Recent Reviews

  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 2

    KILL THE DOCTOR!

    The seventh series of Fourth Doctor Adventures concludes, as usual, with a two-part story, this time by Guy Adams. The big selling point this time is the return of Sutekh to menace the Doctor and try to destroy the universe – and the first half of the story, “Kill the Doctor!” introduces the plot and setting in intriguing fashion.

    I won’t dwell very much on Sutekh himself in this review, as he doesn’t really come into his own until the subsequent story. It’s nice that they didn’t save him up for the part 2 cliffhanger: they use the part 1 cliffhanger instead and then have him an active part of the plot in episode 2. But “Kill the Doctor!” is more about the society on the planet Drummond than anything else. It’s a rather unsubtle take on modern Earth society: the people are obsessed with their personal handheld electronic devices, so much so that they walk around staring at them and don’t appreciate the world around them. While the society appears gleaming and perfect on the outside, there’s a significant underclass of unemployed and/or homeless people barely managing to get by. And of course there’s a rot at the heart of the whole thing, one that threatens to tear the society down. But even if it’s unsubtle, it’s very well constructed: this is some of the most effective world-building in recent memory for a Big Finish story, on a par with last year’s Fourth Doctor Adventures finale.

    Adams’ masterstroke is using Leela as a vessel for social commentary. When confronted with the homeless population, especially Kendra (Eleanor Crooks), Leela is mystified. How can a “tribe” with such obvious wealth neglect its own people in this way? Why are they forced to steal food when there is plenty to go around? The Sevateem would never allow this, and so Leela perceives this as an evil society, encouraging the Doctor to overthrow the ruling class and restore power to the people. But the Doctor knows it’s not as simple as she thinks – he doesn’t explain his position enough, unfortunately, but he obviously knows that toppling the government may leave the people in an even worse position. There’s actual conflict between the characters – conflict that is glossed over in the next story, of course, but conflict nonetheless, and that’s interesting.

    As first parts go, this is fantastic. We have an interesting, detailed society, a returning villain with a dangerous plan, conflict between the central characters, and an excellent cliffhanger. I don’t think the second part lives up to this potential at all but taken on its own there’s nothing here to complain about.

    Highly recommended.

    9/10

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    2018/07/25 at 12:23 am
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 2

    THE BAD PENNY

    You’d assume that Dan Starkey’s name on the cover would imply another Sontaran story, but you’d be wrong: “The Bad Penny” is a fun, surprisingly complex time travel tale that stands out as one of the strongest entries in this series and arguably in the range as a whole.

    There’s a warm, pleasant sense to the story, though it never crosses the line into outright humor, preferring instead to take itself seriously. The hook is quite simple: a man uses a temporal anomaly to his advantage, coaching his younger self into making the business decisions that engineer his future success. It’s a bit more complex than that – it actually involves a parallel timeline as well as the “basic” time travel – but Starkey puts it all together in a coherent way. Some of the imagery is fantastic: a man from the 1970s suddenly presented with a gleaming 21st century skyline, the same man in the future possessed by an invisible alien, or even the idea of a coin from the future appearing in the 1800s. The performances are excellent across the board, especially Greg Haiste and Keith Barron as the two Tulips. Starkey also has a fantastic handle on the Doctor and Leela, leading Tom Baker and Louise Jameson to sound completely at ease with the material. I don’t have a great deal to say about the story because it’s not very significant: there’s not a lot of character development, the plot isn’t overly complicated, and there aren’t any dominant themes. But the duality of the central character, the quality of the performances, and the elegance of the script are enough to make this story well worth a listen. Great stuff. More like this, please.

    8/10

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    2018/07/24 at 11:03 pm
  • From Styre on Season 7 Part 2

    THE SHADOW OF LONDON

          We’re into the second half of the seventh season of Fourth Doctor Adventures, and things kick off with a Justin Richards script. You’d expect something traditional and straightforward, but “The Shadow of London” surprises in two ways: it’s not traditional and it heads in an unsettling, oddly questionable direction.

    Unfortunately, the most traditional element of this story is its episodic structure, and yet again we have the problem of the middle of the story requiring a grand revelation. Richards has a fantastic hook for the story: a fake London, built by the Nazis in the final months of World War II in a desperate attempt to train soldiers to infiltrate the real thing and bring down the British government. This leads inevitably to the Doctor and Leela roaming the deserted streets, trying to figure out what’s going on – but the structure means that they have to do this for literally half the story so that the revelation can come at the cliffhanger. Thus, by the time we find out what’s going on, we’ve only got one episode left to resolve everything.

    The story leans hard into its Nazi imagery. The village is menaced by a creature, which turns out to be a former soldier subjected to experiments themselves based on the experiments carried out on concentration camp prisoners. While this is a predictable result of Nazi thinking, it’s rather uncomfortable subject matter for a Doctor Who story, even one this serious. There’s a British intelligence agent working in the false town, and when, at one point, he’s forced to murder a German, he is met with only the slightest disapproval from the Doctor. Richards also encounters a problem in the first episode when he must introduce characters that we do not yet know are Nazis, and therefore must make them at least somewhat sympathetic. But when the revelation comes, we can’t find ourselves sympathizing with Nazis, so Richards quickly kills them all off. Indeed, the entire story feels as though it knows it shouldn’t be engaging with this subject matter. And then there’s the ending, in which the Doctor decides the best way to deal with the suffering creature is to trap it in a burning building until the building explodes! Admittedly, the fourth Doctor is one of the most ruthless incarnations of the Time Lord, but this felt unnecessary and unearned. The story brings up the moral concerns near the end but doesn’t actually engage with them – all we get is a lecture from the Doctor about maintaining one’s humanity.

    Despite the problematic, uneven tone of the story, I admire its ambition. It’s trying to show moral shades of grey and not just go down the “evil megalomaniac trying to blow up the universe” road, and I applaud it for that. But the decision to set it in Nazi Germany was unwise and everything falls apart from there. Still, I’ll take this over yet another traditional romp.

    5/10

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    2018/07/24 at 5:01 am
  • From Styre on 238 - The Lure of the Nomad

    THE LURE OF THE NOMAD

    I’m not sure what’s going on with “The Lure of the Nomad” by Matthew J. Elliott. It’s a random Colin Baker story dropped into the middle of the schedule, it introduces a new companion, it’s surprisingly unimaginative despite its subject matter, and it’s abominably written and acted. So, I suppose I actually do know what’s going on with this story: it’s terrible.

    The central problem, which is sadly common with this author, is the script. There are some genuinely fascinating ideas here: I think the “cuckoo” companion is a great idea still waiting for a great story, I love Elliott’s depiction of the time bubble, I think the Makara are fantastic, and I even think the villains have legitimate potential. Unfortunately, none of it is borne out in a competent manner. The dialogue is uncomfortably clunky. I feel sorry for Matthew Holness, who portrayed greedy businessman Eric Drazen, because he quite audibly has no idea if his character is supposed to be satirical. The plot takes Drazen seriously, but his banter with the other characters feels uncertain: are we supposed to be laughing with him or at him? The only actor who succeeds with this dialogue is Colin Baker himself, and that’s largely because he’s naturally the sort of person to use ten words when one would suffice. Even so, Elliott characterizes the Doctor as a grammar pedant, which feels out of character and drags scenes to a halt every time he corrects another character.

    The main attraction of this story is new companion Mathew Sharpe (George Sear), who feels the need to introduce himself to everyone in the world as “Mathew with one ‘t,’ Sharpe with an ‘e.’” It’s meant to be endearing, but it immediately underscores the unnatural, atonal dialogue. Naturally, the listener will wonder who Mathew is – this is a new companion, after all, yet one who has apparently shared many adventures with the Doctor. It’s easy to see why they travel together, as Sear and Baker share an easy chemistry and Mathew’s quirks are mostly charming. But it’s also the most obvious thing in the world that something isn’t right, and sure enough we’re soon heading down the road of Mathew being a fake companion, someone who has traveled with the Doctor simply to engineer his cooperation in a scheme of universal domination. Dramatically, this doesn’t work: the audience will naturally take time to warm up to a new character, and without seeing his previous adventures with the Doctor we’re just constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by the revelation of Mathew’s true nature, and Elliott isn’t good enough to make us feel the impact of his betrayal, so it just falls flat. Also, while Sear is quite good as Mathew, he’s not good at all as the Myriad.

    I would have enjoyed the “stereotypically evil businessman sacrifices himself to save the day” plot a lot more if I hadn’t literally just heard it in Elliott’s Tenth Doctor Chronicle “Backtrack.” I know writers often reuse effective ideas, but not this unimaginatively and not in adjacent scripts. Still, that story worked because it lacked a conventional villain; “The Lure of the Nomad” is the opposite, with the Myriad wanting to (gasp) destroy the entire universe. It’s a bit of a unique spin on the idea – they’re from the universe after this one and they want to end this one to hasten their own creation – but it’s still cackling maniacs trying to blow everything up, which we’ve seen once or twice before in Doctor Who.

    The production isn’t bad: Steve Foxon’s sound design is quite effective and I like how John Ainsworth directs, bringing an energetic pace to an uninspired script. Overall, though, “The Lure of the Nomad” is a failure, a bad script further undermined by confused performances. The script is everything in audio drama, and one this poor should not have been produced.

    3/10

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    2018/07/16 at 3:23 pm
  • From Styre on U.N.I.T. - Cyber Reality

    UNIT: CYBER-REALITY

    The UNIT series should be better than this. Unlike the main Doctor Who releases, where Big Finish has to dance around the lack of main cast availability, this range has its original TV cast members along with an established regular audio cast and is released on a regular schedule. We’ve seen how successful this can be with Torchwood – those releases have been high quality almost across the board, and some have been true masterpieces. But the UNIT series is content just to ramble along telling generic, uninteresting action stories, and “Cyber-Reality” is nothing more than the next non-entity in line.

    We haven’t seen much of Sam Bishop in this range because Warren Brown has been the hardest actor to get in studio. But he’s here for the whole of “Cyber-Reality,” and the result illustrates exactly the problem with this range: we learn nothing about his character and there’s no development whatsoever. The same applies to everyone else: Shindi and Osgood spend much of the story under Cyber-control. Does this affect them? No. Will we see any fallout from this in future sets? Almost certainly not. Josh gets his obligatory once-per-box-set mention of his plastic skeleton, but we’re in the sixth set of these and not once has a story spent any time on what this has meant for his character. And then there’s Kate, who’s still driven-but-with-a-heart. Her father is mentioned, but that doesn’t go anywhere either. It’s the same characters, in other words – the same set of boring clichés who never develop. You could listen to these sets completely out of order and you wouldn’t even notice.

    The first two stories, “Game Theory” by Matt Fitton and “Telepresence” by Guy Adams, deal with the Auctioneers from the Encounters set. In one story, Sam is imprisoned with a “fellow hostage” that tests his reactions; in the other, Josh and Shindi explore a virtual world with real-life consequences. But nothing comes of these stories – there are no major revelations, no plot twists. They’re mostly here to tread water until the Cybermen show up, which finally happens at the end of part two. The third story, “Code Silver” by Adams, introduces a new breed of Cybermen from a different universe. These Cybermen have unique abilities, including the Borg-like ability to adapt to enemy weapons on the fly, but they still have the same end goal: converting everyone in the universe into Cybermen. As mentioned above, they half-convert Osgood and Shindi, and Osgood naturally and immediately becomes the smartest mind in the Cyber-collective. This is a bit outlandish, but as it fits with her character we can roll with it. Apart from that, though, there’s nothing different here; the Cyber-plan superficially engages with our society’s obsession with mobile devices, but beyond that it’s the same thing we always see.

    All of that sets up the fourth story, “Master of Worlds” by Fitton, in which the “War Master” shows up for no good reason! His TARDIS has landed on Earth in need of repair, coincidentally right in the middle of the Cyber-invasion, and he’s forced into cooperation with UNIT to save the day. Which he does, almost entirely without effort. It’s genuinely funny how he first meets the Auctioneers and almost immediately kills them all out of boredom, something this listener has been longing for ever since their introduction. As soon as the Cyber-plan becomes obvious – transmit the conversion signal not just into our universe, but into all universes – the Master devises an elegant solution, but he spends most of the story running around with UNIT and unable to intervene. He’s wasted, in other words, just like everything else in this set. He has a conversation with Kate about the Brigadier, which goes nowhere. The only mildly interesting part is some foreshadowing about Osgood’s upcoming encounter with Missy, but even there we already know what happens.

    There’s little to add, in the end. The production is excellent, for what that’s worth – Ken Bentley is very good at directing action on audio and Howard Carter’s sound design is admirable. The performances are good for what they are. But ultimately what we have is a story that brings together UNIT, the Cybermen, and the Master – and exhibits absolutely no ambition in doing so. It’s yet another massive wasted opportunity from a range defined by it.

    4/10

    Go to comment
    2018/06/30 at 6:47 pm
  • From Styre on Torchwood: Believe

    TORCHWOOD: BELIEVE

    “Believe,” a three-episode Torchwood release from Guy Adams, is significant for a couple of reasons: first, it marks the first reunion on audio of the complete original Torchwood cast; second, it’s a surprisingly small-scale, character-oriented story that doesn’t seem like an ideal subject for a special box set release yet works exceptionally well. Add in some social commentary and some fine performances and you’ve got a very strong release.

    The last “special release” like this, “Outbreak,” was a generic, apocalyptic tale about a deadly disease and an evil pharmaceutical company. “Believe” is clearly about the Church of Scientology, allegorically represented here as the Church of the Outsiders, but the story opts to examine the people within the Church rather than any supervillain’s plan to take over or destroy the Earth. Indeed, one of the overarching themes of the story is that not everything is a grand conspiracy and not everyone is as important as they think. The story kicks off with Owen arguing that the Church of the Outsiders and its interest in aliens poses a unique threat to Earth, one that must be investigated by Torchwood. Jack is reluctant, and carrying his own agenda as usual, but the team sides with Owen and the investigation begins. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the story is that the team splits up to investigate the Church and is not reunited until the very end, such that the story features the original regular cast but barely has them sharing any scenes.

    Still, each individual story is quite compelling. Tosh’s experience is the most harrowing, as she and Owen investigate businessman Frank Layton, played by a creepy, almost unrecognizable Arthur Darvill. He’s a financial backer of the Church and Owen is convinced that damning evidence about the Church must be located somewhere in his personal files. Thus, Owen sends Tosh to meet undercover with Layton, intending to carry out a simple plan: convince Layton to take her home, drug his drink once there, and steal his secrets after he’s passed out. Unfortunately, one of the points of this story is that leadership is harder than it appears, and this simple plan rapidly spirals out of Owen’s control. She has to choose between sleeping with Layton or abandoning the mission, and Owen somehow convinces her, against her better judgment, to choose the former. What follows is easily the most uncomfortable part of the script, and indeed one of the most uncomfortable moments in any Torchwood story, and it’s somehow compounded at the end by the discovery that he didn’t actually have any worthwhile information. I’m in two minds about this sequence: there’s a long, sordid history in media of putting women through sexual abuse and framing it as character development, and on the surface, this seems to be heading down that same road. On the other hand, Adams takes particular care to ensure that Tosh has agency throughout: she makes the decision to go through with the sexual encounter, she engages with Layton on her own terms, and she addresses the fallout in her own way. I think it’s done appropriately, in the end, but I would not be surprised at all if this sequence caused offense to some listeners.

    The other characters do not require nearly as much discussion. Ianto infiltrates the Church itself, pretending to be a new recruit and befriending Erin (Rhian Blundell), the member responsible for shepherding him into the fold. While he certainly discovers some illegal conduct – the Greys attempt to experiment on him in a particularly harrowing sequence – he never unearths any deeper conspiracies, and while he’s convinced by the end that the Church isn’t a force for good, he’s at a loss for words trying to explain that to Erin. After all, she’s a lost, lonely soul, who has found a welcoming group of people – and while they may believe misleading things, they’re not bringing her any harm. The Scientology parallel breaks down a bit here, because that church has faced repeated allegations of bringing actual harm to its members, but philosophically this is more interesting. Jack’s part of the story beats a very familiar drum: he doesn’t tell the others what he’s doing, it looks like he’s working for the enemy, and it turns out that he’s actually been working undercover all along. We don’t learn anything new from this element of the plot, unfortunately. Gwen gets the bulk of the violent action in the script, but she’s largely there as a storytelling device helping to move characters into position for the conclusion.

    Speaking of the conclusion, it’s fantastic. Andromeda (Lois Meleri Jones), daughter of the Church’s founders, aspires to open the Rift and welcome everything on the other side to Earth. Everyone prepares for the worst, but Jack lets it happen, knowing that there aren’t any massed aliens on the other side. The Rift opens and nothing comes through: no extraterrestrial is listening to the Church and none ever have. It brings home the falsehoods of the Church with more impact than any argument ever could.

    The production is excellent, both David Nagel’s sound design and Blair Mowat’s score. Scott Handcock directs to a high standard, capturing the feel of the original Torchwood cast. The performances are fantastic across the board. Really, only a few flaws keep this from achieving the highest score – this would have been among the best TV stories had it aired in that medium.

    Highly recommended.

    9/10

    Go to comment
    2018/06/27 at 12:33 am
  • From Styre on 20 - The Last Beacon

    TORCHWOOD: THE LAST BEACON

    “The Last Beacon” is a step into new territory as the first Torchwood audio story written by a member of the main cast, Gareth David-Lloyd. The story is simple: Ianto and Owen journey into the Welsh countryside in search of alien activity, and while Owen struggles to adapt, Ianto is in his element. Naturally, Owen is constantly irritated, while Ianto, still in the wake of “Cyberwoman,” is trying to prove his usefulness to the team. It’s somewhat difficult to review this story from an American perspective, given that so much of it turns around Welsh culture, but the script does a good job of showing Owen’s outsider perspective and how he comes to (reluctantly, quietly) put his prejudices aside. I like that there isn’t a villain: the alien “threat” is nothing more than a stranded alien survivor trying to reach out to her own people, not knowing they’ve been destroyed. And the ending is especially great: contrary to expectations, Ianto is the one who insists on resolving the matter by the book while Owen endorses empathetic rule-breaking. This is, at heart, a great Owen story: Ianto is Ianto, as one would expect with his performer writing the script, but Owen is much more complex and sympathetic than he often was on television, especially in season 1. I don’t know why high-quality stories like this are the norm in the Torchwood range, but I’m certainly not complaining – this is yet another strong production.

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/06/14 at 5:47 pm
  • From Styre on Tenth Doctor Chronicles

    THE TENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: LAST CHANCE

    There’s a lot to like about “Last Chance” by Guy Adams, the final story in the Tenth Doctor Chronicles box set. The subject matter, for one thing, is excellent: an alien, the last of his kind, is traveling all of space and time, engineering the final moments of other species and sharing in their experience. The Doctor, naturally, can’t allow this to happen, and so he’s also traveling space and time to save these creatures before they can be killed – and if that sounds like changing history, it is, but we’re in very late-period Tennant where the Doctor doesn’t care anymore. The Doctor being the last of his own species is obviously relevant, and the script doesn’t shy away from the implications. Indeed, this is the best story for the Doctor out of the four, one that actually digs into his character a bit at this most vulnerable time of his life. Unfortunately, other elements don’t work as well. This story sees Michelle Ryan return as Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” a character that wasn’t particularly popular from a story widely regarded as the worst of the entire Russell T. Davies era. And while Christina is more tolerable in this story, and Ryan’s performance is much more measured, the character is barely recognizable. When we last saw her, the Doctor rejected her as a companion, knowing that she was far too greedy and self-interested to travel at his side – and yet this story opens with the Doctor seeking her help with an altruistic mission to save endangered animals? Indeed, that side of her character barely comes out in this story, which makes me wonder about her upcoming box set even more than I already am. Lastly, there’s the narration, which to Adams’ credit actually has ambition. The other stories feature bland, workmanlike prose punctuated with countless “said the Doctor” instances, whereas “Last Chance” actually gives the narrator a personality. It’s overwritten in places, and a few of the lines are genuinely cringeworthy, but I always give credit for trying something outside the standard boundaries. And that’s my attitude toward “Last Chance” as a whole – it has definite flaws but there’s still a great deal that’s worthy of attention.

     

    7/10

    As a whole, this is a worthwhile box set. Every story is worthy in some way, the writing is pleasantly varied, the production is strong, and the performances – especially Dudman – are fantastic. It won’t change your life, but it’s much better than the usual assortment of generic runarounds. Recommended.

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    2018/05/28 at 5:24 am
  • From Styre on Tenth Doctor Chronicles

    THE TENTH DOCTOR ADVENTURES: WILD PASTURES

    “Wild Pastures,” by James Goss, is the best story in the set, one that takes Doctor Who storytelling to a new venue: a nursing home. The Doctor wants to investigate strange occurrences at the Wild Pastures nursing home, so he devises a plan to check Wilf into the home and pose as a caregiver. Unfortunately, when he arrives at the Noble home, he encounters not Wilf but Sylvia instead – and after a dose of her force of personality she’s suddenly the Doctor’s partner. What follows is a surprisingly somber look at life in one of these facilities, the residents’ lives and memories slowly being drained away, leaving empty shells behind. Anyone who has had family in homes like this will recognize the process, and while Goss uses an alien memory-draining plant as the culprit, it’s really just a metaphor for the combined effects of isolation and aging. There’s a scene where Sylvia tries to leave the home and realizes she can’t – and that feeling of imprisonment is sadly, achingly familiar. Goss also writes the Doctor as a victim of the plant’s influence, and Dudman’s portrayal of the Doctor as essentially a dementia patient is surprisingly effective. This is also a great story for Sylvia Noble, as it’s the first time we’ve spent such an extended period with the character. While Dudman is the narrator, Jacqueline King is the star of the show, as most of the story is conveyed through Sylvia’s observations and opinions – and we get to see the human being under her hard exterior. Overall, “Wild Pastures” is a very good, often excellent story, and it’s the sort of thing we should see more of. It’s a shame we couldn’t hear David Tennant perform this story, but it’s still completely worthwhile.

    8/10

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    2018/05/28 at 5:24 am
  • From Styre on Tenth Doctor Chronicles

    THE TENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: BACKTRACK

    “Backtrack,” by Matthew J. Elliott, is an odd story in that it often feels as though it wants to be more important than it actually is. The pre-credits scene wants to be ominous, but whether because of the writing or Dudman’s performance, falls oddly flat heading into the credits. The premise: a conman is taking people on tours of the great battles of history in a time-traveling flying saucer. But the ship is damaged, it gets stuck in the past, and energy leaking from its engine is threatening to irreversibly and devastatingly change history. With that sort of premise, you can go practically anywhere and do practically anything – and as the story heads back to 1066 you think that’s what’s happening, but then the entire story is actually confined aboard the ship. This would make a lot of sense on TV with a limited effects budget; on audio, it’s inexplicable. Either way, it plays like an old Hollywood disaster film, and the plot twist near the end is genuinely surprising. The best part of “Backtrack” is that it doesn’t have a conventional villain; the most dangerous thing in the story is sentient fungus. It’s refreshing to hear a story like this that doesn’t feature a cackling megalomaniac ranting about destroying the universe – in fact, the “villain’s” zeal to sacrifice himself and save the universe is the threat! I don’t think the story does enough with its premise, I don’t think the tone gels properly, and I don’t think the characters are developed enough, but in spite of all of that this is still Elliott’s best Doctor Who script yet. More of this and fewer comedy Australians and we might be on to something.

     

    7/10

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    2018/05/28 at 5:23 am
  • From Styre on Tenth Doctor Chronicles

    THE TENTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE TASTE OF DEATH

    The Ninth Doctor Chronicles accounted for the unavailability of Christopher Eccleston by telling four narrated tales and having the narrator deliver an Eccleston impression. It’s exactly the same case for the Tenth Doctor Chronicles, except of course that David Tennant has been available and they’re doing these anyway. The narrator this time around is Jacob Dudman, whose Tennant impression is generally excellent, only faltering a bit when trying to capture Tennant’s anger. And the first story is “The Taste of Death,” by Helen Goldwyn, a tale that embraces the Russell T. Davies era with both arms.

     

    I must say that I’m impressed in spite of myself with Big Finish’s ability to realistically ape every single televised era of Doctor Who. While I routinely criticize the Fourth Doctor Adventures for aiming no higher than recapturing the feel of “tea time 1978,” it’s surprising just how well they also capture the feel of 2006 with stories like this. I like the resort planet setting, I like the focus on food, and I like the presence of the Slitheen, among the most underrated creations of the TV series since its return to television. Even though they’re all over the cover of the box set, Goldwyn does a fine job of concealing their presence despite clues that should be screamingly obvious. And I like how we continue to recognize them as an aberrant crime family instead of representatives of a uniformly hostile race. Unfortunately for me, this story suffered from its proximity to the first Ravenous set – here, as there, we have someone trying to leverage power by selling dangerously addictive food, so it feels as though it’s covering old ground. Of course, nobody says you have to listen to one before the other! “The Taste of Death” is light as a feather – despite some dark subject matter, it’s not interested in pushing any boundaries, but I don’t think that’s the intended purpose of these Chronicles sets. If it’s nostalgia you want, this story has it in spades.

    7/10

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    2018/05/28 at 5:22 am
  • From Styre on 237 - The Helliax Rift

    THE HELLIAX RIFT

    In the latest monthly Doctor Who release from Big Finish, Scott Handcock’s “The Helliax Rift” introduces something potentially earth-shaking: a new iteration of UNIT! Yes, it’s a new set of characters brought in as foils for the Doctor, ones we can expect to see face off with all three main range Doctors. So naturally we’re getting a dense, exciting story, full of meaty character development sure to make us interested in these new UNIT officers, right? No? We’re not? We’re getting a generic runaround with cardboard cutout characters that steadfastly ignores any serious moral debate? Oh boy!

    This story has the same problem as the new series UNIT range: the newly-created UNIT characters aren’t interesting. Lt. Col. Price (Russ Bain) is angry, impatient, and demanding, always ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Why is he like this? No explanation is even attempted, which just makes me wonder how on earth a hotheaded idiot managed to rise to command of an elite investigative force. Lt. Daniel Hopkins (Blake Harrison) is the medical officer, so naturally he’s much more sympathetic, but even though he spends most of the story with the Doctor we learn virtually nothing about him. Cpl. Linda Maxwell (Genevieve Gaunt) is basically just there to yell “Yes sir!” a lot – I can’t even tell if she’s important enough to return. There’s also virtually no attempt to make Price sympathetic, which is odd if he’s going to return as anything other than a villain. I do think there’s potential for an interesting relationship here, with UNIT taking an openly antagonistic posture regarding the Doctor, but the execution here is quite clumsy.

    Apart from the poor characterization, the script also ignores some of the obvious problems it presents. In sum: a wealthy woman named Annabel Morden (Deborah Thomas) loses her husband in tragic circumstances. An alien called a Helliax travels to Earth and takes the appearance of Annabel’s dead husband in order to mate with her before promptly disappearing. She is left with a half-human, half-Helliax child, who is unable to survive in Earth’s atmosphere without constant medical care under isolation. In the following years, she teams up with Dr. Jennifer Harrison (Anna Louise Plowman), using a transmitter to attract aliens to Earth in the hope of studying their biology to find a treatment for her son. In the process, they use their findings to create new medical treatments to help humanity. To start with, misleading someone about your identity in order to have sex with them is rape, but nobody in this story even considers for a moment that the Helliax did something wrong. Annabel’s flashback to this rape is even delivered with romantic overtones! Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the Doctor does a complete moral 180 later in the story when the true motives behind Annabel’s actions are revealed. When he learns she’s trying to save her child, suddenly he’s on her side – even though nothing has changed about her abducting and experimenting upon innocent aliens.

    Despite my reservations, there are still elements to recommend “The Helliax Rift.” Peter Davison is fantastic throughout and he settles into an easy chemistry with Blake Harrison, who serves as a fine pseudo-companion. Jamie Anderson directs a tight, action-packed production. The sound design from Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian is mostly good, though some gunshots and battle noises are rather unconvincing. Overall, though, “The Helliax Rift” doesn’t work. It introduces uninteresting characters, fails to grapple with the moral implications of its own plot, and doesn’t seem to be laying the groundwork for anything compelling.

    Below average.

    4/10

    Go to comment
    2018/05/24 at 10:19 pm
  • From Styre on Ravenous 1

    RAVENOUS: SWEET SALVATION

          And so, the first Ravenous set concludes with “Sweet Salvation,” also by Matt Fitton. The previous story actually set up some interesting material for this conclusion – and it’s frankly staggering that yet again all of that interesting material is thrown away.

    I’m really getting tired of repeating the same complaints over and over again, but Big Finish is at it again with this story. In the first part, Helen was showing hints of the Sonomancer’s influence, such that she occasionally demonstrated psychic powers and such that the Doctor didn’t entirely trust her. By the end of “Sweet Salvation,” those powers are gone and the Doctor trusts her completely. The previous story built an interesting relationship between Helen and the Eleven: was she helping to cure his madness? Were they building an unlikely relationship? In “Sweet Salvation,” we find out that the answer to both of those questions is “no” and that the Eleven is the same megalomaniac he’s always been. For some reason, over the past few years Big Finish has been utterly averse to anything even resembling character development in the Doctor Who ranges, but this is a new low. “Sweet Salvation” almost revels in its disregard for drama, with characters proudly declaring that everything is back to normal. In fact, even the way it ends reinforces this, with the Eleven and the Kandyman carelessly kicked off a platform and possibly fed to a psychic spider. It seems that the entire purpose of “Ravenous 1” was to erase “Doom Coalition,” to make it as though those stories had never happened and send our characters off completely unchanged by their experiences – and that’s deeply cynical and insulting to an audience spending real money to listen to these.

    Is anything about this good? The Eleven has always been a boring character – at least here he actually works with his other personalities instead of yelling at them, but his plan certainly isn’t memorable. Two of the guest characters have a relationship but I can’t even remember either of their names and I listened to this yesterday. The plot is ludicrous – taking the psychic spoor of a giant spider and using it as an ingredient in food to control an entire population? The Kandyman is in this but he doesn’t really do anything – although my favorite part of the story is when he reverts to his TV persona, something so entertaining it makes you ask why they didn’t present him that way in the first place. I suppose the design is good: Ken Bentley is a capable director, the sound design from Benji Clifford and Steve Foxon is effective, and Jamie Robertson’s score is useful if also unmemorable.

    Ultimately, “Sweet Salvation” is an appropriate ending to a terrible box set. It’s a deeply cynical corporate mission statement: don’t take any interest in our characters, because we’re going to hit the reset button before too long. You would think this range, which has no controlling TV continuity, would be the one in which they would actually push the boundaries, but it isn’t. None of them are. I should have known this was going to be bad when even the gushing review copy on the product page could only manage to score this a 4/5.

    What a miserable experience.

    3/10

    Go to comment
    2018/05/19 at 3:07 pm
  • From Styre on Ravenous 1

    RAVENOUS: WORLD OF DAMNATION

    I’m not sure why this Matt Fitton script is called “World of Damnation,” but it is, and it’s the point at which Ravenous finally remembers that it’s a sequel to Doom Coalition, reintroducing Helen and the Eleven to our ears. There’s some interesting, if flawed, structure to the script, and it actually seems to be promising some interesting character development – but it’s also the first half of a story and we know how that usually goes around here.

    As the first half of a story, most of “World of Damnation” is setting up the conclusion. After the events of Doom Coalition, Helen and the Eleven ended up on Rykerzon, a prison planetoid and asylum designed for dangerous criminals. Helen, possessed of the powers of the Sonomancer, accidentally used those powers to blow a significant hole in the prison. And so over the course of the next six months they’re both locked up, with Helen serving as a caretaker for the Eleven, talking to him, helping him manage his insanity, and even potentially building a relationship with him. When the Doctor and Liv eventually reconnect with them, the Doctor is instantly suspicious of Helen: something has changed about her and he’s unsure of what it is. This is genuinely interesting character work, the sort of thing that could change the dynamic of the TARDIS and lay the groundwork for dramatic conflicts later on. It would be a real shame if all this was reset to normal in the second half, wouldn’t it?

    Also of note is the return of a classic Doctor Who villain: the prisoners are being kept in line and even reformed by the sweet concoctions of the Kandyman! Oddly, he doesn’t look or sound anything like what we saw on television – he’s inhabiting a new body and looks human. Nicholas Rowe gives him a threatening, businesslike air, while simultaneously emphasizing his love of preparing sweets. It’s a good performance, but it does make me wonder what the point of bringing back a villain is if you’re just going to change things so drastically. Imagine if a story was billed as the return of the Daleks, and when the Daleks appeared they looked like humans and sounded like humans. Sure, they’d still yell “exterminate” and shoot people, but would they really be Daleks? Fortunately, since it’s the Kandyman, nobody is going to be too worried about this.

    I think Matt Fitton was watching Westworld, because there’s a point in this story where we discover that two apparently concurrent storylines are actually separated by six months. Unfortunately, it’s bungled – there’s no big reveal of the surprise, it just happens by implication. And honestly, if you don’t even notice, it doesn’t matter – there aren’t any subtle changes or clues to the true nature of things to detect on a second listen. Still, I appreciate the effort to try something different with the structure.

    Overall, “World of Damnation” is a solid story that lays the groundwork for some potentially interesting character development in the second part and into the future.

    7/10

    Go to comment
    2018/05/17 at 4:09 pm
  • From Styre on Tales from New Earth

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: THE CATS OF NEW CAIRO

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

    5/10

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

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: THE SKIES OF NEW EARTH

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

    7/10

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

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: DEATH IN THE NEW FOREST

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

    Dreary.

    4/10

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

    TALES FROM NEW EARTH: ESCAPE FROM NEW NEW YORK

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

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

    3/10

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

    RAVENOUS: HOW TO MAKE A KILLING IN TIME TRAVEL

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

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

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

    5/10

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

    RAVENOUS: THEIR FINEST HOUR

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

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

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

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

    2/10

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

    TORCHWOOD: THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN JACK

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

    4/10

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

    SERPENT IN THE SILVER MASK

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

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

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

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

    Recommended.

    7/10

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

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: DESPERATE MEASURES

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

    5/10

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

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

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

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

    9/10

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

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: SOLDIER OBSCURA

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

    8/10

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

    GALLIFREY: TIME WAR: CELESTIAL INTERVENTION

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

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

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

    7/10

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

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: CHURCHILL VICTORIOUS

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

    7/10

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

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: I WAS CHURCHILL’S DOUBLE

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

    4/10

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

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: HUMAN CONFLICT

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

    7/10

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

    THE CHURCHILL YEARS: YOUNG WINSTON

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

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

    6/10

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

    GHOST WALK

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

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

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

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

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

    8/10

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

    TORCHWOOD: ALIENS AMONG US: VOLUME 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

    8/10

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

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

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

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

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

    9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE FURIES

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

    5/10

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

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: MY DINNER WITH ANDREW

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

    8/10

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

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: A REQUIEM FOR THE DOCTOR

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

    3/10

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

    THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE LADY IN THE LAKE

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

    9/10

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

    THE DEMON RISES

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

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

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

    6/10

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

    THE MIND RUNNERS

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

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

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

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

    Recommended tentatively.

    6/10

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

    THE CROWMARSH EXPERIMENT

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

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

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

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

    Recommended.

    7/10

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

    THE SONS OF KALDOR

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

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

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

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

    Blaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.

    5/10

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

    KINGDOM OF LIES

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

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

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

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

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

    Recommended, with reservations.

    7/10

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

    THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE GREAT WHITE HURRICANE

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

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

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

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

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

    Stay far, far away.

    2/10

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

    THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE DESTINATION WARS

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

     

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

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

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

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

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

    THE WAR MASTER: THE HEAVENLY PARADIGM

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

    5/10

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

    THE WAR MASTER: THE SKY MAN

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

    8/10

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

    THE WAR MASTER: THE GOOD MASTER

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

    6/10

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

    THE WAR MASTER: BENEATH THE VISCOID

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

    5/10

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

    THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE WRECK OF THE WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

    Highly recommended.

    8/10

    Go to comment
    2018/01/22 at 2:19 am