary Russell’s direction is its usual strong self: given the great number of characters and settings, he keeps the play on track and suitably pacy. The first two Unbound plays have had a more “immediate” feel than much of the main range — this is not to criticize the main range, but it does seem as though the Unbound range is structured to sound differently in more ways than just the script and lead actor.
Overall, Sympathy for the Devil is a strong second offering for the Unbound range. It’s not without its flaws, as such a complicated script will almost always have disappointing elements, but the acting and the production help make up for many deficiencies. 2003 was a wonderful year for Big Finish, and this play is just one of the many examples of why.
From 1 – Auld Mortalityon
In commemoration of the fortieth anniversary year, 2003, Big Finish launched an “alternate” range of Doctor Who plays: Doctor Who Unbound, a series of productions which ask a fundamental “what if” question about the Doctor Who universe and show the results when that change is made. Produced separately from the main range, these plays demonstrate the true range of the Doctor Who universe: and they’re mostly excellent to boot.
The first Unbound release, Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality, is done in the author’s typically concept-heavy, metaphorical style that vanished somewhat for his two previous Big Finish plays. Here, though, it’s in full display, with the bulk of the story taking place within an idea generator which creates quasi-fictional worlds with which the user can interact. The central question? What if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?
The approach Platt takes is unexpected. Most authors, I’d expect, would examine the repercussions of this absence upon the universe, but Platt chooses to look at the Doctor himself, and he shows that the character is, at heart, totally unchanged. Indeed, Platt doesn’t even believe that the Doctor would have voluntarily stayed behind, and so we learn that the Doctor has been kept on Gallifrey against his will. Platt uses a similar Gallifrey to the one seen in Lungbarrow, and much like in his novel the Time Lord homeworld comes across as mystical and high-concept rather than base and political as it was sometimes seen on television. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps is a fascinating parallel, with Hannibal’s search for the correct path mirroring the Doctor’s.
Part of the appeal of the Unbound series is the central role: for each play, the Doctor is recast as a new actor. Here, it’s Geoffrey Bayldon, who appeared in the series in The Creature from the Pit and was offered the initial role of the Doctor back in 1963. His portrayal comes across almost as an homage to Hartnell, as he shows remarkable range, shifting from gleeful to crotchety to heroic by the minute. Yet this isn’t an imitation: there aren’t any line fluffs, there’s no giggling, and only a couple of “hmm?”s make an appearance — what you see instead is how the first Doctor may have been if recasted, and it’s very impressive. This Doctor has his characteristic wanderlust, and the joy at the conclusion as he regains his freedom is palpable.
Returning to her role of Susan is Carole Ann Ford, and her performance is very reminiscent of her time on television — both in good ways and bad. At times, her line readings are questionable, especially when they’re heavy in technobabble — but her rapport with Bayldon is excellent and she convinces very well when she appeals as his granddaughter. Platt’s suggestion that Susan is in line for the Presidency is interesting if only because the character was never anything more than incompetent — but he writes her well and she’s recognizably the Susan we knew before.
The supporting cast is excellent. Derren Nesbitt is suitably creepy and threatening as Quences, Toby Longworth is hilariously exasperated as Badger, and Matthew Brenher’s Hannibal is everything you’d expect from the Carthaginian general. Special mention, though, to Ian Brooker, who manages as Surus to sound exactly like you’d expect a talking elephant to sound. It’s good to see that the BF guest casting success extends past the main range.
Alistair Lock’s sound design might be the best element of this play, as it manages to unite both the “reality” of Gallifrey plus the Doctor’s fictional worlds — the final scene is a masterpiece of design. Nicholas Briggs’ direction keeps clear a potentially muddy script — this is a great foundation for the next five plays in the series.
Auld Mortality isn’t perfect, with the few faults centering around Susan, but as a start to a range this is exceptional. By showing such an intriguing “what if” Doctor Who concept, Big Finish almost guarantee that listeners will want to check out the next play in the series — this is yet another success from Marc Platt that’s well worth picking up.
From 1.4 – Teloson
I don’t know if there are any recurring themes in my Big Finish reviews, but there are certainly a couple of recurrent critiques. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve criticized Big Finish for unsatisfactory resolutions to story arcs — and I’m adding another log to the fire after hearing “Telos,” the fourth and final chapter of the Cyberman miniseries. After four complete stories, the fascinating backdrop of the human-android Orion war isn’t explored in any depth whatsoever, and after “Telos” we still don’t know what started the war or why it’s still being fought. We’ve seen this allegory in Doctor Who before, though, right? Both sides realize the war is pointless and resolve their differences? Nope! Instead, we’re told that humans and androids will put their differences aside to team up against the Cybermen — but considering that the androids in “Telos” distrust everything Barnaby says to the point of utter lunacy, and the only positive human-android relationship in the entire thing is based on sex, this concept is completely unbelievable. Nonetheless, the dialogue goes to great lengths to pound the idea into the listener’s head — lines on the order of “too bad nobody will ever know we teamed up!” had me laughing out loud, and not in a good way.
Which begs the question: what on earth is Cyberman supposed to be about? It’s not about the futility of war, or two sides overcoming their differences, because these ideas aren’t explored in any meaningful sense. It’s not even about the usual Cyberman themes of the horrors of conversion and forced conformity — all we hear is a robotized Karen Brett having an unconvincing identity crisis. As far as I can tell, Cyberman is nothing more than an empty action epic pitting humans against androids against Cybermen. And even the Cybermen themselves are ludicrous! Look, the Cybermen were never supposed to be invincible supermen. Yes, they enhanced themselves at the expense of their humanity in order to survive the death of their planet, but crucial to the concept is the idea that they’re always on the edge of survival. Yet here they’re shown to be so advanced that they built planetary vaults that survived the destruction of Telos itself, and so powerful that they rampage through an entire brigade of superhuman android soldiers without taking a single casualty and survive several massive explosions. Leaving aside the fact that they collapse at the sight of nuclear fuel rods, the only reason their plan doesn’t work is that only a few of them go to Telos in the first place — if they send even one extra ship, they win! Meanwhile, all the androids and humans that know about the plan are killed except for Barnaby and Samantha, and they’re left floating in a ship without hyperdrive. Looks like the Cybermen win this one after all! And rightfully they should — the idea that there are billions of Cybermen just waiting to be reactivated removes all subtext and turns them into generic metal monsters. So why shouldn’t they win? They’re bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and they massively outnumber us — and nothing in this miniseries says that we stand a chance in hell against them, emotions or not, androids or not.
The preceding rant shows what happens when I try to digest something completely without substance. Empty spectacle I can handle — but ill-considered, badly-written empty spectacle I cannot, even with good production and good performances. And so, after two solid opening chapters, the Cyberman series plummets sharply downhill and ends in this.
Don’t waste your money or your time.
Series average: 5.8
From 1.3 – Conversionon
As long as I’m raising similarities between Cyberman and the Dalek Empire series, let me point out another one: meandering, padded third episodes. An attentive listener will already have deduced that the immigration center is really for Cyber-conversion and that the Cybermen seek the ultimate conversion of all humanity, and furthermore that the androids don’t want this to happen. Yet this is precisely what “Conversion” takes another full hour to relate to the audience. Most of the action follows Barnaby and Samantha as they flee to android territory by hijacking a Cyber-controlled Earth ship, but unfortunately most of the drama revolves around them sitting still in an escape pod wondering who will collect them first. The androids, naturally, are just as close-minded and prejudiced as the humans, but we’re starting to see the first glimmers of “Hey, they’re not that much different from us!” that will invariably cause them to band together and save the day. Still, the android doctor was a pleasant injection of humor into an otherwise-dead-serious universe, and the acting is always convincing.
Two more points, since I have very little to say about “Conversion” itself: first, as other reviews have pointed out, the Cyber-plan is almost as ludicrous as the Dalek scheme in Dalek Empire I. In that serial, the Daleks launched an invasion of an entire galaxy simply to distract attention from one single planet that was their target all along. Here, it looks like the Cybermen already have billions of soldiers in hibernation, waiting to be awakened — so rather than immediately taking one of their covert ships and going right to Telos, they’re busy taking over the entire Earth government and winning the Orion War first? Why? Secondly, I’m a little bothered by the portrayal of women in “Conversion” — the first of them, supposedly the President of Earth and a great military leader, is shown to be weak-willed, weepy, and easily manipulated, while the second, an android spy, deduces that the best way to overcome Barnaby’s mental dampening is to… have sex with him! It’s bizarre, and really out of place.
In short, “Conversion” really doesn’t accomplish anything other than setting up the pieces for the final part. The production and acting are up to the usual high standards, so it’s a little better than average, but it’s almost completely inessential listening.
From 1.2 – Fearon
I’m already getting the “heard it all before” feeling from Nicholas Briggs’ Cyberman series, mostly because he seems to be hitting exactly the same notes as the Dalek Empire predecessors. In both cases, invasions proceed in part because humanity has absolutely no recollection of either the Daleks or the Cybermen. Yes, there’s a point to be made here about repeating forgotten history, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making the humans look stupid — especially when we know that the humans programmed the androids with knowledge of the Cybermen in the first place! Briggs also includes the fairly standard political thriller tropes of a mysterious outsider gaining the president’s ear and freezing out the leader’s closest friend — there’s nothing wrong with these ideas, but they’re a bit unbelievable here. As far as I can tell, Paul Hunt is working alone, and yet nobody questions how he has singlehandedly shifted the approach of the executive government of the entire planet? The commander-in-chief of Earth’s armies, a highly-respected officer with millions of troops under his command, is completely disregarded as insane by everyone even though he has hard evidence of strange goings-on? Doesn’t this society have news media? I see what Briggs is getting at — it’s easy to control the flow of opinion during wartime, hence the title — but some of “Fear” is ludicrous under closer examination.
Plot quibbles aside, “Fear” picks up months after “Scorpius” left off and flies along at breakneck speed. Barnaby (Mark McDonnell, I think) is the central figure, and we listen as his entire world is turned upside down and destroyed in a matter of days. Briggs’ script ratchets the paranoia up to 11 and, much like a good episode of “24” or “Spooks,” the listener can feel control slipping away right along with the characters. Barnaby’s conflicted relationship with android spy Samantha is an old standard as well — the person he’s prejudiced against and distrusts the most is also the only one with any interest in helping him — but it’ll be interesting to find out how this android war started in the first place, given that these androids are practically indistinguishable from humans. It seems pretty clear even at this point that the humans will eventually side with the androids against the Cybermen — “better the devil you know” and all that — but despite this very familiar ground, “Fear” covers it with enough excitement and atmosphere to keep the interest throughout.
Very solid work.
From 1.1 – Scorpiuson
With three Dalek Empire series in the book at the time, it was unsurprising that Big Finish would turn to Doctor Who’s other iconic monster, the Cybermen, for a miniseries release of their own. Much like Dalek Empire, Nicholas Briggs is again in charge of everything — and the backstory to this series can be found in Briggs’ own Doctor Who release “Sword of Orion.” “Scorpius” is an introduction to the “Cyberman” universe: it establishes the war between humans and androids in the Orion system, shows that the war isn’t going particularly well for Earth, and introduces (presumably) the major players. There’s a clear parallel here with the Iraq war — an initially-popular conflict expected to last a year at most degenerating into a wildly unpopular campaign with casualties on the rise — and the motives behind the conflict are equally unclear. There’s talk of humanity “defending its way of life” — which should sound familiar — but it’s also clear that Earth initiated hostilities, and it’ll be interesting to hear if this develops.
This first story follows Karen Brett (Sarah Mowat, much improved over Dalek Empire), an Earth admiral, as she rapidly advances upward until she becomes President of Earth. Her advancement is controlled behind the scenes by Scorpius — a mysterious organization quickly revealed to be under the control of the Cybermen — as all those in front of her are killed or otherwise removed. This includes one particularly surprising scene in which Cybermen march right into the Presidential palace and assassinate the President, one of several well-directed set pieces throughout the play. It’s all setup, of course, so we don’t know the Cyber-plan, but they clearly have domination on their minds. I’ve seen other reviews draw attention to similarities between this play and the Dalek Empire series, and this is certainly true: the future-historical period seems similar, the bad guys have a secret plot to which the lead character (played by Sarah Mowat) is uniquely suited, etc. Fortunately, the material is gripping enough to forestall any concerns for now. The voiceover narration is an interesting creative choice, also similar to Dalek Empire, but I’m not sure if it works.
Briggs does his own sound design and direction, and it’s all very good: the pace flags at the conclusion, but there’s never any confusion and the senes of place is always strong. The score, also by Briggs, is a bit discordant, and the theme music, complete with “Cyberman!” intonation, made me giggle, but it’s solid nonetheless. I’d like to comment on the acting, but unfortunately Big Finish decided for some reason to omit liner notes on these releases, directing listeners instead to a series-specific website. Sounds like a cool idea — or at least it would be if that website hadn’t been deleted in the BF main site relaunch. In sum, I have no idea who’s playing whom. Oh well.
“Scorpius” is a fine introductory episode, and is recommended.
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER SIX: THE FUTURE
I appreciated what Nicholas Briggs did with the fourth and final part of “Dalek War.” He recast the events of the previous three audios as part of a larger, grander, more mythological narrative, redefining the Daleks in the process as a nebulous evil force rather than a specific race of conquerors. Briggs tries a similar strategy here in “The Future,” but it doesn’t succeed, as it bears almost no connection to the five plays which preceded it. As the nature of the Dalek plan is fully revealed — the Daleks spread a devastating plague, then arrive offering help, and cure it by turning victims into more Daleks, thus building their army — we’re given a conflict of philosophy: do the Daleks need to become human in order to achieve true success? Is the conversion of humans into Daleks a means to achieve this, or just a grotesque perversion of the truth? Will humanity need to become more Dalek-like in order to defeat the Daleks? If so, then is Dalek conversion just another means to an end? Or will the Dalek invasion lead to a stronger, more unified human race? All of these questions are posed in the final half-hour, and all are left open-ended. This is intelligent, thought-provoking material, but why was it saved until now? There hasn’t been a moment of moral ambiguity thus far — even the question of whether a plague cure is worth a Dalek alliance is definitely given a negative response, since all the plague survivors are forcibly converted into Daleks. None of this is helped by a sudden streak of brutal fatalism, as Briggs rapidly dispatches the entire regular cast (including a rather poor scene of overdramatic battlefield shouting), culminating in Tarkov’s forcible conversion. I’ve heard this compared to Blake’s 7, and it’s nowhere close — this is obfuscation for the sake of it. You can’t spend fourteen plays portraying the Daleks as the ultimate evil and then throw your hands into the air and declare “it’s all ambiguous!” It’s an unnecessary, unsatisfying cheap trick. Which, come to think of it, is a fairly apt description of “Dalek Empire III” as a whole.
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER FIVE: THE WARRIORS
One episode worth of padding was bad enough, but two? I’m forced to ask a second time why “Dalek Empire III” consists of six parts, now that Nicholas Briggs has essentially wasted two of them with needless repetition. The dramatic rescue of Galanar, Elaria, and Tarkov at the beginning is exciting enough, but it quickly gives way to interminable scenes of suspicion amongst the Wardens, the Demons, and Tarkov himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong or illogical about Tarkov’s suspicion, and Galanar opening up to him in order to earn his trust is a time-honored dramatic device — but we’ve heard all of this before. We already know Galanar’s background, and being forced to sit through a rehash is totally unnecessary. Furthermore, Tarkov’s paranoia is almost completely over the top — it would be okay if the situation allowed time for it, but considering that the audience is presented with a tense race against time, the Tarkov scenes jar horribly. The fuel depot, too, is problematic: “Dalek War” contained an obvious trap, but it was so audacious (a terraformed Jupiter?!) that it invited curiosity. Here, the depot is an even more obvious trap, and it doesn’t even have a hook: a lightly-guarded gas station isn’t gripping in the slightest. The play is rescued somewhat by its first part, in which Kaymee learns the true nature of the Dalek plot, but even these revelations are fairly obvious: the Daleks are behind the plague? You don’t say. Still, the desperate performances from Laura Rees and Oliver Hume hold the opening scenes together. Overall, the plot is becoming more linear, more obvious, and slower, and the series still isn’t showing any thematic ambition — it’ll take a stellar final part to save things.
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER FOUR: THE DEMONS
Oh, dear. I was wondering if Briggs would be able to sustain the tension through six parts, but if “The Demons” is any indication, the answer is a firm, disappointing “no.” The play does tie itself together with Dalek War, providing an interesting explanation of just what the alt-universe Daleks were doing at the medical research station, but the prolonged flashback sequences add little to the drama. Galanar learning of his origins is one thing, but the interminable sequence of Amur trying to break her Dalek conditioning is both boring and unfulfilling — and the action sequence in which the two of them attempt to escape is genre-standard and uninteresting. Briggs apparently has nothing for the Graxis Wardens to do: they’re barely in the play except for a clichéd scene in which they pose as a different ship in an attempt to fool Dalek patrols. Saxton’s moral dilemma seems forced and out of character, especially with little information about the amount of time that has passed since their escape. The revelations about the new Dalek Supreme — and about how the Daleks survived Kalendorf and Suz’s final, catastrophic assault — are quite interesting, and potentially explain this new Dalek Supreme’s apparent insanity. Unfortunately, Sarah Mowat goes completely over the top, reducing this Dalek Supreme to an unconvincing object of mockery that provoked nothing but laughter from me. While “The Demons” is up to Briggs’ high technical standards, and the acting, Mowat excepted, is stellar, it comes across as almost totally superfluous. It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and begs the question of why a six-part series was produced instead of the usual four.
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER THREE: THE SURVIVORS
This is the best installment yet, as Briggs is tightening up his plots and tying them all together, all the while springing new revelations on the listener. The Graxis story reaches its first conclusion, as the Wardens are driven off the planet by the Dalek onslaught. We get to see trust in the Daleks start to fall apart, as Carneill (Oliver Hume) is finally convinced by hours of brutal slaughter that maybe the Daleks aren’t acting in the interests of peace. The decision to leave Kaymee behind is heart-wrenching, and Ishia Bennison shows why she headlines these plays with a commanding performance. All three leads are in excellent form, including William Gaunt, who dominates his scenes before the council and later before Ian Brooker’s Bulis Mietok. Briggs wrong-foots the listener here: we learn that Tarkov’s happy ending in “The Healers” was anything but, and that Galanar is not what he seems. Gaunt, playing the experienced old soldier, doesn’t let these mistakes shake him. But the best material is that which dominates the second half of the play: David Tennant’s Galanar investigating the Dalek facility. The chase through the building is gripping, even as Galanar’s superhuman abilities are revealed, and the presence of the Dalek Supreme/Susan Mendes hybrid hovers over everything like a bird of prey. Sarah Mowat comes dangerously close to going over the top, with her peculiar tendency to whisper one line and bellow the next, but for now she is remarkably intimidating. Unfortunately, this is only the halfway point — can Briggs continue building these tensions for two more parts? Hard to say, but for now, this was very impressive.
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER TWO: THE HEALERS
It appears that Nicholas Briggs will spend this third Dalek Empire series with three primary plots, each of which is remarkably engaging. Perhaps the most immediate is the continuing saga of the Graxis Wardens, who quickly learn the true nature of the Daleks. These scenes are structured shakily — Briggs doesn’t have the David Whitaker Dalek style completely down, and as such it is almost impossible to understand how anyone came to trust the Daleks in the first place. The Daleks in “The Power of the Daleks,” for example, exhibited the patience of saints, only revealing their true, violent nature when victory was all but assured. These Daleks, however, are barely-restrained psychopaths, screaming and exterminating at the slightest provocation, which makes for tense scenes at the expense of believability. Fortunately, the sheer energy of the Graxis scenes carries them along. In direct opposition are the brief scenes with Siy Tarkov returning home to meet his daughter Amur (Claudia Elmhirst) — while there’s not much here, it’s reassuring to know that Tarkov hasn’t lost everything in his life. And lastly, David Tennant takes center stage in the third segment, as his Galanar heads undercover to the border territories to engage in some espionage. The consequences quickly spiral into a massive set piece, with Galanar trapped on a Dalek hospital planet, and contemplating Dalek motives as he examines plague victims under the guise of a doctor. It’s naturally bizarre to hear David Tennant’s voice addressed as “Doctor,” but he is easily distinguishable from his television persona. I like the way Briggs structures this play — each plot strand is at a different stage of development, forcing the listener to concentrate. “The Healers” is another solid installment — and what a cliffhanger!
DALEK EMPIRE III
CHAPTER ONE: THE EXTERMINATORS
I’ll be honest — right from the beginning, I think the setting of Dalek Empire III is more interesting than that of its predecessors. While writer-director Nicholas Briggs’ initial vision featured the Daleks as an omnipresent threat, here they are much more nebulous. Using the Daleks as a more indistinct threat allows them to act as more of a faceless threat from beyond the stars — and deleting them entirely from human memory, while implausible, gives them a unique feeling. We also get narrative links back to the first two series through opening monologue from Susan Mendes (Sarah Mowat) as well as scenes about Siy Tarkov’s (Steven Elder) return to “civilization” from Velyshaa. These scenes, mostly two-handed dialogue between Elder and William Gaunt’s brilliant Selestru, summarize events since the conclusion of Dalek War and, through Elder’s tortured performance, render Tarkov one of the play’s most sympathetic characters. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to the Graxis Wardens, led by Commander Saxton (Ishia Bennison, in another fine performance) and joined by new recruit Kaymee Arnod (Laura Rees), who serve as wildlife rangers of a system-wide protectorate. It’s obvious, of course, that the Daleks are the unidentified threat on Graxis, but Briggs keeps the listener’s attention by limiting the perspective to that of the Wardens, thus enhancing the suspense. Oh, and David Tennant is in it, though his character barely appears in this first episode. “The Exterminators” is little more than an introductory segment, but with a massive cast and multiple settings, as well as five upcoming parts, a slow buildup is ideal. Oh, and as an aside — Briggs isn’t especially good at making up “sci-fi” names. “Bulis Mietok?” Really?
DALEK EMPIRE II: DALEK WAR
It often takes a series several episodes to find its feet, and several more to hit its first home run. The Dalek Empire series bears this out — while it took until the second series, Dalek War, to stand upon firm ground, it took until the final chapter, Chapter Four, to produce the first truly brilliant play of the run. After three episodes of mostly plot-oriented sci-fi action, Nicholas Briggs abruptly changes focus, telling the entire final chapter in flashback and recasting the entire series as a parable about humanity and the freedom to choose. In Kalendorf’s final, brilliant scene with the Mentor, we see one of Doctor Who’s central themes revisited in spinoff form: the true wonder of humanity is its unwillingness to submit to control, and its endless fight for survival in the face of insurmountable odds. We see Suz kill Alby in desperation, a shocking moment that stands in keeping both with the characters and what the play seeks to say about desperation. And the “present-day” sequences with Siy Tarkov (Steven Elder) and Saloran Hardew (Karen Henson) elevate the play to its greatest heights. The events of the war are reshaped into legend, with Kalendorf now standing as a mythical Bringer of Death. The Daleks are now seen as a faceless enemy, threatening humanity from a faraway place — and now that we understand that these Dalek/human conflicts are regular occurrences, we can view the Daleks as a force for change, a means through which humanity can rediscover its purpose and driving force. Chapter Four is amazing stuff, arguably the best Nicholas Briggs play I’ve heard to date, and the mere fact of its production justifies the Dalek Empire series as a whole.
DALEK EMPIRE II: DALEK WAR
The best way to hold an audience is to keep them guessing, and Nicholas Briggs accomplishes this in the third part of Dalek Empire II: Dalek War. Was it obvious that the terraformed Jupiter was a Dalek trap? Yes, but the nature of the trap wasn’t so obvious, and the scenes of the besieged Alliance soldiers on Jupiter are gripping sci-fi horror material. The Vaarga plants are a nice throwback to the classic Doctor Who series, referencing an episode few fans will ever have seen. Of course, this Dalek plan is needlessly overcomplicated, but as these are the same Daleks who launched an entire galactic invasion just to conceal the flight of one ship to one planet, the ludicrous plan isn’t exactly surprising. Chapter Three also seeks to demonstrate the evil nature of the “friendly” Daleks, but Briggs takes this a step too far. The “punished planets” remove any moral ambiguity from the story — how much better if these Daleks hadn’t slaughtered untold billions, and Kalendorf didn’t have a foot to stand on aside from his own suspicions? Regardless, his scenes with the Mentor are the best thus far, as Hannah Smith’s surprisingly intimidating anger comes to the fore. Indeed, Briggs uses his characters to their greatest effect in this story, with two scenes in particular standing out: first, the quiet, desperate scene of Mirana and her first officer in the escape pod; and second, the climactic confrontation between Suz, Alby, and Kalendorf which, while it ends in another silly melodramatic scream, perfectly encapsulates Briggs’ three leads and practically begs the listener to move on to Chapter Four. This is the best Dalek Empire play thus far.
DALEK EMPIRE II: DALEK WAR
After two parts, at least, Dalek Empire II: Dalek War seems to be taking a safer path than the first series: while the plot is much tighter, more polished, and interesting, the series just isn’t as thematically interesting. The revelation that the alt-universe “friendly” Daleks are just as violent and controlling as their “real-world” counterparts is thoroughly unsurprising and not especially deep: as themes go, “a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship” is shallower than most. But, as above, the plot is much more gripping: first of all, Kalendorf’s continued dealings with the Mentor are brilliant, as she attempts to catch him off guard with questions about Mirana’s scout ship and he maintains his ignorant facade without cracking. Even as the revelations about Suz are delivered, Kalendorf’s plan remains totally unclear and serves as a powerful hook for the third part. Furthermore, the mysteriously-terraformed Jupiter is a striking concept, perhaps the most imaginative idea from Nicholas Briggs thus far — unfortunately, it’s really an [i]obvious[/i] trap, and all the distractions in the world don’t entirely convince me that Kalendorf would so willingly declare his intent to land. Morli (Dannie Carr) is a useful and necessary character to accompany Alby through his flashback sequence, but do we really need the exaggerated regional accents? Briggs, additionally, is on shaky ground when he re-introduces the idea of hope paradoxically keeping people under Dalek control — the Daleks did absolutely nothing with this knowledge in the first series, and raising it again invites a payoff I don’t really expect. This isn’t Sarah Mowat’s finest hour, as she still doesn’t convince when asked to speak with authority, but Mark McDonnell may never be better than he is here. Until the hilariously melodramatic “NOOOOOOOOOO!” cliffhanger, of course. Chapter Two, at the end of the day, is flawed, but gripping despite itself.
DALEK EMPIRE II: DALEK WAR
It’s difficult to put my finger on it, but the focus seems to have changed between the first Dalek Empire series and this latest installment. Everything seems more polished, for one thing, starting with the clearly improved theme music and continuing into the superior sound design. Writer-director Nicholas Briggs does a fine job of re-introducing his universe and his characters, using a combination of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and intercuts to quickly build up a picture of the state of affairs in this latest series. Of course, there isn’t a great deal that happens in this first chapter, as Briggs uses his script to set up the oncoming conflicts, but the material is gripping nonetheless. Gareth Thomas is as commanding as ever as Kalendorf, and his first dealings with the Mentor (Hannah Smith) suggest future conflicts. Smith is masterful in the role, displaying hints of suppressed rage and a strong desire for control. I expressed disappointment at the prospect of Susan Mendes (Sarah Mowat) returning, but nonetheless her return poses new and interesting questions, and her scenes with Mirana (Teresa Gallagher) are some of the play’s best. Alby Brook (Mark McDonnell) doesn’t do much, but I’m sure his scenes will be recapped in the second part. Overall, this is a very solid introduction to the second Dalek Empire series, and though it doesn’t appear to have the intellectual aspirations of its predecessor, this is gripping space drama all the same.
DALEK EMPIRE: PROJECT INFINITY
The first three installments in the Dalek Empire series told the story of Susan Mendes, an archaeologist who came to work for the Daleks, traveling the galaxy and spreading a message of hope to all Dalek slaves. They were about her internal struggles, and her final decision to lead her people to rebellion. They were about Alby Brook, desperately pursuing Suz in the hope of rekindling a love that had only started to build. They were about Kalendorf, Knight of Velyshaa, and his increased horror at Suz’s complicity with the Daleks. Flawed as they may have been, they formed the beginning, middle, and end of an interesting story.
Now we have a fourth part, that has nothing to do with any of that.
This isn’t to say, of course, that “Project Infinity” is a poor production, just that it jars with the first three in confusing ways, and serves more as the first part of an entirely new series than the last part of Dalek Empire. Throughout the first three parts, the Daleks were behind everything, seemingly anticipating each move that Suz made and interrogating her for explanations they already possessed. The explanations for this behavior were shrouded in mystery, leading this reviewer to expect a hugely elaborate plan. But then the Daleks successfully conquered the galaxy, and seemed to render the entire thing moot. True, Suz launched a slave rebellion, but even a large group of healthy, hopeful slaves wouldn’t stand a chance against two galaxies’ worth of Dalek might. But even this was turned on its head — Kalendorf suspects the Daleks are intentionally losing to the slaves, and he is proved correct.
Yet the final revelation is deeply disappointing. The elaborate charade of carting around the Angel of Mercy to start a slave rebellion, the intentional retreat against said rebellion — all was in service of distracting the Earth Alliance forces from noticing the Dalek Emperor’s ship flying toward the planet of Project Infinity. Huh? Given the nature of Project Infinity, and given that it’s fairly obvious that the Daleks would eventually have conquered the Milky Way with or without Susan Mendes, and given that they knew the nature and location of Project Infinity centuries before this invasion even started, what on earth was the point of the past three stories’ worth of plotting and maneuvering? The play never offers an answer to this question, and this is a major failing — normally, I don’t nitpick at plot holes, but considering that four discs’ worth of story are built around this one plot thread, I’m truly baffled about what happened.
Sure, we get the usual sci-fi trappings about the journey to stop the Daleks: Kalendorf, drumming up the support of his people in the wake of a seemingly easy victory; Alby, drunkenly depressed over the death of Suz and needing encouragement to once again take action; Mirana, revealed as a Dalek plant just as the heroes determine what’s going on; etc. It’s all presented competently (except for the specific scene in which Mirana is revealed as a Dalek plant: after determining where the Daleks are headed, and resolving to head there themselves, and then being shot by Mirana in response, it takes the characters a good 5-10 minutes to work out that yes, she’s working for the Daleks) but none of it stands out: we’re left with an indistinct space opera. The specific nature of Project Infinity is an interesting conceit, but it is put to uninteresting use: the Daleks want to join forces with more powerful alt-Daleks. Then, of course, it all ends on a cliffhanger — one which obligates the listener to invest in a completely different Dalek Empire series if they desire a resolution. I can imagine buyers were infuriated at the time.
But ultimately, none of it really [i]matters[/i] — this is a play almost totally devoid of subtext. The uplifting comparison of human hope against Dalek ruthlessness, featured so heavily in the first three parts, is completely absent in this episode. Instead we get a travelogue punctuated by (brilliantly-directed) battle sequences. And to make matters worse, there are strong suggestions that Suz is not dead after all — a revelation which would painfully invalidate the work of the first three installations.
Gareth Thomas steps to the fore in this play, and commands it in ways that Sarah Mowat and Mark McDonnell simply could not in the prior episodes. Kalendorf is a compelling character, one whose story could support its own series, and it is bittersweet to see him stand out in such a mediocre production. Without his motivation, Alby Brook isn’t particularly useful as a character, and though McDonnell does his best to keep Alby entertaining, it’s something of a dead-end street. Teresa Gallagher turns in a fine performance, even in the I-can’t-control-the-confusion-in-my-mind! possession scenes that have taken down Doctor Who performances in the past. Joyce Gibbs continues her series of strong performances, now revealed as a Seer, and Mowat’s brief appearances in flashback might be her strongest of the set. As always, the Dalek voices are superb. Writer-director Nicholas Briggs’ production is easily the best of the series: tightly directed, engrossingly-designed, and well-scored. I loved the final battle sequence, expertly related through battlefield communications.
Ultimately, “Project Infinity” is only tenuously connected to the first three plays in the first Dalek Empire series. As the introduction to the Dalek War series which followed, it appears to do a good job, but as the conclusion to the first series, it is rather poor. I had high expectations for the Dalek Empire series, but ultimately I found it plagued with the same issue present in most Nicholas Briggs plays: an inability to connect a series of solid elements into a cohesive whole. Yes, the character work is solid, yes, the plot is interesting, but over four parts Dalek Empire never manages to demonstrate any sort of consistency, either in theme or in composition. This is illustrated perfectly by “Project Infinity,” which is a somewhat-above-average scifi tale on its own but a baffling letdown for the series it concludes.
DALEK EMPIRE: “DEATH TO THE DALEKS!”
After a suitable setup in “Invasion of the Daleks,” and a second part that was mostly filler, the initial Dalek Empire series needed to step things up in the third episode. This is certainly the case in “‘Death to the Daleks!,’” which kicks the series into high gear and winds it up into one of its natural climaxes.
The series builds towards the conclusion of this segment. While the Daleks have been willingly providing hope to their slaves in order to make them more efficient workers, they appear to have disregarded human independence: hopeful people do not become willing slaves. And so, with Suz and Kalendorf traveling the galaxy, sowing the seeds of rebellion, it is only a matter of time before the final plan is put into action. Of course, writer-director Nicholas Briggs rampis up the tension beforehand: we hear of the fall of Earth to the Daleks, and the general loss of faith evident in the remainder of the Earth Alliance. The mysterious Project Infinity is inserted back into the narrative, and presented as the last hope of humanity, and the one thing the Daleks absolutely cannot be allowed to find.
Of course, around this backdrop we find our central characters. Suz and Kalendorf grow increasingly distrustful, symbolic of Suz’s greater complicity with the Daleks. Alby Brook continues to pursue Suz across the galaxy, almost beyond hope. Pellan… well, Pellan is abruptly written out and replaced with Mirana (Teresa Gallagher), an interplanetary police officer. But the character is immediately given Pellan’s role of foil-to-Alby, begging the question of why the twist was written in the first place. Everything thus builds to Suz’s triumphant final moment as the Angel of Mercy: using her access to the entire slave population to broadcast the message “Death to the Daleks!” and sacrificing herself to start the rebellion. The revelation of her death is treated as a cliffhanger, but it shouldn’t be — it is the natural and intelligent conclusion to all that has gone before, and completes an elegant character arc for Suz that seemed to be stalling just one release before.
The performances in this third part of the Dalek Empire series are up to the usual standard of the set. Sarah Mowat continues to veer OTT whenever asked to sound commanding, but her quieter scenes convince and convey a great deal of emotion. Mark McDonnell finally captures his character perfectly, giving Alby just the right contradictory combination of obsession and apathy. Gareth Thomas continues to exist largely in the background, but still provides a stable point and a moral compass for Mowat’s performance. Gallagher sounds just like Nicola Bryant playing Peri, except convincing — though she’s reduced mostly to asking questions of Alby after the opening scene concludes. David Sax turns in a fine performance as Tanlee. Lastly, the Dalek voices of Briggs, Alistair Lock, and Steven Allen are superb, continuing to demonstrate why Russell T. Davies turned to BF artists to do his Dalek voices.
After the bizarre setting of the opening scenes — expertly realized by Briggs — the sound design takes a back seat in this largely dialogue-driven play, but Briggs’ work is solid as ever. The music, too, is an improvement over the first two parts. And with the pace kept up, and the tone kept consistent, Briggs’ superior direction becomes apparent as well.
“‘Death to the Daleks!’” is not a perfect production, but marks a significant improvement over its predecessors. It smoothly winds up the story that had been building through the first three plays — with one large hole: what are the Daleks up to? Yet with Suz’s story essentially told, one wonders what more Briggs has to say…
DALEK EMPIRE: THE HUMAN FACTOR
After a flawed but promising debut in “Invasion of the Daleks,” one would expect the second part of the first Dalek Empire series, “The Human Factor,” to kick the plot into high gear. Curiously, this doesn’t really happen: the story resumes some time after the conclusion of the first part, with the Daleks having extended their sphere of influence into the Milky Way. The Daleks have agreed to Suz’s demands, allowing their slave workers food and rest in exchange for their efficient work, and Suz is now being flown around the galaxy, speaking to the slaves as their “Angel of Mercy.” Writer-director Nicholas Briggs seems to be developing this story to its natural conclusion, with Suz (and Kalendorf) laying the groundwork for an eventual rebellion as she travels. But Suz’s work with the Daleks has tragic consequences: when a rebel group gets ahead of itself, Suz is forced to take decisive action to stop them — and this marks a truly surprising moment in the play. It’s an old question, to be sure — to defeat the Daleks, must we become like them? — but it’s shocking nonetheless to hear it playing out.
The problem, though, with “The Human Factor” is that nothing much happens and that it doesn’t have much to say. Alby continues his quest to reunite with Suz, and travels with Pellan from harrowing situation to harrowing situation in the process, but ultimately his entire plot seems to be treading water until the (admittedly gripping) final cliffhanger. The story doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with Suz — in one scene, she’ll be emotionally drained and ready to die, and minutes later she’ll be energized, giving orders, and making tough decisions. The first story drew parallels between humane treatment, hope, and energy, but here it just comes across as random. Ultimately, there are two great scenes — Suz “handling” the open rebellion and the cliffhanger — these along with the ongoing mystery over the Dalek plot keep the listener interested, but the feel of treading water pervades the story.
The acting is clearly improved over the first part, with Sarah Mowat free of the “dramatic speech” scenes which hampered her performance in the last play and able to deliver some convincing emotional material. Mark McDonnell injects some healthy desperation into his performance — he and John Wadmore spark off one another much better than in the first part, and their scenes on Guria after the crash are gripping. Gareth Thomas continues to rest somewhat in the background, with his Kalendorf serving as a moral compass for Suz. Joyce Gibbs’ narration continues to excel, though the “shock” revelation of her identity was never anything but predictable. Lastly, Adrian Lloyd-James and Georgina Carter are amusing enough as the Highness/Daughter pairing — but their scenes are strangely out of place in a series which has, thus far, adopted a very grim tone.
Briggs’ sound design is first-rate. His space battles are properly confusing and violent, the Garazone sound design (repeated from “Sword of Orion”) is suitably alien, and the environment on Guria is impressively atmospheric. The score improves as well, though it’s a bit overused — and I know I complained about the theme last time, but the attempt at a Doctor Who-esque “crash” out of the cliffhanger just doesn’t work with it. Individual scenes are directed with appropriate urgency, and the actors’ improvements are notable.
Overall, “The Human Factor” improves in many ways over “Invasion of the Daleks,” but ultimately treads water by not adding much to the plot, the themes, or the characterizations. While there’s certainly nothing poor about it, and a few enthralling scenes nudge it just above average, “The Human Factor” gives the impression of a “filler” episode near the middle of a 22-episode TV season, and not of a miniseries at the halfway point. A bit disappointing, then, but there’s enough here to prompt advancement to part three.
DALEK EMPIRE: INVASION OF THE DALEKS
The idea of a Dalek spinoff from Doctor Who has been around almost as long as the show itself, as far back as Terry Nation’s idea to bring an independent Dalek program to American television. And yet, despite successful (Bernice Summerfield) and failed (K9 and Company) spinoff attempts, the Daleks never got that chance — until 2001, when Nicholas Briggs and Big Finish took their ruthless, Davros-free Daleks from “The Genocide Machine,” “The Apocalypse Element,” and “The Mutant Phase” and gave them their own series: Dalek Empire.
The first offering in the first series, “Invasion of the Daleks,” serves primarily as a setup to later episodes. Briggs presents the usual setup for a story like this: the Daleks, absent from the consciousness for generations, suddenly reappear and launch a massive attack on the Earth Alliance. The story focuses upon the Dalek conquest of the planet Vega VI — how the cruel metal killers destroy the planet, slaughter most of the population, and enslave the rest as veganite mine workers. Briggs’ story is told through two sets of eyes: those of Susan “Suz” Mendes (Sarah Mowat), a geologist working on Vega VI, and Albert “Alby” Brook (Mark McDonnell), a Space Security Service operative working undercover as a driver on the same planet. Naturally, these two characters are in love — well, more to the point, Alby is desperately in love while Suz seems only vaguely interested, so the whole thing’s a bit unbelievable — so after the Daleks invade, and the characters are separated, this gives Alby a believable motive to stay involved with the affairs of Vega VI. We’re also introduced to Kalendorf (Gareth Thomas), Knight of Velyshaa, and target of Alby’s undercover work, but we don’t learn much more than this.
Despite being on uneven footing throughout, “Invasion of the Daleks” really shines when it comes to the Daleks. They are in control throughout: they expect someone to rebel against their authority, and the Dalek Supreme interrogates Suz from a position of superiority. The concept of “false hope” is never more evident than it is here: the Daleks encourage Suz to give her fellow slaves hope, knowing full well that all it will accomplish is to make them more efficient before their eventual extermination. While the extent of the Dalek plan is unknowable at this point, it is clear that it will run through the entire series — never once, despite Suz’s apparent independence and defiance, are we ever given the impression that she is in control of her actions or her situation. Daleks like this are truly scary, a true credit to Briggs’ writing.
Unfortunately, the acting doesn’t measure up especially well. Mowat is competent enough in her quieter scenes, but when asked to give dramatic speeches she veers wildly into OTT unbelievability. McDonnell’s character talks to himself too much, and his interpretation is surprisingly low-key, but there is promise there for later episodes. Thomas, meanwhile, is fascinating even in his relatively few scenes, and demands more time in the future. John Wadmore doesn’t make any mark at all as the naive Gordon Pellan. Joyce Gibbs’ narration is very good, however, as is Ian Brooker in all of his various roles — and of course Briggs’ and Alistair Lock’s Dalek voices are excellent.
As with his main Doctor Who range productions, Briggs handles every aspect of the production of “Invasion of the Daleks.” The sound design is exceptional, recapturing both the feel of Dalek enviroments as well as the epic nature of the script. The music, however, is an electronic style that doesn’t add anything to the production — and the theme music is best described as boring. Briggs’ direction is solid as ever, though — the action never drags.
Overall, “Invasion of the Daleks” is a decent setup episode that plants the seeds of a series that could potentially get much better. The central characters aren’t especially interesting to this point, but the prospect of the Dalek plan is absolutely gripping. Every new series takes an episode or two to find its feet — unfortunately, this one’s already 25% gone…
From DWM 393 – Cuddlesomeon
“Give Cuddlesome a Cuddle”
A little history lesson. Back in the 80’s, a group of fans with creative aspirations, namely Gary Russell, Nick Briggs, Nigel Fairs and Jim Mortimore decided to form their own independent group, the Audio Visuals to do their own Doctor Who audio adventures. This was the early prototype precursor to Big Finish, and was made illegally back in a time when the BBC didn’t care enough about the show to come down on them with copyright laws. That came later when the BBC realised that the show meant big money. At that time, fandom probably could have done with the Audio Visuals as an alternative canon to the horrendous and twisted direction of the TV show. And one of the Audio Visual releases was a story called Cuddlesome.
Released as a freebie with Doctor Who Magazine, at roughly the point where the magazine became unreadable, this remake of Cuddlesome is pitched at a children’s audience and as such it’s one of the cosiest things Big Finish has ever produced. The kind of story you’d expect to feature in the Sarah Jane Adventures. Infact it bears remarkable similarity to Invasion of the Bane.
That was never true of the original version from the Audio Visual days which was a darker beast altogether, relentlessly, jaw-droppingly so- dark in a way that made it virtually a precursor to the superb Children of Earth. It was originally a story very much about the perversion of childhood innocence and the horror and death that always accompanies the Doctor wherever he goes. A story that reflected a time when rather sick minded people were putting glass into children’s sweets and when there was a real moral panic about child abductions, and the story drew a vivid picture of that nightmarish spiral of terror and grief for both parents and childen (a tip though, if you do seek it out, listen to Planet of Lies first so that you get nothing spoilered).
In many ways the original was a story suited for the McCoy era, being a dark, domestic story that included children in the cast. However the characterisation of the Doctor was very much in line with his Fifth incarnation, a Doctor who after suffering a blow of recent defeats comes to believe he’s simply bad luck and decides to retire from being a hero. But, just like Davison in Frontios, he can’t help breaking his own rule of strict non-interference when presented with a wounded innocent in need of his superior medical science, and thus from there he finds himself forced to finish what he started. It’s an appropriate metaphor for how bringing our medical science to a tribal society may save the life of a member of the tribe, but comes at the cost of destroying the sheltered innocence of that world forever.
Very few of the remakes of the Audio Visual stories have done the originals justice. The Audio Visuals were a Godsend back in the mid-80’s, and certainly some of us would rather have them in the canon instead of the JNT years. Not only did they possess the kind of involving enjoyment and dignity that the show at the time was completely devoid of, but at their best they were a reminder of when Doctor Who could be truly life-changing as opposed to soul destroying. And yet you’d never be able to tell from this modernised version. The same is certainly true of Sword of Orion but that wasn’t remade in the climate of populist sanitisation that this story is.
That’s not to say this is a bad story, but it’s certainly lacking the impact of the original. This is a Doctor Who story for the age of nostalgia and I love the 80’s talking heads shows. It’s about sanitised pop culture memory of day glo colours and toys and in that regard it is poles apart from the original’s more personal, painful, nightmarish memories of childhood. The Cuddlesome’s here are of course a blend of Care Bears meets the Gremlins, with the discovery of one lonely abandoned toy in the attic sounding like something from the Altered Images song ‘Dead Popstars’. And that’s centrally the problem. This nostalgia revisit is inherently forgettable and disposable, and the iconography of the Cuddlesomes here is a borrowed, cut and pasted one.
A good iconography that sticks in the collective consciousness is one that really connects with ideals, metaphors and relatable fears. The iconography of The Dalek Invasion of Earth works because it represents fascism tarnishing patriotism. The giant maggots in The Green Death represent the monstrosities of pollution and perverted nature. More importantly they represent bloated, uncontrollable greed and consumption. The image of Scaroth in City of Death represents both an incomplete, fractured man and the Paris art world. But come the 80’s, the show features far less memorable iconography as the times become more superficial and shallow. The few exceptions are politically edged stories like Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks and the last dying cries of utilitarianism in Earthshock and Logopolis (in which the show’s biggest icon is killed). But generally the more iconic Doctor Who stories of the 80’s were underground, like the Audio Visuals. The point is, with the original Cuddlesome, there was a real sense of reality gone sour that mirrored the mood of a traumatised childhood (much like in Flight of the Navigator), and there was an insidious body horror factor at work in how stuffed toys and organic tissue became fused, and figures of fun became vessels for lethal poisons; something sharp and evil under a veneer of fluffy innocence. The fact that it was more meaningful and tapped into a real world horror made its iconography far more vivid and memorable. This version of Cuddlesome doesn’t have that loaded iconography or staying power, or haunting surrealism, because like so much of the ‘don’t bring me down’ false happiness of popular entertainment today (including New Who’s shipper-pleasing), it never has the courage to get its hands dirty.
But it’s a fun, entertaining way to spend 60 minutes (the most insidious thing about such stories is you can never really bring yourself to hate them). It’s got a gripping opening, and maintains the investigative intrigue throughout. The confrontation in the Cuddlesome factory is especially tense. Peter Davison is as engaging, inquisitive and frenetic an energised presence as ever. Roberta Taylor makes a charmingly sarky temporary companion with some genuinely funny lines and the endearing hints of romantic chemistry with the Doctor. Timothy West is very close to the original Ronald Turvey, and his reciting of adolescent memories of being bullied by the scum of the faculty of students are particularly moving and memorable and will speak to anyone who had the worst, most soul destroying experiences of University society’s snobbish elitism. As with Full Metal Jacket, the cliché of the villain being once a victim of bullying which caused him to eventually snap becomes far more plausible when they suffered this in an isolating living space, where this victimhood seems like an inescapeable, permanent aspect of their life. That is ultimately the most memorable aspect of this story.
But it’s still not a patch on the original. It still could have been so much more.
Review of Series 4
“Fearless my arse!”
This is where we must discuss Nick’s ability to push a story’s tone that far that it almost transcends from fiction to having a tangible edge in reality, something that made Creatures of Beauty and the early Dalek Empires into something special. In many ways Doctor Who’s potency at capturing the imagination came from the very things it was mocked for, in presenting quarries as alien worlds and domestic household tools as alien weapons (including Ace’s baseball bat). Some viewers laughed at it, but others found themselves charmed by the way the show played ‘lets pretend’ with the ordinary, and suspended their disbelief when playing in quarries to imagine they really were on some alien world. The same is true of the revived Doctor Who in showing statues and gas masks turned into harbingers of evil and even giving us Blon Slitheen’s intergalactic surfboard. Dalek Empire had the same charm and ability to suspend disbelief while listening, because the listener is looking for their own visual props and metaphors in their surroundings. The future has caught up with us in such a way that Manchester Piccadilly train station could be imagined as some metallic and wired up Dalek headquarters, right down to the PA systems. A shopping trip to Dixon’s for a flat screen could be imagined as the Daleks’ hyperbeam communications room. Likewise any nearby sand dunes or nature reserves could be imagined as Vega 6 or Graxis Major, and the listener could pretend this was once the debris from the Great Catastrophe. In a society that’s becoming increasingly aggressive, mechanised, chaotic, intimidating and marked by anxieties, rocky friendships, betrayals and power games, where life can literally become a perpetuating cycle of panic followed by hollow reassurance followed by panic, there’s something comfortingly abstract yet almost morbidly realist about Dalek Empire, which is what can make the suspension of disbelief complete, even despite the occasional surreal lapses into cartoonish violence, i.e. Dr. Johnson fishing through Mirana’s brain for the control implants, Morli being right out of The Viz, or the Demons subplot playing out like Manga’s Dirty Pair versus the Daleks.
In that regard, it’s a shame to admit that this comes closest of the four series to capturing a realistic vision of what a Dalek war would be like in the real world. The Military actually would be recruiting the dregs and mad dogs of society to fight it, and anyone placed in a claustrophobic spacer suit for that long would exhibit an extreme bout of road rage. But like the new Battlestar Pedantica, trying too hard and self-consciously for depressing realism and the series simply becomes charmless and miserable, without anything to make it sympathetic or entertaining.
Even taking Torchwood into account, Doctor Who hasn’t produced something this mean spirited since Mindwarp dropped a bridge on Peri. This is a return to the dark days of the mid 80’s, where there’s no heroism, no utilitarianism and no middle ground between bullies and victims, oh and no story. The emotional focal point is the death of Kade’s wife and child, and it’s also one of the most contrived and nasty ways of killing off a character since poor Oscar bit the dust in The Two Doctors. Even for a series as bleak as Dalek Empire, which especially speaks to the pessimistic and morbid (in other words, a series that’s best appreciated during the worst period of your life), it needlessly crosses a line here. It goes too far the other way. With the month long forewarnings of a huge Dalek invasion fleet approaching the planet, Kade’s family shouldn’t have been anywhere near there when the Daleks arrived. Furthermore it shows the Daleks demonstrating the kind of instantaneous planet busting capabilities that are completely at odds with this supposed ‘slow’ war, and hence it’s at odds with the whole premise of the series (if there’s a point where Dalek Empire goes too far the other way and makes the Daleks too powerful, this is it). Then when a later twist reveals that the military actually conspired in letting it happen, the audience would be forgiven for feeling insulted by such a deceptive cheat. There was nothing in that scene to hint that it was even plausible that the military were deliberately letting it happen and it was offensively out of character for Landen.
Indeed there’s a horrible whiff of misogyny to The Fearless, which is disheartening after the headstrong female heroes of the previous series, particularly the first series which was effectively Tenko with Daleks (even down to the undercurrents of Stockholm syndrome). Now the female characters are reduced to all being victims or villains of ludicrous extremes, never displaying the dignity or guts that elevated them above that. The death of Kade’s wife just sums up the story’s attitude to women. Seemingly women are only there to be killed off so the macho man can go on a revenge mission and have an excuse to bully and terrorise other women.
Dalek Empire IV does actually manage to get back the horror of the Daleks, their sense of volatile evil, mechanised pathology and the presence of them breathing down the necks of anyone in the room with them, which Dalek Empire III sorely lacked. In particular the tense scenes in the Amorist (which seem heavily inspired by Shakedown) really place the listener in that survival horror situation, and convey how fragile our mortal coil is. Particularly the scene where the escapee slaves are hiding in a ventilator shaft and fear that if they’re discovered they’ll be instantly electrocuted and ‘barbecued’, and its Nick Briggs’ vivid way with words that really makes that scene. But it only makes the story’s unforgiving scorn on those characters for their servility to the enemy even more warped and unfathomable- like the so called ‘savage’ humans in Warriors of the Deep, exactly what else were they supposed to do in a life or death situation?
Dalek Empire, rather like Buffy The Vampire Slayer had made a believable effort to humanise the superhuman, but by this point the series is so entrenched in the idea that superhuman characters are the benchmark for ordinary, that it’s effectively sneering at anyone who doesn’t measure up to its ludicrous standards. So unfortunately the story’s answer seems to be articulated in Kade’s rant at the slaves for not choosing the fight or die option when the Daleks first came to their worlds. It’s disgustingly similar to anti-immigration reactionaries who say that asylum seekers should deal with their homegrown problems and tyrannies as a people, rather than come over to burden us. So it’s at least as offensive as anything people may have pointed to in Flip-Flop, though as with the mid-80’s period of the show, what makes its vindictive mean spiritedness feel far more offensive than any earlier precedents of the same, is the deadly serious, forceful heavy handedness, and the way plot logic and character common sense is wilfully sacrificed to get it across, the sense that this time the writers really mean it. All the signs are though that if anything, Nick Briggs meant quite the opposite. The overall story shows that Susan’s co-operative, socialist method of galvanising the people against the Daleks is far more effective than the military’s divisive ‘us versus them’ mentality and trigger happy quickness to kill potential allies.
But the fact remains that we’re meant to follow this loathsome, sadistic, whiney little bully and his self-interested petty agendas for four CDs, which is made worse by the fact that all other viewpoints are ignorantly obfuscated. An antihero has to have something likeable or sympathetic about them to get the audience behind them, something that gives the audience a voice and articulates the unsayable for us (for instance, Siy Tarkov confessing to his Dalek interrogators everything he hates about the human government, in a manner somewhat inspired by Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), but Kade stands only for himself, and he doesn’t have the kind of dimension or genuine self-will and ability to acknowledge doubts that make a Shakespearian tragic figure worth caring about. At least when Kalendorf did terrible things, he was doing it for some kind of greater good. And that is essentially what is missing from this Dalek Empire series- the sense of utilitarianism and empiricism, of people united in a common goal for the sake of the greater masses and the greater good. Infact there’s no sense of an ensemble here like there was in the previous Dalek Empire series’. This is star-led in the worst kind of way, and seems pitched at the same sensationalist, individualist, self-involved modern society that New Who and the new Battlestar Pedantica is geared towards. It just sums up everything nasty, selfish, petty, spoilt and manipulative about modern society. Infact like New Who, it’s so self-involved that it doesn’t feel even remotely adventurous. This story seems to presuppose that the audience will sympathise if Kade whines long enough to twist their arm into it. For long term fans of Dalek Empire, this is especially offensive given that when Alby or Siy Tarkov lost everything they held dear, they didn’t use it as an excuse to behave so reprehensibly. Infact like all the worst, most pretentious examples of the Tenth Doctor’s tough guy shouting, it feels like a poor imitation of Rob Shearman’s Dalek and its savagely beautiful presentation of a Doctor blinded by unthinking rage- a vulgar imitation without soul, insight or affirmation.
It’s disheartening to see Dalek Empire reduced to being a follower in its genre rather than a leader. Dalek Empire was always compatible with the style of New Who, given that it was a far more action, overkill based series with a little something for the shippers, and with an agenda to actively make Doctor Who ‘cool’ again, bearing in mind that the last time the show was ‘cool’ was probably Earthshock. But it’s only here that Dalek Empire has really caught up with New Who’s live action computer game approach. Stories like Voyage of the Damned and Planet of the Dead are as vacuous as live action computer games get. New Who is a very intense, frenetic, fast paced, provocative, explosive flash of colours, with a hyperactive, belligerent, sociopathic and impatiently quick to judge Doctor with unlimited extra lives at its centre. This is of course the central issue for many, with some preferring the way that New Who is faster paced and cuts to the chase, whilst others feel that its betrays the ethos of actually learning about and understanding things. So viewing the series can provoke the same power trip high and agitated temper as playing a violent playstation game, which perhaps accounts for the raw, angry reactions that New Who tends to provoke, both amongst its unforgiving critics and its fanatical defenders. Season 21 was as action-orientated, angry, vulgar and cruel-hearted as classic Doctor Who ever got, and it’s the only classic season that could come close to provoking such raging tempers as New Who can. Now Dalek Empire is following the mode of New Who completely, with Kade himself placed into the ultimate interactive games console controller suit complete with its own Wii, and as you can expect, the result is one of the most furious, nasty spewings of rage ever to come from the franchise. Dalek Empire was always a raw, angry, borderline psychotic series with a real primal scream approach to its characters and issues, but it used to be angry in an exorcising, uplifting, cathartic way. This couldn’t be more negative. This is just angry in a one-note, aimless, indiscriminate, utterly hostile, and really quite poisonous way.
It would have been semi-bearable if Kade ultimately got his comeuppance or achieved some redemption from the monster he is. Instead he just blames everyone else for making him the way he is, and worse still, the plot valorises his self-centred, ‘everyone’s-against-me’ view in the most contrived and unbelievable way possible.
It feels rather like Nick unintentionally wrote a military-glorifying story, then realised his mistake three quarters of the way through and quickly tried to undo this and negate and demonise the military in the most crassly contrived and cheaply sensationalist way possible. Really the third chapter of Dalek War did a far better portrayal of how the military turns ordinary people into psychotic killers, and did it through metaphor rather than heavy labouring of the point and forcing it down the listener’s throat. Granted the idea makes the spacer suits resonate with the same evil as the Dalek machines, to the point where when Kade forces Landen at gunpoint to put one on, it feels like a fate worse than death for her. The final battle on the asteroid belt is everything that Dalek Empire III’s climax should have been- a depiction of how war quite literally is a descent into hell, and Kade’s confrontation with the Emperor Dalek makes a subtle ironic point that the Dalek war machine is just as deceitful and secretive with its grunts as the human military is. But apart from that, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth, mainly concerning how it’s the most vile character who’s trying to moralise about the evils of the military.
And so we see that even if Twin Dilemma was given better dialogue, appealing visuals and more action and excitement, it’d still be awful because we’d actually still be rooting for the bad guys to just kill the detestable, self-centred, woman-beating ‘hero’ and end this nauseating, scornful display of self-aggrandisement, cheap shock tactics, immature nastiness and misogyny. Sure some might praise the ‘bravery’ of its approach, but as with Twin Dilemma there’s a world of difference between bravery and reckless stupidity.
Indeed Dalek Empire IV’s failure is the culmination of backlashes, not unlike the backlashes and counter-backlashes that led the classic series to ruin. It takes the organic plotting and characterisation of the previous series’, and flushes it completely down the toilet in favour of the contrived and artificial. It feels like a response to complaints about Dalek Empire III being overlong and too talky. But succeeds only in making the action feel brutally forced and trimming the runtime so ruthlessly that there’s zero characterisation, simply brutal action without thought and no charm left whatsoever, and charm was utterly essential to making this bleak series durable.
Put it another way, the reason Dalek Empire worked despite its excessive killings and morbid fascination with all things psychotic, is that like an audio painting it took time to craft and show all the finer details that made the characters and their worlds beautiful and worth caring about when they are destroyed, and made the destruction meaningful, but Dalek Empire IV doesn’t bother. Everything is so set out, inevitable and pointless and one-track minded that there’s no sense of potential or possibilities and thus no sense of anything lost except precious hours of our time.
As a result Kade is nothing but a macho stereotype, scarcely different from any 80’s action anti-hero cop on a revenge mission. Though there’s a conscious, New Who inspired effort to give his character more background than the protagonists before him (like the references to Kade’s bacto-hunting grandfather and the caves he used to play in as a child), it does nothing to sell the idea that Kade is a good man corrupted by tragedy- i.e. the listener has no reason to believe he wasn’t already a nasty piece of work in the first place. Landen’s off screen decision to kill Kade’s family is offensively out of character, which just goes to show how little work went into making her character credible. Kade’s wife Lajitta is especially annoying and gets some atrocious dialogue to deliver, and from her first appearance she obviously has ‘dead meat’ written all over her. Even the reappearance of Susan Mendes leaves us feeling like we’ve been sold a pup, conveying no sense of the spontaneous, firey, blinkered, determined workaholic Susan with her stage fright and weakness for co-dependency we fell in love with in the beginning (well provided you could see past the ‘despicable two bit quisling’ part), making us wonder why they bothered with this whole prequel retcon to revisit the Angel of Mercy if they weren’t even going to be faithful to the character. Infact the most fleshed out character eventually turns out to be a Dalek agent, which undoes all that work instantly and leaves the listener feeling even more cheated. In the previous series, it was usually the bland, autonomous character that turned out to have a disc in their head all along and thus actually became more interesting for it, not less. The rest of the military characters like Baxter, Fisk and Kennedy are killed off so pointlessly that it only reinforces that this petulantly bored story just plain isn’t about anything.
Which is a shame because it all adds up to a huge waste of talent. Noel Clarke is clearly really going for the character of Kade and in selected bursts either goads the listener into sharing his glee (like when he’s cutting into the Dalek saucer’s hull) or makes the character’s rage palpable enough to give the listener a panic attack. Maureen O’Brien does a commendable job with her nothing character, and special praise must go to Esther Ruth Elliot whose exemplary performance really does transcend ‘acting’ into ‘being’ and thus becomes the only character to gain our sympathies, so much so that I found myself really dreading the outcome for her. And of course Tanlee’s return is most welcome (let’s face it, if Tanlee was in the new Battlestar Pedantica it would improve the series immensely, infact I’m convinced that Torchwood: Children of Earth is only the masterpiece it is because it’s got Tanlee in it).
Dalek Empire was of course pitched at the demographic that wanted for a Doctor Who that was modelled on the darker, morally murky intergalactic war style of modern space opera, and yet Dalek Empire managed to do this cynicism in a way that wasn’t antithetical to a bit of old fashioned imagination, and was still a deeply sincere expression of the author’s soul and conscience that reckons with a plethora of personal demons. It didn’t feel dark or cavalier in a forced or contrived way or in any way that wasn’t completely natural and organic, till now. But we beg the question of what was the point of making Dalek Empire IV. By being a prequel it does nothing to further the story or to leave the fate of the galaxy in any doubt at all, and simply leeches off its past successes, and ultimately it feels like the most corporate and soulless cash in vehicle that Big Finish has ever produced. It’s all atitude and no soul, all action and no heart, and it’s all a Noel Clarke star vehicle sales pitch rather than a story worth telling. We would much rather have seen a followup to Dalek Empire III’s open ended conclusion, but Nick now regarded that thread as a dead end, meaning he had to do a prequel series which had to compensate for its pre-determined outcome by piling on the surprises and shocks. It has to be said that the ‘making of’ extras seem to be encouraging a rather self-congratulatory approach to the writing, and here the twists and moral ambiguities are being treated as worthy ends in themselves. So far from giving us clever turns in the screw that defined a series that was all about crucial character decisions and moral responsibility, Dalek Empire is now instead giving us cheap insulting deceptions for the sake of it. Just like with the similarly poisonous and repellent Night Thoughts, there’s something indescribably nasty and insideously sickening about the deceptive, confusing, obfuscational, pointless, vacuous mind games it plays with the listener. Adding so many twists that eventually the story ends up simply twisted. As with the JNT years, the pile up of backlashes just feel increasingly forced, cynical, soulless and borderline hostile, to the point where it just feels like a deranged, loathsome mutation of its former self.
And this is what a once superlative audio series has been reduced to- indulgent navelgazing of a particularly sadistic kind. They really didn’t know when to quit.
Review of Series 3
“Peace is a powerful drug, it enshrines fear in nobility.”
This third series was going to be redundant before anyone put pen to paper (not least because Kalendorf is a hard hero to replace), and ultimately it’s hard to see what Dalek Empire III has done that the previous two hadn’t already done better. The story of Dalek Empire was effectively over with the main cast killed off, the Daleks repelled, and more importantly with the Emperor and Dalek Supreme dead and the Kar Charrat data dying with them, the Daleks were going to be back to Terry Nation’s useless automatons and incapable of conquering a galaxy or carrying a series. But now with Susan reincarnated into the female Dalek Supreme, this conclusion is rapidly undone as the character is prolongued way past her natural conclusion and the Daleks get an insight into the human mind again. But even more contrived is how Siy Tarkov’s datastore that he was going to deliver to the Galactic Union at the end of Dalek War, gets lost in transit so he has to go back to Veleyshaa for a second copy. This is just the story blatantly standing still and admitting it can’t go forward.
The chief complaint of Dalek Empire III is that it didn’t have a proper conclusion. Though it’s more accurate to say that it didn’t give us the conclusion we wanted, and certainly not the one we were promised by some unspoken agreement that each series has to end with the galaxy changed forever. We expected that there’d be a followup to the approaching Dalek threat. Instead what we got was the Dalek threat still approaching and the characters spending six discs talking about it and then being all killed off. But this is in many ways a character based story, not a plot based story which ends in an ouroboros way of the storyteller telling his story of how he came to this point of telling the story (which is perhaps why having other narrators to crowd the story was maybe a mistake), the point was meant to be about coming to terms with a perpetually conflict based universe and learning to cultivate your own state of personal nirvana despite that.
In the first Dalek Empire series, a television satellite network really did spread the message of revolution and stirred the blood of the masses into overwhelming and devastating action. But maybe that was speaking for a more 60’s generation that’s gone by, and if this season is more a reflection of our fast-paced, anxiety-driven modern age, then maybe the ending in which the truth is brought forward but it really doesn’t look like its going to make any difference or anyone’s going to take any notice seems perfectly true to our world where no-one cares about the truth anymore. Where we’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that government and corporations are corrupt and where there was little point caring less whether Iraq really did have those Weapons of Mass Destruction or not.
As for the Dalek threat, as fans we know that Dalek wars will come and go, but humanity will ultimately prevail. All the Whoniverse timeline books tell us so. Doctor Who takes place in a universe that is ‘known’ to the fans. The ambiguity of Dalek Empire III’s conclusion, coupled with its portrayal of humanity as a more or less cursed race is something to shake that ‘knowing’ audience up a bit and remind them of a time back in the Hartnel era when the future of the Doctor Who universe wasn’t so certain, and so we’re left with a real believable sense that the end of the universe really is nigh, for the first time since Logopolis, so we’re not sure whether it’s a work of genius or a cheap cheat that we’re never told what happens next.
Looking at the first and last chapter together, it’s clear that it was meant to end this way. The story begins on Veleyshaa with the Dalek advance forewarned, and ends back on Veleyshaa where the Daleks finally arrive. It began with Siy Tarkov hearing a Dalek transmission and ends with him being tortured long distance by the Dalek Supreme. His discussion with the Dalek Spureme about the future of mankind becoming more militaristic and insular is a perfect sharp, bleak antithesis to the Doctor’s optimistic view of how the Dalek threat might unify different alien cultures. It’s also well suited to the torture scene which in Orwellian fashion presents a literal ‘boot stamping on a human face forever’ vision of the future- a raw and tangible microcosm for the war and battle of unyielding wills to come. It’s as if Siy has been trying to get these words out all the way through the season, and it’s fitting that for a bereaved father like Siy Tarkov, his chief thought is for the youths who’ll be drafted to fight this war (it’s truly saddening to compare this level of characterisation with what comes after in Dalek Empire IV). The ending for the Wardens is also an ironic one, in keeping with Nick’s ecological themes, as these environmentalists who were well pitched against a mechanised eco-menace like the Daleks, are ultimately tracked down and beaten when the Daleks pollute their fuel tanks to leave a smog trail.
Perhaps what’s missing is that the excess material in between interrupts the relentlessness, as the Daleks are allowed to chase too many tangents. This is far less tight than the previous series. Plus after two seasons of being near enough invincible, the Daleks are suddenly turned into easy canon fodder, and that alone makes the series feel considerably more mediocre and lazy than its predecessors.
The ‘friendship’ theme is somewhat picked at random and overstated, but good performances and chemistry coupled with a sharp ear for naturalistic dialogue make it work. The more compelling theme however is that of cults, which harks back to Nick’s original Audio Visuals version of The Mutant Phase. The orphaned Elaria imprints on the Daleks as her surrogate parents. Kaymee does the same when she starts mutating into a Dalek, and disconnects from her real father in the same way that brainwashed young scientologists often do with their parents. Elaria and Galanar have the mesmerising power to convince someone that a lie is the truth, and Carneil is in denial of the Dalek’s massacres even though he saw it with his own eyes. This is the closest that Dalek Empire gets to really going for the Daleks-equal-Nazis angle, and asking the question of how ordinary German people could blind themselves to the evils of the new regime, and reduces the answer to a matter of simple human nature, presenting it in such an instinctive way that the audience immediately gets it. No-one wants to believe the worst, especially when it’s staring them in the face. The Galactic Union and Carneill of course are the Neville Chamberlain-type appeasers of the equation (mind you Carneill’s appeasment is nowhere near as snide and despicable as the Doctor’s was in Warriors of the Deep and Last of the Time Lords).
There’s been much criticism of the scenes where Frey Saxton or Siy Tarkov ask themselves whether it’s right or wrong for humanity to go to war with the Daleks, when there really isn’t a moral dilemma there at all- we know that the Daleks curing the plague isn’t worth the price of appeasement. But that perhaps misses the point because the dialogue isn’t trying to raise moral questions that we already know the answers to, it’s showing up the all too human reaction of being reluctant to accept that their enemy is that evil, or that war with them is so inescapeable. It’s about the desperation to hang onto any tenuous clues to reinforce the comforting belief that the Daleks can’t really be that bad. This is about the gift of trust, the human instinct to seek kindred spirits and the inability for us to truly accept the existence of the truly soulless or evil.
The problem is that this theme curtails a lot of the dramatic impact and horror. Quite simply Dalek Empire has now exhausted its power to shock and disturb. The horror and tragedy of the plague itself is never remotely conveyed, and simply seems like a hollow, unsustainable attempt to up the ante and the scale with ludicrous statistics, and by now it’s simply become something that’s taken for granted. When Dalek Empire first began, leaving the listener with that kind of apathetic reaction would have been unthinkable. Part of the problem is that as indicated, the story contrives the naivety of its human cast, and obfuscates in other ways to hide the obvious fact that the Daleks are behind the plague, so it never conveys a sense of malice or moral outrage. Indeed the main purpose of the Susan/Dalek hybrid seems to be to provide a red herring. A possibility that it’s Susan’s lingering compassion that’s motivating the Daleks to suddenly become medical missionaries, which only shows up how much more interesting the story could have been if that road was actually taken.
But no, when Siy Tarkov is cured, it leads to disturbing consequences and we realise there’s no moral dilemma here, no greater good to come from the Daleks’ healing zones. Siy Tarkov never exhibited the kind of sins or fatal flaws that Susan did, yet he is still cursed to suffer endless horrors, one after another. What just about prevents his suffering from seeming like a manipulative parade of pain is that each punishment tells us something about this galaxy and its history. He catches the plague from a pit stop in the border worlds, has his ship raided by impoverished scavengers which paints a picture of a desperate and lawless cosmos, his impeded speech is a metaphor for the stifled articulation of the individual under a bureaucratic state, and even his wife’s death in a skimmer accident is linked to the way technology and space travel has regressed in the great catastrophe. His scenes trapped from within a protective suit are both symbolic of being born from the womb and foreshadow his fate in a Dalek machine (same is true of Kaymee who begins the story in her space suit) so there’s an existential fatalism at work too. Even the last words of Siy’s opening distress transmission could, in dramatic irony be mistaken for Dalek rhetoric. But still, the effect is numbing more than anything and ultimately leaves you not caring, and this desensitisation extends into other areas of the story.
The same is true of the Dalek advance on Veleysha. It’s brilliantly led up to with a wonderful sense of the ticking clock. As a sequence, on the one hand it provides a wonderful microcosm of the Dalek’s advance and their conformist multiplicity that’s happening all over the Border Worlds. And it’s an amusing subversion of the mundane in that the fate of the galaxy effectively comes down to a ruck on a derelict council estate. But even that kind of absurd comical juxtaposition that’s unique to Doctor Who feels misjudged here. It practically glorifies the Daleks and the action on the battlefield by reducing it to a music video for Dalek Empire’s remixed theme tune. It’s ultimately too comical and cool to be haunting or disturbing and feels somewhat wrongheaded in the way it undermines Dalek Empire’s devastating anti-war message.
The prolongued length of two extra discs made it feel for many like a cynical cash in on an ended story that’s being forcibly prolongued long enough to get six CD sales out of it. But actually that’s rather harsh. There is an enthusiasm and love in the writing. It’s done well and retains the same timeless accessibility to newcomers as the previous two series’, and infact for the first three discs it doesn’t put a noticeable foot wrong, but it’s also done by numbers, and despite the odd lingering personal anxieties and unresolved demons from the previous two series, there’s a sense that it’s no longer quite the labour of love it once was. No, more than that, it’s deeply undisciplined in its manipulative tactics to the point where it lacks focus or direction. It’s asking provocative questions but it wilfully refuses to give any answers, which leaves a rather hollow aftertaste once the sense of spectacle dies down, and makes the whole thing just seem unfinished and overblown. Without a lid on the whole thing to pull the threads together, it’s just a sitting duck for nitpicking. But really the best way to view Dalek Empire III is to see it as being almost a TV serial following on from the more cinematic previous two Dalek Empires. This is a more episodic series, and uses environments and characters more akin to television than cinema, like conservationist wardens and hospital staff. The final two chapters inparticular feel more akin to a Dalek-led TV series, and the finale feels like a season finale right down to the mystic ruins setting. Hence it’s less chaotic, more talky, features characters who are contrived to be less effectual and more in the dark, and instead of running consistent themes to their conclusion, it picks them up along the way and doesn’t quite know what to do with them. But judged on that criteria it’s far better and more heartfelt than we have any right to expect.
David Tennant puts in an excellent animated performance as Galanar, playing a compellingly slippery and duplicitous character who becomes an unlikely representation of the story’s theme of empathy, unfortunately though he’s no Kalendorf which means that he doesn’t really grapple with and direct the plot so much as complacently let the plot lead him to the clearly marked end point. Laura Rees is delightfully enthusiastic as Kaymee and wins the listener over in a manner that defies her sci-fi ‘token annoying teen’ role, and her shrewd point about how ‘animals sense danger’ actually defines this story’s theme about trusting our natural instincts. Steven Elder puts everything into his performance as the desperate and heavily tested Siy Tarkov, and really makes the character’s hysteria work whilst a lesser actor would probably have failed that acid-test. Ishia Bennison shows real admirable guts as the wonderfully curmudgeonly Commander Saxton, although her male aides are interchangeably bland. William Gaunt as Georgi Selestru is on fine form but he deserved to do far more than sit behind a desk for six discs. Sarah Mowat is especially effective in her monologue as Susan as she describes her revenge on the Daleks with deliciously cold hearted glee and satisfaction. As the Dalek Supreme she’s called upon to be ridiculously all over the place, from whisperful to over the top shrieking, but she just about manages to make that erratic, ridiculous quality clearly deceptive of her true power and danger, and in selected moments she manages to be such a believable threat that her final claims of Dalek victory being assured sound almost informed by future sight.
Special mention must go to Claudia Elmhurst as the Dalek’s familiar Elaria who manages to draw pathos from the confused character who was adopted by the Daleks and is slave to her own nature. She inspires sympathy because she is presented like an abused child whose behaviour is authentically symptomatic of experiences of abuse, such as adoptive behaviour, compulsive lying, crisis of identity, an inexplicable attachment to her parents, suicidal tendencies and a death wish and a devious talent for manipulation- something that many abused children develop early on with frightening speed, both from experiencing manipulation first hand from their abuser, and as a survival mechanism in order to win support from an unsympathetic justice system and a family unit that tends to lapse into denial in such shocking circumstances (this also has an allegory in the bureaucratic obtuseness of the Galactic Union and the alienating lack of social cohesion in this galaxy). She initially displays the kind of confident, pro-active shrewdness, ingenuity and adaptability that would make a good Doctor Who companion, which makes the twist concerning her character all the more subversive. So good is her performance and her mask of deceit that she still manages to convince as Siy’s daughter even after her lie has been exposed. She superbly manages an intricate, believable performance within a performance, and she also plays her final scene with a death-wish rawness that is genuinely terrifying. She’s sympathetic yet utterly creepy in a way that most female characters don’t get to be in today’s sex driven TV. She also has a wonderful mirrored dynamic with Galanar, and together they bring to this ensemble the kind of mentally defective misfits that made Blakes’ 7 far richer and more diverse in characterisation than most other sci-fi series. Indeed she shares a better dynamic with Tennant than any of the New Who companions have so far.
There’s a lot to admire and reappraise about Dalek Empire III and certainly at the time it was much preferable to the main range’s Divergent universe arc, but it’s clearly where the Dalek Empire franchise hit a dead end. Unfortunately Dalek Empire III’s legacy is that it ultimately led to a three year hiatus for Dalek Empire, and then it came back as a prequel series, completely disassociated from Dalek Empire III’s conclusion. It’s a shame it bore the brunt of such criticism that apparently now, not even its own writer would touch Dalek Empire III with a bargepole.
Review of Series 2
“Never trust a man of noble birth. They’ll sell you all down the river for the sake of honour”
A sequel series that manages to easily hold its own against its predecessor. It’s more polished than Dalek Empire, but not in a way that detracts from its edge. In some ways Dalek War is a more subtle series than Dalek Empire. It has moments of nail-biting intensity and brutality yes, but in a manner that flows more smoothly with the rest and doesn’t make for bumpy listening. Infact the violence here is altogether more sensual. It continues with the relentless, spiralling descent progression of Dalek Empire, starting on a hopeful note and then goes dramatically downhill from there in implosive and intense, and ultimately deeply satisfying fashion. The story begins with the humans apparently on the brink of victory, and then skips ahead several decades to find that the humans still haven’t broken any new ground.
But in shrinking its canvas to a more microcosmic, claustrophobic, base under siege, it actually manages to create a wider tapestry of the greater galaxy. Feeling almost like a completely different series. It’s the kind of series you can become so immersed in that all disbelief is suspended. Quite simply it implies its horrors more poetically, through metaphor, and in forms that are charmingly familiar to us fans.
The Vaarga plants and Robomen are also a retro addition (much like the alternate Daleks are a colourful homage to the vibrant 1960’s Dalek movies), but are actually better suited to this story as a poignant metaphor for the murderous monstrosities that war turns ordinary men into. The windy sand dunes setting of the final chapter, brings a vision of a galaxy literally brought to dust, which owes a lot to Logopolis’ decay imagery and is just as haunting, particularly when married with Kalendorf’s crumbling sanity. The Daleks are presented as a technological virus, placing control discs in people’s minds and decimating eco-systems at their root, which creates a sense of technology and nature forcibly melded together in a way that accelerates everything’s mutual rust and decay at the root. Indeed the use of mind analysis discs is a very shrewd and compatible inclusion for an audio CD play. Likewise the chilling moment where Susan is mind-raped by the Emperor Dalek will conjure memories of Kinda (and Sarah Mowat’s scream in that scene is blood curdling). The latter homage is appropriate because this is very much a Buddhist story. It’s the tale of a woman who lived in fear but died with courage and was reborn as someone far braver and determined to make amends for the sins of their past life. If you had skipped the first series and started here, then Susan’s confrontation with the Daleks where she shows a brave willingness for martyrdom is enough to make it immediately clear why Susan is such a beloved figure of hope to the galaxy. In Buddhist tradition Susan gains empowerment against the Daleks by her willingness to die again, which for the course of Chapter Two, puts the Daleks in the amusingly unlikely role of Samaritans- something for which they have no aptitude.
It’s also the tale of the tide of humanity and a choice between two equally bumpy streams for mankind to flow down (which is why the parallel universe angle is so perfect in emphasising the theme of choice and consequence), and what is most brave about the story is that it doesn’t cop-out of showing humanity go down that bumpy route and leaving us wondering if maybe the Mentor was the one to follow if we wanted an easier time of it. Infact even in Dalek Empire III, it feels as if humanity is still learning the ‘better the devil you know’ lesson the hard way.
But otherwise the Doctor Who iconography is subverted in an ethos that bears little resemblance to its parent series. Unlike the cozy tales of the Doctor’s success in averting war in Frontier in Space or The Monster of Peladon, the point of Dalek Empire is that there’s no easy way of getting pulled out of this war, and these things must be seen through to the end, and in a series where for once we can see the long term consequences that Doctor Who rarely showed. The morality of Genesis of the Daleks is turned firmly on its head as we see the so-called alliance against a common foe turn into a power game of exploitation and subjugation. Kalendorf is our hero, but he succeeds by shady methods and doing terrible things that not even McCoy’s Doctor would do.
When Eric Saward tried to address the naivety of Doctor Who, and point out the fact that the Doctor’s aversion to violence and peaceable methods wouldn’t work in real world conflicts, he only succeeded in turning a cheap and cheerful show into something cheap and nasty. As one poster on Outpost Gallifrey appropriately summed up, in refusing to play the game, Eric made Doctor Who as entertaining as watching a heckler spoil a magic act by shouting ‘it’s up his sleeves’. This however is its own series and plays by its own rules, and there’s a grand plan that makes the deaths and misery more than just contrived smut. It easily shows up how gratuitous and vacuous most of the mid-80’s body-count stories really were, and just how frequently they relied on the lamest plot device copouts, whether it be the convenient Hexacromite gas or Movellan plague that really could have been broken out at any point in the story and saved the day if the Doctor wasn’t so shockingly negligent (to say nothing of New Who’s deus ex machina endings to every season finale). Here the violence and horror really makes the urgency matter, and draws the situation’s desperation to the point where whatever the solution is, it has to mean something inspirational and hopeful. When mankind’s military and technological might is exhausted, our heroes are forced to go back to basics and Kalendorf must use his natural gifts and an ancient strategy to turn the Daleks’ transmission network against them.
Unlike the first series which was thought up before they even got the Doctor Who licence, Dalek War is very clearly a post-9/11 series where the Mentor’s rule of absolutes is all too reminiscent of Dubya, the sight of a terraformed Jupiter is as shocking, incongruous and unprecedented as the collapse of the towers, the disaster with the Varga plants is a blatant statement of the stupidity of sending our troops into Iraq. Morli’s proclamations of unquestioning loyalty and willingness to die or kill in the service of the Mentor are a deeply tragic representation of the indoctrination of young suicide bombers. However Kalendorf’s overall battle to retake the Solar System and break the Dalek fort are inspired more by the events of Stalingrad than anything, right down to the unexpectedly harrowing moment when the front line Daleks’ requests for permission to retreat from a hopeless fight are denied by the pitiless Dalek Supreme, and we can’t help but empathise with the Daleks as they’re condemned to death, panicking in their shells but unable to disobey their orders, paralysed by their obedience and inability to make choices for their survival. Every bit of praise levelled at the revamped Battlestar Pedantica for being politically potent and brutally honest about war and the best sci-fi series since Babylon 5 is true of Dalek Empire.
The final scene between Kalendorf and the Mentor is strangely tender, like the prodigal son returning to his forgiving mother. It’s appropriate that the climax should take place in the Mentor’s universe. And ironically it’s the Mentor who gets to be the voice of moral outrage over Kalendorf’s destructive warmongering. His inability to properly grieve over his fallen comrades, coupled with his epitaph of how the Dalek war consumed and wasted his last years “My time is passed, I’m already just part of history” is justification enough for doing this series to really show what the unseen Dalek wars were like on an emotional level, and really provokes the question of how the Doctor could ever have believed all this could have led to a greater good.
As with the first series, the characterisation is superb and deeply organic. The utopia-minded Mentor matches the psychology of a compulsively-driven control freak to a tee, to the point where it seems like she honestly can’t stop herself from being the tyrant she is. Her ability to read Kalendorf’s mind is clearly a mirror of Davros’ ability to smell Gharman’s treachery, except that it defines her just as much as an empathising and concerned friend, as a shrewd enemy. Thus her own Daleks are an extension of herself that instantly convey a hopeful, forward looking ideal of total pascification and serenity, and this makes this factional Dalek war into a truly idealistic conflict. It would have been nice to see her character return in one of the Unbound stories. More importantly Kalendorf’s betrayal is shocking, but in such a way that it’s also completely believable and in character, in that everything you knew about him before leaves you in no doubt that he always was capable of this and he’ll see it to the end (again in a way that shows up Eric Saward’s insincere character assassinations of the Doctor for the cheap shock tactics they are). Indeed it’s evidence of the sublime characterisation of Kalendorf that we can envision his last years spent in penance on Veleyshaa without this ever being stated.
This is very much a vision of the future where human beings are under such constant pressure, pushed beyond endurance that they’re forced to become blinkered and bullishly unstopping mechanised workaholic control freaks who can see only their noble ideals and goals and can never look back upon the damage done or stop to empathise with anyone, and what makes this story so modern and effective is that one look at our work-dominated, crisis-driven, aggressively fast paced modern society confirms that this future has already arrived.
It’s partly because of the way each character is properly defined and immediately engaging, and the way each scene stands up well by itself, but it’s actually possible to follow and enjoy Dalek War without having heard Dalek Empire beforehand. Though for followers of the whole range, the very mention of worlds like Lopra Minor and Vega VI will no doubt provoke memories of the massacres that took place there, as if those worlds are still haunted by the ghosts of the dead. Infact with the parallel universe thread and the presence of the Mentor, the Daleks are redefined as a technological inevitability that must exist in every universe, whatever their origins, firmly allowing the series to stand alone in its own right, unsupported by and liberated from the greater Doctor Who continuity, in much the same way as City of Death can. It’s accessible in a way that makes it truly timeless. This may be a defunct quality for a niche range, but it effectively means that you can appreciate the series in its own right, divorced of any tainted feelings about Doctor Who.
All in all, as a two season miniseries, Dalek Empire and Dalek War make an absolute masterpiece, a work of perfection and a craft of love. The final conclusion is hard to beat in any case, and really they shouldn’t have bothered, it was never going to get better than this. Nick’s liner notes hints that he had an instinct that ending the story on a high would have been wiser than carrying it on till it lost all its potency, and it’s a shame he didn’t heed that instinct. Much like how 1980 would have been an ideal end point for Doctor Who, it’d be nice to pretend Dalek Empire had simply ended here before it all inevitably went downhill.
Review of Series 1
“Every time she faced this creature, she became more and more certain that it had no soul, and yet it somehow knew how to invade the very heart of her!”
Big Finish is very much about second chances and recapturing the spirit of lost eras. Doctor Who was always a series in flux and subject to radical change and reinvention, but Big Finish often asks the question of what if things hadn’t changed? In much the same way as the Gallifrey spin-off series took us back to the frivolity and imagination of the Graham Williams years before John Nathan Turner’s neurotic backlash turned the show into a joyless, soulless nerd-trap, Dalek Empire recaptures the spirit of the 1960’s when the Daleks were at their most intelligent and devious, at the height of their imperial power and independently united in a way they never would be again after Davros turns up. Dalek Empire is about recapturing that spirit of the 60’s show when the Daleks really were an all consuming galactic technological biomass, and also updating it for the modern post-Babylon 5 sci-fi age of long term planning and moral ambiguity. This goes one further in the moral ambiguity stakes and eliminates the Doctor from the equation too and thus opens the very real possibility that this time the Daleks could win.
A Dalek spin-off series had long been proposed by Terry Nation, but to no avail, and many dismissed the prospect of a Daleks-only series as a dull venture, with some justification. In the long term Dalek Empire proved the critics right by letting the series fall into the rut of diminishing returns and repetitive redundancy of reusing the same canvas. But here at its inception, Nick Briggs is clearly working his hardest to defy those expectations to make this series as unpredictable, varied and rich as possible and adding enough points of interest and twists to keep things from getting boring, and yet it’s done in a manner that feels genuinely organic and creative rather than forced or gimmicky. Like Sympathy for the Devil, this story is brimming with inspiration and collisions of story elements, making this a raw, unpredictable and rather unsettling listen. Nick gives us talking insects, telepathic Seers, warrior cultures that aren’t given the patronising treatment that Star Trek usually dishes out, and dimensional gateways that open the story out beyond the typical boys own space ranger material. This vision of the various races of the future seen literally cross-galaxy could almost have been a sci-fi series of its own without the Daleks.
Indeed the inclusion of the Kar-Charrat data as a source of insight into human psychology is rather an admission that usually the Daleks are pretty boring villains with no chance in hell of winning, but for now the rules have changed, and suddenly the Daleks become far more interesting and frightening.
The series presents a clear, passionate and explicit picture of what the oft referenced but never seen Dalek wars were like, but does so without demystifying them. As a portrayal of war and totalitarianism it strikes the right note between cartoonish violence and brutal honesty, with a shrewd understanding of psychology and power games.
Susan’s story is a particularly feminist one about the victimisation of women who refuse to be docile, and follows her gradual self-degrading institutionalism into patriarchal society. Susan is subtly changed and institutionalised into the very tyranny she was once victimised by, to the point where she almost complacently believes that she’s the one exploiting her exploiters, which is the comforting philosophy of many an ‘empowered’ lap-dancer or sex-worker, but eventually she sees the light, remembers who she really is and regains her defiance one last time. Indeed occasionally the scenes with the Seer of Yaldos sharing her biography with us sound almost like something from The Vagina Monologues.
In modern fashion the Dalek Supreme is presented as a stalker, obsessively watching Susan’s every move and gaining all the cards of psychological power over her, which takes the core concept of the Dalek as the ultimate predator to its natural conclusion. This is quite refreshing in the days when films like Saw and Phone Booth present their stalking villains as ‘noble’ avenging angels who only pick on the deserving or ungrateful (as if such stalkers didn’t pick their victims on sight long before rooting in their dirty laundry for any excuse or justification they could find), but here there’s no such pretense. In an age where young males are increasingly raised to be apologetic and terrified of ever daring to admit a personal interest in someone of the opposite sex, god forbid it be taken the wrong way, hearing the Dalek Supreme blatantly delcare its perverse fascination in Susan without any remorse or excuses or tender softening of the blow is is such a striking piece of naked honesty. It’s Susan’s firey personality that gets her noticed by the Daleks and thus it becomes her fatal flaw that leads her to a grand Shakespearean exit, it doesn’t mean she dserved her fate but it gives her fate a narrative and emotional context rather than just another token sacrifice. Life under Dalek rule becomes almost a soul defining, existential experience where people discover the noblest, most heroic parts of themselves, preparing for the moment in their life that really matters. It’s a beautiful affirming clash between life and death and the violence and galaxy-shrinking sense of nowhere to run, makes the worlds of Vega 6 and Lopra Minor feel honestly haunted by the massacres that take place there, making this future vision that bit more vivid and tangible. Rather like Logopolis it builds up a disturbing amount of collateral which climaxes in existential grace with the almost euphoric death (and rebirth) of the protagonist and the enemy virtually winning despite the climactic last fight to stop them. In places it feels like downright goulish listening, but the fact that we keep on listening and keep up hope in the heroes hints that the story is doing something right that was lost on Eric Saward when he tried the same approach back in the mid-80’s. What Nick Briggs does with the Daleks is look into his own worst nightmares, darkest fantasies and personal demons and draws vivid, insideous pictures out of them, and that’s really what makes great art. This is beautiful controlled chaos, to Eric Saward’s ugly contrived smut, and unlike most modern sci-fi that aspires to be ‘dark’ there’s nothing forced or contrived about its spontaneous violence and natural cavalierness.
Infact this is an incredibly fan-savvy piece of work and there is a sense of using its clean slate as a spin-off to perfect the things that Doctor Who frequently got wrong. The Daleks are retconned into the biggest badasses in the galaxy, and the Emperor has never sounded so evil (so evil infact that he could happily belong in an episode of Cracker or the Jeremy Kyle Show). The story of Susan Mendes’ collaboration is almost a belated rebuttal of the vile appeasement message of Warriors of the Deep, but simultaneously it humanises and draws empathy with the kind of quisling character that Doctor Who stories usually treated with unforgiving scorn. The character of Kalendorf basically takes the best bits of Orcini from Revelation of the Daleks, and actually demonstrates why we should see him as ‘noble’ and ‘dignified’ rather than just because the writer tells us to. The usual routine of the Daleks finding flimsy excuses to keep the lead characters alive actually enhances their evil since here it seems like the cruellest thing they can do, and the series even has its very own Master in the deliciously creepy Dalek-agent Tanlee. It even rifts on the scene in Destiny of the Daleks where the Daleks are massacring hostages to break the hero’s resolve, except this time performed with real conviction, horror and urgency, and thus it becomes one of the story’s most dramatic, nail-biting moments. It’s almost as if Doctor Who was always just a ramshackle run up to this far superior, more mature and hardcore series. If only the series had ran for no more than two seasons, it might have had the advantage of quality control over its parent series too.
But at this point in time, Dalek Empire stands as one of the best things Big Finish had ever produced. From its worlds so lush and tactile you can smell them, to its pulse-racing climax that never seems to relent, to the beautiful way Kalendorf and Susan realise before the moment of sacrifice that despite everything they’ve become beloved friends over the years. It has the kind of warm human interest and grasp on psychology that most current sci-fi shows cry out for. Sarah Mowat’s performance as Susan Mendes is raw enough to saw your face off. At her best, she’s so expressive in her vocals that the listener can almost read the expression on her face simply from how she speaks. When she delivers the message of rebellion to the masses you can almost see the look of vengeful fury on her face, and you know that if looks could kill, everyone in that crowd would be dead. Kalendorf is quite simply Doctor Who’s best character ever (just try to imagine Star Trek presenting the grumpy alien warrior as the leading hero without patronising such a character, let alone allowing him the authority to command his own ship and criticise the poor moral fibre of the human characters) and a dignified, well spoken vocal presence like Gareth Thomas makes it clear that Nick is partly aiming to channel Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, and to really make alien invasions and apocalypse work as a poignant, sharp, landscape-building audio-musical experience, and in that he succeeds. Its sound design is superb, each leading character gets a moment to shine, there’s a sharp rawness to its first steps for Nicholas Briggs to work without a net, and he demonstrates a shrewd understanding of how to make audio work as a credible piece of action horror, with some of the best action sequences you’ll ever hear and a nowhere to run sense of a whole galaxy being shrunk under the grip of the Daleks.
Even for the jaded adult fan who is now far harder to shock, it returns the Daleks to their rightful place as the stuff of nightmares. The series is so relentless that it practically is a waking nightmare. The cliffhanger ending may provoke various reactions, for some a sense of being cheated of a proper conclusion, for others a sense of copping out of the Daleks’ moment of triumph (though personally I enjoyed seeing the Daleks get the ass kicking they’d long deserved), but it’s an audacious ending that makes it clear that things will never be the same again.
“Where’s my sonic screwdriver?”
The Ultimate Adventure really had me wondering if adapting the Stageplays was a good idea at all, given that it was one release that seemed to completely undo all the good work that Big Finish had done to build a believable, consistent universe. It’s hard to imagine Big Finish doing something like this before the New Series, back when Big Finish was living the dream of many fans to have Doctor Who as a truly adult, dark series made exclusively for us. But with the New Who revival, fandom seemed forced to accept that Doctor Who was a children’s show after all, and of course there was a chance to bank on Doctor Who’s renewed interest and the nostalgia of those casual fans of the 80’s who remember seeing the Ultimate Adventure stageplay but had never bothered with the audios before, and might not even have thought about Doctor Who much before the 2005 revival. And with The Ultimate Adventure’s release, fandom was effectively told yet again to treat it as a bit of light fun for the kiddies and nothing more and to enjoy it for what it was. Typical of fandom’s current anti-intellectualism and forced enjoyment and praise of mediocrity.
For all its potential to be so much more, Doctor Who is at heart a children’s show that’s easily prone to childish silliness and falling back on being simply ‘brand’ television, as well as a complete absence of quality control, and The Ultimate Adventure, like Creature From the Pit and Time & The Rani represent the most extreme, excessive and in some ways sobering affirmations of this fact. This fact is unavoidable unless of course the show had ended with City of Death, or if some 2000 years from now the only surviving records of the show were a time capsule containing only the top ten stories of the recent DWM poll- or if you prefer only the top ten Classic Who stories. But maybe at the same time if the show can be something as asinine as a children’s pantomime show alongside its past achievements then there really are no limits to what the show can do or be. Unfortunately we expected a higher standard for the audios and The Ultimate Adventure seemed to bring everything crashing down, and it’s enormously hard to reckon with it as part of Big Finish’s full-blooded block-universe. Sometimes I wonder if The Ultimate Adventure was the real wrecker of the Big Finish range, breaking its magic spell, embracing the regressive side of nostalgia, subjecting everything special about the audios to the shallowing reductionism of the 80’s, leaving only a hollow, plastic shell of its former glory.
So given how much better Seven Keys to Doomsday comes off as both a story and an adaptation, perhaps I let The Ultimate Adventure off easily for something that could and should have been up to the same high standard as this, but at the same time it affirms that the Stageplay adaptations can be something really special when done right. Like The Ultimate Adventure, this still bears the hallmarks of Terrance Dicks’ parochial writing tone and his rather asinine concessions to audio, but it’s done with enough care and love that it succeeds magnificently. What Terrance has written was typical sci-fi pulp fodder, but written whilst he was in his prime and when his ideas and imagination was fresh, and it sounds just as fresh today. Seven Keys to Doomsday is a reminder that there genuinely was a time before the 1980’s when Doctor Who was treated with nothing less than the utmost respect by its makers, and that it wasn’t just a rose-tinted myth, no matter what the New Who cheerleaders or JNT era apologists might say.
That’s the main difference between this and The Ultimate Adventure- in that story Terrance was writing little more than a homework assignment to a typical JNT shopping list which favoured glitter over substance, but here he’s writing strictly from the soul without such shallow constraints. There’s a real joy in exploring the world of Karn in audio, and how Terrance’s imagination has rendered this world with strange wonders and horrors. This was written in 1974 (you can spot elements of The Green Death, Death to the Daleks and Planet of the Spiders in it), and this was a good two years before Terrance would revisit his imagined world of Karn in The Brain of Morbius. This is more or less the same world, an aged, ancient world straight out of horror fiction of perpetual darkness illuminated by ghostly moonlight, a world of the undead, immortal beings that clung to life even when their bodies had decayed to mere bones. Unlike in Brain of Morbius, this doesn’t really evolve into a theme about social development or the dangers of immortality in preserving the reactionary dark ages of the past as something permanent, entropic and inescapable and forbidding any progress. But nonetheless the haunted, uninviting atmosphere is there, and really makes the journey of the brave heroes into their worst fears and demons feel genuinely personal and cathartic.
Where The Ultimate Adventure occasionally drags, this takes appreciative pauses at a world that deserves appreciation. Whilst the companions in The Ultimate Adventure became embroiled in the Tardis by awful contrivance, here it’s by genuine impulsiveness on the part of the characters. That’s partly because The Ultimate Adventure was conceived as an action-orientated romp, which is why the talky bits were so functional and dragging. Seven Keys to Doomsday feels far more like a proper theatre horror story that’s all about mood and environment, so the slower pacing is perfect for it’s sense of trepid caution and conveys a sense of treating its narrative environment with delicate respect, and the dialogue really becomes something world building, drawing out the history of Karn and the long plight of its people. We still get characters given to ‘look at that elaborate fight scene that’s happening over there’ type dialogue, but done with far better acting so that the observational reactions sound sincere and smooth, and performed in a way that keeps the listener hooked on the details, as if they’re hearing a beautiful painting being described in sensual detail. There’s a real tenderness to the storytelling here. It benefits heavily from being played straight as drama and in some places it’s downright melancholy.
It’s here of course that the long debate comes up about whether Doctor Who benefits better from the humorous approach or being played completely serious and straight. Ideally Doctor Who should be humoured enough to be approachable, but serious enough that the viewer can suspend their disbelief, despite the show’s budgetary limitations. Many fans complained that during the Williams era, the show’s humour and indulgence frequently undermined the drama and played so much to the camera that it broke down the fourth wall. What they wanted was a more serious approach, believing it would make the stories more disciplined and sharp and suspenseful, and that’s what the pretentiously humourless JNT era was praised for, despite featuring some of the most incoherent, obfuscational and schizophrenic plotless disaster zone stories in the show’s history, as the show degenerated into plotless inane vulgarity. New Who was supposedly the solution to this, bringing the show back to the popular and humorous Tom Baker days, but by adding comical lines or moments in the middle of dramatic scenes, it was brutally jarring and made the show seem simply insecure and desperate. And now Big Finish have followed suite in filling their latest audio stories with comedy moments to appeal to new fans, but at the cost of diluting the story and neutering its bite. So it’s something of a relief that the stageplays are treated as sacrosanct with no-one tampering with the original script or taking away its edge. What we have here is completely the author’s own work, so no-one’s forcing artificial laughs into it to undermine the drama. It’s a good thing that Big Finish haven’t been trying to make this story more popularised, because in its original form it is a timelessly accessible, simple story that could effectively have worked as a second pilot for a revived series, or even a feature film since I’d venture that it’s story is big enough for cinema. Infact it’s possibly Big Finish’s most accessible release next to Blood of the Daleks and the first two seasons of Dalek Empire, and that’s what makes this story classic and worthy of being stuck on a desert island with.
It seems that without humour, there’s no charm, but that’s not necessarily the case. If there was a point where the show worked without humour, it would have to be the first season of the show back in 1963, which is pretty much what Seven Keys to Doomsday is modelled on. The charm was there because of the sense of a warm family dynamic to the protagonists, and because they really believed they had been transported far from home to wondrous and frightening new worlds. This takes the Doctor Who idea back to basics. Jimmy and Jenny are a younger Ian and Barbara, a couple who literally represent the audience and are unwilling travellers with the Doctor, thrust against their will into this nightmarish adventure. The important thing is they are written and played as real people, with strong acting on both sides and Charlie Hayes as Jenny doing particularly good work, clearly bringing to the production her inherited love for Doctor Who from her mother Wendy Padbury (she also clearly enjoyed playing an imposter Dalek). They also represent the warmth at the heart of this desolate and cold wider universe. Big Finish did receive comments about the chauvinistic attitudes of this story, but the point is that it recreates an authentic sense of the family values of the time. This is a family that’s realistically patriarchal and where the man of the household is uncompromisingly protective of the fairer sex, and he does so out of love as much as chauvinism. At the same time though, Jenny often shows herself to be the stronger, more mature character when having to bang The Doctor and Jimmy’s heads together whenever they’re arguing and competing with each other over who’s the alpha male.
As the story goes on, the heartbreaking sense of abandonment and homesickness amidst these uprooted travellers in a perpetually threatening alien world as the fight gets more relentless, the nightmare becomes unending and the possibility of ever getting home seems further and further away from reach, really starts getting under the listener’s skin, just like in the early days of the show. The Doctor in question is very close to the Hartnel incarnation, crochety, rude and untrustworthy, redefined as the stranger again, but there’s also a loneliness to him that influences his gradual fondness and warmth towards his companions. There are of course hints of Pertwee as well, with lip service paid to venusian karate, being sent by remote control onto errands by the Time Lords, and the Doctor this time starting life as the moral hero from the outset, risking his life and fighting for the greater utilitarian good, whilst condemning the humans for their violence. But it’s the Doctor’s sense of utilitarianism that makes him untrustworthy in dragging Jimmy and Jenny into this dangerous conflict out of a belief that all their lives are expendable for the greater safety of the galaxy, and so the arguing and mistrust and tested loyalty all comes beautifully to a dramatic head rather than being the kind of gratuitously contrived artificial bitching that Eric Saward tried to pass for drama. Trevor Martin’s performance really puts a stamp on the role, making it his own fully fledged character and performs with gravitas, dignity and warmth as though the pulverising of the Doctor’s dignity during the JNT years never happened, making this at times feel like an Unbound adventure and making us wish he could have been given an official turn as the Doctor.
And it’s this no nonsense approach to the drama and to the characters that makes the suspense and the tests of character really sharp and outstanding. Jimmy’s first encounter with a Dalek is very tense stuff, aided by the way the Dalek’s ferociousness breaks the eerie serenity. The rather manipulative scene where Jenny is inside a Dalek casing and seemingly gets blasted when the Daleks discover the imposter is genuinely harrowing, and comparing it to the way The Ultimate Adventure pilfers the same scene only brings home how much more believable and devastating it is here. The scene where the resistance fighters are about to execute Tara for her treachery feels genuinely brutal, which only makes the Doctor’s plea for mercy and compassion all the more affirming and beautiful, as if representing hope of a better life than all this constant killing and in-fighting to a broken, defeated people. Although the story is somewhat parochial and pulp, with its traitor character being a familiar trope of the genre, there’s something humanistic and progressive about the portrayal here, in asking us to empathise with the reviled figure and understand her motivations, much like how Dalek Empire did. All these things combine to make the story and the journey one in which the unwilling and protesting companions get to apply their forthright convictions into a heroic cause, where the Doctor really does engage into a battle of wits with his enemies, Tara faces her guilt for her treachery and manages to redeem herself, the human resistance who have known only defeat and death are shown how to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat by the Doctor’s hopeful presence and likewise the finale really feels like a climax because it’s the point where things really get personal between the Doctor and the Emperor Dalek in such a way that the Daleks’ folly is shown to be one of foolish pride and the climax feels genuinely emotionally satisfying. This is all about entering the caves and facing your darkest fears and conquering them, like the Buddhist tales of facing fears or Greek myths about battling the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, and the serious nature of the drama and dark atmosphere only makes the final victory that bit more gratifying and beautiful, as does the strict dramatic discipline that beautifully polarises tenderness and sharpness. Indeed to return this to the Williams era debate, we can look at Horns of Nimon as being a similar template for what this story does, in using graceful, eerie minimalism to tell a story of decayed empires, and shows that if Horns of Nimon had that bit extra put into it, had it been played straight and really drawn on its Greek mythology to tell a story about personal demons being reckoned with, then it could have been a far stronger story for it, maybe even a classic.
Despite my usual complaints about the ‘making of’ extras on the main line releases, I don’t mind their presence on the Stage Plays releases, since they have a reason to be on there to chart the history of the original production and the reminiscence of those who were there at the event. Infact the ‘making of’ extras on The Ultimate Adventure were arguably much more entertaining than the story itself. But whilst the extras on The Ultimate Adventure betrayed a rather cynical view of the story as a bit of nonsense for undemanding kids, the extras here reveal a far more fond recollection of the story, which in some ways explains the differences in how they were produced. The Ultimate Adventure seemed like it was almost treated as a necessary and unchallenging chore for those involved with making it, but this on the other hand seems to have been crafted and performed with nothing less than the utmost care and love, like a rediscovered treasure carefully and patiently reconstructed with the most careful and tender hands. Ultimately this is up there with Brain of Morbius and Horror of Fang Rock as one of Terrance Dick’s finest Doctor Who stories, and the final proof is in the pudding. If, at the end of it all when Jimmy and Jenny have been returned home, you’re not on Jenny’s side when she’s coaxing Jimmy to agree to go on another trip with the Doctor together, then you have no soul.
“You know Jason I can cope with most things in the cosmos from Daleks to Dinosaurs but that woman…. terrifies me!”
Everyone knows that there are very few dirtier words in Doctor Who fandom than ‘pantomime’. To many fans there is no worse crime the show can commit than to degenerate into pantomime, and the Sylvester McCoy era is most frequently accused of this unforgivable sin. There are also some humourless fans who levy this charge against the later Tom Baker/Douglas Adams comedy era as well, but I fail to see how such Adamsian wit is ever in the same league as anything so lowbrow as pantomime.
But actually turning Doctor Who into a pantomime during the Sylvester McCoy era wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to the show. By then the worst thing already had happened when Eric Saward had turned the show into a miserable display of violence, mean spiritedness and turned the once admirable Doctor into both a victim and a bully. Actually the term panto-nasty has recently been coined to describe the style of Season 21 and 22, which actually captures quite well the tasteless, stylistically schizophrenic and queasy feel of that ugly era. By contrast making it a full blown pantomime in the McCoy era was perhaps a necessitated clearing of the air and return to innocence. But still we’re somewhat sympathetic to the McCoy critics, and we can think of few good words for Season 24 because it’s near enough impossible for anyone not to feel patronised and insulted by its childish, asinine content, and whether or not you think the show improved quickly in the final two seasons, the fact is the show takes a step too far and finally feels like it has irrevocably lost its sense of authenticity in a way that had never happened before (yet this somewhat works in the McCoy era’s favour in terms of making it fair game for some bold retconning), it’s the same way that the TV Movie and the current New Series will never realy feel like ‘proper’ Doctor Who.
But in many ways we feel that the ever changing diversity of Doctor Who means that there are no real rules to what Doctor Who can and can’t do, so long as the execution is sound, and if the show can do pantomime well, or better yet do something subversive with the style then it should go for it. We feel that the problem with the much maligned Season 24 wasn’t necessarily with the pantomime elements, but rather the cynical, insubstantial and joyless way they were done. But by Season 25, the show was starting to get it right, and was producing pantomime stories like The Happiness Patrol which was a good example of pulling off the style in a more sharp, pacy and upbeat way, and Greatest Show in the Galaxy which was a superb spontaneous, quirky, creative masterpiece that carried a hard edged message delivered in an uncompromising, unconventional, non-conformist way. Mind you, fans could feasibly say the same of Eric Saward’s period and argue that the quirky, rare twisted genius of The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks was proof that they were finally getting it right before Michael Grade’s interference set them back to square one.
But the question remains about what category The Ultimate Adventure fits into. Upon a first listen it clearly fits into the same ‘cynical, joyless’ category as Season 24, and even seems to rift heavily on the utterly hollow Delta and the Bannermen. Infact it’s probably the closest thing to a Season 24 story that Big Finish has ever done (although The Rapture is a sure contender for matching Season 24’s ‘Doctor Who gone incontinent’ feel). It’s laboured and patronising and really rather asinine. The tendency towards observational dialogue describing the action is especially condescending and reaches infuriating levels, as it’s worse than in any other Big Finish production and no-one seems like they’re even trying to smooth it out. It’s clearly a wafer thin plot that’s simply contrived to suit another JNT shopping list, and even threatens the destruction of the Tardis again. As this is a Dalek story, the Cybermen and mercenaries clearly only have one reason to be in the story, for spectacle’s sake and to conveniently turn on each other at the climax for a neat contrived happy ending. The fact that they haven’t even been considered is made particularly clear when they first abduct the Envoy, with the mercenaries going in first and taking heavy losses, only for the Cybermen to go in as the second wave and prove themselves impervious to the gunfire and able to win their prize, which begs the question of why the mercenaries were sent in at all, and simply makes their deaths seem pointless and stupid in a rather cruel way. It may seem silly to gripe about a plot that can’t possibly be taken seriously, but coming from the same pen that gave us Horror of Fang Rock and Brain of Morbius, two of the finest plotted stories in the classic Who canon, it’s a depressing comedown.
The romantic scenes between Jason and Crystal are so horribly saccharine, that they conjure unpleasant memories of the sexless days of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa, back when the show was being made strictly for arrested adolescents only. The same feels true of the death of Delilah in punishment for her promiscuity, which is the story’s most reactionary moment (and the most artificial, blatantly scripted ‘woman’s dying words to her lover’ scene I’ve come across since I saw The Matrix: Revolutions). It’s hard to see the story’s view of women as anything but textbook ‘virgin-whore’ complex. Going back to the complaints above, a convoluted and gratuitously elaborate take over the world plot can work if the central threat has a credible and threatening presence and if the obstacles against the hero are believable and involving, as with Mind of Evil. But this is a pantomime story with Daleks, and so after years of Big Finish building up the Dalek Emperor as the Notorious BIG Godfather of the Daleks, and making him so insidiously evil and reprehensible that you wouldn’t be surprised if he was organising a paedophile ring on the side, here the Emperor is diminished and reduced to a pantomime villain, and as a result there’s just no sense of there being a ticking mind in there anymore, and as for his Dalek minions, well they suffer a heavy pasting and trampling of their dignity that’s almost as irrevocable as Journey’s End’s conclusion which denigrated the Daleks collectively into a funny turn. So this is overall just indulgent, suspenseless hollowness. And just like with Journey’s End it’s done solely to pitch the story at a younger children’s audience by maintaining a squeaky clean hero at all costs, and so the spinning Daleks, just like the climactic infighting with Cybermen and mercenaries are a convenient means whereby the Doctor is let off of having to destroy the Daleks himself, like he normally would. The latter example though is somewhat more offensive because it essentially reduces the Doctor to an utter coward who runs away at the first opportunity and leaves the mercenaries to fight it out without lifting a finger to help them.
On repeated listens, however, you may find things to momentarily like about it, and the fact that Colin Baker and Claire Huckle as Crystal give it their all and clearly have gotten into the spirit of things, provides a certain charm that begins to get under the listener’s skin. The musical approach to children’s space adventure was clearly inspired at the time by Terrahawks (which, it must be said handled the juxtaposition with far more wit and irony) with Crystal taking the role of Kate Kestrel. Claire sings the most asinine lyrics with a real joy de vie, and the kind of beautifully piercing vocals that cut deep, regardless of how fluffy the content, and sounds like something that could have stood well alongside the competition of teen popstars like Kylie, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and even the delightful Martika back in 1989. It’s a shame that the musical story never goes for the opportunity to contrast the mechanised death incarnate of the Daleks, with the emotional, joival, spontaneous vibrancy of the music. Come to think of it, Daleks in Manhattan missed a similar trick.
It’s never going to be in the Season 25 category. It doesn’t have the spontanaeity or strangeness that Season 25 does. It’s all relentlessly formulaeic and conservative, even if it didn’t make praising references to Thatcher and Churchill. It might have felt more strange and spontaneous if the pacing and energy had been tightened, to an almost unsustainable degree where bits of the story were overlapping in surreal fashion, i.e, if the Cybermen had attacked in the middle of Crystal’s number and she’d kept singing throughout the siege. It all feels held back by the all too prevalent ‘literal minded’ approach of the JNT era that held such a stranglehold on creativity, ambiguities, imagination and possibilities.
It can perhaps be appreciated as a piece of inspirational source material for Bang-Bang-A-Boom and The Wormery, but only in a way that emphasises how much better both those stories did it. The Wormery certainly seemed inspired by its musical approach to Doctor Who, and achieved a wonderfully rhythmic story that seemed delicately composed like a melodic series of bars and notes which suits a story that organically blends musical crescendo with chaos. The Wormery also utilised the seedy space bar setting with a far more enchanting atmosphere of a cosmic waystation where time has stood still and an era has been preserved, ran by a duplicitous alpha female barmaid who’s flirtations with the Doctor are actually very charming and life-affirming with a tangible aroma between the two, and achieved a far better, more organic and spirited atmosphere, by virtue of not sounding like a box-ticking exercise written strictly for children and arrested adolescents. But The Ultimate Adventure sadly shares little of that sense of the otherworldly, witty, life-affirming or compelling. There’s just nothing really organic about it, nothing that reaches out.
The pacing is the problem. So many elements and set-pieces are thrown at the story which Terrance Dicks just doesn’t seem to be able to make flow naturally. His forte was always more quiet, atmospheric stories that took their time to unfold, not this kind of heavy action spectacle business. It’s mis-paced in some ways but it’s certainly not dull, and the sense of adventure is always there. The real problem with this story is that it was simply an add-on job for Big Finish. As we discussed in The Holy Terror, the limitations of audio often forces writers to work that bit harder against them, and put that extra bit of effort in to really reach the listener. That’s usually where Big Finish audios get their bite from. That bite isn’t here because the script was already written in 1989, so the job is treated as half done already, and all the writer is doing is adding unsubtle little adaptations to the audio medium that like a lot of Terrance Dicks’ novelisations, might as well have been written in a week.
The trick is to always remember that this is not your standard Big Finish story and not really part of the audio canon. If you believe it is for a moment then all the good work Big Finish has done beforehand is suddenly undone. The Daleks that had once burned entire galaxies are suddenly bumbling goons as disposable as anything else in this plastic universe. The Sixth Doctor, who has been given such rich character development over the course of the audios that he’s turned many critic’s heads, is suddenly reduced to this false, dumbed down frivolity spectacle like the puppet he was back in the JNT era. To treat this as a serious part of Big Finish is to disintegrate the entirety of Big Finish’s believable universe of worlds and dangers. It’s hard because it has the official Nick Briggs Dalek voices, and lazer effects, and has Colin Baker as the Doctor, giving it an authentic Big Finish feel. And makes a reference to Evelyn to boot. But that has to be nothing more than lip service, a treat for the fans who wanted to take a trip down memory lane. This is a relic of a period where theatre was suffering poor turnouts and so started banking on a certain cheapness, a la Emu’s Pink Windmill. That aside, it’s occasionally entertaining, sometimes amidst the false frivolity there’s a genuine bit of fun, and it moves at a decent enough pace. There’s even a chance it’s unchallenging simplicity, nostalgia, fan service and naive upbeatness and optimism, could make it your ideal comfort food if you’re feeling really down. But the main draw of this story is as a piece of Doctor Who history, and history always has its ugly and shameful parts. On that score it delivers.
Infact as a time capsule of the era it was made in, it feels like such an utterly faithful recreation that you’d forget it isn’t the real thing. For instance Bang-Bang-A-Boom may be an affectionate tribute to the style of a Season 24 story, but it’s just too darn good and witty to ever be able to pass for the real thing. But this story actually creates a real sense of what this play was like to watch back in 1989. It may be cynical and superficial, but if anything that makes it even more true to its era.
In the extras, Nick Briggs said it best when he said that recreating The Ultimate Adventure was almost like rediscovering a missing adventure. So regardless of how good or bad it is, it’s still going to be a must-buy for many of us fans. Hell, many of us would gladly trade in all TV Doctor Who after 1989 (or even after 1980) in exchange for ten minutes of rediscovered footage from the Space Pirates. What’s £14 going to amount to, really?
The Waters of Mars? HA! I bring you Enclave Irrelative!
What would be left if right were wrong,
A rectangle broader than it’s long,
Nine sixes that exceed six nines,
The crunch of colliding parallel lines.
More deadly than any enemy.
A piece of classic advice:
This above all; to thine own self be true.
The Doctor in catch 22
Is there a solution?
Is there an escape?
I was afraid a 40-minute part 1 would be daunting, but the first 2 minutes are ambient guitar music.
A man and woman are playing a game where they apparently destroy life forms for fun. It sounds like a cross between I Spy and Russian Roulette.
Ria and our new pal Truman Crouch are playing a game while the Doctor makes some tea. Suddenly the console freezes over and a disembodied voice claiming to be the Tardis pipes in. The Doctor doesn’t believe that it’s actually the Tardis, but the doors open and The Doctor and co. are shot out into the vortex. They all land in a snowstorm. Hearing a pack of wolves, they make a run for it. Suddenly, a mysterious voice orders the wolves to depart, and they do.
The Doctor, Truman and Ria come across an icy castle, and decide to try their luck. They are invited in by a strange woman (everything is strange in this story, so I’m not going to say it every time). The wife of the king (just go with it), arranges a feast. They are introduced to their daughter, and then the king. I think he’s a king. He’s the one in charge. Really, it’s like Tom Bombadil played by Brian Blessed on acid. He’s the master of Yotun. Good for him.
The Doctor says he needs to find a way to contact the Time Lords to help track down his lost Tardis. The king, Slogru, gets very angry at the Doctor’s mention of science. It also turns out that the only three inhabitants of the land are the father, mother and daughter. Truman asks the daughter how old she’ll be, and she breaks down in tears, saying that she’ll be 17 tomorrow. Distraught, she runs out of the room. Teenagers!
Later that night, the girl comes visit Truman. She says that she will be dead the next day. Apparently, there’s a Hellwolf of Fire that is coming to get her. Don’t you hate that? As it happens, the Hellwolf arrives to visit the king. Apparently… the king once asked the beast to show him his transcendant powers (think we’ve all heard that line). In exchange, the beast would get the baby when she turned 17. The wife makes a wager with the beast for her daughter. There is a violet door and a yellow door. Behind one is a beautiful garden. Behind the other is the beast. She will have to choose to decide her fate. A riddle will provide the clues to which door is which. The Doctor goes to work on the riddle and tells her to open the violet door. Truman opens the door, but the wolf is behind that one and it eats him. Ah well. But because of Truman’s sacrifice, the beast gives the girl one more day to live. The mother is furious, and summons a bunch or creatures out of the walls to kill him and Ria. They make a run for the yellow door, and arrive in the garden. But just when things are looking good, the beast arrives and kills Ria. Ah well.
The Doctor and Ria (she’s still here) find themselves in a flaming cavern filled with nasty demons. The demons banter a lot, but since their ring modulator is set about 5 notches above ‘Dalek’ you can’t understand them very well. Truman is fine too. Turns out that everything has actually been a diversion created by the eternals (see Enlightenment) for entertainment. The weirdness has been an enclave of something or other, blah blah blah weirdness blah blah blah another dimension blah blah blah.
Turns out Cuthbert (from Shadow World) was behind it all as a way to make money. He was going to… oh it’s too complicated. He was being bad and the Doctor stopped him. Ria and Truman are fine.
That was a nice nap! Now down to business. There’s a bicentenial refit of the Tardis scheduled. Must pop over the Centauri 7. Just three small questions. What was that? Honestly, what was that? And seriously, what the heck did I just listen to?
It’s such a mess. The plot is actually straightforward enough. But it’s the worst kind of runaround. It’s a runaround trying to be weird. Yeah, it’s very very weird. But not good weird. It’s trying to hide its lack of anything interesting to say or do by being strange. Style over substance to the extreme. A real waste of the new companion, Truman.
Overall 2 out of 10
Best Tenth Planet Reference: “Last time I was this cold, I turned into a little fellow in baggy pants!”
Best line to use at a dinner party: “Here, let my witch-wife fill up your mead horn.”
It’s time for THE SECRET OF NEMATODA. Make up your own joke about tea.
“Journeying out into space, forging an empire, the pioneering spirit taught the human race to expect the unexpected, as long as the unexpected was that which they had expected.”
Cornelle’s “Study of Tellurian Expansion 5097″
“When the job made no sense, some just marked time and some defied defeat. It took the man who delivered the tea to wonder why the job made no sense.”
H.S. Posedor in his report to Earth Centre 4083
We start with a bit of moody synth music. I love synth music. Can’t help it. My dad was ¼ Commodore 64. Administrator Posedor is lamenting that Earth will never know the real difficulties of colonial administration. Worse than that, the tea is terrible. So bad is it, that he decides to send a narrative device plea through the galactic airwaves, explaining to anyone who can hear, that his job of maintaining a subterranean Tellurian (see Robert Holmes, lexicon of) colony on the planet of Nematoda is hard work. He’s had to protect the peaceful elfin indigenous Nematodans from the monstrous indigenous Nematoids.
Before we go any further, you’ll notice there’s already a little bit of Smurf-speak here. As a handy reference for you and me both:
Nematoda – planet
Nematodans – oppressed nice guys
Nematoids – giant wormy monsters
Nematrocity – An act of violence committed while trying to distinguish between nearly identical names.
The administrator goes on to say that the Nematodans have been forced under ground, depending on crumbling air holes to the surface, while the still surface dwelling nematoids hunt them down. The project to save the nematodans was undertaken by his predecessor 50 years ago. The current administrator (him) is not the adventurous hero that his predecessor was. He is just a paper pusher. To that end, the real purpose of his intergalactic message takes shape. He needs tea. He is a tea lover. So, if there is anyone out there with any tea, he begs that they please stop by and give him some.
But no sooner has the message been sent, than he gets an alert that another air hole to the surface has collapsed. No rest for the tealess. In their urgency to fix the hole, they spear a nematoid. Rather than killing it, they just make it mad, and it takes a collision course for the hub of the colony.
The Doctor and Ria land outside the colony, tea in hand. They received the distress call, and as the Doctor says, “Tea drinkers of the cosmos should help each other whenever they can!” They spot one of the giant air holes, and hear a distant roar. Before they can get to the roaring nematoid, it is shot and killed. Strangely, the nematodans get on top of its carcass and start chanting. At odds about the future of the colony are Administrator Posedor, a more level-headed man all things considered, and Stone, who has a military mentality and thinks that the nematodans need to be whipped into a more efficient labor force for their own good. I wonder if this conflict of interests will have any future bearing on the plot… As they make their way to the colony, the Doctor and Ria are surrounded by hundreds of little nematodans.
Stone, the warmongering, tea hating, stereotypically Strangelovian American character, is determined to get Earth approval to wage full war against the nematoids. Foreman Crouch, Stones assistant, is very sympathetic to the nematodans, but is not a warmonger.
The nematodans lead the Doctor and Ria to a glowing fungus called Nemfeed, which they are told they are not allowed to touch.
Crouch and his crew discover the Tardis, and follow the nematodan footprints.
The Doctor and the nematodans stand back as a nematoid comes down from above. Strangely, though, they are not frightened of it. But before anything can happen, Stone’s men shoot it, and the Doctor and Ria are taken to see the administrator. The administrator has no time for them, until he realizes that the Doctor has come bearing tea. Over a much-appreciated cuppah, the Doctor, Ria and Administrator become friendly. Foreman Crouch comes in and explains that examination of the dead nematoid shows that part of its physiognomy is a material almost as hard as concrete. Stone suggests that instead of massacring them, they should now start harvesting them, to use the hard extract to reinforce the collapsing air holes. The Doctor is uneasy about what’s happening, and when he gets a moment alone with Ria, tells her that he wants to find out more. But just then, another air hole starts collapsing around them, and they have to run for their lives.
CUE… updates on upcoming AV releases, and cast interviews
Our heroes run, but notice that the worm has been injured, and is leaking its hardening goo (sorry, I know this is a family review) onto a solider, and they go back and save him. Peace is restored, and after a few days, a colony meeting is held to assess the situation. Stone is still upset at the Doctor and Ria, and is furious when he finds out that Posedor has brought them on as his advisors. The group reviews an examination that The Doctor and Ria did with Nematodans. It turns out that the appointed leader of the Nematodans is as old as the planet itself. It turns out that the Nematodans were immortal until humanity arrived. D’oh! Stone leaves to take care of another air hole collapse. When the Doctor and Posidor determine that Stone has killed a Nematodan, they realize that he’ll have to be stripped of his power. Meanwhile, Stone’s men shooti the heck out of the Nematoid worms. Long story short, Stone rallies the army and stages a cue against Posedor. The Doctor discovers that the Nematodans are intentionally letting the Nematoids in as part of a life cycle symbiotic thingamajig. After some running around, Ria gets out and rescues the Doctor. Stone, meanwhile, plans to sell the Nematodans into slavery. After a tremendous amount of running around, getting captured, escaping, yelling, shooting, trapping, etc, the Stone ends up killed by his own devices. It’s a bit muddled, so I won’t get into it. You knew Stone would lose, right?
Crouch brings the Tardis to Doctor and Ria. They step inside, and Crouch steps in with them. He tells them about a missed opportunity to strike out on his own that he once had, and decides that this time he’ll make the right decision and join the Tardis crew. So Mr. Truman Crouch is now a companion! Hooray!
Well, it’s a tale of two parts. Part one is nicely paced, with a lot of interesting characters. Part two is a madly scrambled runaround with brief pauses for exposition. Runarounds are fine on TV, but the second half of Nematoda sounds more like the audio to a missing Hartnell than it does a proper audio adventure. It’s too muddled. But I will give credit to John Wadmore for playing Stone exactly like General Cutler in The Tenth Planet. I wonder if they trained at the same academy for megalomaniacally unhinged army stereotypes… Nigel Fairs, the ever-generous contributor to this thread, makes a wonderful debut as Truman Crouch. Ria is a nice sidekick, but Doctor Briggs seems to spark better with a male companion.
Serious lines that I laughed at childishly
“One of the guards says he thinks he saw them disappearing up the central concourse air hole.”
Overall 7 out of 10
Nematoda is, for all its running around, an intricately woven story. One that my review doesn’t really give enough credit to. So while I say 7 out of 10, it’s still certainly good enough to air on the BBC today. It was certainly good enough to knock the socks off of about anything that was airing in the mid 80s!
The first of several very trippy Audio Visuals to come – ENCLAVE IRRELATIVE.
From 13 – Second Solutionon
We now begin a very long story arc with SECOND SOLUTION.
Blurb Receiving a garbled Time-Space distress call, the Doctor returns to Earth, in 1986 – but all is not as it should be! The Doctor and Ria find themselves in peril on a Moon base which should not exist, and in a version of November 5th 1605 which is all wrong.
We start with the Doctor singing to himself in the bathtub. Ria calls to tell him that he has received an emergency audio message. There’s a lot of distortion, and all they can make out is that they called for the Doctor by name and that the Earth would be destroyed. The Doctor notes that message was broadcast on a special Gallifreyan emergency frequency. So it was either a Time Lord, or someone who knows a lot about Time Lords.
So what of Ria’s twin and her impending death? Ummm, hey, look over there! *runs away*
The Tardis appears to have materialized back in the Doctor’s old laboratory at UNIT Headquarters (see the 70’s). But when he opens the doors, he finds that he has actually materialized in space. The coordinates say they are in the right place. The Doctor thinks that Earth may have been destroyed.
CUE MUSIC – Wow, long pre titles sequence!
The date is November 1986. The Doctor is trying to pinpoint the source of the distress signal. He decides to make a stop off around earth’s moon. They discover a building in the middle of a crater. They land the Tardis and examine the crater on foot. It’s very clean, as though the crater is regularly swept. The building itself is huge, and the Doctor notes that it is almost deliberately conspicuous. Despite his concerns, the Doctor decides to try to open the door. There is a huge energy buildup, and the Doctor and Ria run inside for cover. They hear a Tardis materialize in the distance and the Doctor goes to investigate. He spots a couple of people, but they disappear before he can get to them. Meanwhile, Ria spots someone whom she thinks is the Doctor, but is actually… another Doctor! He tells Ria that she and the Doctor should do nothing. Elsewhere, the Doctor has triggered a recorded message, telling him that he has arrived too late and the earth has been destroyed in a great war. Just then, a duplicate Ria appears and also says to do nothing. The actual Doctor and actual Ria meet up and decide to run for the Tardis before it’s too late. Once they are safely aboard, the Doctor tells Ria that they must travel to 17th Century England, because according to the computer on the moon, Guy Fawkes’ plan to blow up Parliament has succeeded. The Doctor decides to defuse Fawkes’ himself. Shortly afterward they arrive, Ria is captured by Fawkes himself. The Doctor does no better, as he is caught by Sir Thomas Knevet, who thinks that he is Guy Fawkes. Unfortunately, he is caught before he can extinguish all of the fuses, and the explosion goes off.
The Fawkes conspirators gloat to themselves about their success. Fawkes comes in with Ria his prisoner. They give her the choice of being drowned or shot. Knevet is about to run the Doctor through when a prostitute saves him. They outrun the King’s men in a cabby. It turns out the she is Catherine, the sister of one of the conspirators. Before they can kill the Doctor and Ria, they escape. They make it back to the Tardis and return to 1986. There they find that the continents are shifting – the result of the earth’s core and water and something something something. It’s bad, OK? The Doctor blames his own interference in time. They decide to return to the moon to warn themselves about getting involved in the first place. You see where this is headed, don’t you? This kind of twisty involvement in your own timeline is better if you can include a song by Huey Lewis and the News, but we’ll make due. The Doctor and Ria become the other Doctor and Ria encountered by the Doctor and Ria at the very beginning of the story. The Doctor decides to send himself a message via the Tardis (thumps head). Remember that message the Doctor gets at the beginning of the story? Yeah. But then Ria tells the Doctor not to send it, thus breaking the time cycle. The paradox resolves itself and the Earth survives. They are supposed to forget everything that happened as a result, but for some reason they both remember everything. The Doctor decides to get back in the tub and play with his rubber ducks. A sting of ominous music indicates that things may not have gone as smoothly as the Doctor thinks.
This is an interesting little story. And I have to say it, the end of Blood Circuit, where the Doctor and Ria must return to Ria’s twin and save both their lives is completely dropped. No mention of if they have already done this or anything. I guess we’re supposed to assume that it’s been taken care of. As for Second Solution, it’s a little bit scattered around. It spends a good chunk of its first episode on the moon, then goes to 17th Century England, then goes back to the moon. The longer stories may have been spoiling me, but this just moves around too quickly. You never get any depth to the characters. They’re there, they yell, then they’re gone. But speaking of yelling, and doing a very good job of it, you can’t discuss Second Solution without discussing its guest star, Nabil Shaban, better known as Sil the Mentor. He plays a couple of roles here, but his main part is that of Sir Knevet. And boy does he light a fire under his characterization. If you like hearing Shaban throw a huge fit as much as I do, you’ll love his performance here. There’s a little anecdote in the liner notes for the story that I have to quote:
“In particular, Nabil Shaban (guest starring as Bates and Sir Knevet) certainly entered into the spirit of things. Screaming and shouting at the top of his voice, he even provided realistic sound effects by dismantling most of his wheelchair and bashing the metal parts together. He was so caught up in his antics that he missed the cry of ‘Cut!’ from the director, only giving up his ‘battle’ when he realized he was the only one left fighting it!”
I didn’t know a great deal about Guy Fawkes before hearing this story. Sorry, I never saw V for Vendetta, OK? It startled me to see the connection that Nabil Shaban actually had to the conspirators!
Overall 7 out of 10
It needed to be longer.
The Doctor gains a new companion, Truman Crouch, in THE SECRET OF NEMATODA.
From 12 – Blood Circuiton
The finale to season 2 of the Audio Visuals ends in epic fashion with BLOOD CIRCUIT.
RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY
When the TARDIS is critically damaged during an impromptu flight through a spacio-temporal maelstrom, the Doctor and Ria are forced to crash land on the planet Llandros.
Here the Doctor discovers a shattering truth:
The race of biological engineers who are the Ship’s only hope of repair have suffered a massive ecological disaster which has reduced them to a state of total genetic chaos.
Meanwhile, Ria is desperately ill, a victim of the acceleration of relative time across her unique physiology, and in a gigantic silo somewhere beneath the surface of Llandros, huge Blackstone Generators hold the key to armaggeddon.
With blurbs like that, who needs reviews?
The story starts with a pair of explorers on the surface of a barren planet. They shoot a creature and are thrilled at the notion that they are about to become rich.
The explorers, Tate and Stringer, are back at their base, discussing whether or not they want to go back out. They’re afraid “The Screamers” might get them, but their supervisor, Fowler, has a computer log written out (in COBOL! How quaint! I wonder if their spaceship runs on a Commodore 64) and Stringer is scheduled to go back out on a hunt.
Seven minutes into the story, the Doctor shows up. Nice of you to join us. He and Ria are about to head off to a new destination (Planet 41 Theta in the star cluster Signas, galactic coordinates 41 degrees 0 minutes 13 seconds galactic north, 317 degrees 43 minutes 0.7 seconds galactic south, 87 degrees right ascension to the plane of galactic elliptic, and a sixth order vector equation to determine the compensation factor for orbital position and rotation – for those of you playing at home). The Doctor is worried about the Tardis. It’s his life and home. It’s getting old, and the Doctor feels that the Tardis is worried about dying. And when the Tardis dies, the Doctor knows that his travels will be over. So he’s been repairing, updating and healing the Tardis to the exclusion of everything else. The Doctor tells Ria that they are headed to the Planet Tersurus (check the coordinates above if you can’t find it on Google Gallifrey) to seek out biological engineers who can help fix his ship. Bonus points if you remember the relevance of Tersurus to Doctor Who mythology, you spineless poltroons.
Meanwhile, redshirt, I mean Stringer, is exploring the planet surface. He sees Screamers all around him. Tate tells his boss that he wants to go help, but uber witch Fowler says that he’s dead meat. Several horrible screams later, and sure enough, Stringer is dead, to Tate’s horror and Stringer’s ambivalence.
The Tardis arrives in orbit around what first appears to be Tersurus. Ria hears a strange voice calling her name. Just then, the Cloister Bell sounds. The lights go off and the Tardis goes into free fall. In a last ditch effort, the Doctor turns flight control over to the Tardis itself. They survive but crash land. The Doctor sees that Ria is injured and is acting very strangely. She decides to go to her room for some rest. A voice calls to her, telling her to come with her. It wants to show her something. It tells her that they have to go back to the Punishment Dome (see Maenad). The Doctor comes in to apologize for his recent behavior. He says that they were forced through time as a result of the malfunction, and have both been aged. The Tardis has been badly damaged and they won’t be able to take off again without repairing it. They are stranded. The Doctor detects radio signals outside and decides to go look for help. As soon as he steps out, the voice starts talking to Ria again.
The Doctor ventures outside and discovers hundreds of very hard manufactured blocks. He ends up stumbling into a cave, which leads to a kind of basement. He notices drag marks which lead to the body of Stringer. The dead man is holding pebbles of a refined material with which he can repair the Tardis. But before he can contact Ria, a monster attacks him. It leaves him alive, but has taken the light and severed his airline. The Doctor is left to suffocate.
The Doctor takes the pack off of the dead astronaut and saves himself. He gets in touch with Ria, who apologizes, to him. She takes off in the Tardis and abandons him. Tate, the surviving astronaut, approaches the Doctor with a weapon drawn. He seems to think that the Doctor had something to do with his partner’s death (see An Unearthly Child, Survival, and the 150 odd stories between them). The Doctor points out that the dead man had a heating device put in his suit, which brought the Screamers to him. Tate tells him that they are after precious gems. The gems are actually cysts developed inside the Screamers. Hunting and killing the Screamers provides a fortune’s worth of “Screaming Gems”. Tate suspects that Fowler set up Stringer. At the moment, they are cut off from their mother ship.
Ria is getting close to the spatial maelstrom that first caused the Tardis to crash. The voice in her head tells her to push on. It calls her its sister and says they should die together.
The Doctor and Tate decide to go exploring in the planet interior. They discover an ancient shelter and activate a panel, which reveals a huge Screamer graveyard. Tate decides to scavenge enough gems to make him the richest man alive. The Doctor notes that the graveyard contains giant spaceship engines – engines that create holes in space. The holes create gateways to space outside of space. Through the laws of technobabble, these gateways will inevitably eventually replace all matter in our universe with matter from the other. The Screamers are apparently travelers from this other universe. Speaking of them, the Doctor and Tate hang around too long and some Screamers find them and attack. Fortunately they’re able to distract them and make an escape. Tate decides to go settle his score with Fowler for letting Stringer die. But as they struggle, their mother ship leaves the system without them. And if that weren’t bad enough, the Screamers arrive.
As the Screamers bear down, the Tardis materializes a short distance away. One of the Screamers attacks Tate, leaving him as an unfortunate distraction while Fowler and the Doctor escape. Tate promises vengeance on Fowler, living or dead (in this case, dead). Fowler forces the Doctor inside, telling him that she’ll kill him if he doesn’t cooperate. They find Ria collapsed in the console room. Fowler, who takes pushy *itchiness to levels that Leona Helmsley would find rude and uncomfortable, demands that the Doctor take her back to her mother ship. They look at the scanner and see that the Screamers are recovering the gems from Tate’s body. One of the Screamers starts banging on the door. Ria comes to, and the Doctor and Fowler take her to the medical center. Afterwards, the Doctor analyzes the Screamer crystals and discovers that they aren’t cysts, they are baby Screamers. Fowler doesn’t care and demands that they be synthesized into the byproduct that will temporarily repair the Tardis. All the Doctor has to do is push a button, but he refuses. Fowler solves the problem by pushing the button herself. Back in the medical center, Ria tells the Doctor that she is dying and must return home. She is an engineered life form and only has a 6-month life span. She’d been with the Doctor for 4 months, but the Tardis accident aged them both by 2 additional months. The voice that Ria hears suddenly starts talking to the Doctor. She is the “clone sister” of Ria, also created by Rayden (see Maenad). She is projecting herself into the Tardis from a medical center on their home world. She and Ria must join together so that they can live. They are different aspects of the same mind. Suddenly the Tardis goes out of control. The embryonic gems that the Doctor synthesized have survived inside the time rotor and have begun turning the ship into a Tardis/Screamer hybrid. The floor itself starts to turn into flesh.
Fowler lips off one time too many and Ria thumps her, taking her gun. The Doctor decides to rip the Screamer organs out of the time rotor by brute force. Liquid helium erupts out of the Tardis and shatters Fowler (about time too!). By sheer force, the Doctor finally removes the infection from the ship. But the Tardis appears to be dead. The Doctor laments the loss of his machine. Just then, a Screamer possesses the Doctor’s body, telling him that the Tardis is not dead, but suspended. The temporary transformation of the Tardis has cleansed and renewed its system. It has been reborn. The Screamer is actually a Tersurus engineer. The rock that they crash-landed on is actually was Tersurus. The Screamers invaded Tersurus, corrupting their bodies (I think). With a fully functioning Tardis, the Doctor takes Ria home, bringing along the Tersurun.
The Audio Visuals up until this point had had some very high highs and some very Connection 13 lows. But they hadn’t had their perfect masterpiece until this story. What an epic! You could hand this script to Steven Moffat, and Matt Smith would have the opening to end all openings. It’s a real adventure. The cast is great. And the cast that isn’t great dies very quickly. The story is exciting, the music is excellent, the atmosphere is real, and it even has one of those “Do I have the right?” moments. Blood Circuit is by far the best release of the first two seasons. And as the closer to season 2, it leaves things on an incredibly high note. So, complaints? Well, yeah. For every Weng-Chiang there is a giant rat, and for every Androzani there is a Magma Creature. The Blood Circuit Magma Rat is named Fowler. She’s a decent Ice Queen type for the first half of the story. But once she meets up with the Doctor she becomes the most single mindedly obstinate and nasty villain you could imagine. It’s like if you took all of the annoying characteristics of Peri (that is to say every characteristic of Peri), the snottiness of a spoiled 6 year old, and the murderessness of a standard supervillain, and then threw a hive of bees at her. That’s Fowler. She starts coming across as ridiculously irrational and over the top. Aside from her, it’s just a fantastic story. Not only good enough to be one of the best Big Finish stories if it were ever adapted, but one of the best televised stories too. Masterpiece!
Overall 10 out of 10
Season 3 starts with a story that is the linchpin to an arc that covers the rest of the Audio Visuals series, SECOND SOLUTION.
From 11 – Minuet in Hellon
Minuet in Hell
Blurb Earth, 1762 AD. A crucial period for British Imperial Expansion; and for the influential members of the HELL FIRE CLUB Bedlam is where we find The Doctor – not as a visitor – but incarcerated Drugged and bound, the Doctor is so panic stricken that even his own identity is in question. Gideon Spoonbill will provide an answer. Meanwhile, back at MEDMENHAM ABBEY Count Ogolien prepares for the ultimate materialisation – Almighty Lucifer… the Devil himself!
The story begins with Ria sneaking into the Tardis console room to get herself back home to Calfedoria. She thinks that if she doesn’t do it herself, the Doctor will never get her there in one piece. Finally, a companion who’s been paying attention! Get out while you still can! But she makes a mistake and the Tardis console starts overheating. The Doctor runs in and makes an emergency dematerialization, but there is a terrible pain in his head.
CUE THEME MUSIC
A satanic chant is in progress, led by the Lord Sandwich. The Doctor finds himself in a cell, talking about how Gallifreyan legends speak of a world of anguish. It seems to the Doctor that he is trapped in Hell. The satanic chant was part of a ceremony of the Hellfire Club, which, made up of half of the English aristocracy, serve the King by day and Lucifer by night. They are awaiting the arrival of some new young girls, known as the Pretty Little Satin Bottoms. Sheesh. Meanwhile, at the Bedlam asylum, the latest arrivals are being examined. One of them is Gideon Spoonbill, a man who, though well spoken and clear headed, had a fit of madness earlier in the day. The other inmate is a jibbering lunatic saying that he is a time traveler who has come back to visit an old Scottish friend. Clearly deranged…
The Lord Sandwich meets with an aristocrat who claims that he can help him actually summon Lucifer to the Hellfire Club.
Meanwhile (a lot of subplots going on) Ria has lost her memory and has been taken in as a Pretty Little Satin Bottom. Through the wonders of time travel, will Ria introduce the lapdance to 18th century social elites? The Doctor is desperate to get out of the assylum. Spoonbill tells him that to get out, he should first admit that he is mad. But the Doctor knows that he is sane. He says that he has studied psychiatry and should be helping his fellow inmates.
“Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, you’re glib!”
Gideon tells the Doctor that he’s mad, talking about metal monsters and gigantic bombs. When the jailer comes to give him his medicine, the Doctor makes his escape. But the guard catches him and roughs him up. Ria is in the middle of the Hellfire Club, with a bunch of old perverts making advances on her. A slightly less perverted pervert, Jack Wilkes, defends her honor, and takes her for a walk in the moonlight. The two come across a “strange temple” in the bushes, and Jack passes out drunk. Ria is able to open the door to the “temple” and finds a demon inside. The demon begs for pity and help. It says that it can’t move. The force of gravity is too much for it. It says it was captured. It isn’t a demon at all, but an alien. Lord Sandwich and his wicked socialite pals make plans to make this demon arise at an appointed hour. And meanwhile, back at Bedlam, Gideon Spoonbill tells the Doctor that he himself is the Doctor. Got that? Ria is caught and hypnotized. Gideon tells the Doctor that a freak accident with the Tardis made the real Doctor, who Gideon says is the fake Doctor, think that he was the Doctor (which he is). Got that???
There’s a little more, but for the sake of clarity, lets call this the end of part 1, OK?
CUE THEME MUSIC
The demon/alien is a Gosolin, a creature born to kill. But whenever it kills, it becomes very weak and vulnerable. Lord Sandwich addresses the Hellfire Club and promises to summon Lucifer for them at midnight. Ria and company go to the asylum to spring the Doctor. Ria tells them that Spoonbill is the Doctor. Ria’s captors, who want the Doctor dead, kill Spoonbill. Ria tells the Doctor that she did it to trick her captors, and the two head for the exit. What ensues is a load of exposition that puts most fiction to shame. The plot is laid out in a tongue twisting 60-second marathon. Bad guys want to control demon alien so that they can rule to world, etc etc. That old chestnut. The Doctor confronts the bad guys, but they hypnotize Ria. hoot shoot bang bang, I dunno quite what happens. How’s that for a description? Anyway, Sandwich yells out his invocation, but the demon does not appear. I dunno. Such a whiz-bang, all of a sudden resolution that I don’t get it. And if I did get it, I think I’d be really upset because it resolved itself so easily. 1 hour of climbing suspense and drama, then BANG, ALL OVER. Did ya miss it? Grrrr…. Then it ends. Yeah, then it ends. Honest to God, it just ends. Yeah, bad guys beaten. Good prevails. I mean… COME ON! I hate it when they do that!
Minuet in Hell is probably the most evocative Audio Visual that had been released at the time. The sound design is excellent. The sound quality is top notch. The actors are all on form. It’s just such a shame that the resolution was an afterthought. Part 1 ran for 45 minutes. Part 2 runs for 16 minutes. The rest of the tape is behind the scenes production stuff. I don’t know if they added that because the story ended so quickly, or if the story ended quickly so that they could add it. I was enjoying it all the way through. Alan W. Lear, who sadly passed away a couple of months ago, had a talent for bringing the dark and sinister to life. This is aided by the excellent acting of Michael Wisher as the Lord Sandwich. That man was born to summon demons! Eat your heart out, Roger Delgado! It’s really a shame that more attention wasn’t given to the resolution of the play. And poor Gideon Spoonbill. Ria has him killed to save the Doctor. Yikes.
Overall for the first 50 minutes: 10 out of 10
Overall for the ending: What ending?
Minuet in Big Finish Hell
As you probably know, Minuet in Hell was adapted into a Big Finish production, featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor, as well as Charley and the Brigadier. The adaptation was a major departure from the Audio Visuals version. It is considerably longer, takes place in near-contemporary America, and features accents that make up for anything that Dick Van Dyke ever did to England. It was plagued with production problems, and really suffers as a result. It would have been nice to keep the story the same as the original, but to give it a worthy ending. Unfortunately, it ends up as an overlong mess.
Knowing your Cranes
In the original Minuet in Hell, the Doctor, played by Nick Briggs, meets a fellow inmate named Gideon Spoonbill.
In the Big Finish Adaptation, the Doctor, played by Paul McGann, meets a fellow inmate named Gideon Crane, played by Nick Briggs.
A Spoonbill Crane is a bird that subsists primarily on aquatic plant and animal life.
I get myself pumped and try not to coagulate as I review BLOOD CIRCUIT. You see, because it’s blood.
What do you get when you combine myself with a set of reviews which have no set deadline? Very little progress!
Bring on THE TRILEXIA THREAT!
Blurb Establishing orbit around the planet GREENOVIA the crew of the starship SHAPIRO discovers the formerly lush world a barren, blasted wasteland peopled only by memories of the personnel of Outpost Colony Five. And when the TARDIS is dragged into the SHAPIRO’s decontamination chamber the Doctor and Ria are enmeshed in a sinister sequence of events culminating with a flight into the very heart of a BLACK HOLE!
A spaceship picks up a piece debris floating through… well, space. Lo and behold, it’s the Tardis. The Doctor and Ria step outside. It turns out that they’re on the Starship Shapiro. Some drudgers appear and escort the pair to the crew. The ship is heading for the planet Greenovia. The captain is having some difficulty getting in touch with the colony below. He has the drudgers escort the Doctor and Ria to their room. The Doctor notes that most of the major functions on board are done by machinery. The ship comes in to land on Greenovia, but instead of the lush countryside they were expecting, they find a hazy sky. The Doctor thinks it’s pollution (how AIRZONE of him), but there are no known toxins in the atmosphere. The ship malfunctions, but Ria is able to pilot it. In the confusion, they nearly hit a mountain that isn’t supposed to be there. When they finally land, they see miles and miles of barren wasteland instead of greenery. The land has been scorched. They come across a dead drudger, which the Doctor tries to reactivate to learn what has happened. Its positronic brain was fried by an ultrasonic emission. Whatever attacked the drudger, it knew that the colony’s vulnerability was its complete dependence on robots. The Doctor decides that the only way to find out what’s going on is to explore the mountain that isn’t supposed to be there. They come across an old colonist who takes them to his lab. He’s panicky and weird, saying that an indestructible force has kidnapped the rest of the colonists and taken them to their lair inside the mountain. Suddenly a creature starts burrowing through the floor. They throw a chitin-eating chemical at it, but it’s too late and it grabs the colonist. The Doctor and company continue on and discover a huge termite egg. The mountain is actually their mound. Before they can escape, the termites advance on them.
Tune in next time for DANGER’S A MOUNTAIN or DON’T BE BUGGIN’! Actually it’s just part 2. Read on.
We find our heroes hanging upside down. Fortunately, one of their drudgers wanders in and helps them down. Meanwhile, the termite queen tells her minion that the Doctor and crew must be absorbed into her consciousness. The Doctor knows that the queen is the nerve center of the colony, and that to save the day, they’ll need to find and immobilize her. Ria distributes anti-insect-shell bombs amongst the crew (don’t leave home without them), but they are set upon by the bugs. They grab the Doctor and take him to the queen. She tells him that they are the Trilexia. The colonists’ minds have all been absorbed into the Trilexia consciousness. The bugs are preparing to spread themselves across the galaxy. The Doctor begs the queen for a more peaceful solution, but as giant space termites go, she’s very single-minded. The Doctor tells her that there is a black hole nearby that can enable the Trilexia to survive without destroying anymore worlds. The queen shows the Doctor that there is already a space fleet closing in on them, and that she must spread her colony throughout space. The mountain and planet itself begin collapsing. Why? I’m not sure really, but it is. The Doctor and crew take off. The Doctor plans to fly the Tardis into the black hole, stabilizing it and allowing the Trilexia to swarm into another universe instead of their own. The Shapiro ends up exploding, but the Tardis is able to rescue the bugs. The story concludes with the Doctor wondering about what will happen when he dematerializes from inside a black hole.
A great story. The plot and pacing are excellent, and the cliffhanger is actually cliffhangery. This is another story that could easily have been made into a televised story. But honestly, it works better here than it would have on TV. I expect to be corrected by the experts, but it seems to me that it was inspired somewhat by The Twim Dilemma, with space bugs wanting to spread their seed throughout the solar system/galaxy/universe. And you all know how good the BBC were at realizing giant space bugs (Mestor, Wiirn, Tractators, Bonnie Langford). The Trilexia Threat works best in your mind, where the production values do credit to this tight story. But I must say that one little thing bugs me (ha ha ha……….). The Doctor’s solution is to spit the Trilexian empire into an unsuspecting dimension. Can you just imagine living in that other dimension and suddenly seeing a swarm of millions of space bugs appear out of nowhere? Also, who’s to say that the other dimension can provide anything that the Trilexians need. For all they know, it’s a universe populated entirely by semi-sentient tennis shoes. But this is more a case of me overthinking things.
Overall 9 out of 10
The Doctor puts on his infernal dancing shoes for a MINUET IN HELL.
Yeah I know it’s cheesy. You try setting up 27 stories!
From 09a – Vilgrethon
Following on the heels of The Destructor Contract is a very short story called VILGRETH.
Blurb I’d promised Greg some kind of holiday. As it turned out, I never quite managed to fulfill my promise. Conglomerate, the Scionovores, Askran and the Daleks saw to that. Still at the time I was determined to take Greg to Ormelia. But as usual, I was having trouble with the helmic regulators…
Vilgreth is basically a tape filler. Not that it is a poor story, just that it probably exists for no other reason than to fill what would otherwise be dead air on a casette. In fact, it’s a very good little story. If it sounds a little familiar, it’s because it was rereleased by Big Finish as Last of the Titans, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor. I don’t say adapted, because with the exception of maybe 3 words, it is literally the same play. And much as it pains me as a 7th Doctor fan to say this, Sylvester’s performance did not match Briggs’ version.
Since this is a short story (about 25 minutes), I’m just going to write a very short summary and short evaluation. The Doctor lands on a space ship while Greg is asleep. This takes place before Greg leaves, obviously. He runs into a little lizard telling him to watch out. Then he runs into Vilgreth, a hulking creature that seems to be part machine, part reanimated corpse. He’s a nice fella, but it turns out that his ship eats planets for fuel. The lizard that the Doctor had run into earlier was an agent who planted a bomb on board the ship. The Doctor escapes, but Vilgreth, the loveable brute with a fondness for tea, goes down with his ship. *sniffle*
A very tight play. With the exception of the lizard’s cameo (how often do you get to say that), it’s a two hander, starring Nick Briggs as the Doctor and Nick Briggs as Vilgreth. A nice story.
Overall 9 out of 10
I’d have given it 10 out of 10, but I hate depressing endings.
There’s a threat of Trilexias in THE TRILEXIA THREAT!
Onward and upward we go with THE DESTRUCTOR CONTRACT!
Blurb The TARDIS is penetrated by the jettisoned flight recorder of a recently destroyed starship. Cuthbert, President of Conglomerate, intends that the recorder’s message will never be heard – and he has an army of Temperons to do his bidding.
We start with Cuthbert, the head of Conglomerate, chatting with a temperon. Ooooh, a sequal!
The next few minutes are a couple of computers talking to each other. This continues the annoying habit of AVs spending several minutes showing mysterious things transpiring before actually getting to the Doctor. Establishing the mood is one thing, but waiting 6 minutes before bringing the Doctor into the story creates a big disconnect between him and the rest of the plot. Anyway, the Doctor is mumbling to himself about how annoying intergalactic junk mail can be (see Greatest Show in the Galaxy). A box materializes inside the Tardis (see Greatest Show in the Galaxy). The Doctor and Ria (minus Greg – who became a disembodied whatsit last episode) try to discover its origins.
Cuthbert is fussing with a Temperon. Apparently the box is a flight recorder that escaped the crash of an ambassadorial ship. The ship carried a diplomat or something or other who was the last hope to stop a war between the Kergons (see Sirens of Time) and the Aquadons.
The Doctor and Ria land and try to open the box. Ria decides she’s going to wander off (sigh) and is quickly picked up on camera by Cuthbert. She returns to the Doctor to tell him that the box is a flight recorder – all of which annoys Cuthbert considerably. Ria contacts the authorities to let them know that the flight recorder has been recovered. As she is talking, there is a weird temporal freakout, and a temperon comes on and begs for help, saying that it must destroy to survive. Meanwhile, Cuthbert captures the Doctor, posing as a police officer. Seeing that they have the flight recorder, Cuthbert knocks them out.
The Doctor and Ria wake up in a cell. A drudger robot comes in to lead them out. They are taken to Cuthbert, and they explain that they need to get the flight recorder back. Cuthbert says no. Oh well. A stray missile hits the ship, giving Ria a chance to pull a gun on Cuthbert. The Doctor and Ria escape in an escape pod, and the Doctor prompty falls asleep.
While unconscious, the Doctor gets a distress call from the Temperons, who tell him that they must destroy to survive. Is it just me, or do these galactic super-being Temperons seem to get theselves into a lot of trouble? You get the feeling that if you had one of your own, it would constantly be getting its head stuck between railings and its hands stuck in peanut butter jars. “DOOOOOCTOOOOOORRRRRR…… HEEEEEEELP USSSSSSSSS…… PEEEEEEEANUT BUTTERRRRRRRR……… HAAAAAAAAND TRAAAAAAAAAAPPED INNNNNNNNNN JARRRRRRRRRRRR……….” Low maintenance they are not.
The Doctor and Ria try to escape to the Tardis, but are intercepted by drudger robots. The Doctor remembers that his last encounter with them was during his ordeal with Conglomerate, and realises that Cuthbert must be part of that organization.
Before the drudgers can get them, a Temperon appears and the Doctor communes with it. Afterwards, the Doctor and Cuthbert have one of those hero/villain conversations. Cuthbert offers the Doctor another management position with Conglomerate but the Doctor refuses. It turns out that Conglomerate has a contract with the Tempersons to attack ships. I’m not sure why, but who cares. Something about something or other. Cuthbert tells the Temperons to destroy the Tardis, but the Doctor has changed their minds, and they end up going after Cuthbert instead. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to hire trans-temporal entities to carry out attacks which lead to interstellar conflicts in which you sell arms to both sides.
I really seem to like these 2 parters a lot more. I don’t mean this rudely, but when it is a fan-made production, you can’t count on the sound design or other intangible qualities to make up for overlong stories. Destructor Contract moves along at a fair pace. It has plenty of action and character interaction throughout. It may not be technically be a sequel to Conglomerate, but it is a great callback. Cuthbert, voiced by Bary Killerby, is menacing and engaging, and fun as a villain. It is a little strange that the head of Conglomerate is going out and doing his own dirty work, but I admire the hands-on type. I’m not a big fan of the Temperons as a rule. They’re so simple. Listening to them is more confusing than listening to a mechanoid give directions to a party. “Enter-Enter-Zero-Stop-Turn Left-Zero” Even their move to full blown Big Finish production in The Sirens of Time didn’t smarten them up very much. I can’t remember if they feature in any more stories, but I hope not. Still, they didn’t really detract from my enjoyment.
Overall 8 out of 10
The whole flight recorder thing seemed a little thin to me, but it was a vast improvement on The Mutant Phase!
We take a quick side step in linear continuity with the mini-adventure VILGRETH!
In this installment, I make a valiant stab and end up getting very bored with THE MUTANT PHASE.
“Due to problems with cast availability, in The Mutant Phase, Greg is played by Gary Russell. And Ria by Liz Knight. Casting arrangements will be back to normal in the next audio adventure, The Destructor Contract!”
Blurb Analyas VII offers a world of contentment – an escape from the galaxy’s hurly burly… Or is it the breeding ground for a hideous nightmare instigated by the implacable Daleks in their struggle against the dreaded Mutant Phase?
From there we go to the crew of a space ship, who, judging by their accents, come from the mythical land of Americania, located somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The crewmen are alarmed that the planet they are supposed to be landing on isn’t registering, then it appears, and they’re happy. Yeah, I didn’t follow it either.
Meanwhile, back in the Tardis, the Doctor is telling jokes to Ria. Greg is moping. Kids. Ria is fascinated with the Tardis console. Greg tells the Doctor that he feels left out, like he should be doing something that he can’t remember. The Doctor lets Greg choose random coordinates for their next destination to help cheer him up. After landing, they go wandering, and Greg ends up being picked up by a stranger (no, not like that!). All the while he is being observed by the Daleks. Greg is taken to a new home (he goes along with it very willingly). The Doctor and Ria are found, and taken prisoner by… I don’t know, human aliens. The same ones who found Greg. Is this making sense? It’s hard to summarize these sometimes! The Doctor is thrown into a cell. The Daleks roll in and exterminate him.
The Daleks exterminate the Doctor, but then get a scolding from a human. He has just returned from Skaro with orders from the Emperor Dalek not to exterminate the Doctor. Having disobeyed its order, the Dalek ends up being destroyed.
Apparently hypnotized, Greg is being given an intelligence test, thinking that he is starting a new job. Meanwhile, Ria is being held hostage. Kids. Ria’s cell mate tells her that one day she just felt compelled to come to the planet, feeling like she’d been missing out on something just like Greg.
Greg is taken to professor Ptolem. Ptolem tells Greg that his body contains a unique genetic property that can help the universe (that old line). Actually, Greg’s body holds the key to stopping a galactic disease. Ptolem takes Greg through time wih him to the Daleks’ home planet of Skaro. They are attacked by giant parasitic worms. Ptolem tells Greg that the worms are a symptom of the disease that they are trying to cure. In the process, Greg learns that the Doctor has been killed. But then the Doctor walks in and explains that he woke up in a cryogenic chamber, and tells Greg that Ptolem is a Thal.
The Daleks are panicking as the worms move in on them. They insist that the Emperor must be protected at all costs. Just then, one of the Daleks malfunctions, infected by the Mutant Phase.
“In tape two of The Mutant Phase, a race against time. The deadly mutation reaches a critical phase, and the Doctor confronts the Emperor of the Daleks.”
Reports are coming in to the Daleks that Ria is causing trouble in the prison camp she’s been sent to. The Daleks begin malfunctioning as the parasites begin infecting them. Ptolem tells the Doctor that the Daleks are susceptible to genetic mutations, and they are quickly turning into huge indestructible insects. Although they are destroying the Daleks, the insects will destroy the galaxy if they aren’t stopped.
The next few minutes are mainly a lot of running around, talking to each other, and making concerted efforts not to advance the plot in any way. There are clones, Dalek agents, loyalties questioned, and Daleks chatting with each other about where to go and whom to exterminate. There is an unpleasant noise as the plot spins its wheels.
Ptolem begins experimenting on a willing Greg. The Daleks feel that he has betrayed them to the Doctor, and take him to the Emperor for a scolding that only an Emperor Dalek can properly give a man.
The scolding of Ptolem continues. He is told that if he wishes to live, he will bring the Doctor to the Emperor. Ptolem finds the Doctor, but ends up confessing to him that he’s set him up. The Doctor is curious, and decides to visit the Emperor anyway. They hear Greg’s voice. Greg is “sitting at a vanishing point of a different perspective.” This makes Greg the second companion after Adric to have disappeared into the ether – and the first to have done so willingly. He’s now just a disembodied voice. Oh Greg, we hardly knew ye.
Ptolem and the Doctor are taken to the Emperor, who tells him that he will be part of a new race of supreme Daleks. The Mutant Phase begins taking effect, and all of the Daleks start to die. Greg the disembodied entity of niftiness ends up destroying the mutants to give the Doctor time to escape. Lots of yelling Daleks, explosions, etc.
The Doctor and Ria return to the Tardis. They talk, almost bored about their friend Greg becoming an immortal thing-a-ma-jig, and don’t give much thought to his sudden departure. So it goes.
It’s a great idea. The Daleks are themselves in peril, and are actually terrified. It’s always fun to see the Daleks scared of something. But where does it all go? It’s a 4 parter, and clocks in at a little under 2 hours long. You expect there to be some padding, but this is 2 parts too long. Part 3 needn’t have even taken place. And then there’s Greg. Good old Greg goes from being a teenage boy to being a disembodied demigod after a series of injections. If I had to guess, I’d say that the AV people wanted Greg gone, even if they had to write him out like this. The Doctor and Ria don’t seem to care in the least that he’s gone either. It’s just… weird. It doesn’t feel right. You feel a little cheated after investing in the character. Apologies if this review isn’t as jokey as my others. I just got really bored!
Overall 5 out of 10
The premise was strong and promised a lot. It just didn’t deliver on the setup.
“Still you is it? Hasn’t there been an election yet?”
The Doctor to the Emperor Dalek
Big Finish adapted The Mutant Phase years later, with Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton as the Doctor and Nyssa – but you know that already, don’t you? I won’t go into tremendous detail about this adaptation, since you really should hear it for yourself. Suffice it to say that the basic plot of the Daleks being mutated into giant nasty space insects remains. Only this time they flesh the story out into something more worthy of its imaginative concept.
The Doctor and Ria continue to not cope with the loss of Greg in THE DESTRUCTOR CONTRACT.
From 07 – Maenadon
Greg’s got sargol poisoning, the Doctor visits a lunatic asylum, and I’ve had so much highly-caffeinated hot chocolate that I can’t tell if I’m writing this review or just thinking it. Strap yourselves in, kids, cause here comes MAENAD!
Blurb While Greg recovers from Sargol poisoning, the Doctor visits Cal 2, a research facility dealing with the mentally unstable. There he is alarmed to discover that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!
The story begins with the Doctor having taken Greg to a doctor friend of his, to treat his sargol addiction. To avoid inquiries, his doctor friend is treating Greg on the down low, and has arranged a 3-day visit for the Doctor to an asylum colony on the planet below. Say it with me now. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? Meanwhile at the colony, Ambassadors from Kantria and Draconia listen to a speech about how the facility treats everyone from the eccentric to the homicidally psychopathic. The ambassadors feel there is something wrong and decide to stay a little longer. The facility’s guide, known as the Keeper, hypnotizes the Kantrian ambassador. Just then the Doctor shows up and chats with the Keeper. Left alone, the Doctor wanders through the asylum, noting that it is more of a zoo than anything. One of the prisoners writes a warning to the Doctor saying “Beware Rayden” The Keeper, who is actually Rayden, disintegrates the prisoner from his headquarters. The Doctor bumps into an official named Ria. She and the Doctor have a long scene together, which usually means she’ll become a new companion… Hmm…. Ria is intrigued by simple human characteristics and tells the Doctor that she has never been to school. It turns out that she is actually the Keeper’s daughter. They tell the Keeper about the death of the prisoner.
The Doctor breaks into the Draconian ambassador’s room to tell him he suspects that something is up. They get all Scooby Doo and try to figure out what’s going on. They decide to go to The Punishment Dome – a dome for punishment. As they enter, the Keeper apparently hits the “punishment” button, because both the Doctor and the Draconian begin screaming in agony.
Episode 2 begins with the Keeper turning off the torture device (oooh, cop-out!!!). The Keeper and the Doctor have a snarkiness competition for awhile. The Keeper explains that he is actually Rayden. The prisoner who died earlier was actually the real Keeper. Rayden tells them that it’s time for them to visit the Pleasure Dome. It turns out that Rayden has exclusive rights for everyone needing treatment to come to his facility and no other, which will make him rich and powerful, etc. Villain rant, Doctor reply, lather, rinse repeat. The Doctor is left to talk to Ria. It turns out that although she is 19, she has no interest in relationships and never had a mother. And despite being 19, she can’t recall anything that happened even 3 years ago. It turns out that the Pleasure Dome can create life, but only in a 6-month cycle, and that Rayden created his daughter Ria there. There follows about 20 minutes of sitting around and talking that doesn’t do a whole lot. There’s a poetry reading, but that’s about it. Ria finds out she was created a few days ago and gets very mad at Rayden (well, wouldn’t you?). Runny runny, shouty shouty, shooty shooty. It’s embarrassing to say, but I’m not sure what happens to Rayden in the end. Apparently he may or may not have been destroyed, but having just listened to it again, I really have no idea. It is implied that Rayden may have poisoned the Doctor with sargol. The Doctor collects Greg and lets Ria join him on his adventures.
I recall a few days ago saying that I loathed Maenad. That actually isn’t true. I must have been doing something very unpleasant when I listened to it last time, because I enjoyed listening to it tonight. The first thing that strikes me about the story is that the actors have all settled into their roles very well. Although the Doctor is the only recurring character who has any screen time in this story, the AVs are often acted out by the same circle of people. Never did it sound like characters were reading their lines off of the script. The acting gets a 10 out of 10. The story itself is an intriguing one. Like previous stories, it’s interesting to take into consideration what stories had recently been on TV. The Pleasure and Punishment domes must owe something to the then recently aired Vengeance on Varos.
In a statement that will prove that I am in fact impossible to please, I think the running time lets Maenad down a lot. Both episodes are 45 minutes long, and you get the feeling they want to give listeners their money’s worth by using every last inch of tape on the cassette. The trouble is that there just isn’t enough story to sustain 90 minutes. The pacing is herky jerky. It flows nicely for the first 20 minutes, then wanders off to a different part of the store while you’re not paying attention. And by the time you’ve informed the clerk that your plot has wandered off and they dispatch a message to it over the PA, it’s lost its coherence, much like this baffling metaphor. I mean there is a 20 minute stretch where I can’t remember anything happening, other than preparations for a poetry reading. On the plus side, the novelty of Ria’s existence is fun, as is the addition of a new companion. It’s also a very arc-lite story, in that it deals with the sargol situation, but mainly in passing.
Overall 7 out of 10
I certainly don’t loathe it. It could have had a good 20 minutes shaved off, but you can say the same thing for most of the Pertwee era.
“You pathetic lump of slime! If I didn’t need you, slug bucket, you’d be sent to earth forever!”
I like that one so much that I use it in conversation at least twice a day.
“Hold it wench! You ignorant slut!”
Again, twice a day.
Gary Russell is actually a formidable Draconian hypnotist in real life, and has amassed a small army of them to do his bidding.
I’ve heard that before somewhere…
The Pleasure Dome was based on Kartz/Dastari principles. Kartz being one half of the unseen Kartz and Reimer duo of the Two Doctors, and Dastari being the Paul Shaffer look alike from the same story.
I up the ante as I review the epic THE MUTANT PHASE. I’ll contrast and compare it with the Big Finish adaptation, and probably get ridiculously in-depth. Expect graphs and pie charts!*
* I didn’t get ridiculously in-depth. I was going to, but it sounded like so much work! And there will be no pie charts.
From 07 – Maenadon
Something else to take note of is that aspects and plot elements of this story seem to have been inspired by or have been lifted wholesale from the episode ‘Whom Gods Destroy’ from Stark Trek’s 3rd season.
From 06 – Shadow Worldon
Heading into the final story of the first Audio Visuals season, the stories have really been on a high lately. And speaking of highs, it’s SHADOW WORLD!
Blurb On the planet Kelfer the Doctor encounters a stranded Time Lord, Askran, who has synthesized a narcotic called Sargol. The Doctor finds himself in the employ of an evil and warped intelligence.
Our story begins with a man and a woman talking to each other in a dreamlike scene (echoes, reverbs, ya know). The man seems to be in pain. Next, we’re back in the Tardis, where the Doctor tells Greg they’re about to land. Greg shows mock excitement, which irritates the Doctor. He gives Greg an ultimatum to either stop being gloomy about his life in the Tardis or go back home. Perhaps a little harsh, considering that Greg’s life with the Doctor up to this point is a cross between Bambi’s mom and Schindler’s List.
Meanwhile, the man we heard earlier is coming out of his hallucination. His assistant tells him that he’s taken too much Sargol. Askran (his name) tells her that she doesn’t know anything about Sargol, and that the only way to understand its ecstasy and pain is to use it.
CUE THEME MUSIC
Greg and the Doctor continue fussing. Greg isn’t over the death of the shape shifty blob monster that he fell in love with in the last adventure (teenagers!). They land on the tranquil planet Kelfer so that Greg can go for a walk and come to terms with things.
Askran has his assistant, Miranda, go to town to deliver a shipment of Sargol. Meanwhile, he’ll be working on his Tardis. Yep, he’s a drug addict Time Lord. Wooohooo!
Greg runs across Miranda, who pulls a gun on him and demands to know who he is. She considers killing him, but when Greg mentions the Tardis, she takes him prisoner.
Some locals have discovered the Tardis and mumble to each other about how nasty Sargol actually is.
Miranda takes Greg to Askran. She tells him that Greg arrived in a Tardis, and discovers that he is traveling with the Doctor. Askran has heard of him, but not a great deal. He knows that he meddles and could present a problem for him.
The previously mentioned locals enter the Tardis (the Doctor opened the door for them) and kidnap the Doctor.
We next find Greg freaking out in a drug-induced panic with voices singing nursery rhymes to him. Askran gives Miranda a tracer to find the Doctor’s Tardis.
The locals start interrogating the Doctor, demanding to know why he has been poisoning them with Sargol. The Doctor says that it’s a case of mistaken identity (he must really get tired of that). They explain that while a few locals were drunk, Askrin plied them with Sargol. The drug eventually kills, but first takes them into the shadow world (a nasty psychosis that’s apparently something like watching Yellow Submarine while standing on your head and eating honey mustard). They let the Doctor go, and he quickly runs across Miranda. They have a little catfight, and Miranda takes him at gunpoint to Askran.
Meanwhile, Greg is freaking out big time with voices mocking him.
The Doctor and Askran meet and have one of those snippy wars of words that Time Lords always do. Imagine a fight between Frasier and Niles Crane. Askran’s Tardis is damaged, and he needs the Doctor’s services. In exchange, Askran will return Greg to him. Askran plans to take his Sargol all across the universe and turn everyone into drug addicts, causing society to collapse.
The Blue Meanies in Greg’s head tell him that he is responsible for Reannon’s death. Pink elephants on parade to the extreme.
End of side one…
The Doctor gets to work fixing Askran’s Tardis. After pressing, Miranda admits to the Doctor that Askran is addicted to Sargol. The Doctor tells her that Askran is about to crack, but she won’t listen and tells him to get back to work.
Lets check in on Greg, shall we? Still tripping? Ok, we’ll check back later.
Some locals argue with other locals about whether or not Sargol is good. It’s kind of a b-story and it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. It’s one of those things where you understand what’s going on, but none of the characters are important enough to bother learning their names.
The Doctor tells Miranda that she’ll end up in trouble if she continues hanging around a drug-addicted psychotic Time Lord. Some local drug addicts come back to Askran for a fix, so he kills them. Told you not to bother learning names! The Doctor and Greg are left as Miranda’s prisoner, but she releases them with a Sargol antidote. The three escape, with Askran having mistakenly taken a dose of hard Sargol instead of an antidote.
Miranada decides to stay on the planet, saying that she wants to help the villagers whom she had a hand in addicting. After the Doctor and Greg leave, she shoots a local and prepares to, I don’t know, continue being really nasty.
All joking aside for a second, I am passionately anti-drugs. But this is about as far from a pro-drug story as you could come up with. Shadow World takes a conceit that you could never have seen on television, a drug addicted Time Lord, and turns him into a realistic villain. Can you possibly imagine Anthony Ainley’s Master snorting lines off of his Time Rotor? It’s very very grim and pitiful. And it’s that grimness that makes Askran’s decaying and corrupt character so interesting. He doesn’t die at the end. His Tardis malfunctions and he’s flung who knows where. But it’s a character who is being devoured by his addicition. A brilliant, albeit arrogant, Time Lord who is imploding.
The story is pretty well plotted. The secondary story about the locals and their drug addiction isn’t all that interesting, since the characters aren’t very developed. They serve to set the scene that Askran has created. My major gripe is with Askran’s plan to spread the Sargol addiction across the universe. Not because it’s evil, but because, as Smithers would say, it’s “cartoonish super-villainy.” In a story that deals with the psychological torture of drug use, giving the villain a mustache twirling plot just doesn’t feel quite right.
This was something I’d planned on pointing out, but now nobody’s going to believe it because he’s commented on this thread. I really enjoyed John Ainsworth’s performance. Apart from Michael Wisher, he’s the first “guest” that really stands out to me. His erudite performance feels like a Time Lord. He comes off as a self important twit, which I mean as a compliment! I had this story in mind when I decided to start reviewing, partly because I liked his character so much.
Something you come to appreciate after listening to a few Audio Visuals is that they don’t usually end with a hug or a smile. They end by telling you there’s something on your shoe and then punching you in the back of the head. It’s not run of the mill kid’s stuff.
Shadow World is the final story of the first season of Audio Visuals, and it finishes out the first run strongly. And while the Daleks, Conglomerate, Askran and Sargol all make returns throughout the series, there is no linking arc as will be found from now on. I think that’s a good idea. There are cases where it works, like the Charley arc, but they’re often muddled and confusing. Bad Wolf my foot!
Overall 9 out of 10
This one nearly got 10 out of 10, but it needed a little more Doctor in it.
My life is at your command when the Draconians return in MAENAD.
From 05 – Cloud of Fearon
On the heels of the very good Conglomerate, we have another very good story.
Roll on, CLOUD OF FEAR.
Blurb The Doctor and his companion Greg are trapped in a labyrinth of underground tunnels. They discover a deadly foe which lurks in the darkest recesses. Can the Dcotor defeat an unseen enemy that will strike at the very heart of his resolve?
The story begins with a freaked out man being tormented by spooky voices saying that they’re hungry. The Doctor and Greg are chatting in the Tardis, pre-adventure. Greg has dyed a burgundy streak in his hair, to the Doctor’s amusement. They spot flashing lights in space, coming towards the Tardis, and decide to dematerialize on the planet below. I’m not quite sure what the planet’s name is, but it sounds like Armadillo 7. Upon arriving, they are noticed by the spooky voiced creatures that were being very menacing at the beginning. They talk to themselves for a couple of minutes, but I can’t really understand much of it. (I have a high quality version of the story, but the alien voice effect makes them pretty inaudible.) They mention something about being able to feast on a mind they hadn’t encountered before, presumably the Doctor, so I think we know where we stand with these fellas. Brain suckers, enough said.
The Doctor and Greg materialize in what appears to be a catacomb. Greg notices a foul smell in the air, and the Doctor says that it isn’t a physical smell, but a psychic odor of fear. Then a leprechaun jumps out at them. Yeah. A creature that likes to rhyme very dark and depressing things starts menacing them both. If you’re a fan of Mad TV, it’s difficult not to picture the Gap Troll. Greg chases after him (wouldn’t YOU want a Gap Troll?) but he escapes. Then he reappears and attacks the Doctor. A young woman comes out with a gun and demands to know who the Doctor and Greg are. They notice a dead man in the water, who turns out to be the woman’s father, Hugh Pritchard. The woman, Reannon, says that there are terrible creatures in the catacombs and asks that they bury her father. Greg notes that the man appears to have died of fear rather than having drowned.
They all go back to Reannon’s ship, where the 2nd in command (a giddy loon) is happy to hear that the commander has died. She says that an expedition of 6 had explored the catacombs, and that the only one to return had gone bonkers while away. Greg tries to make Reannon feel a little bit better about her father’s death by telling her how nice her dress is (MEN!). She apologizes for being such a dead-dad-crybaby, and says that it’s her best dress (wow, it worked!).
The Doctor says that the crew’s ship and the Tardis must have passed into another universe and that they can just return in the Tardis. He remarks to Greg that there aren’t any mirrors on the ship, which he thinks is strange considering that there are women onboard. HE SAID IT, NOT ME. Anyway, I wonder if this becomes important later on. It seems so extraneous for the time being……..
Meanwhile, the semi audible alien menaces chat about waiting for the Doctor and company to arrive. As they move out into the catacombs, the Doctor talks about the nature of fear, and how easily Time Lords overcome it with simple logic. Reannon says that he must be afraid of something, and starts rattling off common fears. After mentioning bees, Greg admits that that’s his biggest fear, having been hospitalized after a swarm attacked him when he was young. The group hears a strange noise, and then the Gap Troll reappears. After disappearing again, they come across what at first appears to be the Tardis. But when the Doctor tries the lock, the door falls off its hinges. The Tardis’ interior dimensions have been condensed. The Doctor says that when a Time Lord abandons his Tardis, its dimensions collapse and it scuttles itself.
The Doctor says that the only reason this could happen is because in the future he will die here. Then he babbles about the inevitability of death for awhile. Reannon discovers the Gap Troll. He is sitting on a sarcophagus with a hieroglyph that represents the Doctor’s name. He has discovered his own tomb (How Necrossian!) The Gap Troll runs off again. The Doctor decides that he’ll return to Gallifrey after this adventure, so as not to squander anymore precious life.
Greg and Reannon go off exploring, and Greg suddenly starts hearing bees. Reannon opens a door, and thousands of bees start swarming after them.
Meanwhile… the inaudible monsters chat with each other about torturing the Doctor a little more.
The Gap Troll continues to torment the Doctor about his death. I really sense a cliffhanger coming, don’t you?
Greg and Reannon come to a dead end with the bees approaching. The Doctor feels his mind being devoured.
Greg bumps into the Doctor. The Doctor shows Greg that his tomb was a fake. He opened it up and found that it was empty. Empty, except for the glowing/flashy lights that they saw from the Tardis. The Doctor tells Greg that this is the work of the Scionovores, who are psychic parasites. Our inaudible villains have a name! The tomb, the bees and the decayed Tardis were all fake.
A monster comes across Greg and the Doctor, but they are able to will it back out of existence by denying that it was ever real. (How Deadly Assassiny). They come back across the Gap Troll, which, I regret to say, I didn’t realize was actually the crewman, Bates, who came back from his expedition completely insane. I still prefer to picture the Gap Troll, and suggest that you do too. Gap Troll/Bates creates the illusion of turning into a wall of bees to attack Greg, but the Doctor holds a mirror out and shows the Gap Troll himself, which kills him. (Mirror…. where have I heard about mirrors before….)
As the scionovore dies, the catacombs start collapsing. They come across Reannon, and they run for the Tardis. The crew escapes just before the catacombs collapse. All’s well that ends well…. Reannon wants to return home, and Greg considers going with her. The Doctor tells Reannon she’s got a spot on her nose, then turns on the Tardis scanner to show her herself. She begs for him not to, then dies at the sight of herself. D’oh! As Nyssa would say, “She was a Scionovore all along!” Greg tells the Doctor that he loved her. The Doctor says that the good thing about traveling with him is that it’s easier to move on.
To be honest, this is a 1 part story with a cliffhanger and music sting at the end of the first part of the tape. It’s another story where part 1 is about 40 minutes, and part 2 is about 18 minutes. The only reason for it to be in 2 parts is because they were running out of tape on side 1. So lets think of this as a 1 parter. And it’s really good. The story painted very vivid pictures in my mind, and was easy to follow. AND it had a twist. One that I admit I did not see coming. Again, seeing this as the 1-parter that it truly was, it felt right. The pacing was good, the story was easy to follow but not overly simplistic. The Scionovores (do you know a better way to spell Scionovores?) were effective, and were sadistic little buggers, weren’t they? I suppose they could have made it a little clearer that my oft mentioned Gap Troll was in fact a regular man who’d just gone insane. His vocal performance sure made him sound like a little imp to me. But it was all a good rompy fun time. The cast and crew really seem to have hit their stride after a couple of early bumps in the road.
Overall 9 out of 10
While Conglomerate felt rushed at the end, Cloud of Fear felt refreshingly well paced. Poor Greg’s sure been through a lot, hasn’t he?
Where have I heard this before?
The idea of catacombs, the Doctor finding his own burial site, and the fact that this story came out in 1985, make you wonder if Revelation of the Daleks was very very fresh in the author’s mind.
The Doctor tells Greg that the term sissy is derived from Narcissus. I didn’t know that.
Acknowledgments: I’d like to give myself a lot of credit for not referring to the crazy man/leprechaun/Gap Troll, whose actual name was Bates, as Master Bates. It took a lot of restraint.
The Doctor and Greg encounter the Robert Downey Jr. of Time Lords in SHADOW WORLD.
From 04 – Conglomerateon
My brain was in meltdown for the last few days. The only things I can remember are the words Connection Thirteen. It was all blackness after that. But my pediatrician says I’m fine now, so the cavalcade (what is a cavalcade anyway) rolls on with a major improvement, CONGLOMERATE!
Blurb The Doctor and his companion Greg arrive in a deserted subway – but this isn’t Earth. The trains are without crew or passengers. A shapeless horror is waiting to induce a ghastly compulsion.
The story begins with the Tardis landing in a Subway (or Underground) tunnel. The Doctor and Greg explore, and find that there are no people around. While trying to bypass the toll gate, the Doctor gets zapped with a “molecular agitator” which momentarily knocks him off his feet. After composing himself, the Doctor continues on with Greg. All the while, they are pursued by a gooey massive blob of globby blobby goo (5 times fast, I dare you). Greg falls through the “agitating beam” that the Doctor was agitated by, finding himself temporarily legless. Meanwhile, the large gooey blob (lets call it Orson) advances on the pair, trying to absorb them. Suddenly it disappears, but the Doctor can still sense it. Greg finds himself able to walk, but still trapped behind the barrier, but the Doctor begins acting strangely after meeting with Orson. The Doctor walks through the barrier, again paralyzing himself. He demands that Greg help him into the oncoming train, talking about having to meet his responsibilities. Yep, he was zapped with a capitalism beam! Once on the train, the Doctor starts talking to imaginary commuters. Greg wants to get off where the Tardis is, but the train won’t stop. The Doctor is pleased, as he wants to get to “The Center”, and starts talking about economic protocols. A robotic voice alerts the two passengers that arrival at The Center is imminent. ~Cue Music~
Greg tries to shake sense back into the Doctor, but he is resolute that Conglomerate has selected him and that he must get to The Center to see the Chairman of the Board. When they reach The Center, drudger robots restrain Greg. The Doctor is given a test by another robotic voice (it may have been another drudger) to judge his administrative abilities, which he does very well on. The Doctor believes that Greg is a spy and initially orders the drudgers to destroy him, but hesitates and tells Greg to run back to the Tardis. The Doctor vasalates between crazy man and himself. Greg reminds The Doctor of Nadia’s death, and he snaps out of it for good. He tells the Drudgers to return to their stations. A voice tells him that he has failed his evaluation. The Doctor and Greg escape into the Tardis. The Doctor tells Greg that it was The Multi-Galactic Conglomerate Empire. The Doctor had been offered a cozy middle management position by Orson if he would eliminate Greg and give up his past life.
A lot of fun! Two-handers can be so good sometimes. There is a constant eery claustrophobia. The entire first part, culminating with the train arriving at The Center, is excellent. Lots of questions and not a lot of answers. Perhaps let down a bit by a comparatively short part 2. The story was still good, but the pacing of the second part felt rushed. It’s slightly more annoying when the remainder of the tape is the AV people interviewing themselves. Nothing against interviews, but I hate interviews. Chris want story! But more on that later. I thought it was funny that Greg brought the Doctor back to normal by getting him to remember Nadia’s death in the most convoluted story so far, Connection 13. If I were mentally unbalanced (…) the last thing I’d need is to be reminded of the most confusing thing imaginable. In other words, if I were about to jump off a bridge, the last thing I’d want to hear is someone trying to explain Twin Peaks to me. But that’s faint criticism of Conglomerate. Actually, it’s just further criticism of Connection 13. I tend to hold grudges. This was a great story, but god I wish there were another 10 or 12 minutes to part 2. It’s also less shooty and more talky. You can follow it because you can get into The Doctor and Greg’s heads.
Overall 9 out of 10
Despite being underlong (Some people say ’short’) it’s a lot of fun. This is the first of several stories for Conglomerate in the AV run. I’d love for Big Finish to resurrect this as a proper length 2 parter with 5 and Turlough.
Continuity: Drudgers. I know they’re in The Sirens of Time, but not sure if they are in any other BFs. (Addition by Phill – Yes, they are also in Dalek Empire).
The ON TAPE section
After the story ends, there is a 14 minute special where the AV people interview each other. Gary Russell talks to Bill Baggs (I think he was a hobbit) and Nicholas Briggs about their involvement, etc. It’s the same thing they have on a lot of the Big Finish releases. I suppose it’s interesting, but I really would have enjoyed 14 more minutes of Conglomerate! I admit that it is fun hearing these high faluttin’ folks back when they were still fans like you and me. It’s like Muppet Babies. They sound so young and precious 😀 (There officially goes any chance of anyone involved in the production piping in with their two cents)
The Doctor faces his own mortality when he sees his own tomb in CLOUD OF FEAR.
From 03 – Connection 13on
Before I get into the next story, I just want to say that if I get overly critical here, it’s not a condemnation of the AV’s as a whole. The early stories are hit and miss. The Time Ravagers was definitely a hit. The next story, at least in my opinion, is definitely a miss. I say this because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing these to slag off the AV’s. They are by and large terrific.
Blurb The Doctor, Greg and Nadia arrive on Earth in the 1990s. They discover an alien conspiracy to fundamentally alter the planet for colonization. The key to defeating the Rigellons lies in Earth’s orbit. The connection of 13 satellites could signal doom for humanity.
The story begins with an attack on some astronauts on a supply shuttle. The Doctor and company land on military grounds and are immediately captured. The Doctor verifies his credentials with some name dropping.
Britain plans on setting up 3 space stations. Meanwhile, a couple of devious scientists, by way of convenient exposition, discuss their deal with the evil alien Rigellons. It turns out that they are responsible for the recent mishaps up in space. Apparently the Rigellons have given them advanced technology in exchange for their help. Fair trade, really. The Doctor and pals investigate, and Nadia is bored. To be honest, it got a little muddled, but Rigellons decide to target the Doctor, and a robot attacks Greg and Nadia. You get the feeling that you’ve jumped from part 1 to part 3 of a 6 parter in the span of 15 minutes. Very muddled. It’s like watching The Invasion without the missing episodes. It’s so hard to follow that even the music cue forgets to go off when the cliffhanger to part 1 comes.
In part 2, The Doctor and pals escape. I’m not exactly sure what danger they were in or how they got out of it. The Doc decides the best course of action is to go into space. Why? I don’t know. I’m hanging on to the plot by my fingertips here. There are evil robots on the loose, and Rigellons are trying to cool the planet so that they can inhabit it themselves. The Doctor threatens to blow up a space station in order to break the sattellite connection, which is evidently important to the aliens. To break the circuit of satellites, Nadia electrocutes herself. Umm. I don’t know what to say about this. A companion that I dislike dies in a contrived way in a story I do not care for. I guess that’s ok. Earthshock must have been fresh in their minds. Anyway, Nadia is toast, and the Doctor and Greg decide it’s time for a vacation. Because whether you’ve mistakenly vaporized a planet or watched a travelling companion die a painful death, nothing does the trick like a vacation… There must be a lot of sociopaths on the Eye of Orion.
It’s not so much a story as it is a bunch of stuff that happens. There’s no real interconnection to put it together. It’s kind of like watching only the odd numbered tracks on a DVD. You can tell that things are happening, and you know who’s good and who’s bad, but there isn’t enough information for you to really know what’s going on. And not in the LOST kind of way, but the Ghostlight way. This story is not well served on audio. Nor is it done any justice with a running time of about 34 minutes. Yeah, that’s what Connection 13 is like. It’s like a 34 minute version of Ghostlight, on audio. Like The Space Wail, there are some intriguing concepts involved, but they are never fleshed out into anything coherant. There’s no rising tension. It goes from introduction to climax.
Overall 2 out of 10
It’s worse than The Space Wail. The Space Wail had a plot of sorts. This is a cross between stream of consciousness and a punch to the windpipe. 2 points for it being recited in English.
Continuity: Name dropping Autons, Axons, Silurians, Sea Devils, Lethbridge Stewart, Sir Reginald Styles, The Daleks and Omega. And they say John Nathan-Turner liked continuity!
Dopplegangers: Peter Thomas, the astronaut who dies at the beginning of the story, is clearly Nicholas Briggs. I’m sure they didn’t have access to a lot of people, but they should have pulled someone off the street and asked them to die into a microphone.
The Doctor and Greg have their first encounter with the evil CONGLOMERATE! It also happens to be one of my favorites.
In the last story, we saw the Doctor, Greg and Nadia set out on fun adventure and super times after mistakenly detonating Home World. I contacted the FAA and confirmed that The Space Wail was in fact a case of pilot error. But with The Space Wail and Stephen Payne’s Doctor clearly in the rear view mirror, we get to the real deal with THE TIME RAVAGERS.
Blurb A newly regenerated Doctor and his companions Greg and Nadia land on Temperos. Could it be that the legendary Time being, the Temperon is not a legend after all? Or are the Daleks up to their old tricks again? (Sorry to critique a blurb, but couldn’t it be both? The temperon actually being real and the Daleks up to their old tricks?)
The story begins in a spaceship whose chronomoters (space-talk for clocks) have stopped. Meanwhile, the Doctor has vanished from the Tardis after being summoned to help a time traveling being of some kind. The being, a Temperon, not being a particularly skilled communer, accidentally ages the Doctor to death. Move over Colin Baker hitting your head on the console, Stephen Payne has won the award for crappiest regeneration! Forgetting the relatively poor regeneration, it serves two very important purposes. 1: It boots Stephen Payne’s Doctor out the door and 2: Introduces Nicholas Briggs’ Doctor. Similar to Power of the Daleks, Greg and Nadia are reluctant to accept the new Doctor. But to be honest, having just listened to The Space Wail, I’d have no trouble accepting Dame Edna as the new Doctor!
Both the Tardis and the spaceship, the Excelsius (all spaceships are named by the British), have had their engines aged to the point of being non functional. Greg begins to accept the new Doctor, but Nadia takes a page from the book of Perpugilliam Jovanka and decides to both whine and complain about everything. The Tardis and spaceship both land on the planet below, and the crew does the usual “Who are you? Why did you mess up our ship? You may not be killers but we’re still keeping an eye on you” spiel that you get in 98% of Doctor Who stories. They talk it out and in the end everything is peachy. Even Nadia accepts that the Doctor is the Doctor, having exhausted all avenues of impertinence. The Temperon shows up again, with linguistic skills only just exceeding the Mechanoids. “Doctor friend.” “Danger.” “Help Doctor.” Then the Daleks show up. *music sting
RUNNING SHOOTING CAPTURE ESCAPE ETC. The Daleks want the Doctor to commune with the Temperon in order to give them the power to travel through time at will. CAPTURE CAPTURE SHOOTING ESCAPE ETC. The Daleks end up gaining the power to time travel, but cannot control it and end up aging themselves to death. The Temperon fixes the Tardis, and the Doctor and crew decide to finally take the vacation they promised themselves after exploding Home World. Sorry, I’m just still not over that.
Even though the regeneration itself is underwhelming, The Time Ravagers is a great regeneration story. Nicholas Briggs steps effortlessly into the role of the Doctor. He obviously relishes the part. Speaking of strong performances, Michael Wisher turns in great performances as both the recording on the space buoy and as the Daleks. Yes, the Michael Wisher. The original Davros. The non camp Davros. I’m blown away that they managed to secure Michael Wisher. JNT couldn’t secure Michael Wisher! It’s great to hear the Daleks appear. It helps legitimize the story as truly Doctor Who. The voices are dead on, with rings modulating very nicely. And as they would do years later with Big Finish, they make the Daleks mean. These are nasty little Daleks. Don’t mess with their suckers, sucka! This also sees the first appearance of the Temperons. They will make future appearances, but you may remember them appearing in Big Finish’s first Doctor Who story, The Sirens of Time.
Overall 8 out of 10
Now this is more like it. A very solid story that could easily have been on television. I think it would have been great as a Pertwee/Jo Grant story. I didn’t mention this in my last review, but the theme tune is very good. It’s sci fi but not OTT sci fi. And considering that it’s over 20 years old, I don’t think it sounds dated.
Borrowed lines: “For a dead man, I’m feeling remarkably well.” Very Shada esque.
Misheard lines: “Descent commencing. Crustaceans everyone.” (was actually crash stations everyone)
“The Doctor and his companions discover a sinister satellite network and come face to face with the evil Rigellons in CONNECTION 13 – An Audio Visuals production due for release in April 1985!”
From 01 – The Space Wailon
Audio Visuals was a non-profit fan organization which made Doctor Who audios from 1984 until 1991. They included Bill Baggs of BBV fame, and Gary Russell, Nicholas Briggs, John Ainsworth, Alan Barnes, and Nigel Fairs of Big Finish fame. Looking back, this is where the BF boys really cut their teeth. In their roughly seven years of production, they produced 27 full length audio adventures, including 2 specials, comprising 4 full seasons. Several of these have since been adapted as Big Finish stories.
Lets dive in with the 1984 pilot, THE SPACE WAIL!
Blurb The Doctor and Greg land on a death ship. It’s transporting condemned prisoners across space to their point of execution. Also on board, the enigmatic sentient computer known as BABE.
The story begins with prisoners being sentenced to death in deep space for crimes against Home World. The prisoners are apparently a father, mother, two daughters and some cannon fodder thugs that I don’t recall being of any consequence. Meanwhile, The Doctor lands at a boy’s school ala Mawdryn Undead, where he meets young Turlough Greg. The two have a slightly odd and disturbingly-near-flirtatious talk about soccer balls (footballs). The Doctor ends up showing Greg the Tardis, and he takes it in stride exactly the way that anyone wouldn’t. Upon mistakenly landing on the prison ship, Greg (still not really bothered by any of this) and the Doctor get involved in the proceedings. It turns out that BABE, the sentient ship computer, is absorbing the minds of those onboard and sending those minds back the Central BABE (interesting visual) back on Home World. Prisoners try to escape, guards try to stop them. BANG BANG SHOOT SHOOT MIND ABSORB MIND ABSORB, all of the prisoners except the youngest daughter Nadia are dead or of no consequence. The ship is set to detonate itself to execute the prisoners (not very cost effective), but The Doctor rigs BABE to also destroy the Central BABE (still an interesting visual) back on Home World. It goes slightly wrong and the feedback ends up destroying Home World altogether. The Doctor pauses for about 10 seconds to absorb the fact that he’s committed murder several billion times over, but then it’s back to the Tardis with Greg and Nadia for a nice holiday! Holidays are great when you’ve committed genocide!
Well, it would be really unfair to judge a fan produced pilot episode too harshly. Everyone is just finding their feet after all. So let me start by saying that the AV range gets MUCH better in the following installments. It comes in at 41 minutes, and to be honest, that’s about as far as the plot could stretch. The ideas are there, but it just doesn’t come together for me.
The idea of a family of well spoken criminals kept conjuring the image of the Brady Bunch in space. They never really seemed very mean, and it wasn’t clearly spelled out what Mike, Carol, Jan and Marsha had really done wrong. Still, they were being flown out into deep space, where their prison ship was to be detonated. And that’s another thing… How economical is it to build space ships with the sole purpose of exploding when they get a certain distance away? It’s like shooting Ted Bundy to the Moon rather than electrocuting him. Tax payers on Home World couldn’t have liked that one little bit!
The Doctor and Greg have a good rapport, although Greg is strangely unimpressed for a 17 year old who has just travelled from his school to a prison space craft in the Tardis. But then it was the 1980’s, when companions were routinely hopping onboard without giving much thought to silly things like N-Space, shrunken aunties, or destroyed home planets. I did have a little trouble differentiating between The Doctor and Greg because they both sound so similar. This is a problem that is quickly rectified in the next story, when Nicholas Briggs takes over as the Doctor.
But I’ve got to say that my biggest gripe with The Space Wail is the ending. The Doctor, Greg and Nadia take off in the Tardis after The Doctor mistakenly detonates Home World. Oops. Well, 750 years old, you’re bound to have a senior moment, right? A whole planet of innocent people goes BOOM, and all it takes is a “well, you know, maybe it’s for the best…” from Nadia, and the Doctor is ready to show his new friends the wonders of the universe. So so so wrong in so so so soooooooo many ways.
Overall 3 out of 10
If the pilot episode auditioned for American Idol, I don’t think it would even get Paula’s vote. Dog, I’m just keeping it real, yo. You’ve got to start somewhere, and The Space Wail laid the foundation for great stories to come. I think it’s best looked at as a way of introducing the characters and setting up the series proper. Just try not to think about Home World too hard, because… yeesh!
A newly regenerated Doctor and company fight an old enemy in THE TIME RAVAGERS. *cue music sting*
THE SIRENS OF TIME – Review by Styre
Everything starts off with some continuity-ridden nonsense on Gallifrey about the Celestial Intervention Agency, the transduction barriers, and the Lord President. Is this really the best way to start a new series of audios? Then it’s off to McCoy talking to himself and the cloister bell going off. “I need something sharper than an umbrella to hack through this” — who says that? Despite that, Maggie Stables is absolutely hysterical; I hope she wasn’t intended to be threatening, because she certainly wasn’t. “It’s not as if you’ve twisted your ankle, is it?” Oh, great, it’s self-referential humor about fifteen minutes in.
Technically, this isn’t very good at all. McCoy’s “Get down” in particular echoes just like he said it in a studio, while the explosion effects are far too generic and confusing. McCoy himself doesn’t do well at all, acting much too manic and generally acting as if he hadn’t read the script beforehand. His characterization is very weak, too; this Doctor is terribly bland. Sarah Mowat does well as companion-substitute, complete with nice, obvious companion lines. The bioassassins are simply boring, and the cliffhanger suffers as a result, serving only to awaken the listener from the slumber prompted by the preceding speech. A thoroughly weak start, and its lack of resolution doesn’t help at all.
Much better start to this one, with Mark Gatiss and some fine incidental music lending credibility to the proceedings. Unfortunately, we’re then presented with Davison talking to himself and his lines in this situation are even worse than those given to McCoy. “Mine is not to reason why, mine is but to get back in the TARDIS” is quite good, though. And I like the brief exploration of the nature of the Doctor’s translation abilities.
The World War I setting is wonderful: in recent years, Doctor Who seems to have developed an obsession with WWII and the Nazis. Here, we see reasonable, honorable German officers and it’s rather refreshing to hear.
Meanwhile, back on Gallifrey, Vansell is conspiring against the Doctor because, in a very original plot idea, Gallifrey’s energy is being drained. I don’t get it – can any alien race just plug into the Eye of Harmony? This has been happening since we first saw the planet and it doesn’t seem to show any sign of stopping.
Davison’s great in this: he’s got that off-the-cuff sarcastic tone that characterized the best of his performances on TV. Mowat, though, takes a step back — of course, there’s more going on here than appears, but “Helen” just comes off as whiny and annoying. And the cliffhanger is okay, though it’s hard to care particularly. Better than the first part, but still inconsequential.
More talking-to-himself at the beginning, this time by Vansell, and then nonsense about the “ancient time-beast, the Temperon.” All this Gallifrey stuff is utterly boring, with the conquest of Gallifrey being related through a low-key conversation between two people. Colin talks to himself as well, but I think it works with his character: he clearly loves the sound of his own voice, after all. However, there’s too much talking over incomprehensible noise in this one; all of the distorted voices during TARDIS-malfunctions during the TV series were annoying and that doesn’t stop here.
Baker’s performance is a fine recapturing of his TV persona: he’s arrogant, witty, and generally dismissive of those around him. But the episode itself is nonsensical, with lots of running around a deserted ship away from giant viruses in an attempt to start the engines. The Lord President of Gallifrey is shot to death offscreen, for heaven sakes — shouldn’t an event like that be given some sort of dramatic weight? It’s a bit too obvious that Sarah Mowat is evil at this point, and the attempts to put suspicion on her just make things ridiculous. The cliffhanger is the worst of the three thus far, with a hammy Baker fading out and a meaningless “Beware the Sirens of Time!” which only makes sense in light of the title.
The Doctors come together in this one without any explanation whatsoever other than “The Temperon brought us here!” which strikes me as a copout. A flashback sequence follows, which serves to beat the listener over the head with some very obvious plot threads and pad the episode out to a reasonable length. Still, the interaction of the three is fun, though McCoy comes across as an idiot. And the jumping down the shaft acting is diabolical. “I don’t do impressions” is cute, but after two separate “contact” instances any sort of amusement is as an oasis to the parched ears of the listener.
Baker and McCoy wander around for a while and then end up reunited with Davison and a scenery-chewing Mowat with a voice filter. Meanwhile, the revelation that the Knights of Velyshaa have imprisoned every single Time Lord just further emasculates Gallifrey. The “different aspects of the same personality!” discussion is painful to hear, and immediately afterward we’re told of the resolutions to the prior episodes that apparently weren’t deserving of being presented to the listener. Then the sinking of the Lusitania is revealed to prevent an invasion of Earth in the 3500s, and everything just gets sillier and sillier. The villain makes the Doctors look like fools with the old “No, don’t do this” ruse almost working. Eventually they figure it out, but by that time it’s just impossible to care. Easily the worst multiple-Doctor adventure at the time of its release, this episode amounts to little more than boring, humorless technobabble.
A lot of swearing in this — nothing severe, but the use of “hell” and “bitch” and “Christ!” and “sh*tload” comes across as an intentional attempt to make proceedings more adult. This is ironic because the rest of the script is childish, mixing endless continuity and Gallifrey technobabble with generally weak acting and production values. Having something this masturbatory to start the range seems idiotic to me — one wonders how many potential customers swore off the range after this offering. Davison and Baker are pretty good, but nowhere near good enough to save this.