THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE NIGHT WITCHES
We’re into a fourth series of Early Adventures, and while I’m still surprised that they haven’t expanded this range to release every month, the first story, Roland Moore’s “The Night Witches,” demonstrates that they certainly wouldn’t have enough ideas to support a monthly schedule.
It’s a historical story, set in Soviet Russia in the run-up to the battle of Stalingrad. While the German tanks approach, the Soviets deploy air force units crewed entirely by women and flying strategically obsolete planes to destroy the encroaching forces. These women, and their planes, are nicknamed the Night Witches by the Germans due to their attacks under cover of darkness and the sounds of their aircraft. It’s a fascinating bit of history, one ripe for exploration – but unfortunately, Moore’s script does nothing interesting with the material.
This is a difficult review to write because there is so little to talk about. The story features very little incident and very little character development. The TARDIS lands, the Doctor and his companions are captured, and they spend four episodes escaping capture and being captured again until they finally escape in the TARDIS having resolved nothing. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the very 1960s idea that Polly, by complete coincidence, is an exact double of one of the Soviet pilots best known to the Germans. Not only that, the doppelganger Tatiana (Anjella Mackintosh) can do a perfect impression of Polly’s voice, so much so that Anneke Wills plays her when she is doing so. Naturally, the story doesn’t even attempt to provide an explanation for this.
Moore tries to give Ben and Polly the biggest roles in the story. Ben, with his military background, is helpful to the Soviets, while Polly is caught up in a plot to fake Tatiana’s death and make the Germans think she has supernatural powers. The Doctor is “off camera” for basically an entire episode and keeps to the background the rest of the time, and Jamie has almost nothing to do. Still, there’s opportunity for Ben and Polly, but we don’t get anything beyond anguish. Ben is in the Royal Navy, after all, and now he finds himself in the middle of a war whose consequences are still being felt in his own time – and all we get is tortured refusal to tell the Soviets how the war ends. Has Ben seen combat like this before? In either case, how does he respond to finding himself in a war zone? These are opportunities to learn more about one of the least explored Doctor Who companions and yet the story doesn’t engage with them. As for Polly, she gets a great moment at the end where she selflessly protects Tatiana at the possible expense of her own life, but “willing to die to protect others” is Companion 101 – it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
Helen Goldwyn directs a solid production, with capable sound design from Toby Hrycek-Robinson. In the end, it’s not that there’s anything particularly bad about “The Night Witches” – it’s just that there isn’t enough story here for a Companion Chronicle, never mind a two-hour production.
Entertaining enough but disposable.
From 230 - Time in Officeon
TIME IN OFFICE
One of my persistent complaints with the Doctor Who monthly range is about its general lack of imagination: most stories follow the patterns of well-worn Doctor Who stories and are, after 200+ releases, both predictable and forgettable. It’s a rare treat when a monthly story comes along that defies this trend, and “Time in Office” by Eddie Robson certainly does the trick.
The premise is simple: after dropping the Gravis off on a deserted planet, the Doctor and Tegan are hijacked by the Time Lords and brought to Gallifrey. Once there, the Doctor is forced to assume the mantle of Lord President and rule over his people. “Time in Office” presents a few scenes from this presidency but never takes itself wholly seriously, making a refreshing change from the serious overtones of other Gallifrey stories. Robson aims for an honest examination of what the fifth Doctor would be like as Lord President, and I think he nails it. Take the third episode, where the Doctor is confronted with a student protestor advocating for the same reforms the Doctor intends to make. It’s obviously funny, as the student consistently refuses to pay attention, but it also shows the Doctor’s willingness to take input from anyone in his pursuit of better things. It also shows the Doctor’s lack of patience with the pomp and circumstance of Gallifrey: he knows he looks ridiculous in his ceremonial robes, he mocks the endless lists of Things of Rassilon, and so forth. I’ve often found Big Finish’s Gallifrey stories to be caught between two worlds: they don’t want to lampoon it, but they don’t push the boundaries to truly explore the incomprehensible technology at Gallifrey’s heart. Robson ignores this to blaze his own trail and it works remarkably well, especially in his exploration of Gallifreyan diplomacy in episode two.
I’m also a fan of the supporting characters. This is one of the best-ever Tegan stories, as she quickly assimilates into Gallifrey’s culture while bringing her brash, human sensibilities to bear. She’s smart, creative, and resourceful, and she manages to exhibit this determination while maintaining a healthy level of snark. The “mouth on legs” descriptor could not be less apt. And then there’s Leela, captured expertly by Robson. She retains her “savage” instincts despite years in Gallifreyan society, but Robson doesn’t make the mistake of portraying her as a fool. Her ideas may be simple, but they’re incisive – her marriage idea is exactly the right way for a writer to respect the intelligence of a “primitive” character.
The production is great as well, from director Helen Goldwyn to sound designer Andy Hardwick to the excellent performances across the board. Even if the story trips up a bit in the final episode, it’s not enough to prevent the overall success of the release. There’s not much to “Time in Office” – it’s light, it’s breezy, it’s comedic, and even when the stakes are high it doesn’t feel important – but what we have is both refreshing and entertaining. This is the sort of story I once expected from Big Finish as a matter of course. Now, for better or for worse, it’s something rare, to be treasured.
THE THIEF WHO STOLE TIME
I’m not sure if Marc Platt really sticks the landing with “The Thief Who Stole Time,” the concluding part to “The Skin of the Sleek” and the final episode of the sixth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures. It’s entertaining, as things go, but it doesn’t provide very interesting answers to the questions posed by the first story.
The big question in “The Skin of the Sleek” was about the planet Funderell itself: what was its purpose, and why was it originally put there by the Time Lords? Platt answers this, but the answer is characteristically vague: the planet sits over a convergence of potential timelines and serves as a way to keep them from bleeding into one another. Quite what this means and how it works is not explained, but Sartia (Joannah Tincey) wants the planet’s power for herself so that she can do… something apocalyptic. Platt doesn’t dwell on this, which is a good thing, because a lesser writer would have focused entirely on Sartia as a crazed megalomaniac who wants to take over and/or destroy the universe. Here, she’s unbalanced, yes, but also desperate to be free of the boredom of Gallifrey once and for all. It’s not very rewarding, but at least it’s rooted in the character and her established motivations. It also makes sense of Sartia’s attitude toward Romana: she had to watch as Romana, the perfect student and representative of the establishment, got to travel with the Time Lords’ most famous rebel. So it works, all things considered – it just doesn’t lay out a rewarding conclusion.
Where the story really succeeds is in its world-building, something that Platt really nails down. All of the disparate elements of Funderell are revealed as part of a larger Time Lord plan to keep the planet working. As an example, the people worship Funderell’s Daughter, a massive electric sleek, and keep it in a chamber under their city. But that chamber also contains the backup computer systems operating the planet, and the giant sleek is there to charge them with electricity! It all fits together quite elegantly, a testament to Platt’s skill at this part of the job.
The character work isn’t bad. The Doctor is downbeat and angry, and for the first time all series actually sounds like the Doctor we saw in season 18. Romana doesn’t do as well, though – when she’s not helpless, she’s reactive, and she doesn’t contribute very much to the resolution. The supporting characters work, especially Blujaw (Des McAleer) and Linnis (Alex Wyndham), both the most intriguing and most sympathetic characters. As for the production, it’s quite good, from director Ken Bentley to sound designer Jamie Robertson. But I must point out that, as interesting and different as these stories were to most of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, they still don’t sound anything like season 18 stories. The script would fit in, at least, so I suppose they deserve some credit for that. Overall, “The Thief Who Stole Time” is a solid conclusion both to the story and to the series. There’s room for improvement, but given how these series-ending spectaculars usually go, perhaps I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
THE SILURIAN CANDIDATE
I guess I should be careful what I ask for. I’ve been complaining since they started this series of seventh Doctor audios that reunite Mel and Ace, pointing out that Big Finish seems to have completely abandoned anything resembling character development for Ace and doesn’t seem at all interested in doing anything with Mel now that she’s back. Well, here comes “The Silurian Candidate” from Matthew J. Elliott, and while it tries to engage with the characters, it’s written so incompetently that it fails badly.
The seventh Doctor isn’t an easy character to write, especially when he’s in his enigmatic moods. If you want a helpful guide on how not to write him, check out this script: he’s capricious, manipulative, and totally uncaring. See, when this Doctor manipulates his companions, he’s either doing it to accomplish a greater goal or for what he thinks are their best interests. When done properly, this leads to serious conflict: think of his relationship with Hex heading into “A Death in the Family,” or the events of “Love and War.” But that conflict is nuanced, because the audience understands that both the Doctor’s goals and his companions’ feelings are worthy of sympathy. In “Silurian Candidate,” he doesn’t tell Mel anything about what they’re doing, and only tells Ace that his plan is to give Earth back to the Silurians. He’s being vague for absolutely no reason – it does nothing to advance his plan, nor does it trick or otherwise manipulate Ace or Mel into doing things that help him succeed. At one point, Ace locks him in a closet in utter disbelief, and she’s right to do so! There’s no point at which the listener realizes “oh, THAT’S what he was trying to do” – the Doctor is just an ass in this story, and that’s it.
Of course, this is also a Silurian story, which means it’s Elliott’s turn to make the same mistake that every other Silurian story has made since the first one: making the Silurians genocidal maniacs. The fundamental conflict in these stories is between the different sides of our nature: the Silurians are meant to mirror humanity’s own attitudes, with some advocating for peaceful coexistence and others advocating from a place of paranoia and racism. If humans can live together, humans and Silurians should be able to, and the Doctor is caught in the middle, trying desperately to stop them from killing each other and to get them to talk. But in stories like this, from the moment we meet the Silurians, they’re planning the mass genocide of the human race. Yes, Karlas (Caitlin Thorburn) eventually realizes the error of her ways, but the absence of a sympathetic voice for the majority of the story means the Silurians themselves are utterly unsympathetic. Every single time the Silurians wake up they try to commit genocide, so why on Earth does the Doctor keep taking their side? Ace even points this out at various points throughout the story! Of course, her complaints come to naught – the lesson is that when your own script tells you that something doesn’t make sense, you really should go back and rewrite.
Even apart from storytelling and characterization critiques, this script falls apart at a fundamental level. The tone of the story is laughably inconsistent, veering from farcical comedy to intense emotion – and no, this isn’t a melodrama. Chairman Falco (Nicholas Asbury) is an obvious Donald Trump allegory written with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the teeth – and if that wasn’t enough, Asbury plays him as a comedy Australian. At one point Mel reflects on her role in the TARDIS – perhaps she’s there to show the Doctor and Ace the human perspective that they’ve lost after so many years of TARDIS travel? Sure, that makes sense – unfortunately she doesn’t serve that purpose in this story, and indeed hasn’t served that purpose in any of the other stories leading up to this one, so why bring it up? Is anyone in charge of this? Does anyone care?
I could go on, but let’s change gears and look at the production, which is shockingly poor for a Big Finish story. Ken Bentley directs well enough, but the sound design from Luke Pietnik is embarrassing – there’s no sense of place, no perception of where the characters are, and the action scenes are utterly incomprehensible. The dinosaur attack is a particular low point, with the actors’ shouted descriptions the only way to understand what’s happening. Overall, the only saving grace of “The Silurian Candidate” is that it aspires to great ideas. It wants to take a deep dive into the Doctor, Ace, and Mel, and how they relate at this point in their lives – and unfortunately that dive is straight into an empty pool. Otherwise, there are no redeeming factors here. I often complain that the monthly range is unambitious and often boring – “The Silurian Candidate” only wishes it was merely unambitious and boring.
THE THIRD DOCTOR ADVENTURES: STORM OF THE HOROFAX
I’ve noticed a trend in Andrew Smith scripts – “Full Circle” notwithstanding – to introduce fascinating concepts and then disregard them in favor of standard Doctor Who plotting. That’s definitely the case in “Storm of the Horofax,” which spends its first two episodes setting up a thought-provoking conflict and then abandoning it almost entirely.
I was genuinely interested to find out what would happen next. During a naval exercise, an alien ship lurking underwater is accidentally damaged. The alien vessel is brought aboard the Navy ship, and the Doctor, Jo, and a UNIT operative, Major Paul Hardy (Robert Hands) arrive via helicopter to investigate. The sole occupant of the alien vessel is a time-traveling historian named Arianda (Robin Weaver), a woman who has the ability to perceive the future and even manipulate time itself with her mind. The script sets up a mystery: what is the extent of her powers? What is her true intent? Is she really a historian? What was the relationship between her people and the Time Lords? Will the Doctor be forced to intervene against a person with no ill intent? For two episodes, we ask these questions and set up what should be a thought-provoking conclusion.
Guess what happens next? Yep – turns out she’s been lying the whole time and she’s actually a deranged megalomaniac in charge of a band of fanatical mercenaries who aims to destroy the Earth and kill every living human being. Why does she want to do this? Because her people lose a war with humanity in the future, which breaks apart their empire. Instantly, all ambiguity and intelligence is stripped from the script. We’re back in a world of absolute good and absolute evil with nothing even remotely resembling a moral dilemma, and at this point it’s just a question of how many times the Doctor and Jo will be captured and escape before they finally save the day. Sure, a few other things happen. Hardy vanishes from history, then reappears, then dies, and then Jo cries over him even though we never got to know him and therefore have no sympathy for his loss. The Doctor isn’t affected by the time weapons of the Horofax because he’s a Time Lord. He even identifies Gallifrey by name, which seems to contravene Big Finish’s continuity rules – he’s not supposed to do that until “The Time Warrior,” right? Oh, who cares.
The production is fine. Nick Briggs directs, the sound design comes from Joe Meiners, and Jamie Robertson contributes the music. The performances are solid across the board, though Jo has a cold for some inexplicable reason but Katy Manning only remembers her stuffy nose acting about half the time. Ultimately, it seems as though the Third Doctor Adventures are going to head down the same road as every other range. Don’t try anything new, don’t try anything different, don’t take advantage of having a genuinely convincing actor to play the third Doctor – just write generic Doctor Who and sell it based entirely on nostalgia. I’m sure lots of people like this, because they simply won’t stop making it, but I’m so, so bored.
THE THIRD DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE CONQUEST OF FAR
I’m fairly sure that Big Finish is just mocking us at this point. We’re into the third set of Third Doctor Adventures, which means it’s time for a Nick Briggs Dalek story! This time around it’s called “The Conquest of Far,” and it’s expectedly mediocre. At this point, Briggs basically writes one of two stories: a gritty Dalek story based on an old war movie or a massive explosion of continuity porn. “Far” is the former, which is good, because at least Briggs makes Dalek war stories entertaining – but it should go without saying that there isn’t anything even remotely interesting about the story.
For some reason, we pick up immediately after “Planet of the Daleks,” with Jo asking to return to Earth. But the TARDIS is drawn off course, onto a planet (Far) that has been conquered by the Daleks! What follows shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Doctor ends up with the military planning to retake the planet while Jo cycles between a Dalek prisoner and a prisoner of the resistance. We have betrayals and double-crosses. We have military pig-headedness pitted against Dalek extremism. We have the possibility of Robomen working as spies. We have two rebels in love, torn apart by circumstance and their different moral compasses. We have a patently ludicrous Dalek scheme that nonetheless almost works until the Doctor foils it at the last moment. In short, we have yet another generic Dalek war story told by the man who’s been repeating the same ideas over and over since Dalek Empire. I don’t understand why there’s a market for this – even if you like traditional Doctor Who, there are already a bunch of other Big Finish stories just like this one.
The production is solid. Briggs directs his own script and could work with this kind of material in his sleep by now. Tim Treloar turns in his best performance yet as the third Doctor – while it’s not note-perfect, he’s finally capturing some of Pertwee’s emotion instead of just aping his voice. I found myself forgetting I was listening to an impression on multiple occasions, which I suppose is a big compliment. Katy Manning is great as well, easily recapturing Jo’s demonstrative idealism. Beyond that, though, I have very little to say about “The Conquest of Far.” You know what this is and you know if you’ll like it. Hopefully the second story will make this set more worthwhile.
THE BLOOD FURNACE
I’m genuinely unsure what Big Finish is trying to accomplish with these seventh Doctor, Ace, and Mel stories, apart from the most basic desire to have Ace and Mel together in the same TARDIS. The latest installment in this effort is “The Blood Furnace,” and it’s so bland and uninspiring you’d never guess that Eddie Robson wrote it.
It’s 1991 Merseyside, and the shipping industry is on its last legs. Native son Stuart Dale (Todd Heppenstall) has returned with a new discovery: the Dark Alloy material, and a mysterious client (Julie Graham) who wants it used to build a ship. The locals are back to work, and everyone is happy, but the true nature of the client’s proposal is about to come to the fore. As setups go, this is good enough – I like the 1991 setting in particular, as it’s in our past but the companions’ present, and Robson actually makes it feel like a historical setting. But the secret plan is boring – yep, they’re aliens and they want to conquer the universe – and the aliens themselves are uninteresting takes on the Carrionites. They can turn an entire warship into a flock of birds with a few words, which really makes their defeat unbelievable – yes, I know they can’t build their own warships, but nearly limitless power like that should make them impossible to oppose.
Worse, though, is that this story was billed as a look into Mel’s past and at the experiences that shaped her. Stuart is her old college boyfriend, he’s back in her life, and now her past and present will collide. And then… nothing happens. We don’t actually learn anything about Mel as a person, we don’t learn much about Stuart, and we barely learn about their relationship. Stuart offers Mel a job, which she first accepts and then declines, without any explanation of why or why not. It rang so false, in fact, that I just assumed her initial acceptance was a ploy to gain access to the shipyard. And it might have been! We never find out if she was being sincere or not. For that matter, we still haven’t learned much about how Mel has changed since she first left the TARDIS. There were hints in the first couple of stories featuring this group, but that’s been utterly abandoned – now she’s just the same old character we know from the 1980s and it’s like she never left. And don’t even get me started on Ace – I know it’s beating a dead horse by now to point out that any character development has long since been stripped away, but it’s still true and it’s no less annoying. The story is also full of moments of the Doctor sending his companions on missions, not explaining his motives, trusting their survival based on nothing in particular… and none of that leads to anything interesting either.
It’s getting more and more difficult to review most of these monthly releases because there’s not much to say about them. I can spend more time outlining the plot, but when nothing new or exciting happens, there isn’t much of a theme, and the characters remain totally static, it’s hard to offer a substantive critique. And that’s exactly the case with “The Blood Furnace,” an anodyne, inoffensive story that sticks around for a couple of hours before fading entirely from the memory.
THE SKIN OF THE SLEEK
With the sixth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures drawing to a close, I steeled myself for the inevitable series ending “spectacular” penned by Nick Briggs. The range is largely a test of endurance and the final episodes are always among the worst. But finally we’re doing something different: “The Skin of the Sleek” is the first of a two-part story, yes, but it’s written by Marc Platt, it doesn’t (yet) have any returning monsters, and, most surprising of all, it’s actually interesting!
There’s a lot of variability in Marc Platt’s writing. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s capable of producing all-time classic stories; often, however, his plots can be unfocused and his characters unrelatable. While “The Skin of the Sleek” doesn’t yet seem to be one of the greats, it’s definitely one of his better stories. The setting is utterly fascinating: a planet covered entirely by an ocean with a very high surface tension. In other words, you can walk on the ocean – but if you don’t keep moving, you’ll sink into it. The people who live on the planet get around by carrying methane balloons that keep them from sinking. I also like their society – it’s a bit of a generic “primitive hunting encampment” variant but Platt injects it with enough originality to keep it interesting, such as the Skalds, seers of the future kept chained to their journals. And, of course, there’s a dark secret at the heart of it all, which we will learn next month.
But it gets better – for the first time in a long time, a Fourth Doctor Adventure actually does something interesting with one of the main cast. A group of strangers with unclear motives has crashed on the planet, using drones to film everything for an eventual documentary feature. Their scientific researcher is Sartia (Joannah Tincey), soon revealed as a fellow Time Lord. She and Romana are old friends from the Academy, and hearing them reminisce about their past is incredibly refreshing. There’s nothing too surprising – it sounds like Romana was exactly what you’d expect her to be in school – but the simple recognition that Romana is a three-dimensional character and not just an irritable collection of put-downs is a first for this sixth series.
At this point, there’s not much more to add – “The Skin of the Sleek” is very much a setup for next month’s conclusion and very little of the plot is resolved. But it inspires a ton of confidence by creating a unique, interesting world while recognizing that there’s more to character than cliché. I’m genuinely excited for “The Thief Who Stole Time” and I can’t remember the last time I thought that about this range.
TORCHWOOD: ALIENS AMONG US: VOLUME ONE
Even though the show has been off the air since “Miracle Day” ended, it’s never been a better time to be a Torchwood fan. After establishing a monthly range with occasional special box sets, Big Finish has secured a coup: “Aliens Among Us,” the official “series 5” continuation of Torchwood, created with input from creator Russell T. Davies. Set in the aftermath of “Miracle Day,” the series sees Jack and Gwen rebuilding Torchwood in Cardiff and a new cast of characters joining them against the backdrop of alien colonists living alongside the human population.
“Aliens Among Us” is designed as a full series of 12 stories, released in three box sets of four stories each. As such, it embraces the modern TV storytelling format: each episode tells a self-contained story, but each story has elements connecting it to a larger whole. It’s refreshing to experience this from Big Finish, given that they usually release stories or box sets that stand alone, and it would be delightful if they could explore a format like this for their Doctor Who range. For the first set, I’m opting to review it as a whole, rather than writing separate reviews for each story, but I reserve the right to take the opposite approach when volume 2 comes out.
As an official Torchwood continuation, we see both returning and original characters becoming part of the regular cast. Jack, of course, is still the leader of Torchwood Cardiff, and he hasn’t changed too significantly from the end of Miracle Day. He’s still dealing with the emotional fallout of Ianto’s death, but the writers keep this relatively subtle – on the surface, Jack is his usual confident, flirtatious self. He, along with the series in general, is unafraid to curse or use strong sexual innuendo – this is definitely a return to the more in-your-face storytelling of the TV series over the subtle techniques of the audio stories.
Gwen is the other major returning character, but something doesn’t seem quite right about her from the beginning. Multiple fans, after hearing the first story, questioned why Eve Myles sounded different – well, that’s because it’s not Eve Myles at all, it’s actually Alexandria Riley. Something has taken over Gwen’s body, leaving Gwen herself trapped in her own head, forced to watch the terrible actions of her replacement. Riley plays the possessed Gwen, while Myles still voices the real Gwen inside her head, and Riley is a very convincing impressionist. The end of the second story, furthermore, is genuinely shocking, and not just in how it confirms the listener’s suspicions about Gwen. We don’t really know this imposter’s goals yet; it’ll be interesting to see how this thread develops. Kai Owen has also returned as Rhys, but at least in this first set he is relegated to a few short appearances, so we’ll see if he becomes more involved.
The first new Torchwood member is Mr. Colchester (Paul Clayton), a civil servant assigned to Torchwood to manage its budget. The character was introduced in “The Torchwood Archive,” but this is the first time we’ve seen him in extended action. Despite his official job, it’s clear that he’s been in Cardiff for a while, as he’s very used to Torchwood’s mission and very good at dealing with alien incursions – the budgetary assignment almost seems superfluous. Colchester is gruff and irritable, coming across as a grumpy, aging, conservative, traditional man completely set in his ways. As a result of this, it’s a major surprise to learn that he’s gay and married to a Muslim man – Clayton does a great job of bringing across his character’s emotions even through his deep, gruff voice.
Much of the story involves Tyler Steele (Jonny Green), the point-of-view character that drives the first story in the set. He’s a former tabloid sleaze artist trying to go straight, investigating a new anti-immigrant movement in Cardiff. The racism on the rise might not solely be down to human bigotry, though – there are inexplicable associated events, and his investigation leads him straight to Gwen Cooper and Torchwood in an explosive, entertaining pre-titles sequence. From there, we follow his growing relationship with Torchwood – and the first episode, in which he works alongside Jack and reveals just how suitable he is for the job, is a smart way to introduce a new cast member. We see the story from his perspective, so when Jack refuses to hire him, we feel sympathy – but since we know and trust Jack, we understand his position as well. It takes good writing to make the listener feel torn and James Goss, writer of the “pilot,” is certainly up to the task.
The final recurring character is Orr (Sam Béart), an alien shape-shifter who manifests as whatever an observer desires sexually. This extends to gender, meaning that Orr doesn’t fit into our sexual binaries – even describing Orr as trans isn’t sufficient. Orr’s introductory story, also titled “Orr,” is by Juno Dawson, author of the disastrous “The Dollhouse,” possibly the worst Torchwood story ever produced. “Orr,” however, is anything but disastrous – it’s actually a smart, sympathetic introduction to a character that seems to defy understanding. I’m sure Dawson, herself a trans woman, writes Orr from her own experience – but whatever the inspiration, the script is fantastic. The end sees Jack at his most sympathetic and human and provides arguably the most emotional moment in the entire set – while Orr is perhaps the most “pure” character in the whole thing.
As mentioned above, James Goss writes the first two stories, “Changes Everything” and “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy.” The first story is a fine pilot episode that lays the groundwork for everything to come while giving us an entry point through Tyler, while the second is pure Torchwood: Gwen and Colchester go undercover to investigate an alien bachelorette party. A spoiled alien princess and her friends devour male strippers before making a late-night booze run? Why not! They also set up the plot for the series, which conflates an alien migration to Earth with the very real refugee crisis. Yes, this leads to some on-the-nose political commentary, but there’s nothing wrong with that in a series hardly known for its subtlety. We spend more time with the aliens in the final story of the set, “Superiority Complex” by A. K. Benedict, which takes place in and around a luxury hotel for aliens. Benedict manages to incorporate both racial and economic politics into the story – the humans massed outside the hotel protest both the presence of the aliens and their ostentatious wealth, while the aliens act like clueless colonials. While the ending is ridiculous, I did like how Orr tried and failed to talk down the murderous “smart hotel” AI.
This is a great start to a new series of Torchwood. All four stories have unique selling points, and each one retains the over-the-top nature of Torchwood the TV show. The performances are excellent across the board, and the mysteries are intriguingly laid out. As much as I’ve enjoyed the monthly Torchwood releases, I’m excited to continue with “Aliens Among Us” and its more explicitly serialized format.
From 18 - The Dying Roomon
TORCHWOOD: THE DYING ROOM
Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood releases are among the best work the company is currently doing, and for the final story in the third series, they secured a major casting coup: Simon Russell Beale, widely considered among the greatest stage actors of his generation. He stars in “The Dying Room,” by Lizzie Hopley, one of the “historical Torchwood” stories the range has been attempting recently. And while everything about the story is extremely well done, it’s still underwhelming for how ordinary it is.
This is a down-the-line World War II noir story set in Nazi-occupied Paris. We have a beautiful woman, Mme. Berber (Emma Cunniffe), with mysterious motives. We have the Nazi investigator, Herr Grau (Mark Elstob), on her trail. And we have M. LeDuc (Beale), the innocent theology professor traveling with his son Gabriel (Aly Cruickshank), caught in the crossfire. There are betrayals and surprises along with painful interrogations. Hopley’s script is a great example of this sort of story, striking all the right notes – but the problem is that if you have any familiarity at all with this genre, you’ll know exactly where it’s going. If it seems odd to you that they would hire Simon Russell Beale, put him on the cover in a dashing outfit looming over the word Torchwood, and then cast him as a theology professor, well… yes, that would indeed be odd.
LeDuc is a fantastic character. He’s driven and resilient, yet he still responds in a vulnerable, human way to torture. His relationships are written carefully and believably. Beale chooses to underplay the role in quiet, soft-spoken fashion, which makes it all the more effective when the steely side of LeDuc’s personality comes to the fore. Unfortunately, Grau and Berber are ciphers – Grau is the traditional “polite Nazi” concealing a cruel, vicious personality, while Berber is the sort of femme fatale you’d expect in a spy movie. Gabriel appears to be a fascinating character, but we are only given brief encounters with him, something that frustrates more than it rewards. The performances, across the board, are very good – Elstob is terrifying, while Cunniffe and Beale have very good chemistry.
The production is equally strong. Director Scott Handcock and sound designer Howard Carter produce an utterly believable Paris while even the more overt sci-fi elements sound convincing. You may have noticed this is my first mention of the sci-fi elements; this is because they take a back seat to the historical drama, something that plays to the story’s strengths. Overall, “The Dying Room” is flawless in the literal sense – I can’t find a thing wrong with it. But it feels unrewarding, as though I’ve encountered it before. Given some of the raw, emotional, and often innovative ground other Torchwood releases have covered, I find it disappointing to get Simon Russell Beale and then use him in something this familiar. It’s still recommended – highly, even – but I wish there had been more to it.
CLASSIC DOCTORS, NEW MONSTERS: DAY OF THE VASHTA NERADA
To round off the set, and perhaps the entire Classic Doctors, New Monsters series, we have Matt Fitton’s “Day of the Vashta Nerada,” a sequel to the first story in the set starring Paul McGann that also incorporates Time War mythology. Much like “Night,” it’s a dark, downbeat story about facing defeat before hopeless odds. Unlike “Night,” however, it’s somewhat unfocused and gets a bit silly near the end.
I like how Big Finish is trying to construct a consistent Time War mythology across multiple ranges. To that end, we see Cardinal Ollistra (Jacqueline Pearce) in this story, paying a human research station to develop weaponized Vashta Nerada. By programming them to consume Dalekanium, they can be released on Dalek worlds and into Dalek fleets and wipe the Daleks out without any danger to the Time Lords. Naturally, the Doctor shows up, and he knows exactly how dangerous the Vashta Nerada can be – but before he can intervene, a greedy lab technician (Himesh Patel) allows them to escape into the station. What follows is very typical sci-fi horror – the characters have to traverse the station to reach safety, facing traps and dangers along the way.
As this is a biotech station, the dangers come in various mutated versions of the Vashta Nerada. While I appreciate that Fitton is trying to branch out, and not just repeat the same tropes we’ve seen in their other appearances, the ideas here are fairly silly. At one point, they come across a room containing a giant Vashta Nerada, which roars and pounds against the walls and so forth. What does this thing even look like? Does it have corporeal form? We never get an explanation, even as it eats one of the supporting characters. I don’t mind having things left to my imagination, but since I don’t know what an individual Vashta Nerada looks like, what am I supposed to be picturing here? They also find “reverse” Vashta Nerada: they shun the darkness and live in the light, meaning the characters must stick to the shadows to survive. It’s not a terrible idea – though the characters calling them “Nerada Vashta” is so on the nose it hurts – but this is an audio story, and since you can’t hear light, the characters have to yell out what’s happening. The same problem happened with “Night” and I’m not surprised it came up again here.
Even for a Time War story, “Day” is particularly grim. Everyone except the Doctor and Ollistra winds up dead, most in painful, pointless ways. There are a couple of heroic sacrifices, of course, but the bloodlust is still remarkably high – especially considering what happens to Dr. Morrison (Jan Ravens). Unfortunately, we don’t get much out of either the Doctor or Ollistra, as the story hits many of the same beats we’ve seen already. The eighth Doctor is disgusted by the behavior of the Time Lords and rejects any role in the Time War – he even spells out that he’s a doctor, not a warrior, foreshadowing the decision that precedes his upcoming regeneration. Ollistra is ruthlessly pragmatic, irritated by the Doctor’s frivolity while knowing he is one of Gallifrey’s best assets. As we’ll soon be heading into Time War-themed box sets for this Doctor, it would be nice if these smaller stories pushed things along, but until then we’ll have to settle for more of the same.
Overall, “Day of the Vashta Nerada” is a very solid story and a good conclusion to a solid box set. I wish it had distinguished itself in ways other than unintentionally humorous modifications to the title monsters, but Matt Fitton’s script nonetheless combines with a strong production to produce an entertaining hour of drama.
CLASSIC DOCTORS, NEW MONSTERS: THE CARRIONITE CURSE
This one sounded promising. A story featuring the return of the Carrionites, meaning that it would naturally involve language as a plot device, and written by Simon Guerrier? Sounds perfect, but “The Carrionite Curse” doesn’t work out that way – it’s actually repetitive and surprisingly uninteresting.
It’s the 1980s, and a small town is putting three of its citizens on trial for witchcraft. Katy Bell (Maya Sondhi), a local girl returning home after years away, is appalled, and so is the sixth Doctor, who’s there posing as a clown for the local children for some reason. They intervene, and it turns out that the women are on trial for witchcraft because they actually are witches – or, more specifically, Carrionites. With his enemies revealed, the Doctor must defeat them before the town is destroyed and the Carrionites (probably) go on to destroy the world. Nothing is too surprising about any of that, but Guerrier tries to change things up by getting to the Carrionite revelation only a few minutes into the story. I like the idea – a “new series” set should try to do away with the often ponderous format of the “classic” – but unfortunately there’s not enough plot to keep things going from there.
The Doctor figures out a way to stop the Carrionites. But the solution only holds for so long, and they escape to wreak havoc once again. Repeat this sequence several times until the story ends. It’s very much a runaround – the Doctor and the locals spend most of the story literally running from location to location. And this continues until they finally finds a way to stop the villains – and that’s just the same thing they’ve been doing all along, except more intense. See, in “The Shakespeare Code,” language gave the Carrionites power and language was also their downfall. By feeding Shakespeare the lines to complete a paradoxical play, they gained power over reality – and by naming them, and feeding them lines in opposition, the Doctor was able to limit their powers and defeat them. That worked because it relied on the presence of the greatest author ever to write in English, plus the joke incorporating some Harry Potter. In “The Carrionite Curse,” Guerrier reduces this to specific words being enough to stop the Carrionites. At first, the Doctor thinks that long, complex words are the answer, something that plays to Colin Baker’s strengths – but then he realizes that short, sharp words will also do the trick. The idea of different words serving as different types of weapons is interesting, but in practice it just sounds like Colin Baker reading from a vocabulary book. There’s no explanation for why some words work and others don’t – the whole thing feels arbitrary and unrewarding.
Much like the last story, “The Carrionite Curse” isn’t bad. But there isn’t enough plot to sustain even an hour, and the character work is too shallow to make up for it. Katy’s father Douglas (Michael Fenton-Stevens), the local vicar, is the most interesting character, but he spends too much time running around for us to get to know him. Colin Baker always loves scripts like this, but even he struggles to make it interesting. I must say, though, that the references to a book by Professor Litefoot serve as a fine tribute to the late Trevor Baxter, even though I’m sure this was written long before his passing. Overall, “The Carrionite Curse” is fairly entertaining but unrewarding.
CLASSIC DOCTORS, NEW MONSTERS: EMPIRE OF THE RACNOSS
“The Runaway Bride” was the second Christmas special of the Doctor Who revival, and it’s remembered largely for introducing future companion Donna Noble. It’s also memorable for introducing the idea that the Doctor needs a companion to stop him from flying off the deep end. The image of the Doctor, willing to die to exact revenge, stopped only by Donna’s intervention, is haunting in its reflection of how the Time War has affected the character. I’m not sure anyone really remembers it for the Racnoss, however – and yet we’re already digging for material in the Classic Doctors, New Monsters sets, so here comes “Empire of the Racnoss” from Scott Handcock.
I frequently complain about Big Finish stories that present fascinating ideas and then promptly abandon them to tell generic Doctor Who stories. “Empire of the Racnoss” doesn’t quite do this, but it largely ignores a fascinating potential story. The fifth Doctor encounters the Racnoss in this story at the height of their empire and during their war with Gallifrey. This happened billions of years in the past, and the Doctor encounters two Gallifreyans that have been imprisoned by the Racnoss. This is rife for conflict: how do these ancient Time Lords think? How does their morality differ from the Doctor’s? Do they prefigure how the Time Lords will act billions of years later in the Time War? But Handcock dances around this in favor of focusing on the Racnoss.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the Racnoss weren’t so uninteresting. They’re a warlike society wracked with internal strife – nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before. The Empress (Adjoa Andoh, and I’m not sure if she’s playing the same character as Sarah Parish on TV) is simultaneously fighting the Time Lords and a civil war against her former husband, the Emperor (Nigel Planer). What follows is a series of double-crosses, in which every time the Doctor begins to think that there might be some depth, some emotion to the Racnoss, he is proven wrong as they lapse back into cackling threats at each other. And let’s not ignore just how irritating the Racnoss voices are – it’s not Big Finish’s fault, of course, but when you’re making an audio story it’s usually wise to stay away from the aliens with the most annoying speech patterns.
Fortunately, this is a great story for Peter Davison. As with the other stories in this range, he’s traveling alone, and he’s particularly desperate to see a good outcome. This strikes me as a fifth Doctor in the depths of season 21, who wants to know that there is a better way to resolve difficult situations than everyone dying. Davison brings emotional weight to his performance; you can feel how each Racnoss betrayal pains the Doctor and forces him to take unwanted action. He’s also at his most sarcastic in this story – we don’t get the “old man in a young man’s body” thing very often, but here it comes through in spades. We’re fortunate that Davison is still making these so many years later, and we should not take his performances for granted.
I suppose this is the result of taking a monster from the TV series about whom we know very little and trying to stretch their culture out into a one-hour story. There’s nothing particularly bad about this story – Handcock’s script is tight, the performances are good, the sound design is effective – but there’s nothing memorable about it either. Yep, the Racnoss are angry and untrustworthy. I would have liked to learn more.
CLASSIC DOCTORS, NEW MONSTERS: NIGHT OF THE VASHTA NERADA
I’m not sure why we have these separate “Classic Doctors, New Monsters” sets, apart from Big Finish’s need to put everything into a box set. They would make for a perfect series of monthly range stories and leave that range with fewer spots to fill with its general lack of imagination. Are there still “classic” Who fans so opposed to the new series that they’ll refuse to buy anything with new series elements? In any case, the second set starts with “Night of the Vashta Nerada” by John Dorney, notable for being the first Tom Baker story to incorporate new series elements. And it’s surprisingly good!
The Tom Baker stories Big Finish has released outside of the Fourth Doctor Adventures range have largely been of much higher quality. I don’t have a good explanation for this disparity, but “Night of the Vashta Nerada” illustrates it further. Set during one of the fourth Doctor’s companionless periods, it’s a fairly standard Doctor Who story: a group of mercenaries is sent to a planet to investigate disappearances, but when they arrive all they find is an odd man in a long scarf. Dorney has the Doctor talk them around fairly quickly, sparing us the capture/escape dynamic, and from there it’s all about figuring out what happened and how to stop it happening again.
As the title implies, the Vashta Nerada are loose and they are angry. An entire world of forest was bulldozed to construct a planet-wide amusement park, destroying the habitat and food supply of the shadow-dwelling creatures. So they have no choice but to consume the humans working to open the park – and indeed they want to do so, to take revenge on the humans for destroying their world. This is a very traditional “humans reap what they sow” story, but the story embraces the theme and runs with it, making it work. Tom Baker is perhaps the most serious he has ever been for Big Finish – this is an angry Doctor who despises what the humans have done but knows he must still try to protect them. And it’s a very dark story – the casualty rate among the supporting cast is very, very high. I do wish Dorney hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to turn the Vashta Nerada into a universal threat at the conclusion, but that’s a minor complaint with a largely successful story.
The problem is with the production, and it’s not the fault of the people working on the story. Rather, it’s a similar problem to the Weeping Angels: the Vashta Nerada derive much of their menace from visual clues. They inhabit the shadows, but you can’t aurally represent encroaching shadows, so the characters have to describe it. Before they strike, their intended target has two shadows – but again, how can you represent this on audio? And the script doesn’t even incorporate the more horrific elements: there’s no “Who turned out the lights?” and no creepy skeletons stalking the characters. To Dorney’s credit, he largely makes the descriptive dialogue sound natural, but it still stands out for what it is.
All that said, “Night of the Vashta Nerada” is a very enjoyable listen. It’s a dark story taken straight from the Hinchcliffe era featuring one of Tom Baker’s most intense turns in the role. The supporting cast are all ciphers, but Dorney sketches them out well enough to be effective. And despite the issues above, director Barnaby Edwards and sound designer Howard Carter provide an eerie, threatening soundscape. It’s not groundbreaking in any way, but unlike so many of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, it feels vibrant and exciting and it’ll leave you wanting more.
VOYAGE TO THE NEW WORLD
After “Voyage to Venus,” I assumed I knew what to expect from the second “special” Doctor Who release pairing the sixth Doctor with Jago and Litefoot: a fun, entertaining story featuring the infernal investigators getting out of dangerous scrapes in an unfamiliar time period. What I actually got from Matthew Sweet’s brilliant script was one of the most atmospheric, compelling stories I’ve heard from Big Finish in quite some time.
The story deals with a historical mystery I’m surprised Doctor Who has never touched: the complete disappearance of the colonists at Roanoke, who vanished without a trace, leaving behind only the word “Croatoan” carved into a post. To be fair, it’s not much of a mystery – there’s a nearby island called Croatoan and various circumstances prevented the empire from going there to search, so they probably just relocated there – but Sweet incorporates this into his story, turning Croatoan from simply a nearby island into a mystical place evidently possessed by the ghosts of small children.
Surprisingly, the story doesn’t dwell on the ghosts to any great extent. Rather, it’s concerned with building up an atmosphere of dread and suspicion: the Algonquin, the English, and the TARDIS crew are all suspicious of one another and tensions ratchet up throughout the first half of the play. Add to this a mysterious illness and disappearing people, and mix in the astonishingly good sound design from Fool Circle Productions, and you have a recipe for atmosphere unmatched in most recent Big Finish stories. Much like Sweet’s own “The Magic Mousetrap,” “Voyage to the New World” feels like it is building toward a terrifying revelation, and is utterly gripping as a result.
And yet the end result isn’t terrifying. In fact, it’s a time travel plot about Sir Walter Raleigh (Mark Lockyer), who gains possession of the open TARDIS and tries to divine its secrets. Sweet pens some wonderful scenes in this sequence, including one of the TARDIS itself trying to tempt Raleigh into pulling the fast return switch by drawing undue attention to it. The resolution is quite elegant, so much so that it’s easy not to notice that it’s a bit of a cheat. Frankly, I love this script. To date it’s Sweet’s third and final Doctor Who audio script, though he’s penned a few Jago & Litefoots since. I’m not sure if he’s willing to be tempted back to Doctor Who, but if so, Big Finish really should make it happen.
As for the TARDIS crew, this is a fantastic display of their abilities. I love the Doctor and Litefoot teaming up: more than any other story in this pairing, here they really feel like two scientists working together. And Jago, on his own again, gets to shine: Christopher Benjamin is a fantastic actor, and his portrayal of a feverish, confused Jago is his best performance in the role since all the way back in the first Jago & Litefoot story. Frankly, I’m surprised that Big Finish didn’t leave any room for additional stories with this group, and I’m sad to see it come to an end despite the uneven start in the actual Jago & Litefoot range.
I mentioned it before, but the sound design and score from Fool Circle Productions are first-rate even according to Big Finish’s usual high standards. Ken Bentley directs, expertly capturing the atmosphere of Sweet’s script and getting some great performances from his cast. Overall, “Voyage to the New World” is fantastic – if, like me, you’ve gone this long and haven’t heard it yet, make the small investment and pick it up. It’s well worth it.
From Voyage to Venuson
VOYAGE TO VENUS
At the end of series 4 of Jago & Litefoot, the two investigators of infernal incidents step aboard the sixth Doctor’s TARDIS and leave the bonds of Earth behind. But rather than leave the subsequent adventures to the imagination, Big Finish did something unusual: they brought the stars of their spinoff back into the parent series with two Doctor Who stories. The first of these, “Voyage to Venus” by Jonathan Morris, is an entertaining, if somewhat generic, story that delights in putting our heroes in bizarre situations and seeing how they react.
Apart from a couple of Missing Adventures, Doctor Who hasn’t spent much time on Venus, so it’s interesting to see the planet represented here. It’s many years into Earth’s future, and Venus is now a lush world with a city suspended in the clouds over the jungles below. The people are ruled by a Grand Empress, Vulpina (Juliet Aubrey), whose power rests on a dark secret. Naturally, the Doctor, Jago, and Litefoot are captured soon after landing. The Doctor and Litefoot investigate the secret behind Vulpina’s rule while Jago serves, embarrassingly, as her pet. The central revelation, that the people of Venus are actually human refugees from Earth who altered their biology to adapt to their new planet, is predictable as these things go but lends the story some additional weight. It also leads to the expected ending where the Doctor must convince someone that humans aren’t all as bad as their worst individuals. Morris is a skilled writer, so the material doesn’t feel stale, but there isn’t much ground being broken in this story.
There is, however, a ton of continuity porn. We have Venusian shanghorns, and references to perigosto sticks. We have an explanation for why a traditional Venusian lullaby has the same tune as “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” And we even have an explanation for why the third and sixth Doctors seem to have been here at different times. Fortunately, Morris is one of the best-ever Doctor Who writers when it comes to incorporating continuity, so this comes off as appealing instead of annoying.
The main attraction here is finally seeing Jago and Litefoot along for a TARDIS trip. Now that they’re back in a Doctor Who story, they slide easily into the companion role, and their Victorian perspectives allow the Doctor and others to explain what’s going on. I enjoyed their takes on the usual Doctor Who tropes: Jago thinks that everyone on Venus speaks English because it’s the lingua franca and sees nothing unusual about it, Litefoot dives right into an alien autopsy without a second’s thought, and so forth. Morris really understands these characters, and pairing them with the spiky, irritable sixth Doctor adds a little tension to the affair. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are, of course, wonderful – this is the first review I’ve written since Baxter’s unfortunate passing and it is very clear that he will be missed.
The production is similarly strong. Ken Bentley directs to his usual high standard, while the sound design and electronic score from Fool Circle Productions is striking – it really feels like it’s set in an alien jungle at times. Overall, “Voyage to Venus” is a fine little bonus story that continues the Jago and Litefoot story in admirable fashion.
THE HIGH PRICE OF PARKING
After playing around with the format for three releases, we’re back to the normal routine, with a seventh Doctor, Ace, and Mel trilogy starting here with John Dorney’s “The High Price of Parking.” It’s conceptually interesting, but falls down significantly in the execution – it would fit in quite well in season 24, for better or for worse.
I didn’t listen to the extras, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dorney was inspired to write this story by seeing a “Free Parking” sign and envisioning it as a call to action rather than a statement of fact. It’s set on the planet Parking, so named because it serves as a moon-sized spaceship parking structure for a historically preserved planet. From here, Dorney builds a fairly standard sci-fi society: the Wardens are the ones in charge, the “natives,” who became separated from their ships and now live in the underground parts of the planetoid, and the Free Parkers, the extremists who want to overthrow the Wardens and declare Parking a free state. Naturally, the Doctor and his companions become separated, each ending up with a different faction. It’s the sort of story built on misunderstandings: the Wardens are just trying to get by with scarce resources and little support from home, while the Free Parkers are actually in favor of a nonviolent resolution to the conflict, even though each sees the other as a dangerous threat. And the central theme of the story is advocating nonviolence as a solution: one of the climactic moments is a speech by Ace, of all people, decrying the use of violence to achieve political ends.
The tone of the story fascinates me. As I stated above, this production sounds like it was lifted wholesale from season 24. It’s lighthearted, with a satirical tone, but never quite takes the next step into outright comedy. The villain is so far over the top in her villainy that it feels like the story is telling a joke, but we never get the punch line. And while the Doctor doesn’t go back to using malapropisms, he’s still bumbling around in search of answers instead of executing a manipulative scheme. The problem, of course, is that season 24 isn’t good. It feels like a show flailing around while trying to find its feet, and that feeling is on full display in “The High Price of Parking.” Is it supposed to be satirical? Is it supposed to be heartfelt? It veers back and forth between humor and earnest moralizing without any serious attempt to blend the two.
Thankfully, Sophie Aldred isn’t playing Ace like she just walked on board the TARDIS immediately before this story – but that still means her characterization is wildly inconsistent from story to story. I like Mel in this: she’s smart, capable, and easily able to take charge of complicated situations. She’s a good match for Cowley (Gabrielle Glaister), the head Warden, and their pairing is easily the most entertaining in the story. Ken Bentley directs, doing a good job for the most part, but yet again the story falls down when attempting crowd scenes. At least this time they recorded some crowd reaction noises, but it still sounds unnatural when the room containing that crowd is eerily silent while the main characters are talking. It’s very easy to forget that there are a bunch of Wardens in their HQ, because they only make noise when Cowley addresses them directly.
Overall, “The High Price of Parking” is a letdown. It tries to be about something, yes, but the message is obvious and trite, and the story never manages to find a consistent or even understandable tone. Everyone is entitled to an off day, of course, but it’s still disappointing to get a result like this from one of the best writers currently on the Big Finish staff.
THE MOVELLAN GRAVE
I’ve belabored this point over and over with regard to this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, but I’m going to come back to it anyway: the suggestion that these stories are set in season 18 of the TV show is utterly laughable. In “The Movellan Grave” we get a script from someone who actually wrote for season 18. Andrew Smith wrote “Full Circle,” a layered, intelligent, and moody story that kicked off the E-Space trilogy and happily embraced the season’s theme of entropy increasing. And now he’s back in that era with “The Movellan Grave,” an obvious evil monster runaround that has nothing to do with season 18 and feels like it was written in about ten minutes. Perfect!
By the time you know what’s happening in “The Movellan Grave,” you should also know exactly how it’s going to end. The only defining trait of the Movellans is their emotionless machine logic, so this story shows them trying to develop an emotion-driven Movellan, Chenek (Chris Jarman), to break the Dalek stalemate. Smith toys with an intriguing premise: the Movellans model their creation’s emotions after captured Dalek slaves, meaning that his actions are dictated by paranoia, fear, and hopelessness. But instead of spending time with Chenek and really examining his thought processes, the script casts him as the killer in a monster movie, stomping around tormenting the innocent. Lots of running around ensues until the Doctor is finally able to reprogram Chenek and save the day. All of this, plus the “twist” at the very end, is predictable from miles away.
As I always say, a predictable plot is acceptable if the story has other interesting elements. Had we spent more time fleshing Chenek out, the story would have been better. Had the Doctor or Romana been given any sort of a challenge to take them out of their comfort zones, the story would have been more intriguing. Had the supporting cast had any depth whatsoever, the story would have been more compelling. But none of those things happened, and as a result “The Movellan Grave” remains dull. Nicholas Briggs directs well. The performances are generally good – Lalla Ward finally dials the sarcasm and hostility down a notch while Tom Baker is always great, though Chris Jarman’s performance is a bit too broad. The sound design from Jamie Robertson is fine, but even though I listened to the story earlier today I already can’t remember anything about the score. In the end, I don’t have much more to say about “The Movellan Grave.” It’s an obvious, predictable story that offers nothing of interest and continues the streak of failing to sound even a little like a season 18 story. If you’ve never heard a Doctor Who audio before, this might not be too bad, but I’ve heard quite a few by this point.
JAGO & LITEFOOT: THE HOURGLASS KILLERS
While I rarely dislike anything that Justin Richards writes, I think it was a mistake for him to write “The Hourglass Killers,” the final story of Jago & Litefoot’s fourth series. This story, which ties together the various plots running through the series, requires more than the workmanlike Doctor Who plotting that Richards typically brings to the table, meaning that it feels empty and unsatisfying. I call it Doctor Who plotting for a reason: theme music aside, this is absolutely a Doctor Who story and not a Jago & Litefoot tale. The Doctor drives the action and ultimately saves the day while Jago and Litefoot are reduced to supporting roles in their own series. While this makes sense – why wouldn’t the super-intelligent time-traveling alien be the one to save the day? – it shows the dangers of taking the Doctor out of his own series and putting him in others. It’s patronizing at best: every time Jago or Litefoot says or does something useful, the Doctor congratulates them like children in need of validation. Even Leela isn’t immune: gone is the intelligent, dangerous warrior of the past few stories, replaced by a cipher tasked with asking the Doctor questions and cheering his resourcefulness. Kempston and Hardwick are defeated and the day is saved, but it’s hard to get excited when our favorite characters have little to nothing to do with it. I’m curious to finally hear the two Doctor Who stories that follow “The Hourglass Killers” – hopefully they’ll get the bad taste out of my mouth.
TORCHWOOD: THE OFFICE OF NEVER WAS
Torchwood was never intended to portray the adventures of a group of hyper-competent government agents. Indeed, as seen on television, Torchwood Three was intended to be out on the edge – a group of intelligent yet untested agents constantly replacing those killed in action. They’re supposed to screw up, supposed to sometimes make bad situations worse. But we haven’t really explored that element of Torchwood in the audio range until now, in “The Office of Never Was” by James Goss.
The premise is very simple: Ianto investigates an abandoned Cardiff office block that is rumored to be haunted. Once there, he discovers that things are not how they seem. The building doesn’t seem to respond to his presence: the motion sensors don’t recognize him, for example, and strange voices seem to call his name. Soon, he meets a young woman (Bethan Rose Young) who thinks she’s the security guard but doesn’t seem to remember anything about her own life. Has Ianto been there before? Does he know her? He doesn’t remember either. The first two-thirds of the story take place entirely within this eerie, mysterious setting, building a legitimate sense of dread.
The revelation, however, turns the story on its head, when former executive Oliver (David Shields) emerges from the shadows to confront Ianto. It’s a big info-dump that slows the story to a halt, but the questions it poses are interesting nonetheless. The company purchased alien brain modifications, possibly from the Committee, to enhance its employees. Torchwood found out and sent Ianto to intervene, putting Retcon in the water supply to reverse the modifications. But they got it wrong: rather than curing the employees, the Retcon caused massive neural failures and killed them. And finally, rather than living with his guilt, Ianto took Retcon himself and forgot about the entire affair. What’s presented as a ghost story, then, is actually about lost memories and how Ianto’s mind is dredging them up despite the influence of the drug. Oliver is manipulating him, trying to get Ianto to a place where he will remember his actions and face his guilty conscience. It’s unclear exactly how much of the “haunting” was Oliver and how much was in Ianto’s head, but in any case we learn a lot about Ianto and how he deals with the consequences of the actions he takes as a Torchwood operative. The ending is particularly effective: the story is about the importance of memory and how Retcon is simply a way to avoid responsibility, and while it appears to be building toward Ianto realizing this and accepting his past, it takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction right at the climax.
Overall, “The Office of Never Was” is another strong entry in the Torchwood range. There are a few niggles with the script, particularly the mid-story info-dump, but it’s largely successful. Scott Handcock directs and the results are excellent: along with Rob Harvey’s sound design, the haunted feeling is inescapable. As with so much of this range, “The Office of Never Was” is highly recommended.
From 4.3 The Lonely Clockon
JAGO & LITEFOOT: THE LONELY CLOCK
Matthew Sweet is one of my favorite writers in the Big Finish stable: he captures the characters incredibly well, he has a knack for intriguing plots, and his scripts are always literary but never try to show off. Here, in “The Lonely Clock,” he’s channeling “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad as well as the Hitchcock adaptations that followed. But that’s just the background to a fascinating story in which Jago and Litefoot find themselves trapped on an Underground train endlessly traveling in a loop, devoid of passengers, and accompanied by a mysterious woman. Simultaneously, Leela and Ellie search for them, aided by the same woman. The woman, Winnie (Victoria Alcock), just murdered her husband – but she didn’t, she was just tricked into thinking she did. It’s all part of a scheme by Hardwick and Kempston – and a spatio-temporal discontinuity generator – to put Winnie in two places at once. But there’s no grand scheme at work here, no universe-spanning threat: they’re doing it because they want to attract the attention of the one person who would never permit such shenanigans. That person, of course, is the mysterious Professor Claudius Dark, finally revealed here as the sixth Doctor all along. What impresses me most about this story is the way it hangs together flawlessly while maintaining such an effective, eerie atmosphere. This is a story in which the characters are constantly a step behind, and Lisa Bowerman’s directing captures this feeling quite well – the opening scene in particular is strikingly effective. I’m very curious to see how this series wraps up – the Doctor almost never appears in the spinoff series, after all – but even if that story is a step down, I still got to experience “The Lonely Clock,” which is excellent.
From 4.2 Beautiful Thingson
JAGO & LITEFOOT: BEAUTIFUL THINGS
Jago & Litefoot has largely stayed away from introducing “celebrity” characters from the time period, but that’s certainly not the case in John Dorney’s “Beautiful Things,” which features none other than Oscar Wilde (Alan Cox). Dorney and Cox do a wonderful job of introducing Wilde into the world of the infernal investigators – he’s portrayed not entirely as an arrogant jerk but rather as a man in a constant state of melancholy knowing that very few people in the world are on his intellectual level. And each character reacts differently to him: Jago is naturally an admirer – the scene where Wilde bests him at alliteration is wonderful – Litefoot finds him insufferable, and Leela doesn’t understand why he is acclaimed in the first place. And then there’s the mysterious Gad, a Dorian Gray homage that maintains his youth by shunting the passage of time into an elderly avatar. And his scheme gets down to the main question of the play: what is art and what is its value? An infinite library, existing (like the TARDIS) extradimensionally, is draining human minds and constructing art by assembly line: each book on the shelf contains a slightly different combination of words in infinite iterations. Gad thinks this will allow him to consume all possible art, but it takes Wilde to explain that art derives from an act of creation, not random chance. Given enough time, a room full of monkeys and typewriters might one day produce Hamlet, but it would be lost under billions of iterations of meaningless nonsense. I could go on – the characterization is great, the dialogue is smart throughout – but suffice it to say that “Beautiful Things” is quite good, a highlight of the range thus far.
From 4.1 Jago in Loveon
JAGO & LITEFOOT: JAGO IN LOVE
The fourth Jago & Litefoot series starts with “Jago in Love,” a story by Nigel Fairs that does exactly what it says on the tin. The characters visit Brighton for a holiday, and while there, Jago meets an actress who is basically his dream partner. While he romances her, Litefoot and Leela become involved with a man who lost his fiancée. That spirals out of control due to a time distortion until Litefoot’s soul is imprisoned in a mirror and the fiancée is inside his body. The focus of the story is on Jago, as the title implies; the Litefoot plot doesn’t go anywhere interesting. But Jago and Abigail (Elizabeth Counsell) are a delight: Christopher Benjamin in particular throws everything into his portrayal of the smitten impresario. It’s very mannered and polite, of course, and you believe him entirely when he decides to propose marriage. The problem is that Abigail is faking it, and Fairs writes her in a way that makes her trickery incredibly obvious. So while Jago’s emotions feel honest, the story also makes him look like a gullible fool – and while Jago’s impulsiveness often gets him into trouble, he’s absolutely not an idiot. It’s great, in the end, to hear him choose his friends over his new love, but I wish it wouldn’t have felt quite so inevitable. “Jago in Love” isn’t a bad opener, but I’ve heard better.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE PLAGUE OF DREAMS
Finally, in Guy Adams’ “The Plague of Dreams,” we get a story that feels like an “old-school” Companion Chronicle. There’s a narrative device, it’s actually about something – of course it’s also overwritten and its attempts at arc plotting don’t work, but it’s still an ambitious script that rewards the listener.
For those who differentiate between such things, “The Plague of Dreams” is actually a “full-cast” story rather than a narrated drama. It certainly seems to be narrated at first, with Elliot Chapman’s Player describing the events of a late-period Hartnell story, but when Polly enters the scene we realize they’re actually performing her memories of the story on stage. The Player talks her through it, encouraging her to act out various roles – it’s very self-referential, but it avoids being smug and thus gets away with it. This is one of the few times that a Companion Chronicle has pointed out that the companion herself is doing an impression of the Doctor, and Anneke Wills makes it entirely convincing. But while the meta-narrative elements are very entertaining, the story (specifically the Player) is obsessed with Shakespeare, something that never fails to annoy me. It’s nothing against Shakespeare, who was one of the greatest and most influential writers in human history – I just don’t like stories in which characters recite entire parts of the script from various plays. It invariably feels like the author bragging about their education rather than any sort of dramatically necessary element.
The other significant part of “The Plague of Dreams” is its ties to the Time War. I was waiting for an explanation of why certain lines of dialogue were distorted and repeated in the earlier stories, but all we get is “the Time Lords are watching.” As it turns out, the explanation is in the trailer – assuming your audience listens to every piece of supplementary material is not wise. Though it does explain why the box set includes its own trailer on the final disc. As for the Time War material, it’s necessarily vague because it’s set in the Hartnell era. But why? You’re already bringing material from the new series back into 1966, so why now decide that you can’t use the words “Time Lords” or “Gallifrey” because they weren’t spoken on TV until years later? As for the material about the Doctor’s regeneration, it’s ineffectual because we don’t see it on screen by definition. Apparently the Doctor voluntarily decided to go to Antarctica in order to start down the path to becoming the War Doctor, and then immediately forgot all of that as soon as the TARDIS was in flight. Great?
“The Plague of Dreams” is, on the whole, a very smart story with a brilliant delivery – but it gets bogged down in arc plotting and continuity and ends up weaker than the sum of its parts. Get rid of the Time War stuff, ease up on the Shakespeare references, and this could be a 10 – as it is, it’s not quite there.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: THE BONFIRES OF THE VANITIES
The third Companion Chronicle in the set is “The Bonfires of the Vanities” by Una McCormack, and it’s about as straightforward as the first story. The TARDIS lands in 1950s Lewes right as the Lewes Bonfire celebrations are about to begin on Guy Fawkes Night. And while the people of the town are rowdy in their celebration, something more sinister is going on, driving otherwise reasonable people to acts of violence.
There’s not much to recommend the plot. An alien force is terrorizing the city, animating Guy Fawkes masks and robes into imp-like creatures that do its bidding. There’s an attempt to give the alien some depth – when it first arrived on Earth, the people of Lewes thought it a monster and threw it into a bonfire – but this ultimately falls into the traditional Doctor Who storytelling trap of becoming a megalomaniac. Some of the people were cruel to me, therefore I’m going to kill every single one of them, burn the town to the ground, and salt the ashes! Ha ha ha ha ha! It’s not interesting and the historical trappings do nothing to counteract the lack of interest.
I like some of the surrounding material. Much of the story is set around an old library, which is a wonderful location for a tale like this. The librarian is a fantastic character, a woman ahead of her time who even catches Polly out making sexist assumptions. And the atmosphere is effective: it genuinely feels like a festival but with something malevolent slowly encroaching. The narration is also effective, splitting the duties between Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman. We get to hear Chapman’s take on Hartnell, and while he captures the vocal mannerisms well enough, his relative youth and accent make the Doctor sound overly patrician. And while both narrators are more than capable, I don’t like how the story is split between them – it removes a lot of the potential uniqueness of a Companion Chronicle and makes the story feel more like a talking book. There’s also no character development here whatsoever, meaning the story relies almost entirely on the plot, and I’ve already said the plot is disappointing. This story is a Companion Chronicle in name only; had it come out in the old release schedule, it would have passed without comment and sunk quietly to the bottom of the ratings. Oh well.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: ACROSS THE DARKENED CITY
One of the best elements of the Companion Chronicles was their willingness to push the boundaries of Doctor Who audio storytelling, whether through unconventional plots or altering narrative convention. Since the move to box sets, this has not been on display nearly as often – but fortunately “Across the Darkened City” by David Bartlett delivers a plot we haven’t seen before.
As a concept, the plot is very simple, and therefore I don’t have much to say about it: Steven is marooned on a planet with a lone, damaged Dalek that needs his help to survive. The planet, meanwhile, is shrouded in darkness, and so Steven needs the Dalek’s infrared vision to get around. Two natural enemies thrown together on a “road trip” narrative – as I recall, we’ve never seen this in Doctor Who, and it’s a compelling hook for a story. Bartlett tries to evoke audience sympathy for the Dalek by having it act out of character: it insists upon keeping Steven alive, to the point of exterminating another Dalek that tries to kill him; it speaks approvingly of teamwork; it claims it’s not like other Daleks because it’s a new, superior genetic variant. Steven, always ready to help the unfortunate, starts to think of the Dalek as an individual, referring to the Dalek by its designation rather than just as “a Dalek.”
Of course, the Dalek betrays him at the end, largely because Steven forgets himself and puts the Dalek mutant into a fully functional casing, eliminating his own usefulness. But it’s important to point out that the two really were relying upon one another; it wasn’t like the Dalek could have murdered Steven and escaped whenever it liked. This prompts an interesting question: is a wounded Dalek worthy of sympathy? Of help? It’s not “The Scorpion and the Frog” territory, because the Dalek resists its nature. Steven struggles with this question throughout the story – we don’t get a concrete answer, but perhaps that’s for the best.
The plot and its related questions comprise the entirety of the story. The narrative is ordinary and while we spend a great deal of time with Steven’s thoughts we don’t learn anything interesting or surprising about him. As such, the story as a whole could be better. But what we do have is executed quite well, and the presence of Peter Purves elevates everything – he’s a masterful narrator. I wish these stories would be a bit more ambitious, but what we have is quite entertaining.
THE COMPANION CHRONICLES: FIELDS OF TERROR
The Companion Chronicles are back, with another four-story box set focusing on the Hartnell era. The first of these is “Fields of Terror” by John Pritchard, a story that returns us to the time of the Reign of Terror, but in a much different and much more dangerous part of France.
While Paris was relatively civilized even in the depths of the Terror, other areas of the country did not fare so well. Bands of soldiers, referred to as “columns of hell,” ransacked the countryside, brutally murdering anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary thoughts or sympathies. It is into this mess that the TARDIS lands, stranding the Doctor, Steven, and Vicki with one such band of soldiers and their leader Lagrange (Robert Hands). The plot is quite simple: the soldiers have been destroying everything in their path, and now something is stalking them through the forests and killing them off one by one.
The title, the setting, and various conversations by the characters all illustrate that this story is about terror: how it is inflicted, its effects, and whether it can be controlled. The Doctor astutely points out that terror can never work as a strategy to rule because those inflicting the terror will always ultimately fall victim to its effects. And so is the case in this story, as the same soldiers wreaking havoc are the ones who cannot function in the face of the creature stalking them. It’s never explained what is following them, only that it seems related to a hospital the soldiers burned to the ground. I think this is a smart move by Pritchard – putting a name to the creature would strip it of its mysterious power.
Unfortunately, the story does virtually nothing with the lead characters, which renders it something of a lost opportunity as a Companion Chronicle. There’s no narrative frame – although we haven’t had one of those in quite some time, so perhaps I should stop expecting them – and despite Maureen O’Brien’s expert narration, we never really get a good look into Vicki’s head. She’s plucky, outspoken, and cautiously brave, but we don’t get to see how the story affects her. The narrative itself is also rather close to an audiobook, complete with frequent “said the Doctor” lines. The sound design is great, the atmosphere is creepy, and the plot is intelligent – I just wish they’d done more with the characters.
The final two-story release in the monthly range features the seventh Doctor, Ace, and the return of Hex, set during his initial travels in the TARDIS. The first story, “Shadow Planet” by AK Benedict, dives into a philosophical exploration of its characters but ultimately doesn’t go far enough. The TARDIS lands on the planet Unity, where the Unity Corporation offers a unique service: they can separate out your “shadow self” and enable you to reconcile with the darker aspects of your personality. Of course, this technology functions by exploiting and damaging the planet itself, so the Doctor must put a stop to it. There’s not much to the plot: in fact, the Doctor talking the planet into saving the day resolves the story.
But “Shadow Planet” isn’t really about its plot; rather, it’s about this Jungian idea of the “shadow self.” Everyone has a side they don’t talk about, and on Unity this side can be manifested as a robotic duplicate. Importantly, the shadows aren’t purely evil: Ace’s shadow, for example, mostly wants to be left alone to relax with her thoughts. The company extracts shadows from its employees and keeps them imprisoned, thus guaranteeing that the employees only demonstrate desirable personality traits. Even Wheeler (Belinda Lang), the woman in charge, isn’t immune, though you can see that revelation coming from a mile away. But while the script is much too intelligent and nuanced to make the shadows evil clones, it doesn’t go far enough to teach us more about the regular characters. Hex’s shadow’s nihilism is interesting but overcome too easily; meanwhile, we don’t actually see the “real” Ace or Hex acting any differently with those parts of their personalities extracted. And while it’s not surprising that the Doctor – especially this Doctor – is most integrated with his shadow, it’s a bit disappointing not to see more of his internal struggles. In any case, the fact that I’m engaging with the story on this level is quite refreshing for the monthly range. “Shadow Planet” is interesting and thought provoking, even if there’s room for improvement.
And then there’s Scott Handcock’s “World Apart,” which also takes place on a bizarre alien world but features a much different approach to its counterpart. The TARDIS nearly collides with the planet Nirvana and is forced into an emergency landing, leading the crew to explore their new surroundings. But disaster strikes, and soon Ace and Hex are marooned on the surface without the Doctor. That’s the cliffhanger, by the way – the entire first episode is about the TARDIS crew exploring the planet and the slow realization about what’s going on. After that, we spend most of the second episode in a two-hander with Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier as Ace and Hex struggle to survive until the Doctor can save them. I like stories that take their time, and Handcock does a fantastic job of building atmosphere and suspense in both situations.
The characterization is a little confusing, on the other hand. We’re back in the days when Hex was nursing a crush on Ace, which is jarring given that this story takes place immediately after “Shadow Planet” which didn’t mention the idea. It’s also odd because Ace comes across more like her early days in the TARDIS rather than as the mature, experienced time traveler that Hex grows to like. The situation doesn’t help matters – so they’re stranded for weeks with only each other as company, and sleep together at night to conserve heat, but this unrequited love thing isn’t hashed out at some point? Fortunately, Handcock captures the seventh Doctor magnificently, giving us a long look at his alien morality and using Hex as a mirror to understand why the Doctor can sometimes seem monstrous even when he’s trying to help. I liked “World Apart,” perhaps even a bit more than “Shadow Planet.” Neither story is perfect, but both are smart stories that will stay in the memory for quite some time. If the monthly range could tell stories like this more often, I would be thrilled.
From 6.06 - Subterraneaon
There’s a lot of Big Finish product that feels like it was generated on autopilot, but the Fourth Doctor Adventures feature the greatest concentration of such stories. We have yet another example in Jonathan Morris’ “Subterranea,” a story that creates an alien civilization with potential, couples it with some whimsical flourishes, and then does precisely nothing interesting or exciting.
So we have a civilization of alien mole people who spend their entire lives underground on massive city-ships (“Drill-towns”) mining the supplies they need from the surrounding rock. But there are monsters underground as well: the monstrous Silex, cyborg creatures that devour entire Drill-towns and leave chaos in their wake. This is a great setup, but Morris employs it in the most generic Doctor Who plot imaginable: the Doctor and Romana land on one of the Drill-towns, get separated, meet up with different factions of the native race, and ultimately come together to defeat the enemy just in the nick of time. The Silex are basically just this planet’s equivalent of the Cybermen: native people modified into partially robotic monsters who reject emotion and praise the cold efficiency of pure logic. At least they’re not allergic to gold, but it doesn’t take much for the Doctor and Romana to defeat them.
About the only thing that sets “Subterranea” apart is its sense of whimsy. Morris is clearly going for a Dickensian feeling – the captain of the Drill-town, for example, is named Maxwell Wilberforce Bell (Matthew Cottle, great), an unassuming man who nevertheless has a strong sense of what’s right. He wears a jaunty top hat, and argues with his wife (Abigail McKern). The story even ends like a 1970s sitcom, with the characters standing around laughing at a terrible joke. I might be inclined to cut the story some slack for its sense of humor, but that would be forgetting that it is yet again supposed to be set in season 18 and as such feels catastrophically out of place. I wonder how many season 18 fans Big Finish tricked into buying a subscription, and how many of them won’t make that mistake a second time?
Nicholas Briggs directs to his usual high standard, and Jamie Robertson’s sound design is quite good, though his score is only barely reminiscent of the supposed era. But none of that is enough to save the story. I’ve come to expect mediocrity like “Subterranea” from this range, but I’m disappointed to see it come from Morris’s pen, especially given that he wrote the best stories in the entire Fourth Doctor range thus far. For this range, “Subterranea” isn’t bad, but that is most certainly not a compliment.
Mediocre at best.
“Cascade,” or more properly “torchwood_cascade_CDRIP.tor,” by Scott Handcock is a Torchwood story designed around the audio medium that seems to work on a metafictional level. The plot on its own is genius: someone has created a sentient computer virus that tracks down online pirates, killing them and making the evidence disappear. One of the few moments of clunky exposition refers to DRM, and that underscores just how terrifyingly plausible this story is. Imagine if a media conglomerate could order a takedown request not to the hosting site but rather to the person who copied the material in the first place – it’s exactly the sort of plot you’d expect to see on Black Mirror, and to me that is very high praise.
The most interesting part of “Cascade” is its presentation, and how it seems to bleed over into the real world. The title of the story is meant to imply that the listener is hearing a pirated audio file, but the story is not presented as a series of audio recordings. Non-diegetic sound is heard throughout, and the narrative segments are told in ways that render laughable the suggestion that the characters are being recorded. The virus also directly addresses the listener from time to time, warning of impending doom should you continue to listen. It’s a bit over the top, but Handcock, who directs his own script, together with sound designer Rob Harvey want you to feel as though this is a pirated audio file and that you are therefore complicit in its distribution. That said, these elements are largely decorative – the non-linearity of the story doesn’t add much to the experience, while the distortion and interference is basically just a cool trick.
The character work is fascinating as well, especially with the lead role. The relationship between Tosh and former Torchwood One operative Stephen (Robbie Jarvis) is a fairly straightforward tale of unrequited love, but the “corrupted” nature of the presentation allows us to hear some of his future communications. We hear a number of voicemail messages in which he references “explosions in Cardiff,” and concludes by Tosh’s failure to respond that she isn’t interested. But I’m assuming he’s referring to the events of “Exit Wounds” – which means that Tosh is dead and Stephen will never know, a tragic bookend to an effective story. After a couple of missteps, the Torchwood range is back on excellent form with “Cascade.”
THE LIVES OF CAPTAIN JACK: MONTH 25
The final story in The Lives of Captain Jack, “Month 25” by Guy Adams, takes us back to a time we’ve never seen before: when Jack worked for the Time Agency. It’s so early that he hasn’t even taken the name Jack Harkness, and as a result we learn his real name: Javic Piotr Thane. The story even deals with the missing two years that Jack mentioned in his TV debut and then never came up again. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any of these things particularly well.
Every story in this set has tried to focus on Jack as a character, and “Month 25” is no different as it shows us what Jack was like before we met him on television. The answer just isn’t very interesting: he’s arrogant, brash, somehow even more sexual, and self-obsessed to the point of narcissism. The story even throws in a future Jack for the sake of comparison – but makes a serious misstep by not really showing Javic taking any steps down the road to becoming Jack. Even at the end, when he has risked everything to save the day, he’s just as insufferable as he was at the beginning. Javic is rather one-note, to be honest; if not for John Barrowman’s boundless charisma, this might have been a boring listen.
As for the missing two years – the twenty-four months prior to the one in the title, presumably – there really isn’t much to it. Jack was used as an assassin by the Time Agency, who wiped his memory after every mission. I admit Adams is in a bind because we know from TV that Jack still doesn’t know what happened in those two years by the time he meets the Doctor and Rose, but the inevitable memory wipe at the story’s conclusion still drew an eye-roll from me. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what the point of this one is: it’s “The Adventures of Young Jack Harkness” with nothing to say beyond that. I suppose Javic’s plan to save the day is interesting? A disappointing end after such a strong start to this box set.
THE LIVES OF CAPTAIN JACK: ONE ENCHANTED EVENING
At the end of “The End of Time,” David Tennant’s final Doctor Who story as the lead actor, the tenth Doctor visits all of his old companions one last time before his regeneration. This includes Jack, freshly damaged from the events of “Children of Earth” – and the Doctor sets him up with Alonso Frame (Russell Tovey) from “Voyage of the Damned.” The third installment in The Lives of Captain Jack, “One Enchanted Evening” by James Goss, picks the story up from there: what happened after the Doctor left? Well, it’s not just an hour-long sex scene – they’re interrupted by an alien invasion.
I think the character work trips up a little bit in this story. While I’m not sure if “The End of Time” ever specifically confirmed that Jack was coming off “Children of Earth,” that’s clearly what we’re meant to think – and yet “One Enchanted Evening” makes virtually no mention of this. Jack doesn’t even seem particularly upset, and you’d think that there would be at least one reference to Ianto. The story is in part about moving on from tragedy, and that’s a legitimate angle to explore, but we see much more of Alonso’s pain from the Titanic incident than we ever do of Jack’s. The other problem is that the plot is threadbare: an almost comically evil alien invades the station and attempts to steal a giant diamond, and that’s it. This does nothing to help us understand Jack or Alonso, and while Katy Manning is delightfully over the top as Mother Nothing it’s difficult to understand how it all fits together. The ending is odd, too – Alonso gets some sort of catharsis out of the experience, but Jack just loses another person, which seems to be the exact opposite of the Doctor’s intent. This does not seem intentional.
In any case, the story is entertaining, Barrowman and Tovey are great, Manning is unrecognizably enjoyable, and the story moves along at quite a clip. But after the character focus of the first two stories in this set, “One Enchanted Evening” is something of a disappointment.
THE LIVES OF CAPTAIN JACK: WEDNESDAYS FOR BEGINNERS
Pairing up Jack Harkness and Jackie Tyler seems so natural, so obvious, that I was actually surprised to realize that the characters had only met once before, in “Journey’s End.” This is the main drawing point of “Wednesdays for Beginners” from James Goss, the second story in the set. The story is basically a two-hander between John Barrowman and Camille Coduri, which means that they spend a lot of time together – but it also means that Jackie spends most of the first half of the story talking to herself. Admittedly, she’s one of the best possible characters to do that, but it feels less like an exploration of Jackie’s scatterbrained personality and more like all the money ran out and they couldn’t afford a supporting cast.
That’s my only complaint with the story, though. Much like the first story, “Wednesdays for Beginners” focuses primarily on the characters, showing how much Jackie misses Rose yet how much she respects the Doctor, and then showing the ways in which Jack is and is not like the last Time Lord. He’s oddly prone to long-winded technical explanations here, but he lacks the Doctor’s preternatural ability to divine the solution to every problem. So we end up with the two characters working together, trying various solutions, succeeding and failing and building a rapport throughout. I liked how the plot tied into this, how Jackie walked right into the invaders’ trap because of her love for Rose and her trust in the Doctor. It’s entertaining and compelling, and the exact opposite of the “idiot plot” – it feels like we’re right back in the heart of the RTD era, and for me that’s quite a compliment.
THE LIVES OF CAPTAIN JACK: THE YEAR AFTER I DIED
Here’s an interesting idea for a spinoff set: stories about the life of Captain Jack Harkness outside of Torchwood. That’s “The Lives of Captain Jack,” and the first story in the set, “The Year After I Died” from Guy Adams, explores Jack’s life in the immediate aftermath of “The Parting of the Ways.” As mentioned in “Utopia,” Jack has no idea that Rose resurrected him – indeed, at this point he doesn’t even know that he is effectively immortal. All he knows is that he was cornered by Daleks, blacked out, and woke up later to find himself the only survivor of the attack. Adams takes an interesting approach to the character: this is not the brash, confident Jack we’re all used to. Instead, he’s cautious and even nervous, as he knows he was given a second chance at life and doesn’t want to lose it again. So he tries to avoid conflict, but like all Doctor Who heroes, he’s drawn into it whether he wants it or not.
In this case, the story takes a harsh anti-corporate message: in the months after the Dalek attack, wealthy outsiders swooped in to the ravaged Earth to loot the planet for resources. These resources include the people, who are taken away to have their organs harvested and their blood drained. A journalist investigates this, Jack gets involved, things go south, and soon he finds himself compelled to risk his life to save others. After a brief Tennant-like moment of doubt, he commits, dies, and revives in the usual way minutes later. It’s obvious at this point that there’s still a long way to go before Jack becomes the man we see in Torchwood, but Adams still presents a landmark moment in his character progression. It’s interesting, it’s written and performed well, and it fleshes out a character we already know. It’s a great example of spinoff media, in other words, even if the plot is a bit weak.
From 3.4 Chronoclasmon
JAGO & LITEFOOT: CHRONOCLASM
The third series of Jago & Litefoot closes just like the first two: with an Andy Lane script, this time entitled “Chronoclasm.” And while this story doesn’t feature the bad guy growing to immense size and smashing things up, it’s still somewhat muddled. The problems with time have reached boiling point, and the effects are seen in various ways: multiple Jagos running around, the unnecessary presence of Nikola Tesla, and even the resolution, which ties things back to the eventual destruction of Jago’s theater. We finally meet the mysterious Dr. Payne (Phillip Bretherton) and learn the motivation behind the time distortions, and while I’m pleased that Lane went for something more complex than simple megalomania, it’s hard to sympathize with the villain’s motivations when we haven’t been given any reason to. Still, Lane carefully ties everything together in a way that is much more satisfying than the previous two finales. The story also allows each of the regular characters a share of the spotlight, so there’s something here for every fan of the series. “Chronoclasm” is an uneven conclusion to an uneven series, but it’s still quite entertaining – and the cliffhanger, while feeling inevitable, has me interested for the next set. Recommended.
THE HAUNTING OF MALKIN PLACE
The sixth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures rolls on with “The Haunting of Malkin Place,” a ghost story in the classical style from Phil Mulryne. It’s a straightforward story, well told, that doesn’t do much to distinguish itself and continues to make a mockery of the idea that this series is set in season 18.
I must say that I’m impressed with Mulryne’s ability to structure a story. The footsteps overhead in the early parts of the story are fully explained as it continues while simultaneously paralleling the story’s own future events. The events in “Malkin Place” hang together remarkably well. The characterization is solid without resorting to obvious clichés. I like the random introduction of the Doctor and Romana arriving by train to the main plot, and I like the emotional underpinnings of the resolution. I like that there isn’t a clichéd megalomaniac behind everything. I like the device of a séance, and I really like how the spiritualist Talbot (Simon Jones) isn’t shown up as a charlatan or an idiot even though his theories are wrong. Heck, I even like the third usage this month of the “Doctor waits a long time” trope involved in the resolution and how it ties back into the footsteps in the attic.
But I don’t have much to say about the story other than that. Despite the emotional ties the characters have to the story, it doesn’t have much resonance or thematic significance. Lalla Ward continues to play Romana as the least patient, most irritable person in the universe for reasons that are still unclear to me. I’m getting tired of belaboring this point, but I’ll keep doing it: there is literally nothing about this story apart from the theme arrangement that identifies it as part of season 18. It’s not even the bridge between seasons 17 and 18 that has been discussed behind the scenes – this is straight out of the Hinchcliffe era. It’s looking more and more like the “season 18” advertising was specifically and cynically designed to get people to subscribe without any concern about delivering on the promise. And while this doesn’t affect the individual qualities of the stories, I’m also not a fan of being lied to.
“The Haunting of Malkin Place” is a solid release, better than most in the range. The supporting cast is great, Nicholas Briggs directs very well, and the sound design and music from Jamie Robertson are first-rate. But it’s not especially memorable, not especially meaningful, and not especially faithful to its intended setting. Still, it’s a decent Doctor Who story, and there’s always room for those.
From U.N.I.T. - Assembledon
I’ve criticized the new UNIT range for being rather empty: everything has been solidly written and produced to Big Finish’s usual high standards, but the first two volumes amounted to little more than soldiers running around shooting things for four hours. The third set, “Silenced,” surpassed its predecessors – but now, with “Assembled,” from Matt Fitton and Guy Adams, we’re right back to soldiers running around shooting things. The only difference is that some of the soldiers were on TV in the 1970s.
“Assembled” is about a Silurian invasion of Earth and UNIT’s attempts to stop it. A series of coincidences gets Mike Yates, John Benton, and Jo Jones (née Grant) involved, and they team up with the modern UNIT team to save the day. Cool idea, though we’ll have to ignore that none of them appeared in “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and only Jo made it into “The Sea Devils,” so their alleged experience in these matters is questionable at best. The problem is the same problem with every other Silurian story: they’re all the same. Some Silurians have woken up, and while some of them are peaceful scientists happy to coexist with humanity, the rest are deranged, genocidal maniacs. Eventually, the murderous ones are defeated, the peaceful ones end up dead, and everyone sighs regretfully that peace could not be achieved. Fitton and Adams try to shake up this formula by getting rid of the peaceful Silurians and making them all violent killers – but I don’t think making the story less complicated is a stop on the road to higher quality.
Jastrok (Richard Hope), leader of this faction of Silurians, plans to conquer the island of Great Britain, fortify it, achieve recognition from the other human countries, then slowly take over the planet while threatening to destroy everything with the UK’s nuclear arsenal if anyone fights back. He’s a violent fanatic, in other words. Near the end, he is told that his people will deal with him if and when they are all awakened, for his genocidal ways are contrary to Silurian law. I’m not sure about that, given that they promoted him this far up the chain of command! The lack of subtlety really hurts the story, too, because there’s absolutely nothing interesting about the main villain. What does he want? To murder all humans! Why? Because he’s a racist, I guess? What does he plan to do when all the humans are dead? Who knows? Do any of his soldiers break with his desire to wipe out all of humanity? No, they’re all as fanatical as he is! Jo spends the last episode of “Assembled” insisting that they try to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, and teleports herself right into the middle of the Silurian seat of power. After about five minutes of conversation, she realizes that these Silurians are fanatics and that diplomacy is hopeless. Not only is this utterly unrewarding, it also undercuts the message we normally get from these stories, teaching us that sometimes diplomacy really is worthless and there isn’t a better way.
I’m not usually one to complain about realism, but some of the events of “Assembled” defy belief. The story takes pains to point out that only about 100-200 Silurians are awake, and they’re using dinosaur enforcers alongside fear-inducing technology to keep humanity subdued. For example, they have genetically-engineered pterosaurs patrolling the skies and destroying any military aircraft that attempt to breach the perimeter. I know the authors hand-wave all this away every time the Silurians dismiss the humans as “primitive,” but really, we’re just expected to accept that pterosaurs can easily and casually destroy jet-powered fighter aircraft traveling hundreds of miles per hour and loaded down with ordnance? The story also uses the ridiculous device that *only* UNIT soldiers are involved in stopping the Silurians, despite the Silurians residing in Westminster – but it has to, because the UK standing army has tens upon tens of thousands of active-duty personnel and would wipe the Silurians off the map in about eight seconds.
Fortunately, if you’re planning to pick this up because of the classic series characters, you’re in luck. The entire first episode is devoted to Benton and Yates helping Kate Stewart and the UNIT crew fight off a Silurian attack, and everything about it is great, from the initial childish bickering in the pub to the violence and heroism later on. This is only John Levene’s second Big Finish appearance, and he sounds absolutely thrilled to be performing alongside Richard Franklin again. The second episode is a tour de force for Jo, who proves her “diplomacy matters” philosophy by peacefully negotiating with a scientific faction of Sea Devils to help stop Jastrok and agreeing in return to keep them protected. And in the final episode, everyone is brought together – though it’s a little disappointing because Jo’s role is to look useless and Benton and Yates don’t get a lot to do. Still, it’s wonderful to hear these characters together again – and it’s fun to hear Osgood freak out just like any other good Doctor Who fan.
This is also the best UNIT set yet for Jemma Redgrave, as Kate takes an active role in the proceedings from start to finish and is forced to acknowledge the difficulties of following in her father’s footsteps. She doesn’t read all her lines in the same tone, either, which marks a massive improvement. Osgood is also very important, as she devises almost every step of the plans that ultimately save the day. Unfortunately, Josh and Sam continue their tradition of being utterly superfluous, though at least there’s a moment when a Silurian is baffled at her inability to snap Josh’s plastic bones. (But wouldn’t his joints still be susceptible? Oh, never mind.)
The production is excellent, from director Ken Bentley to sound designer Howard Carter. Nicholas Briggs provides fantastic Sea Devil voices. But “UNIT: Assembled” is an average story throughout – it’s basically four hours of various action sequences with nothing in the way of subtlety, character development, or theme. The heavy (and effective) nostalgia factor earns it an extra point, but it’s disappointing for this series to go right back to its unambitious ways. I was excited for the future after “Silenced;” now, I’m not so sure.
“Vortex Ice,” from Jonathan Morris, is the first of the two stories in the second split release, this one featuring the sixth Doctor and Flip, prior to her initial departure. It features the sort of complex time-travel plotting we’ve come to expect from Morris, great performances from the regulars, and an unexpected yet perfect twist.
We’ve seen this sort of story before: the TARDIS lands in a new location, and the Doctor and his companion(s) discover that they’ve already been there. But since they don’t remember being there, they must be seeing the impact of actions they will take in the future. And that’s what happens here, as the Doctor and Flip explore a mine in Mexico in search of artron energy particles, they stumble across massive “vortex ice” crystals and find themselves frozen within. The conclusion is simple: at some point in the future, they will be frozen in these crystals, and so they can’t do anything to change that future.
Of course, Morris doesn’t leave it there. Soon, the crystals thaw, and the “other” Doctor and Flip are thrown into the action. Things become a bit confusing at this point, since both Flips are generally “on screen” together – but that’s by design, as Morris never loses track of who should be where and when. Credit to director Ken Bentley and sound designers Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian for adopting a simple strategy to distinguish between the characters: one version largely speaks through the left channel and the other largely speaks through the right. When the big twist comes, it completely upends the story, challenging every assumption the listener has brought to the table. It all fits together quite well, as one would expect from a Morris script, and it’s eye opening in a way that strongly rewards a second listen. It also allows us to really understand Flip as a character. I’ve never been a fan of Flip, as I think she’s too often written badly: often she’s so ignorant that it defies belief that the Doctor would enjoy her company. But Morris understands her, and as a result “Vortex Ice” is the best Flip story we’ve yet had. There’s not a lot going on under the surface of this story, but the sharp plot and character work make this a model for other two-part stories.
The other story in the set is “Cortex Fire” by Ian Potter. I was under the vague impression that these stories were meant to be related in some way, but that’s obviously not the case – “Cortex Fire” has absolutely nothing to do with “Vortex Ice” despite the inverted title. It’s still a solid story, fortunately, but there’s not a great deal going on beneath the surface.
The Doctor takes Flip to a planet from which they will be able to watch magnificent lights in the sky from a nearby supernova – but of course, within minutes of the TARDIS landing, they become involved in a tale of rebels vs. government and suspected by the authorities. The society of Festin is threatened by nihilists, people who threaten the very foundations of society – and who also burst into flames and murder people. Furthermore, it seems that whenever someone is close to discovering the reasons for the nihilists’ existence, they too become fiery killers.
From this setup begins a story that spirals out to almost ridiculous levels of complexity. The “nihilists” are created when they realize their own insignificance to the universe – and this is because of the Urge, an elemental underpinning of the consciousness of the people that seeks to free itself from generations of imprisonment. The entire society of Festin has been engineered from the beginning to reach a point where it destroys itself, finally freeing the Urge. Potter certainly doesn’t lack imagination, but once the Doctor figures out what’s going on the story reverts to a basic “Doctor vs. megalomaniac” structure that we’ve seen a million times before. And the ending is curious, using a technique we just saw in the Ninth Doctor Chronicles set.
It’s difficult to say more about either of these stories. “Cortex Fire” is a story with a strong plot that lacks the temporal machinations of its partner and doesn’t do much to develop its characters. It’s a fine display of science fiction imagination, but there isn’t much more to it than that. I like the two-episode format, though, and so far the stories have largely taken advantage of it. The production credits are the same as for “Vortex Ice” and are similarly successful. Overall, I’d recommend picking this up – the first story is better but these are two fine ways to pass a couple of hours.
From 15 - Corpse Dayon
TORCHWOOD: CORPSE DAY
The fifteenth Torchwood release (to say nothing of the box sets) marks a big moment for Big Finish: it features the return of the final regular cast member, Burn Gorman, to the role of Dr. Owen Harper. Set during the period of his living death in season 2, James Goss’ “Corpse Day” pairs Owen up with PC Andy in an investigation of a maniac that feels very similar to “Countrycide” – but also feels gratuitous and morally problematic.
It’s “Corpse Day,” an annual event in which Torchwood helps the local police solve their cold cases. Owen is sent to aid the Cardiff police, and Andy is his liaison. In short, their investigations lead them to a crazy person who is abducting young women from local clubs, keeping them prisoner as his “daughters,” and either feeding them to a captive Weevil or letting the Weevil mate with them. Goss doesn’t shy away from the details of this – it’s a rather sick, disturbing story, with lots of screaming and crying from the captive women and insane declarations from their captor. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course – I liked “Countrycide” and its nihilistic message about human nature – but it needs to be in service of some greater message, and “Corpse Day” does not succeed in that goal.
The biggest problem with “Corpse Day” is Owen himself. The story takes pains at the start to illustrate how Owen has lost most of his emotions since his death and how he now tries to live vicariously through others, such as the way he makes Andy eat a massive breakfast in front of him. But this goes seriously awry when he tries to appreciate life and emotion wherever he finds it and does so in a maniac’s basement. One of the revelations in the story is that the Weevil is just as much a victim of Glynn’s abuse as the three women, and that’s entirely fair, but Owen’s reaction at the end of the story is to leave well enough alone and not notify the authorities, because the women and the Weevil have formed a family of sorts. This is lunacy: these women are all severely damaged victims of years of rape and abuse, and while we don’t know much about the Weevils or their thought processes, one can easily imagine the Weevil isn’t healthy either. Leaving them to their new life is a baseless act of cruelty. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the story clearly underlined this as an example of Owen’s skewed morality, but virtually nothing is done to question Owen’s position. It made me feel sick to my stomach, and absolutely not in a good or appreciable way.
Then there’s the abortion debate. We learn that the Weevil has impregnated one of the captive women, and she is due to give birth within hours. Andy is absolutely horrified by this development and insists the child cannot be allowed to live. Owen argues that all life is precious, no matter its origin. Fortunately, both men agree that the choice isn’t theirs to make, and Owen is ethically obligated to deliver the baby if the mother desires – but this still veers dangerously close to a strict pro-life message, as crucially the mother is likely in no fit mental state to be making decisions about her health or consenting to the decisions of others. I see what the story is going for: the world is a dark, horrible place, and we should nurture any form of happiness, no matter how it might appear from the outside – but it’s very crudely and problematically delivered.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the production, though. Burn Gorman sounds like he never left the role, Tom Price is reliable as ever, and the guest cast is uniformly excellent. The sound design from Rob Harvey is appropriately disgusting and Blair Mowat’s music continues to capture the Torchwood atmosphere. So my complaints lay entirely with the story – and as I said above, the story left me deeply uncomfortable.
THE NINTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: RETAIL THERAPY
The final story in the set is “Retail Therapy” from James Goss, a story that marks the return of Camille Coduri to the role of Jackie Tyler. Of the four stories, this one comes the closest to the tone of the TV season – it’s set on Earth and features a strong focus on Rose and Jackie, their relationship, and their relationship with the Doctor.
The plot is simple, as these things go – Jackie is selling a hot new product, but that product turns out to be part of a plot to threaten the world. But the story isn’t about that; rather, it’s about Jackie’s frustration with the Doctor and his interference in her life. There are several conversations in which we learn about Jackie’s life: how she’s always struggled, how her primary goal has always been to provide for Rose, and how she’s jealous of the Doctor’s ability to take Rose on journeys that Jackie could never hope to replicate even if they were all on present-day Earth. Finally, she’s found her way to a modicum of success: she’s actually making money, and she’s even doing it in a way that would have made her late husband proud. So what happens next? The Doctor shows up, of course, and says that the secret of her success is dangerous and must be stopped.
The plot twist, if there is one, is that underneath their bickering and surface dislike, the Doctor and Jackie respect one another. There’s a moment where Jackie is shown doctored video supposedly showing the Doctor and Rose speaking badly of her and she doesn’t believe a word of it, even though she feigns offense. Ultimately, despite the Doctor’s supposed hatred of domestic affairs, he knows how important Jackie is to Rose. Similarly, despite Jackie’s envy of the Doctor, she knows how important it is for Rose to have access to the things the Doctor can show her. So the Doctor and Jackie are essentially bonded through their mutual, if dissimilar, love for Rose, and Goss lets us learn this through a series of conversations. The plot is resolved elegantly, but it’s hardly the point. The first season of the revived series was all about its characters, and it’s great to have a story that follows suit.
Helen Goldwyn directs the four stories in the set, with sound design from Joe Meiners and music from Ioan Morris and Rhys Downing. While the music provides a decent rendition of the Murray Gold style, the sound design is fairly minimalist, matching the talking-book format of the stories. Nicholas Briggs, as I mentioned in my first review, is an excellent narrator, and his Christopher Eccleston impression definitely calms down as the set proceeds. The Ninth Doctor Chronicles is worth a listen – hopefully, if they do more of these sets, the stories will be more like “Retail Therapy.”
THE NINTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE OTHER SIDE
Scott Handcock provides the third story, “The Other Side,” which features the long-awaited (?) return of Bruno Langley as ill-fated companion Adam Mitchell. The story doesn’t confirm ludicrous, ancient fan theories like Adam becoming Davros; rather, the story simply presents a first adventure for this short-lived TARDIS crew, set between “Dalek” and “The Long Game.” And while it’s written and performed to a high standard, it doesn’t do much with a potentially interesting setup, leaving me to wonder what, exactly, the point was.
Adam’s function in the revived first series is to illustrate by contrast what makes Rose a good companion for the Doctor. He’s a bit overawed by new situations, but he’s intelligent and resourceful – the problem is that he’s also selfish. Rose, on the other hand, has her selfish moments, but she’s largely a selfless person concerned for the welfare of the less fortunate. You’d expect “The Other Side” to explore this dynamic even further – but in fact it does the opposite, showing Adam’s good side with few of the questionable elements. There are brief hints at arrogance, but none of his actions here are driven by selfishness – the worst you can say is that he’s more concerned for Rose’s welfare than the Doctor’s. In fact, by the end of the story, the Doctor is conceding that he’s “fantastic” at times and actively wanting to keep him around. Of course, had this aired on TV, it would make Adam’s ouster in the following episode even more shocking – but since we’re getting it 12 years later and we all know how the story ends, why not engage with it? This seems like a massive wasted opportunity.
Fortunately, Handcock’s story is very well structured, with sure-handed characterization leading to a logical story progression. Two moments struck me – first, when the Doctor and Rose are separated into two different time zones, I wondered why the Doctor didn’t just use his time-traveling mobile phone to call her – and almost immediately after thinking that, he did! Then, I wondered why he wouldn’t just wait around for 30 years to meet up with Rose – and then he did! I know “answers my questions right after I ask them” isn’t the entirety of a good story, but it certainly illustrates that Handcock wrote something I enjoyed. The story is entertaining, too – I like the characters visiting different time periods revolving around a music hall/theater. And let’s not forget Bruno Langley – he sounds like he just stepped off the set in 2005. Overall, “The Other Side” is a very good story that nonetheless wastes its chance to be great. Nonetheless, it is recommended listening.
THE NINTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE WINDOW ON THE MOOR
The second story, Una McCormack’s “The Window on the Moor,” is in the vein of the “celebrity historicals” beloved by the modern series. Yet it puts a peculiar twist on the format, as the celebrity in question, Emily Brontë (Laura Riseborough), doesn’t meet the TARDIS crew until halfway through the story. On a distant planet, a heroic duke and his evil uncle, a prince, battle for control of a glass city even as the prince has imprisoned the duchess in the city’s glass prison. Matters are complicated by technology that can open “windows” to other places and times – the duke uses this to protect his people while the prince wants to use it to conquer other worlds. Naturally, one of these windows opens onto early 19th-century Earth – and we discover that the duchess and Emily Brontë are doubles! (This allows Riseborough to play both parts.) I’m fairly certain that these experiences are intended to be the inspiration for Brontë’s early poems, but I can’t say for sure. I’m also curious about how she is represented, as she’s friendly, open, and brave, whereas in real life she was famously shy and reserved.
It falls to the Doctor to help defeat the evil prince and stop the use of the time windows. McCormack writes the ninth Doctor brilliantly – I can absolutely picture Christopher Eccleston grinning widely up at a slavering, murderous monster and calling it “fantastic” – capturing his heroism, his desperation, and his sense of humor. Rose doesn’t leap out of the speakers in the same way – she’s certainly recognizable but she’s cast in a traditional companion role for most of the story. The ending works, and I love Rose’s reaction to the Doctor’s actions, but we’re still in familiar territory: the Doctor must make a difficult decision, and a guest character sacrifices their life to save the day and preserve our heroes. There’s not a great deal going on in this story, in other words, despite its literary trappings – most of the plot involves running from place to place in an attempt to get the duke and the prince together. Which isn’t to say I disliked “The Window on the Moor,” but I’m ready for something a little more adventurous.
THE NINTH DOCTOR CHRONICLES: THE BLEEDING HEART
The biggest problem with Big Finish’s new series license has been actor availability: while they’ve secured many peripheral characters, one box set with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, and the late John Hurt, they’ve been unable to get most of the major actors in studio. They’ve tried to work around this, most notably with “The Churchill Years” set, and finally with “The Ninth Doctor Chronicles” they’re dispensing with any pretense and just doing narrated audiobooks. Free of the need to cast Christopher Eccleston or Billie Piper, they’re storming ahead with four new stories from the revival, the first of which, Cavan Scott’s “The Bleeding Heart,” takes place prior to series premiere “Rose.” And, pleasantly enough, it’s good!
As mentioned above, these stories are audiobooks, with Nicholas Briggs doing the reading and all the characters opposite one guest voice. The guest voice here is Claire Wyatt, playing reporter Adriana Jarsdel. Let’s get this out of the way, because Briggs’ role in this set has been controversial: he’s a very good narrator. Even when he’s not doing voices, his tones and inflections capture the feelings of the characters he describes. He’s also able to put on several different and recognizable voices – you never lose track of what character is speaking at any given time. The only fault is in his Christopher Eccleston impression: it’s way too comedic and one-note. When the Doctor is being silly or sarcastic, Briggs nails it. When the Doctor is being serious, Briggs sounds like he’s mocking the script. It’s not a big deal – since it’s an audiobook, not an impression contest, you just need to know it’s the Doctor speaking – but it’s a noticeable step down from his performance in “Night of the Whisper.”
As for “The Bleeding Heart” itself, it’s a solid, entertaining story. The central conceit – people becoming so overcome with empathetic feelings that they murder the target of their empathy – is a unique idea that is very Doctor Who. It also enables the story to focus on its characters, with Adriana taking pills to suppress her latent empathic abilities and the Doctor fighting to control his emotions over the recent Time War. Cavan Scott presents a very raw, damaged Doctor, one who has papered over his wounds with silliness. There’s a moment where he asks Adriana to use her abilities, she says she’s in pain, and he says “I don’t care!” that really made me sit up and take notice – it’s the sort of dangerous characterization that marked the Doctor in that first series and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The actual mentions of the Time War seem a bit unnecessary, though I’m not concerned about continuity problems when it comes to things like that. And I’m not a huge fan of the ending, which goes for the very tired scenario where the only way to save the day is for the Doctor to sacrifice himself and another character steps in at the last moment to give up their life in his stead. Yes, it sets up the importance of meeting Rose later on, but I think this device has been very overused.
Overall, though, there’s a lot to enjoy in “The Bleeding Heart.” It feels like it could have been lifted straight out of series 1, it has some impactful emotional beats, and it really understands its central character. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to get a good story from an author I respect a great deal, but nonetheless this was much better than I expected. Hopefully the rest of the set will follow suit.
From 6.04 - Dethrason
The fourth release in the sixth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, “Dethras,” comes from range newcomer Adrian Poynton. While it’s not a particularly interesting story, it has the advantage of being quite well written, leading me to want to hear more stories from this author.
I really enjoyed the storytelling in “Dethras.” The characters speak with a more naturalistic tone than the mannered speech we often get in Big Finish Doctor Who, and the scenes aren’t presented in purely linear fashion. In other words, we get flashbacks and visions and all sorts of devices designed to get the listener paying active attention to the story. I’m less sure about any particular themes besides the obvious one of hubris leading to science run amok, but the structure and the bizarre plot held my interest throughout.
I mentioned in a recent review that I’m always leery of stories named after places or characters introduced in those stories, because that often implies that there’s not much worth remarking upon in the script. “Dethras” is a character in the story, and the cliffhanger is devoted to him revealing his identity: “I am Dethras!” That’s great, but we don’t know who or what Dethras is. As it turns out, he’s a scientist who unlocked the secrets of evolution, designing beings that would evolve into forms perfectly adapted for their environments. This leads to humans transforming into creatures that can survive the vacuum of space; the story is less clear on how significant the environmental changes need to be. We also see characters evolving traits of people around them – the Doctor and Romana’s latent telepathic abilities manifest and intensify in Dethras’ creations. But that’s not really evolution – acquired characteristics are quite the opposite, in fact.
The characters tend to stay away from stereotype, which is nice – everything seems to be setting Dethras (Alistair Petrie) up as a deranged mad scientist, but his failure arises from his trusting, naïve nature, not from any malevolent intent. Less successful was Flague (Sheila Ruskin), the dictator who wants Dethras’ discoveries to form an army. Poynton tries valiantly to give her some shade: she’s not just insane, she actually has an understandable motive driving her actions. But her actions are still those of a megalomaniac, and it’s hard to give the character the benefit of the doubt in the moments when those traits come to the fore. She also experiences a complete personality reversal in the story’s final moments, and this coupled with the confusing resolution makes for a weak ending. There’s also an intelligent chimpanzee hanging around, played by John Banks – and unfortunately he sounds like a man trying to do chimp noises. Because he eventually starts talking, you can charitably argue that this may have been intentional, but I seriously doubt it.
There’s a lot to like about Dethras. The structure is interesting, the direction from Nicholas Briggs and sound design from Jamie Robertson are first-rate, and there are some good ideas at its core. But the overall execution is flawed, leading the story to sound more disjointed and less rewarding than it otherwise could. Not bad, then, but it could be better.
From 3.3 Swan Songon
JAGO & LITEFOOT: SWAN SONG
The third story in the set, John Dorney’s “Swan Song,” is a bit of a departure from the typical Jago & Litefoot format. It’s set between two time periods, with a group of scientists around the present day performing time experiments and accidentally opening portals to the Victorian age, while Jago, Litefoot, and Leela investigate the effects of those portals from the other side. The story has a hallucinatory quality, as characters on each side of the time breach have dreamlike visions about potential futures – and it’s all tied together by Alice (Abigail Hollick), a paraplegic scientist who lost her ability to walk on the way to a ballet performance, and her desire to finally deliver her performance. While I appreciate the desire to do something different, I don’t think “Swan Song” holds together especially well – I think the “spirit of the theatre” is a difficult concept to entertain. The focus on the theatre also leads to one of my least favorite elements of drama about drama: endless quotations. It is not entertaining to hear characters quote Shakespeare at each other when they are not performing Shakespeare, nor is it fulfilling to have any subtlety robbed from the story when a character spells out the meaning of Swan Lake at the end. About the only element I enjoyed was Jago’s almost complete ignorance of Shakespeare contrasted against Litefoot’s much more comprehensive knowledge. Still, “Swan Song” is entertaining in spots, and it’s nice to know the series won’t be repeating the same plots over and over.
Big Finish has settled into an annual format for the monthly range: one trilogy for each of the fifth, sixth, and seventh Doctors, one anthology release, and one trilogy featuring multiple Doctors with some sort of linking plot element or gimmick. We’re heading into that “gimmick” trilogy, and this year the selling point is that each release is actually two linked two-episode stories. The first story this month is “Alien Heart,” by Stephen Cole, and it’s rather bland and uninspiring.
As the cover blurb says, the Doctor and Nyssa stumble across a trail of destroyed planets and, with no explanation evident, decide to investigate. This leads them to a secret human installation on the moon of Traxana, which appears to be the next planet in line. But the humans aren’t responsible – they’re also investigating – and nobody knows why the planets are being destroyed. This is a reasonably mysterious setup, but Cole immediately goes all in on a group of giant spiders with incredibly sticky skin running around the base and on the planet. Nyssa gets carried off, of course, and that splits up the TARDIS crew, leaving the Doctor with the human crew and Nyssa with a Traxanan in an underground mine. The Doctor then spends the rest of the story going from room to room in the base, while Nyssa spends the rest of the story going from tunnel to tunnel in the mine.
My reviews say this a lot, but there’s not much that’s particularly wrong with “Alien Heart.” I’m sure Stephen Cole can write Doctor Who stories in his sleep by now and he’s always been a reliable, consistent voice in the spinoff media. But there isn’t much going on here: it’s an utterly generic Doctor Who plot surrounded by some irrelevant detail. Sure, I suppose it’s interesting to know the political and strategic reasons that the humans have a secret base on the moon, but when they’re not relevant to the story, why should I care? The best revelation in the story is the mysterious heartbeat – and it’s hardly a spoiler to say it’s actually a distorted form of the famous Dalek base “heartbeat” effect since the Daleks are all over the cover. The Dalek scheme is almost incomprehensible – though “needlessly convoluted” seems to be an implicit part of Dalek schemes – and it’s unclear how much of it was intended from the start and how much of it is lunacy from a disconnected Dalek science group.
Basically, if you really want to listen to a generic Doctor Who romp with Daleks, this is as good a choice as any. If you want something that’ll stimulate your mind, well, skip to disc 2, because that one is much better.
I imagine it’s difficult to write Dalek stories these days. They’re the most common villains in Doctor Who and many utterly fantastic writers have tackled the Daleks over the years. It has to be intimidating to attempt to write something unique involving a monster that has already been tackled by luminaries like Whitaker, Davies, and Shearman. And yet that’s exactly what Guy Adams does in “Dalek Soul,” which is one of the best Dalek stories in years.
“Dalek Soul,” as the name implies, is about what it means to think like a Dalek and how that differs from what we consider normal. When “Alien Heart” ended, the Daleks took the Doctor and Nyssa prisoner, and when “Dalek Soul” opens, Nyssa is working with them as a virologist and the Doctor is aiding a rebel group. Clearly, we’ve just skipped ahead in the story: the Doctor must have escaped, and Nyssa is surely doing what she can to hamstring the Dalek plans from within. But events rapidly become uneasy as we hear Nyssa oversee a biological weapons test on defenseless prisoners, something we know she would never countenance. Our suspicions that something is wrong are confirmed when the Doctor betrays his rebel group and turns them over to the Daleks – in fact, that ruins the drama of the rest of the story, because we know that nobody would ever write (or be allowed to write) the Doctor as a willing Dalek collaborator, so we therefore know that these aren’t the real Doctor and Nyssa.
Fortunately, Adams’ story doesn’t rely on this revelation to succeed. Rather, it’s a device to explore how the Doctor and Nyssa would behave were they possessed of Dalek “souls.” The most interesting outcome is that the Doctor is a ruthless, heartless collaborator, while Nyssa still retains much of her essential decency. It’s never spelled out, but one imagines that the Daleks were very careful to stamp out the Doctor’s positive qualities, knowing how much of a threat he posed in the past. I’d also speculate that they didn’t do the same with Nyssa, as they probably viewed her as just another weak-willed, inferior species. So while the Doctor is the lead villain, Nyssa is the anti-hero: she’s responsible for terrible things, but a part of her knows that and works to stop those things from happening. As with many stories in this vein, when they discover their true identities, everything melts down, which is predictable but satisfying. Lastly, the device of a faceless rebel leader talking Nyssa through her identity crisis is a bit clunky but effective enough to drive the plot.
Ken Bentley directs both stories and the sound design and music come from Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, and all are to Big Finish’s usual high production standards. Despite a few flaws here and there, “Dalek Soul” is an excellent story, one that actually attempts a different type of storytelling with meaning to boot. “Alien Heart” you can take or leave; this release is worth the purchase for “Dalek Soul” alone.
From 14 - The Dollhouseon
TORCHWOOD: THE DOLLHOUSE
I’ve been quite impressed with Big Finish’s Torchwood audios. The standard releases have cleared a high bar of excellence, while the special box sets have been entertaining and expertly produced, if not quite as well written. So I was dismayed to hear Juno Dawson’s “The Dollhouse,” which stands without competition as the worst Big Finish Torchwood release of all and is arguably the worst product ever released under the Torchwood banner.
To be fair, I see what they were going for, and I appreciate the attempt. Set in Hollywood in the late 1970s, “The Dollhouse” involves a Torchwood outpost on the West Coast of America with a secretive male leader (Guy Adams) employing three female operatives. It’s a Torchwood take on Charlie’s Angels, in other words, and the tone matches the irreverence of the source material. I like that the story uses three capable, intelligent women in the lead roles. I really like that the range has commissioned a transgender author. I like that the range is trying different things and not just pumping out generic stories month after month. Unfortunately, what I absolutely do not like is the result.
Almost nothing about “The Dollhouse” works. Of the three lead actors, Kelly-Anne Lyons as Charley (no, not that one) is by far the best, but they lumber her with a Southern accent that she dials up to 11, robbing scenes of their dramatic impact. Marlow (Laila Pyne) should be a great character – she’s a black scientist who grew up in the civil rights era of the 1960s. Unfortunately, the only part of that description the script is interested in is “black,” so she’s constantly yelling things like “My ass!” and “God damn!” This is clearly intended as a pastiche of blaxploitation film – there’s even a Richard Roundtree reference to hammer the point home – but it feels uncomfortable. Pyne, furthermore, is dreadfully unsuited for the role, as her diction is so precise and free of personality that she sounds like a vocal coach reading off a page. And then there’s Gabi (Ajjaz Awad), the Latina stuntwoman that rounds out the crew. There’s no pastiche here: she’s simply a broad ethnic stereotype. She’s not a bad character in other respects – like the others, she’s heroic, resourceful, intelligent – but she’s constantly calling people “mama” and “papi,” making references to conversations with her abuelita, criticizing the enchiladas at local restaurants, and so on. Also, does Awad have any Hispanic/Latina heritage? If not, that adds an extra problematic layer to an already difficult character.
The plot is functional enough, if incredibly basic. There are aliens buying actresses to use as “dolls,” hence the title. Our heroes stop them. Okay. But there’s a more fundamental question here: why is this story being told in the first place? It doesn’t feature a single familiar element from the Torchwood series. It doesn’t flesh out anything about Torchwood – you leave this story knowing exactly the same information about the organization that you knew going in. And to my knowledge it’s not intended to serve as a pilot, so we’re likely never going to see any of these characters again. So as a Torchwood story, it’s worthless. But even taken purely as a piece of drama, it fails on all but the most basic levels. Sure, it’s a pastiche, but it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about the source material. For that matter, it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about anything – there’s no attempt at deeper meaning here, nothing about Hollywood, nothing about the characters, nothing at all. The sound design isn’t even convincing in all cases. Heck, even the cover has a giant continuity error – the story takes pains to point out that Charley is blonde, but Kelly-Anne Lyons isn’t, and guess what we see on the cover?
“The Dollhouse” is a bad, boring story that serves no discernable purpose. Why anyone thought this was a good idea is beyond me, as it’s barely even fit for release. If there’s anything positive to be taken away from this story, it’s that the Torchwood series has absolutely nowhere to go from here but up.
JAGO & LITEFOOT: THE SIMILARITY ENGINE
The first Jago & Litefoot set comes to a close with Andy Lane’s “The Similarity Engine,” essentially a sequel to the Companion Chronicle (“The Mahogany Murderers”) that started the whole thing. The story feels a bit awkward in places because it suddenly feels the need after three stories to explain the backstory, so you have characters telling each other things they already know, but apart from that everything works well. I like how Dr. Tulp’s involvement in the other stories is explained here – it’s very much an RTD-style arc with small elements woven into a greater whole leading to an explosive season finale. Both leads are spectacular as usual – it’s continually impressive to see how steely Litefoot can be as well as to see the compassionate side of the blustery Jago. The ending is a bit weird, though – Jago saves the day by convincing Tulp’s henchmen that their boss is actually a jerk? And then Tulp turns into a giant tentacle monster? It feels odd, like there was a different, better ending we didn’t get to see. But it’s pulled off with such aplomb that it doesn’t ruin the story. Andy Lane knows the two leads like the back of his hand and his script reflects it. The sound design is effective, the direction skilled – this is a fine conclusion to a very strong set and it bodes well for the future. Knowing just how many of these there are to come, I worry about diminishing returns, but for now this series is a hit.
JAGO & LITEFOOT: THE MAN AT THE END OF THE GARDEN
The tenth Jago & Litefoot story, “The Man at the End of the Garden,” features Matthew Sweet’s debut in the range, an author who produced two of my favorite monthly Doctor Who releases. And it’s every bit as good as you’d expect: it features parallel narratives, one “real” and one fictional, with elements of each bleeding over into the others. Events are rooted in a Rumpelstiltskin-like story, with a magical little man (Duncan Wisbey) making a deal with a little girl: promise him his freedom and win a reward, but fail to satisfy your end of the bargain and lose that which you love most in the world. If there’s a complaint about this story, it’s that the fairy tale is foregrounded to the point that it masks the roles of the lead characters. Both Jago and Litefoot are largely reactive characters in this story, playing the “ask lots of questions” part like everyone else. Still, their talents are put to use – witness Jago essentially saving the day due to his knowledge of stagecraft, for example. This also relates to Leela’s tears in the fabric of space-time, but even though she investigates the situation from a completely different angle, her role in the conclusion is reduced as well. Still, with the story written as well as it is, and with great performances from Joanna Bacon, Joanna Monro, and Eden Monteath, the story more than gets away with it. Narrative complexity is always welcome, especially when it comes from the pen of a talented writer. “The Man at the End of the Garden” is the most unusual Jago & Litefoot tale yet, but it’s also one of the best.
JAGO & LITEFOOT: LITEFOOT AND SANDERS
The second Jago & Litefoot set kicks off with Justin Richards’ “Litefoot and Sanders,” at heart an old-fashioned vampire story. Bodies are turning up in London completely drained of blood, and Professor Litefoot is on the case – but with a new partner, vampire hunter Gabriel Sanders. The story is as much about Jago and Litefoot’s relationship as it is about the vampire, and Richards plays it to the hilt. It’s fairly predictable that Litefoot is misleading Jago – it’s just too severe a change from their usual relationship in too short a time – but the way Jago vacillates between anger and understanding is quite entertaining. Special mention goes to David Collings, whose creepy, controlled performance as Sanders dominates the audio. He’s a fantastic villain due almost entirely to his voice and I’m curious to see where things go with him as the set continues. The twist at the end concerning Ellie’s apparent demise is appropriately shocking, but as it also comes virtually out of nowhere I’m expecting that, too, to be reversed. Still, “Litefoot and Sanders” is a fine intro to the box set that ably demonstrates how much life the series potentially has in it.