THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: MY DINNER WITH ANDREW
From the title, you might think John Dorney’s “My Dinner with Andrew” is in some way related to or inspired by “My Dinner with Andre,” the brilliant 1981 Louis Malle film. They’re both set in restaurants, and that’s where the similarities end. Instead, “Andrew” is a time-hopping romp through various hours at a multi-dimensional restaurant that engineers time so that it always has tables available. It’s not quite as good as the first story, but it’s one of two high-quality tales in this set – Dorney has a strong grasp of this sort of time travel plotting and never lets the pace flag or get boring. Peter Davison plays a double role, both as the Doctor and as “unimportant” man Andrew, and the accent and nervousness he adopts as Andrew set the two characters apart quite effectively. It’s also nice to have an audio story featuring River and the Doctor in which River isn’t pining after him and is instead taking control of events. I’ll get to this a bit more in the next review, but Madame Kovarian shows up in this and she’s practically unrecognizable from her (brief, unmemorable) television portrayal. I also like how Dorney structures the story, modeling each scene after the various courses in a high-end meal; it’s pretentious as hell, but the various scenes actually match the course descriptions so it works. And Jonathan Coote is fantastic as the maître d’, his comedic turn underpinning every scene. Despite the events at the conclusion, this feels a bit disposable, but it’s very well written, well performed, and a lot of fun to boot. Great stuff.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: A REQUIEM FOR THE DOCTOR
After a delightful opening story that allowed us to see River in a different light, the script ended with River needing emotional support. Naturally, she seeks out the Doctor for this, and that leads us to Jacqueline Rayner’s “A Requiem for the Doctor,” which is a boring, generic Doctor Who story in the middle of a River Song box set. I’ve made this point in prior reviews, but I think these sets approach the Doctor/River relationship in a backward manner. It’s hard for River to seem independent if she’s constantly pining after the Doctor or unable to center herself without the Doctor present, and of course since these sets don’t have Matt Smith available they must keep coming up with convoluted reasons why River can meet, say, Peter Davison’s Doctor despite repeated insistence on television that such an encounter would be impossible. It’s also boring – we did this with Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker and now Davison acting befuddled by this mysterious woman who likes to kiss them. And since the older Doctors cannot, by definition, have relationships with River, these audio stories are always one-sided and uninteresting. In this story, the Doctor is traveling with new companion Brooke (Joanna Horton), who is instantly jealous of the connection the Doctor and River appear to share. There’s a potentially interesting story here – imagine if we paired River with actual TV companions – but here it’s all in service of the arc plot, which comes to a head in a loud, overdrawn, obvious conclusion that would have had Steven Moffat crucified if he’d attempted it on television. You may think from this brief review that I did not care for “A Requiem for the Doctor.” You are correct. It’s time to stop using the Doctor in these sets and let River stand on her own as a character.
THE DIARY OF RIVER SONG: THE LADY IN THE LAKE
A poorly executed plot twist can ruin an otherwise promising story. A brilliant plot twist, on the other hand, can produce something special. Nev Fountain is one of the best Big Finish has at this particular skill – think “Omega” and smile – and he’s at it again here in “The Lady in the Lake,” the first story in the newest Diary of River Song set. I won’t spoil anything, but the best twists are those that are surprising on first listen yet obvious in retrospect, and the clues are all here, including one right out in front of the story. Apart from that, we’re in fascinating territory: River tracking down her “family,” clones of her created to replicate her Time Lord characteristics. The basic question Fountain asks is “what if you could regenerate but didn’t know why,” and the answer is that you’d probably start or join a religious cult. Cynical, but utterly believable, and the “Great Lake” is a fantastic character, caught between confusion and utter determination. (Though the name is a bit distracting because I live next to one of the Great Lakes, but I digress.) And don’t forget the setting, Terminus Prime, a custom suicide studio for the wealthy. Want to end your life? Be sacrificed by an evil cult, or eaten alive by a dragon, or lose a chess game to Death on a beach! It’s a smart critique of monetary excess taken to a logical extreme. Overall, “The Lady in the Lake” is fantastic. It’s smart, layered, surprising, and gives us a look at River at her most independent and ruthless. It’s still a privilege after all these years to be getting Nev Fountain scripts.
From Season 7 Part 1on
THE DEMON RISES
My biggest concern with “The Mind Runners” was the sheer number of ideas it set up with no promise of resolution. In the conclusion, “The Demon Rises,” also by John Dorney, my concern was addressed in a curious manner: some of those plot threads were simply left unaddressed. The mind runners are almost completely left out, apart from a surprise revelation right at the conclusion concerning mind running, and the Digitals and their plot to “upgrade” the population out of their organic bodies just… disappear. This leaves Mr. Shift, who’s still around, and the power drain, which means it’s time for a twist: the evacuation rocket is actually a massive trap designed to drain the life energy from everyone inside. Who engineered this trap? Why, it’s the city of Chaldera itself, because it’s not a city at all, it’s a massive alien creature who hunts by… convincing people to build a civilization out of it and live inside it, I guess. And it’s dying, so after the rocket eats everyone and drains their energy, it will be launched with the creature’s eggs to start the whole process over again on countless other worlds. Pretty complex, right? Sounds like the sort of thing that could take four episodes to explore, but no, it’s introduced midway through the third episode at the expense of everything else – at least until Mr. Shift turns up at the end in a very predictable plot twist.
I’m also curious about Dorney’s characterization of the Doctor here. He’s definitely in “Pyramids of Mars” intense-alien mode, which is perfectly fine, but the conclusion of the story feels odd. The Doctor executes multiple plans designed to stop the creature’s scheme but keeps giving it outs along the way – and it keeps rejecting those and trying to continue surviving. So finally, with all other options exhausted, the Doctor gleefully executes the city, complete with triumphant “THAT’S how you kill a city!” taunt as it dies. This isn’t entirely out of character, though only the two Bakers could get away with it, but it jars with the rest of the story. It’s also a bit inconsistent philosophically: if this is truly how the creature reproduces, why shouldn’t it be allowed to try? Do we believe that a food chain ends when sentience begins? Dorney throws in a convenient line about how there are probably thousands of these creatures on other planets who are much more benign, but it just screams cop-out. When “The Trial of a Time Lord” is more willing to engage with the Doctor’s morality than you are, you should ask yourself why.
Just as in the first story, Nicholas Briggs directs and Jamie Robertson handles the sound design, and both are up to Big Finish’s usual standards of excellence. Overall, I can’t say I’m a big fan of “The Demon Rises.” It’s confused, it’s way too busy, and it doesn’t engage with its own questions. It’s certainly not boring, as Dorney keeps throwing so much at the listener, but it’s not rewarding. I applaud the ambition but not the execution.
From Season 7 Part 1on
THE MIND RUNNERS
“The Mind Runners” by John Dorney is the sort of story that promises more than it delivers. It’s the first half of a four-part story, so of course nothing is resolved – but despite introducing at least three potential sources of conflict, nothing really happens in either episode.
On the planet Chaldera, a lack of energy means a lack of entertainment for the young, some of whom amuse themselves by “mind running” – using devices to insert themselves into other people’s minds and live their experiences. But something has gone wrong, and the mind runners are dying, victims of apparent suicides. Are they suicides? Are they being killed? Did they “run” with the wrong minds and learn something they shouldn’t have? Or did they run the legendary evil consciousness known as the Night Mind, which may or may not even exist? These are all interesting questions, and a great basis for a story. This story also includes Mr. Shift, a former scientist who was killed in a teleporter accident and transformed into a crazed killer who can morph his body into different forms. Now he’s stalking the mind runners and trying to kill them all, while being terribly theatrical about it. One would assume he is related in some way to their activities, but he gives no indication one way or the other. And then we have the Digitals, former inhabitants who have upgraded themselves into machine consciousnesses, and lurk underground preparing for the day when they will emerge and convert everyone to their form. And all the while we’re hearing about the failing power supply and how the planet will have to be evacuated at some point in the near future.
I’m giving the story some slack because it’s the first half of a greater whole, but that is a ton of plot material thrown at the listener and virtually none of it is given any development. The Doctor, Leela, and K9 meet some mind runners, but rather than getting involved in the plot, they waste an entire episode tracking them through the streets and sewers. It’s fun to imagine what, if any, relationship exists between the mind runners and Mr. Shift and the Digitals and the Night Mind, but the story does nothing to point us toward a possible answer. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I’m worried that it will be very difficult to reach a satisfactory conclusion in the second half. Another problem is that the ideas just aren’t very interesting: projecting yourself into someone else’s mind is hardly groundbreaking and we don’t even see it happen in the story. Mr. Shift is fun but he seems devoid of motivation. And a group wanting to convert a population to machine consciousness is something we’ve seen about a hundred times before in any Cyberman story you care to mention.
As for the production, it’s solid as usual. Nicholas Briggs directs again, and does it well, and Jamie Robertson is always reliable when it comes to music and sound design. My only complaint is with the filter on the voices of the Chalderans, which makes them hard to understand and doesn’t serve much of a point. Overall, I’m feeling cautious about this story – it’s not bad, but it packs a lot in, and it doesn’t seem all that interesting. Hopefully things will pick up for the conclusion.
From Season 7 Part 1on
THE CROWMARSH EXPERIMENT
The thing about “The Crowmarsh Experiment,” by David Llewellyn, isn’t that it’s particularly brilliant or innovative. In fact, it’s a fairly clichéd, obvious science fiction story. The thing about “The Crowmarsh Experiment” is that it actually tries to do something other than “generic Doctor Who runaround” in a Fourth Doctor Adventure, which automatically sets it apart from its colleagues.
You’ve heard this story before. Not this specific one, with these specific characters, but if you’re any sort of science fiction fan you’ve heard this story before. Leela is captured by an alien computer and her mind is wired into a virtual reality space while her body is slowly drained of energy. While trapped in this reality, she begins to question her own sense of self, and whether she’d be better off staying in the false reality even knowing she would ultimately sacrifice her own life. There is absolutely no ambiguity here: the story shows Leela’s capture right up front, and from the moment she wakes up in the “dream” she knows something is wrong. The entertainment for the listener therefore comes from Leela herself: how she deals with this new reality. And this is a good decision on Llewellyn’s part because it allows us to enjoy Leela as a three-dimensional character rather than a knife-happy savage. The best writers understand that Leela is very intelligent, and both the script and Louise Jameson’s performance communicate this brilliantly as we watch her work her way through the difficulties she encounters. The virtual reality setting also gives us a great performance from Tom Baker – the restrained Dr. Stewart shows that the Doctor’s eccentricity is indeed an acting choice on Baker’s part, even if it does line up well with his own personality.
The problem is that while this is a good character piece for Leela, there’s not much in the way of drama or conflict. We know essentially what’s going on right from the start, so there’s no mystery: the question is simply how Leela is going to figure out what’s happening and escape. This would work if the character drama was sufficiently intense, but it’s not: Leela faces virtually no conflict whatsoever in the first episode, and the second episode chooses to introduce drama by bringing back Marshall (Damien Lynch) as Leela’s false husband Colin. What’s that? Who’s Marshall? You know, the guy Leela abruptly fell in love with at the end of “Requiem for the Rocket Men” and who promptly died in “Death Match?” Yes, it’s that same mediocre, underwritten character from three years ago, and the listener is expected to remember him because there’s absolutely no explanation given. I suppose, since I always criticize Big Finish for never following up on significant character moments, I should give them credit for actually showing some consequences – Leela was actually affected by their relationship! – but three years later and seemingly at random is really pushing the boundaries of acceptability.
Nicholas Briggs directs again, and the excellent performances across the board are at least due in some part to his efforts. Jamie Robertson’s sound design is similarly good. “The Crowmarsh Experiment” is a good story, and it’s a great Fourth Doctor Adventure by comparison to its fellows. But it’s not particularly deep, it relies upon an odd continuity reference from years ago, and it’s not innovative except when compared to this range’s normal dreary output. Still, there’s very little in the way of serious faults and I recommend giving it a listen if you’re desperate for good fourth Doctor material.
From Season 7 Part 1on
THE SONS OF KALDOR
There’s not much to say about “The Sons of Kaldor” by Andrew Smith, the first release in the seventh series (and new box set format) of Fourth Doctor Adventures. As with basically every Fourth Doctor Adventure that brings back a character (in this case, the titular Robots of Death) from that era, it’s straightforward, plodding, obvious, and boring.
The structure of the story is probably the best part, because Smith at least tries to layer revelations into the script to keep it moving. I like the progression from discovering Commander Lind (Martha Cope) in stasis to learning that she’s an intelligence officer in a civil war to learning that the war ended over a year ago and her side lost. But there’s nothing thought-provoking here: Smith tries to add some texture by showing that Lind’s society was tilted heavily toward the rich, but promptly erases it by introducing Rebben Tace (Oliver Dimsdale), a man with a tragic backstory who grew up to be a sadistic totalitarian maniac. It is neither smart nor subtle; it’s just there.
However, in spite of Smith’s efforts to keep the pace moving, the two-episode format significantly hurts the story. When you always have to build to a cliffhanger at the story’s midpoint, it’s very difficult to keep the first part from feeling tedious and the second part from feeling overstuffed. And all of the revelations come in the second part, as is standard for this range, making it feel rushed. There’s no room to explore what it really means for the robots to gain sentience, apart from the usual pontificating about how they are now living beings and must be protected. Instead, the immediate threat to their safety is resolved and the Doctor and Leela promptly leave. The small population of sentient robots is still on a planet ruled by people who hate them and want them eradicated, and who now know where they are, but I’m sure they’ll figure it out, right?
Nick Briggs directs and it’s fine. Jamie Robertson does the sound and it’s fine. The robots sound like they did on TV. We get lots of references to Vocs and Super-Vocs and Dums. Robophobia isn’t mentioned, which is weird given the new society’s pathological hatred of robots, but there’s only room for so many references in one story, I suppose. Whatever. You could write “A Doctor Who story starring Tom Baker” as the synopsis and be done with it.
KINGDOM OF LIES
The 2018 release year kicks off with a main range Peter Davison trilogy, and the first of these is “Kingdom of Lies,” from Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. Similar to their recent Early Adventure “The Ravelli Conspiracy,” this story has an offbeat tone; unlike that story, “Kingdom of Lies” doesn’t quite achieve consistency and feels disjointed.
I very much like the plot structure of this story. I think the four-part format has become obviously outdated, and the fact that we’re still forcing three cliffhangers into every story in 2018 just makes me roll my eyes – but Khan and Salinsky make each episode distinct enough that the format adds to the enjoyment of the story. They follow the age-old strategy of dividing up the TARDIS crew, and it works remarkably well. It’s fun to hear Tegan and Adric paired up for most of the running time because of the self-aware relationship between their characters: Matthew Waterhouse plays Adric as a teenager needling Tegan for amusement; Janet Fielding comes across like an annoyed older sister. There’s affection underneath it all, in other words, and it works quite well. That the Doctor and Nyssa pair well is in no way a secret, but I particularly like their relationship here, where Nyssa dives into their assumed assassin roles with both feet and has to drag the Doctor along with her. It’s rare to see that Nyssa’s aristocratic tone is actually an acting choice by Sarah Sutton, but it definitely comes out here.
For the most part, Khan and Salinsky write with an absurdist, comic tone. The relationship between Duke Sebastian (Jonathan Firth) and Duchess Miranda (Charlotte Lucas) has degraded to the point that they’ve drawn a line across their entire kingdom dividing it in half, and anyone who crosses the line is arrested by the other side. While the Duke is effete and indecisive, the Duchess is prone to emotional outbursts and much more determined and calculating. And while the story seems as though it will be entirely about this conflict, by the third episode the Doctor is playing marriage counselor to the royal couple in a particularly amusing scene. There are also the Duchess’s parents, Lord (Tim Bentinck) and Lady (Richenda Carey) Crozion – Lord Crozion is a warmongering gambling addict while his wife is mostly put-upon and irritated by him. “Kingdom of Lies” is a fun listen for the first three episodes, as the authors slowly introduce more and more about these absurd characters and blend the TARDIS crew and their cover stories in perfectly.
The problem comes in the fourth episode, when the mysterious assassin known as The Scorpion (Patsy Kensit) shows up. At this point, the story loses its absurdist bent and shifts into a very traditional, predictable corridor runaround. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but the tone of the final episode is all over the place, and that sinks it. Kensit’s performance is dead serious, but her lines aren’t: when she says “Goodbye, losers!” without even a hint of irony, it just sounds confusing. There’s also a moment at the end of the story where the Doctor is presented with a seemingly impossible choice. This, again, is played with the utmost seriousness: suddenly the companions are tearfully begging the Doctor not to become a murderer, and so forth. It’s wildly out of place with the rest of the story, and even on its own terms it’s not convincing: we know Big Finish isn’t suddenly going to break the mold and show the Doctor killing in cold blood. It’s confusing and unsettling, neither of which are appropriate feelings given the rest of the story.
Overall, though, “Kingdom of Lies” is entertaining. The first three episodes are quite good, the regular cast gets a lot to do and they’re all on top form, and the guest cast has a lot of fun with the material. Barnaby Edwards has always been one of Big Finish’s best directors and his work here upholds that standard, while the sound design from Martin Montague and the music from Andy Hardwick match the story expertly. It’s just unfortunate that the final episode is such a confused, disjointed letdown – but that’s not a reason to sink the story’s score entirely.
Recommended, with reservations.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE GREAT WHITE HURRICANE
While I enjoyed “The Destination Wars,” the first story in this box set, I recognized some potential problems that could cause issues with less sophisticated scripts. Unfortunately, such a script is here, “The Great White Hurricane” by Guy Adams, which leaps from the heights of its predecessor and crashes in a massive pile of burning wreckage.
I do not understand the desire to adhere so closely to the stylistic choices of the early 1960s in this set. While it worked in the first story, largely due to interesting inclusions like the Master and some high-concept science fiction, here the new range leaps head-first into the historical genre. There hasn’t been a “pure historical” in the TV series since 1982, despite countless stories set in the past since then, and producer after producer has explained why: it’s just more interesting to add science fiction elements. Big Finish has carried the historical torch, however, and they’ve often been successful. But their best historicals usually involve famous historical figures or challenging, dramatic parts of history; here, in “The Great White Hurricane,” the threat is… a snowstorm. A terrible snowstorm, to be sure, and one that led to hundreds of deaths of people trapped by the snowfall, but still a simple weather event. Lest you think I’m underplaying it, basically every character spends the final two episodes outside in the storm and nobody apart from Susan suffers any ill effects. Heck, Ian suffers a “severe concussion” at the start of the story, and then wanders around in the snowstorm with only an occasional bout of nausea to hold him back. In other words, the only serious source of drama in the story isn’t taken at all seriously by the story itself, and that’s a problem.
The performances are another significant problem. The story is set in New York, which means it’s time for Big Finish American accents. I have no idea how many of the performers are American, but they are once again working from the idea that everyone that lives in New York talks like they just got off the set of Newsies. There is one immigrant, Rosalita (Carolina Valdes), who is probably Puerto Rican or Dominican based on the historical period, but everyone else speaks in broad “New Yawk” tones. This was a heavy period of immigration, especially in New York, and we should be hearing Irish or German or Italian accents, not just hearing occasional last names reminiscent of those countries. Instead, it’s a caricature of reality. And then there’s the main cast: while Jamie Glover gets away with it, even though he sounds just like Tim Treloar’s Jon Pertwee impression, Jemma Powell and Claudia Grant spend so much effort trying to speak with perfect diction that they fail to make their characters sympathetic or even listenable. Barbara comes across as a know-it-all while Susan sounds like a breathy caricature of royalty.
Even the various plot strands are wholly uninteresting. Susan is captured at the beginning by a dangerous gang member – except he’s really a relatively innocent young person, on the run from a crime he didn’t commit. The Doctor teams up with the kid’s older brother to find him. The scenes between the Doctor and the brother are the best in the story, underplayed beautifully by David Bradley, but they are few and far between. By the end, the Doctor has convinced the rival gangs – brutal and murderous in real life – to put their differences aside and work for the betterment of their society, with all the subtlety of a grade school morality play. Worst of all is the plot involving Ian and Barbara. While Ian recovers from his concussion, they meet Rosalita in the hospital, and she makes references to her alcoholic ex-husband and her young child. When they leave, gasp! The ex has taken her son away, and is fleeing on a train! But the train is bogged down in the snow and is stuck on the elevated tracks! However will the people get down? Oh look, a man with a ladder! But he’s a jerk who demands payment up front! Then Ian shames him into cooperating with his words, and then Rosalita shames her husband into giving her son back with her words. If the Doctor’s material was grade school level, this is barely out of kindergarten.
So, what did I like about “The Great White Hurricane?” Well, the production, once again from director Nicholas Briggs and sound designer Howard Carter, is fine. David Bradley and Jamie Glover are great, and the Doctor gets some wonderful little scenes. But apart from that, there’s nothing here to appreciate. The story is so fixated on slavishly recreating early 1960s television that it forgets to be entertaining, the actors are more concerned with nailing their accents than actually performing, the accents themselves are largely silly and distracting, and the story is so boring and childish it stands as a very good argument against doing historical stories in the future. This is one of my least favorite Big Finish releases in quite some time; it’s a shocking waste of the opportunities afforded by this new concept and it’s almost completely devoid of entertainment value.
Stay far, far away.
THE FIRST DOCTOR ADVENTURES: THE DESTINATION WARS
The inexorable progression of time inevitably means that fewer and fewer actors from the classic series of Doctor Who will be available to record new material for Big Finish, and that has left the company in a dilemma over the years: how do they continue to tell stories from those eras? First came the Companion Chronicles, which circumvented the absence of the first three Doctors by having their companions tell stories of adventures to the audience. Next, Big Finish turned to impressions, first through original actors like Peter Purves and Frazer Hines and later through new actors like Elliot Chapman and Tim Treloar. Finally, with the release of “The First Doctor Adventures,” they’ve crossed the final boundary: recasting old roles with new interpretations, not impressions.
I’ll talk about this a bit more in my review of the second story, but rather than conducting their own casting search, Big Finish hired the four actors who played the original cast in “An Adventure in Space and Time:” David Bradley as the Doctor, Claudia Grant as Susan, Jemma Powell as Barbara, and Jamie Glover as Ian. It’s an interesting decision, given that the companion actors barely appear in that film and that they weren’t cast for their abilities to play the companion characters – but at least David Bradley has since become the third actor to portray the first Doctor on television. Generally, though, the casting is successful, especially Bradley and Glover. If I have one complaint about Bradley it’s that he makes the Richard Hurndall mistake of assuming Hartnell was grumpy and irritable all the time and losing the first Doctor’s endearing sense of humor – but nonetheless it’s a good take on the character.
I’ll also come back to this in the next review, but there’s a conscious decision here to recreate 1960s television as closely as possible and I don’t like it. There’s no reason for every episode to be 25 minutes long and end in a cliffhanger, there’s no reason for everyone to use perfect received pronunciation, and there’s no reason to deliver the stories at the theatrical, often glacial pace of their predecessors. If you’re going to recast the roles to this extent, blow the whole thing up, don’t force a square peg into a round hole.
Fortunately, Matt Fitton’s script for “The Destination Wars” is very good, and papers over some of the difficulties inherent in the format. I love little details like Ian and Barbara hearing that it’s “Space Year 2003” and just assuming they’re 40 years in their own future while the Doctor and Susan look on with amusement. I love that they’re unafraid to use the Master in a story set in this era, and to drop more hints about his relationship with the Doctor back on Gallifrey, and indeed make suggestions about why he took the title of Master in the first place. I love James Dreyfus in the role, classically villainous in the Roger Delgado sense, with a deep, eerily soothing voice. I love the simplicity of his plan: seed the ideas for new technology, then time travel into the future and reap the benefits, and repeat until he can fix his TARDIS. I also love how that plan allows us to see the people of Destination at different points in their lives, like a spin on the central plot device of “The Ark.” It’s one of the better scripts Fitton has produced, and it’s a strong debut for this range. The production, with director Nicholas Briggs and sound designer Howard Carter, is also quite strong. Overall, “The Destination Wars” overcomes some self-inflicted limitations by asking some interesting questions and showing us brand new sides of beloved characters. If everything in this range was like “The Destination Wars,” I’d be thrilled even in spite of my concerns.
THE WAR MASTER: THE HEAVENLY PARADIGM
And so the War Master box set comes to a close with “The Heavenly Paradigm” by Guy Adams, a story that both ties together the set and links it directly with the TV show – and struggles to maintain coherency as a result. The Master’s plan is as convoluted as you’d expect: there’s a hidden Time Lord weapon on Earth that, when activated, will end the Time War by rewriting the Daleks’ history to make them nice. But the weapon requires an unrealistically high amount of paradox energy to power up, so the Time Lords never used it. The Master saves Cole Jarnish from certain death, creating a paradox, and then lets him save an entire planet that should have been destroyed, creating an exponentially larger one. He then plugs Cole into the machine, and uses his paradox energy to start up the machine and attempt to end the Time War. On television, the hints at the Master’s past in the Time War were quite interesting. He fought on the front lines, he saw something indescribably horrible when the Dalek Emperor took control of the Cruciform, and he fled and went into hiding rather than continuing to fight. “The Heavenly Paradigm” essentially rewrites these ideas and does so for the worse. As we’ve seen in this set, the Master isn’t really fighting in the War, he’s working at the periphery. This story shows us the Cruciform incident – which the Master watches via remote as the Heavenly Paradigm backfires. And we see his decision to flee and use a Chameleon Arch, which is not a panicked, cowardly decision but rather a calculated one driven by fatigue. All of this is in character for the Master, of course, but the TV show strongly implied the Time War changed him, whereas even at the end of this set he’s basically the same he’s always been. It’s also awkwardly written, as the ending feels more like clearing the decks to get us into “Utopia” than it does a fitting conclusion to the box set. In many ways, this set is as much of a letdown as the War Doctor sets, and yet again proves Russell T. Davies right – we shouldn’t have told Time War stories in the first place.
THE WAR MASTER: THE SKY MAN
The third story, “The Sky Man” by James Goss, is the best of the four. It’s also the one that least involves the Master, which doesn’t speak well of the box set. Cole Jarnish, appalled by the effects of the Time War, demands from the Master the opportunity to save an otherwise-doomed world. After some negotiation, they land on a planet that has abandoned advanced technology in an attempt to avoid the attention of the Time War. The Master retreats to start a vineyard and Cole is left to help the people. What follows is a fairly basic story of this type: initially mistrustful, the people learn to accept Cole as he repairs things and improves their way of life. But when the Time War comes, in the form of temporal fallout that acts much like nuclear fallout, they turn on him even as their society crumbles. Jonny Green is fantastic in this: he always seems to be a step behind, and the increasing desperation in his actions comes across convincingly in his performance. The end of the story is shocking: in a final gamble to save the people, he locks them in support suits that they can never remove and even includes emotional suppressors to stop them panicking. As a result, the people decide coldly to seek out those who damaged their planet and destroy them. It’s the Cybermen, in other words. It has apparently been said they’re not supposed to be Cybermen, but Doctor Who has lately embraced the idea that “Cybermen” tend to evolve wherever technology outpaces morality, and “The Sky Man” is a perfect example of this. I mentioned in my previous review that I don’t like how this set sidelines the Master, and that definitely happens here, as he spends the entire story tending to a vineyard. His insistence upon drinking the wine at the conclusion is sinister, and it illustrates his manipulative, goal-oriented mind, but this feels like a story that should be told later, after the character has been established. Nonetheless, “The Sky Man” is a very strong, emotional story and easily the best in the box.
THE WAR MASTER: THE GOOD MASTER
The second story, “The Good Master” by Janine H. Jones, is an improvement on the first simply because it’s not quite so predictable and clichéd. It also asks interesting questions about the Master: is he capable of good deeds? Is he capable of altruism? In this story, he’s working on the planet Arcking as a doctor, healing Time War refugees while waiting out a plan to take command of the mysterious force that keeps the planet from harm. Here, he meets med-tech Cole Jarnish (Jonny Green), who becomes his de facto companion for the remainder of the box set. Since the Master is a genius, it’s no surprise that he’s a capable physician – but he actually appears to exhibit compassion toward his patients, even if inside he’s always planning his next move. Unfortunately, the story’s approach to this material isn’t very clear: I have no problem with ambiguity, but I’m genuinely unsure if the Master is supposed to be showing a softer side. I also don’t like the storytelling devices we’re seeing in each story: first, the Master pretends to be the Doctor; second, he pretends to be a doctor; third, he removes himself entirely from the action. I’ll get to that more in my next review, but this is the only time we’ve seen the Jacobi Master outside of five minutes at the end of “Utopia” – shouldn’t we have more of him at center stage, not in disguise or on the sidelines? Still, this is a solid story that makes me want to learn more about this Master, even if those answers never come.
THE WAR MASTER: BENEATH THE VISCOID
We learned on television that the Master fought in the Time War, so it’s no surprise that Big Finish wanted to explore this time period under their new series license – but it was quite a coup for them to secure the participation of Derek Jacobi, who returns to the role he made so memorable in mere minutes of screen time. Naturally, when it was time to select the author to lead off the range and set the tone, they chose… oh lord, really? Yes, it’s Nicholas Briggs, and he provides exactly the same Dalek war story he’s been telling for over a decade now. This time, the Daleks have invaded the ocean planet Gardezza, and they have chased the inhabitants under the water (the Viscoid), where they now lead a resistance against the Daleks. You know how this story goes by now, so I won’t elaborate. The unique factor is the Master, recovered from the ocean in an escape capsule – and he immediately claims to be the Doctor. Due to the raging Time War, Nius (Jacqueline King) and her people know the Doctor by reputation, and immediately grant the Master access to their technology. Through flashback, Briggs recounts how the Master was captured by the Daleks and offered to give them his TARDIS in exchange for his life. So he’s on Gardezza searching for it – but of course he’s working to his own agenda, trying to betray the Daleks and regain his freedom. It’s an odd decision to introduce this character by having him pretend to be someone else, but it does allow the story to underscore the differences between the Doctor and the Master: namely, that the Master’s first priority is always and forever himself. There’s nothing surprising or particularly exciting about “Beneath the Viscoid” – the “twist” at the end is a welcome dose of brutality but it’s hardly something you won’t see coming. And the end of the story leads into a Gallifrey box set that isn’t out yet. Still, Jacobi is great, and Briggs at the very least lays the groundwork for a new take on the Master.
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE WRECK OF THE WORLD
The final Early Adventure of 2017 is “The Wreck of the World,” by award-winning playwright Timothy X. Atack. The script is an interesting mix of elements: it features some of the best character work in the range and yet doesn’t do anything else particularly compelling.
I understand that the classic series framing means that Big Finish can’t push the boat out too far when it comes to established characters, but too often they go in the opposite direction, relentlessly refusing to say anything interesting, especially outside of the Companion Chronicles. This is not the case here, specifically when it comes to Zoe: Atack is one of the only authors (Simon Guerrier also among them) to directly engage with her history on the Wheel, specifically the “programming” she experienced after being separated from her family. The story introduces us to Twenty (Adam Newington), a human subject to the same training – and we watch as he builds a rapid bond with Zoe, their similarity drawing them together. Perhaps most significant is the moment Zoe describes learning to cry, something that nicely reinforces just how different she is to a “normal” human. Yet we also see how much her TARDIS travels have humanized her, as she stands in contrast to Twenty’s more mechanical view of the world. (There’s also an actual robot wandering around, showing the most distant end of the spectrum.) Wendy Padbury gives a very strong performance – like in her Companion Chronicles, she’s clearly energized by the opportunity to do more than the usual precocious genius routine.
There’s also an interesting relationship for Jamie with Porthintus (Don McCorkindale), a holy warrior who communicates almost entirely through violence yet reveals hidden depths with each conversation. By the time he reveals that he knows the TARDIS crew are time travelers, and that he even knows what happened at Culloden, you want to learn more about him – so of course that’s when he sacrifices himself and is never mentioned again. Jamie then spends the rest of the story right back in his predictable behaviors. It’s disappointing, because there was room to flesh Jamie out just like Zoe.
The story itself is fairly generic. The TARDIS lands on a deserted ship, which turns out to be a lost colony ship that has been adrift for close to a million years. The first episodes are spent exploring, and encountering a salvage crew that has also discovered the ship – and then of course the colonists are resurrected as zombies, there’s an evil force powering it, a cult worshipping the force, and so on. It’s very traditional sci-fi horror material. Fortunately, Atack and the production team present this material in effective fashion: despite the immense size of the ship, events feel increasingly claustrophobic. There are also great performances from the supporting cast, especially Richenda Carey’s two-faced turn as Professor Blavatsky.
Overall, “The Wreck of the World” is a strong story, one of the strongest in the Early Adventures range. It’s worth hearing just for its treatment of Zoe, fleshing out a character with a ton of potential who has often been underserved. And it’s an effective, suspenseful horror story to boot. In spite of all that, it’s still pretty shallow, keeping it from the highest grades – but I’d recommend this to any Doctor Who fan.
From Graceless - Series 1on
GRACELESS: THE END
I suppose I’m just going to have to get used to Marek being a focal point of this series despite having done horrible, exploitative things to the main characters without a hint of apology. “The End” crystallizes a lot of what this series has been about, specifically judgment and consequences: how much do you judge people on their actions compared to their intent? Simon Guerrier writes Abby and Zara as generally good people: they have a strong idea of right and wrong, they have appealing personalities, they try not to offend, and so on. And yet, they have committed horrible atrocities, whether through mistake or corruption. Are they good people? Can they make up for the pain they have caused? Should they even try? All good questions, and all questions I’m hoping will be dealt with in future series.
And yet I keep coming back to Marek, despite the fact that the series is clearly asking the same questions about him. I think the big mistake here was making his crimes recognizable: I don’t know anyone that was killed when a space station blew up and took a hundred thousand lives, but I certainly do know people who have been the victims of sexual assault. And that’s not to say that anyone who commits a terrible act is automatically irredeemable: there are many examples of people who committed crimes, then turned their lives around and became productive members of society. The common factor in their redemption, however, is a clear recognition that their crimes were bad actions that hurt people and a desire for forgiveness. This is what we see from Abby and Zara, which is why I sympathize with them. But we don’t see that from Marek, so I don’t sympathize with him. And that wouldn’t be bad if the series portrayed him as an irredeemable jerk that the sisters are simply using for their own purposes, but it clearly wants us to root for him as part of this dysfunctional team. I don’t like it, at all, and unless it changes I’m going to keep taking points off.
Apart from that, “The End” gives us another difficult character in Kreekpolt (Michael Keating), a space pirate desperate to save his daughter’s life, even though she has suffered irreparably fatal burns. He will travel the length of time and space to find treatment for her, and will do whatever it takes to get it. Some of his actions are deeply immoral, but everything he does is driven by his love for his daughter and his inability to let go. When he is finally able to save her, he gives up his life for her without a moment’s hesitation. And so we come back to the same question: is he a villain? There’s no easy answer, but the story doesn’t take a side: it simply presents a vibrant, detailed character and lets the audience make up its own mind, and that’s great writing.
I’m looking forward to the second series of Graceless. I think Guerrier has created a fascinating group of characters and I’m eager to see where he takes them. I just wish something could be done with the one misguided character in the bunch.
From Graceless - Series 1on
GRACELESS: THE FOG
The contrast between “The Sphere” and “The Fog” couldn’t be greater. Gone is the wild frontier of the Sphere, with its fast pace and frank sexuality, and in comes the very Doctor Who-like country village of Compton in 1912. Instead of the morally questionable Marek, Abby and Zara are supported (after first being accused) by Daniel (David Warner), the local justice of the peace. He’s a quiet, thoughtful man, one who deeply understands the thought process of the mob and knows how to protect the falsely accused. He’s also deeply rational: the first thought that comes to his head when he sees the sisters’ clearly supernatural powers is “witchcraft” but he dismisses it in lieu of a better explanation. Unlike Marek’s sleazy opportunist, Daniel is more of a paternal, protective figure – and David Warner is great in everything so he sells the role completely.
The plot also seems more traditional at first. A mysterious, cold fog that prevents people from coming or going surrounds the village, and the people are slowly disappearing. Is a killer on the loose? Does a monster lurk in the fog? Are the two sisters responsible? The non-traditional revelation is “none of the above” – it’s not a creature or a force or anything like that, it’s merely the after-effect of a disastrous meteor strike that wiped out the village. And it seems as though Abby and Zara had nothing to do with it – they’re simply caught in the wake of the destruction, trying to solve a mystery that isn’t there and save people who can’t be saved. There’s a fatalism to this story, but it’s a kindly fatalism: the people vanish when they realize they’re already dead. In other words, accepting their fate allows them to cross over, and the story doesn’t engage with what, if anything, may be waiting on the other side. “The Fog” is more about seeing how characters react to a difficult situation than it is about the resolution, and it makes the sisters seem more and more like real people and not artificial creations. Much better than the opening act.
TORCHWOOD: ALIENS AMONG US: VOLUME TWO
I admit I wasn’t expecting the “fifth series” of Torchwood, Aliens Among Us, to be quite this effective. Yes, the characters were created under the aegis of Russell T. Davies, and yes, the writers and production staff involved are quite talented, and yes, the Big Finish monthly series is excellent – but despite all of that, this new series has easily surpassed all but one of its predecessors and has me quite excited to learn the final outcome early next year.
The first story in the set, “Love Rat” from Christopher Cooper, deals largely with a disease that makes its sufferers uncontrollably desire sex. We saw something similar to this in the TV series, but it’s handled more adeptly here – after a surprisingly graphic opening sex scene, we find Jack waking up in a morgue. From there, the Torchwood team has to work backwards to find out what happened, while Jack somehow manages to be even hornier than usual. This eventually leads to an unwise dalliance with Gwen – but then of course it’s not Gwen at all, it’s “Ng” possessing her body. We get a glimpse of Gwen’s internal monologue at that moment, and it’s predictably amusing – but I’m curious to see any potential fallout. We also look into Gwen’s home life with Rhys, and how he can’t seem to relate to her any longer – we know that it’s because she’s been possessed, but Rhys just thinks Torchwood has caused a permanent change that is slowly wrecking their marriage. The actual plot of this story is resolved rather quickly, but the character work more than makes up for it.
The second story, “A Kill to a View” by Mac Rogers, is probably the best. Colchester and his husband Colin have moved into a luxury apartment building with a horrifying secret: the residents can move into nicer units if they murder the current occupants. It’s a twist reminiscent of “Paradise Towers,” except here the caretaker isn’t Richard Briers, it’s Bilis Manger! Yes, he’s at it again, using the tower block as a conduit to open the Rift and allow something through that will remove Earth’s new alien inhabitants. Rogers executes these plot elements with a deft hand, but the real strength of the story is in its characters, Colchester in particular. Here we see three distinct layers to his character: the gruff exterior, the kind-hearted husband on the inside, and, deep down, the cold-blooded killer that emerges when his family is threatened. Paul Clayton is fantastic in this story, making Colchester possibly the most interesting member of the Torchwood team. I don’t know if Rogers has written anything else for Big Finish, but based on this they should be signing him on for the long term. Utterly magnificent.
The third story, “Zero Hour” by Janine H. Jones, offers a very Torchwood take on the modern gig economy. I was a bit confused by the opening, in which Tyler is smitten by Hasan (Sacha Dhawan), a deliverer – it makes a deliberate point that events are repeating themselves in identical fashion, then never mentions it again. Is this supposed to be a comment on mundanity or did they just edit out a plot thread? In any case, once the story gets going, we follow Tyler as he infiltrates Deliverables, an Uber-like service for package delivery. Employees pick up packages from a central distribution hub and follow precise directions to deliver them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Inefficiencies are punished either through docked pay or (because it’s Torchwood) through murder. Jones’ commentary is very smart: the employment opportunity provided by the service is challenged by the brutal working conditions and the utterly unforgiving supervision. I like the revelation about the true nature of the company, and I like how easily Tyler gets wrapped up in his work. It’s very much “what if Torchwood met Black Mirror” in all the best ways.
Lastly, there’s “The Empty Hand,” by Tim Foley. This is a very traditional whodunit – Andy Davidson is confronted with seemingly incontrovertible proof that he murdered a refugee in cold blood, but has absolutely no memory of even meeting the victim, never mind murdering him. What follows is an in-depth look into Andy’s mind – Gwen tries desperately to exonerate him, Rhys keeps an eye on him, and Jack works toward his own goals in the background. Unfortunately, this story isn’t as deep or interesting as some of the others – yes, we learn that there’s a dark side to Andy, but it’s not all that dark, and the resolution to the whodunit is very straightforward. It’s not that Andy is a two-dimensional character, it’s just that this story doesn’t give him much shade, which is a shame given all the attention focused on him. More interesting is the conflict between Jack and the rest of Torchwood – he’s pursuing his own agenda, they don’t really trust him, and he’s audibly sick of being the one in charge. The cliffhanger that follows is stunning, and hopefully the resolution will remain free of gimmickry.
Scott Handcock directs all four episodes, with the sound design coming from Steve Foxon and the music from Blair Mowat and Steve Wright. Volume 2 is a significant step up from Volume 1, which was very good in its own right. I’ve raved about Big Finish’s Torchwood stories since they started, and if “Aliens Among Us” can stick the landing, it might establish itself as the best of the lot. This is excellent audio drama and well worth hearing.
From Graceless - Series 1on
GRACELESS: THE SPHERE
I admit my first reaction to Amy and Zara in the Key 2 Time series from Big Finish was not “gosh, I wish they had their own spinoff” – but on reflection, it makes sense. Two women with supernatural abilities, constrained only by their own understanding, with malleable personalities that imprint their surroundings on their moral compasses? Yes, that can definitely work. And Simon Guerrier writing it? Sign me up.
There’s a lot to like about “The Sphere,” the first story in the series. I enjoy the idea of the Sphere itself: a “private satellite complex” that is constantly building outward in an infinite expansion of hotels, casinos, and red light districts. At its center, it is the most corrupt; at the outside, only a thin floor separates you from the vacuum of space beyond. It’s a metaphor for how it shapes Abby (not Amy anymore for many reasons) and Zara: a corrupt moral core constantly building new outward appendages, with the sisters trying to escape into a neater, cleaner place. And while the story plays off the roles the sisters took in the Doctor Who range, it immediately undercuts them: “The Sphere” is all about Abby being corrupted, falling victim to her surroundings the same way her sister did. This is smart, effective writing.
Unfortunately, it’s also problematic. Here we have a science fiction series with two compelling female leads, so what do we do in the very first episode? Make one of them pregnant, of course! I rolled my eyes so far back they almost got stuck. And the sexual messaging here is deeply misguided. Zara arrives on the Sphere first, and with no money or belongings to her name, she takes up with Marek (Fraser James), who offers her lodging in exchange for sex. She agrees. Later, when Abby arrives, Marek offers her the same proposition, and only some quick thinking avoids the same outcome. If it stopped there, it would be fine – but instead, Zara ends up falling in love with Marek and having his child, while Abby comes to regret avoiding his advances and goes back to have sex with him. Then Zara makes a comment about his “talents” and… ugh. I understand what’s happening here: Guerrier is trying to show how the influence of the Sphere is changing how the sisters think. Abby, for example, initially repulsed by Marek’s advances, starts to find him attractive even as she thinks less and less of the people of the Sphere in general. But that still leaves you with the image of two women developing feelings for an unapologetic rapist, and that means something, even if those women are really pan-dimensional alien creations. The way the story tries to soften Marek really doesn’t sit well in light of this, either.
All that being said, I want to hear more. “The Sphere” is a fine opening episode that clearly establishes our two main characters while Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington turn in excellent performances. I also like that this series will be unafraid to deal with mature topics and themes – it’s very refreshing to hear something Doctor Who-related that isn’t called Torchwood acknowledge that sex is a real thing that people do with each other. I just wish they hadn’t gone to the sex and pregnancy wells in the first episode.
Deeply flawed but I’m very curious to continue.
From 233 - Staticon
It’s refreshing to have a monthly range trilogy be good from start to finish, and that’s what we get as this trilogy wraps up with “Static” by Jonathan Morris, a strong, atmospheric tale that tries to spook the listener and occasionally succeeds. A couple of significant flaws keep it from the highest level of Big Finish, but it’s well worth hearing.
The Doctor, Constance, and Flip land near a caravan park in the middle of nowhere in 1980s England, near a place called Abbey Marston. (Is Morris a Red Dead Redemption fan?) A young couple, Joanna (Pippa Nixon) and Andy (Scott Chambers), along with caretaker Percy (David Graham), are the only people staying there, trying to save their relationship from the traumatic death of Joanna’s sister Susannah (Jo Woodcock). It turns out that the area around Abbey Marston is unique in one particular way: strong, powerful memories of the dead can temporarily bring them back to life, emerging from a dense fog. There’s not much to say about the plot, although the trip back to WWII is both an effective use of time travel and Constance’s background, but there are some significant character beats that merit discussion.
The process through which the dead return is exploited by a race called the Static, and while it’s far too complex to explain here, it ends with the Static inhabiting duplicate bodies of the dead. Naturally, they’re evil and must be stopped, etc., but prior to that, when the Doctor thinks they are inhabiting the actual bodies of the dead, he is absolutely appalled. Let the dead rest in peace, and so on – which is exactly the opposite position from his ninth incarnation in “The Unquiet Dead.” There, he’s furious that Rose would even suggest it’s a bad idea – at least until he discovers those aliens are also evil and want to take over the world. I know it’s too abstract a connection to flesh out directly, but wouldn’t it be great if we got some Time War stories about the Doctor’s shifting moral priorities? I live in hope.
More significant is the Doctor’s decision to command the younger Percy to abandon his life to that point and serve as caretaker of the resurrection zone. Since the Doctor experiences events in reverse order, it fits what he knows to be true, but it’s an uncommonly callous decision. His companions even point this out, but when Percy (naturally) perishes heroically, the Doctor reveals that some of Percy’s last thoughts offered thanks. This is an incredible cop-out by Morris: Percy spends much of the story visibly unhappy about his situation, and having him come to a totally unearned catharsis seems to be nothing more than a way to prove that the Doctor was right all along. Why not a story in which the Doctor makes a difficult decision that saves the day but earns lifelong anger from and is never forgiven by the object of that decision? Why not then show the Doctor struggling with this? I know Morris is more than talented enough to write that story, after all. Or is it down to Colin Baker himself, who seems content to play his Doctor as a cuddly old grandfather who no longer has any challenging or difficult facets to his personality?
And while there was no time to explore it in this story, here we see a massive, irreversible change to Constance, as she exits the story in a “sham” body, having died in a fire before being resurrected. Going forward, she should be dealing with severe trauma and even an identity crisis. Will future stories with this crew fully embrace and explore the fallout of this story? Or will it be largely ignored? Sadly, I fear the latter.
Let me be clear, though: “Static” is a very good Doctor Who story. Director Jamie Anderson, along with sound designers Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian, has produced an incredibly atmospheric, spooky tale. The acting is strong across the board, particularly from Lisa Greenwood, who gives one of her best-ever performances as Flip. This is helped by Morris respecting the character, of course; it’s always refreshing when the writers don’t treat Flip like a complete fool. The ad copy is just comically over the top, so don’t trust it when it says ludicrous things like “Static” being on the same level as “The Chimes of Midnight” – but don’t let that deter you, as this is definitely worth hearing.
Since this current range of UNIT stories began, it has been marked by a lack of ambition. Generic action movie plots coupled with a regular cast of characters seemingly allergic to anything resembling development have caused the range to remain entertaining yet largely uninteresting, the third box set excepted. But at least the scope has been wide: each set has told a single story, spread out over multiple episodes. The most recent set, “Encounters,” throws that format out in favor of four individual hour-long stories, and the change does nothing to improve the quality of the stories.
There is a brief common thread running through the stories, that of a secret group called the Auctioneers dealing in black market exchanges of alien specimens and technology. But that’s just a backdrop – we learn that they exist and we learn what they do, but if they’re ever dealt with it’ll be in a future set. Instead, we start with “The Dalek Transaction” by Matt Fitton, in which a Central American guerrilla group captures a severely weakened Dalek and attempts to sell it to these Auctioneers to fund their rebellions. The UNIT crew goes undercover as rival buyers in an attempt to secure the Dalek, but naturally things go wrong, the Dalek escapes, and a desperate struggle begins to recapture or kill it before it kills everyone. There’s really nothing new on display here – Nicholas Briggs gives a particularly strong performance as the Dalek, and it’s interesting to see how dangerous a Dalek can be even when separated from its shell, but for the most part this is a runaround in a slightly different setting. Fortunately, they found someone of Hispanic descent in Karina Fernandez to play guerrilla leader Captain Gonsalves; unfortunately, her accent is, shall we say, distracting.
The second story, “Invocation” by Roy Gill, is the best of the four. It’s a haunted house story that actually fleshes out Kate’s character and manages to be convincingly spooky in the process. Of course, there’s a rational explanation for the supernatural events, but it’s nice to see this range depart from the military framework and tell a new kind of story. Jemma Redgrave gets to act, too – both here and the final story demonstrate that her flat performance is a deliberate choice, here because her fearful acting is both convincing and a surprising departure from how we know Kate. I would love an entire set full of stories like this instead of the return of Axos or whatever.
I enjoyed “The Sontaran Project” from Andrew Smith, largely because the Sontarans consistently remain interesting. While the Ice Warriors are largely honor-bound sci-fi clichés, the Sontarans’ single-minded, absolute focus on war can make them fascinating characters. In this story, after a lone Sontaran scout is captured by the Auctioneers, his battle group comes looking for him. But rather than deciding to destroy the Earth or kill all humans, Marshal Skar (Dan Starkey) just wants to discover what happened to his missing soldier. It takes a bit of argument, but Shindi quickly talks the Sontarans down, and they work together to discover the missing Commander Merx (Starkey). It’s a well-executed war story that uses the Sontarans well – I just wish there was more meat to it, as “find the Sontaran” describes basically the entirety of the story. We get a bit of insight into the Auctioneers, as well as exposure to their Overseer (Matthew Cottle), at least. Still, this is very entertaining, and a good showcase for Ramon Tikaram.
The final story, “False Negative” by John Dorney, starts off in shocking fashion: Josh and Osgood are sleeping together and they have Sam Bishop tied up in a closet! So of course, we find out we’re in a parallel universe, because the status quo can never, ever change. Dorney presents a farcical runaround: Josh and Osgood have accidentally traveled into a parallel universe, possibly but not necessarily the one from “Inferno,” and they must avoid running into themselves as they try to find a way home. Everyone is different in this universe: Kate is incompetent, Shindi is belligerent and sadistic, Josh is awkward and indecisive, and Osgood is cold and cruel. Oh, and Sam is dead. See, they couldn’t get Warren Brown in for this set, so Sam Bishop is off on assignment or something. It’s probably telling that at no point over any of the four episodes did I find myself missing his character or indeed even noticing that he wasn’t around. Anyway, the best parallel universe stories are used to teach us about our own world and to learn more about the characters we know through their funhouse mirror reflections. But “False Negative” doesn’t do that; it’s more lighthearted and silly than anything else. It’s entertaining for what it is, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
That’s how I feel about UNIT: Encounters as a whole: it’s another missed opportunity. Every story starts and ends with the status quo, just like every story in the range before this. The lone significant character change in the entire UNIT range – Josh’s plastic skeleton – is mentioned I think once in the first story and never again. Modern drama doesn’t work this way anymore, but the only Doctor Who-related place Big Finish is even trying to do anything different is in the Torchwood range. The next set is supposed to feature Cybermen and the War Master – well that’s cool, but is anything interesting going to happen along the way? As of right now, my guess is “no.”
I’m not sure there’s a Doctor Who recurring alien race less interesting than the Ice Warriors. Ever since the New Adventures fleshed out their culture into a Klingon analogue, stories featuring the Ice Warriors have almost exclusively involved lots of stomping, wheezing conversations, and last-minute appeals to a deeply-held sense of honor. Such is the case with “Cold Vengeance” by Matt Fitton, a boring story that lets the entire box set down and closes it on an uninspiring note.
Fitton is trying so hard to emulate Russell T. Davies in this story that the cracks start to show. The alien menace isn’t entirely unsympathetic, one of the main guest characters is a young working-class woman, there’s family dynamics at play, social commentary, and comic relief mixed in. It feels weird to be saying this about the “new” era of Doctor Who, but we’ve seen all of this before and none of it feels new. And it doesn’t even attempt to do something different with the Ice Warriors: they’ve been woken up after generations spent in hibernation, and now they’re ready to take revenge on humanity! What, again? As the story progresses, we learn that Lord Hasskor (Nicholas Briggs) has a legitimate reason to be angry with humanity, but as usual with these stories it’s hard to feel any sympathy with someone whose first solution is genocide. And the ending is quite stupid: “Rrrgh! I will destroy all humans!” cries the Ice Lord, but then the working class human woman says “Wait, did you know there are Ice Warriors living on our planet?” and the Ice Lord says “I did not, the attack is off!” The other characters do ask why she waited until the end of a 45-minute episode to reveal this utterly crucial information, and the response is that nobody let her get a word in edgewise, which would be a good answer if it was even remotely true! To allow a character to have story-ending information for the entire running time requires a very capable script, and “Cold Vengeance” is not that.
The set starts strongly, proceeds to an entertaining runaround, and then crashes and burns with this. It’s disappointing, but five out of six good stories for David Tennant is still a good hit rate. Tennant is delightful, diving back into the role and happily devouring the scenery. Billie Piper, on the other hand, starts off sounding distinctly uncomfortable, and she never really manages to recapture Rose’s voice. But her lines are distinctly Rose, and as the stories continue and her confidence increases she ultimately vanishes back into the role. Just be ready for the occasional moment where it sounds like Piper is recording in a completely different location from everyone else and has no idea what she’s doing.
Overall, “Cold Vengeance” isn’t good. Fortunately, the box set is still worth getting, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the Tennant era.
THE SWORD OF THE CHEVALIER
I’m impressed with Big Finish’s work to keep these Tenth Doctor Adventures as true to the era as possible, and “The Sword of the Chevalier” from Guy Adams comes through in spades in that department. This is a classic Russell T. Davies-era celebrity historical, in which the Doctor and Rose become involved with a historical figure just in time to fight off an alien menace. The historical figure in this case is the Chevalier d’Éon (Nickolas Grace), a French diplomat and spy living in exile in London. D’Éon presented as male and female at different points in a very long life (during this story she presents as female) and her story is fascinating – a person whose gender identity was important in an era when “gender identity” wasn’t even a concept. Grace’s performance in the role is utterly fantastic, mixing bravado and sensitivity in a realistic manner.
In keeping with the show’s generally mature outlook on issues of gender and sexuality, “The Sword of the Chevalier” doesn’t engage with the central “mystery” that surrounded d’Éon at the time. Rose questions it briefly, and the Doctor rightly points out that d’Éon is presenting as female and living her own truth, unbound by the opinions of outsiders. With that out of the way, we embark on a swashbuckling tale of the Doctor and friends battling alien slavers. While there’s a dark, interesting concept at the heart of the slavers – a collective self with one member dead – it’s not explored to any great extent. In fact, the plot is quite thin, and the resolution is the sort of thing that would have seemed audacious at the time but now feels overused, especially after the Moffat era. Adams represents d’Éon as a fascinating character, but she’s the heart of the piece – the remaining supporting cast is thinly sketched. The Doctor and Rose are straight out of the middle of season 2, and Tennant and Piper are clearly doing their best to get back there, but as with “Infamy of the Zaross” they’re very static and we learn nothing about either one. “The Sword of the Chevalier” is an entertaining, fast-paced story with a great guest role, but it’s paper-thin and doesn’t have much of anything else to offer. But it’s good enough that it’s well worth hearing.
INFAMY OF THE ZAROSS
The first set of Tenth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish was a roaring success, reuniting David Tennant and Catherine Tate in three stories that culminated in a masterpiece. Volume 2 is finally here, and it reunites another of the series’ most beloved pairings: Tennant and Billie Piper. Yes, it’s the tenth Doctor and Rose, back together again to travel the universe battling the forces of evil – and, naturally, the first story returns them to contemporary Earth.
“Infamy of the Zaross,” by John Dorney, is a smart story that comes the closest to recapturing the feel of the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era. Jackie Tyler witnesses the start of what appears to be an alien invasion, so she places an emergency call to her daughter and the TARDIS arrives shortly thereafter. (Or rather, in a clever bit of plotting from Dorney, it’s been there the whole time, and the Doctor has been waiting until after Jackie makes the call to reveal himself.) The story follows two parallel threads: the invasion itself and the relationship between Jackie’s friend Marge (Rosie Cavaliero) and her daughter Jess (Beth Lilly), and both threads are surprisingly layered.
The invasion seems unusual from the start: the initial landing is halted and started over so the alien leader can give a better reading of his speech. The pre-credits sequence basically ruins the surprise – it’s a staged invasion for a reality TV show – but watching the Doctor investigate and react to his findings is the essence of Doctor Who, and Tennant’s indignation at the casual disregard for human life is straight off the TV screen. I also enjoyed how Dorney gave the Zaross a chance at redemption without offering them absolution or presenting them as misunderstood – honest writing is almost always more valuable in that way. The other thread is RTD in every way: Marge has no respect for her daughter, and that lack of respect is self-reinforcing, as Jess has no desire to better herself because she’s internalized her mother’s criticism. When Rose appears, and takes the lead as a hero, Marge tries to use this as another example of Jess’s failures – but Rose intercedes and tells Jess she’s important, thus breaking the cycle. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t need to be: honest, raw human emotion like this was a hallmark of Doctor Who in this era, and it’s great to have it back.
Speaking of emotion, here we encounter the biggest problem with this story and indeed the set as a whole: there is absolutely no depth to the Doctor or Rose and absolutely nothing interesting happens to either one of them. On television, this era was always sure to include notable character moments in almost every episode, even if they weren’t tied to the plot. Here, the Doctor and Rose are cheerfully adventuring together with neither tension nor chemistry between them. It’s no coincidence that a horde of shippers embraced the Doctor and Rose as an item, but you’d never understand why if you listened to this story. For that matter, you’d never understand why anyone became romantically involved with anyone else – “Infamy of the Zaross” is as resolutely chaste as the classic series.
Overall, though, this story is a success, and a great way to start off the set. It’s smart, it’s relevant, it’s layered, and it feels like the soundtrack to a missing TV episode. I just wish it went for something a bit deeper.
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE MORTON LEGACY
The third release in the fourth series of Early Adventures is “The Morton Legacy” by Justin Richards, and like every other Justin Richards script in history, you should already know what to expect. There’s a workmanlike, competently structured plot, an accurate yet shallow capturing of the regular characters, and some sort of superficial revelation intended to make the story seem more surprising than it is. Hooray?
Perhaps most surprising about “The Morton Legacy” is just how threadbare the plot is. The Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie land in 1860s London, but their explanations are quickly soured when the TARDIS is stolen. They track it back to the estate of antiquarian Josiah Morton (David Sibley) where they are promptly embroiled in a murder mystery which they must solve to reclaim the TARDIS. We’ll start with the absolutely contrived way in which Richards keeps the crew stranded: though they know Morton just picked the TARDIS up off the street that same day, they decide not to tell him it’s theirs because, if they do, he’ll realize it has value and refuse to give it back. As the story progresses, we learn that Morton is an eminently reasonable and fair-minded person who almost certainly would have given the TARDIS back had they asked. But they didn’t, so the story lasts four episodes instead of four minutes.
This would be acceptable if the plot was interesting, but it isn’t. Morton is embroiled in a legal dispute over his collection of rare artifacts, but the litigants are being murdered one by one. The police accuse Morton of murder, leading to an awful “if he’s arrested, we’ll never get the TARDIS back!” cliffhanger that depends on the TARDIS crew being unable to breach a locked door – but the cliffhanger is easily resolved when the Doctor asks the police if they have any evidence whatsoever and they say no and leave. This is followed by some excruciatingly slow investigations involving a large gemstone that appears to have supernatural powers. The twist is a good one in theory: this is actually a pure historical! The Doctor’s suspicions are proven utterly wrong when it turns out the killer is a human being using human methods. This would be great if it was used to make a point about how the Doctor sometimes misses the obvious by immediately looking for alien involvement in even the simplest situations, but there’s no point here, it’s just a simple plot device. As a result, it makes the characters look stupid – not a single one of them even considered any other possibilities.
The characters are what you’d expect. Polly gets kidnapped, Ben gets in fights, Jamie falls in unrequited love with Morton’s daughter. The Doctor is oddly helpless – he doesn’t figure anything out until the end, when almost everyone is dead. The supporting characters are thinly sketched, engagingly performed but utterly predictable. The production is fine – Lisa Bowerman directs an engaging historical setting, while Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design is effective in spite of a somewhat intrusive score. Overall, there’s not much more to say about “The Morton Legacy.” It’s bland, inoffensive Doctor Who that’s more entertaining than watching paint dry for 2 hours. If that’s all you need, have at it, I guess.
From 232 - The Middleon
The second release in this year’s Colin Baker trilogy is “The Middle,” from Chris Chapman. It’s a great riff on Logan’s Run that addresses its central concept with honesty, provides incisive social commentary and only falls down slightly at the end. In other words, it’s the best Colin Baker story in a long time.
The Doctor, Constance, and Flip land in the underground colony of Formicia, looking to take some time off and celebrate Constance’s birthday. At first, it appears the population spends its time in leisure and luxury, with no responsibilities – until the crew notices that nobody in Formicia seems to have reached middle age. This is where we learn how this society is structured: from birth to age 35, you have no responsibilities. At age 35, you are taken away to the Middle, a giant tower at the heart of the colony where the important work of management is done. And lastly, when you reach age 70, you are sent into the military, where you fight in giant mechanical suits until you are either killed or die of old age. Chapman structures these revelations brilliantly: the entire first episode seems to be presenting the Logan’s Run scenario where people are executed on their 70th birthday. It’s only after the Doctor – who confuses the age-detecting machines, naturally – is put through the process that we discover the truth. And by centering the story around Constance’s 35th birthday, Chapman has an effective way to keep the crew apart, with each member in a different stage of the society.
As the story progresses, we learn more and more about Formicia. The military is there to keep the colony safe from outside invaders who seek to slaughter the population. It is stocked with elderly people through pragmatism: instead of sacrificing the young to the horrors of war, why not the old, who have already lived full lives and contributed to society? It also allows the Doctor to fight the system from within, though unfortunately this sounds almost identical to the eighth Doctor going through boot camp in the recent Time War box set. That’s not Chapman’s fault, of course, but it does feel like retreading old ground. But all of that pales before the revelations in the final episode, which frame the story in an entirely new light. I think this is the only significant flaw in “The Middle,” in that the revelation about Formicia is almost too huge to take entirely seriously – but I’m not one to fault a story for ambition. There are also plot-related nitpicks, if you’re interested in that sort of thing – but I’m not.
Chapman also does very well with the characterization. Colin Baker has seemed progressively neutered over the past few years, but this story allows him to summon up his moral indignation and rage against the horrors of an unjust society. Constance’s military background enables her to take to the Middle like a fish to water, and of course Flip fits in just fine in the lap of luxury. Chapman also writes a little friction between Constance and Flip, though it’s more like an older sibling rolling her eyes at her little sister than anything else. It’s a bit of a dangerous line to walk, since you don’t want to make Flip irritate the audience at the same time she irritates Constance, but Chapman basically pulls it off.
Jamie Anderson directs a relatively fast-paced story, while the sound design from Joe Meiners and the score from Jamie Robertson ably support the effort. Overall, “The Middle” is a very successful story. It presents a fascinating society and keeps the revelations coming at a pace that holds the listener in rapt attention. It nails the regular characters and shows a sympathetic guest cast at the same time. It’s well-produced, well-made, and well-acted. I wish that a story like this could be the norm in the monthly range instead of an outlier, because this was genuinely good.
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR: THE TIME WAR: VOLUME ONE
“The Eighth Doctor: The Time War” has been on the schedule for quite some time, but only recently was it announced as the first in an ongoing series. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is intended to replace the War Doctor series following the unfortunate passing of John Hurt. It shares many of the characteristics of that series, for better and for worse – there’s some fantastic material for Paul McGann, but its lack of imagination once again proves Russell T. Davies right about the Time War.
Over the course of four stories, the box set follows the adventures of the Doctor and a group of ordinary travelers whose lives are turned upside down and inside out by the Time War. The stories, written by John Dorney and Matt Fitton, follow a consistent through-line, but occasional moments of greatness are balanced by questionable decisions. The first story, Dorney’s “The Starship of Theseus,” is also the best. The title refers to the philosophical question of the Ship of Theseus: if every component part of a greater whole is replaced over time, is the result still the same object or a new creation? Dorney’s script applies this concept to a person’s life: what happens when a person’s history is rewritten? The script doesn’t really ask the “are they the same person?” question – though the starship is in fact called “Theseus” – but it puts the listener right in the heart of the matter in its treatment of the Doctor and his companion. When the story begins, the Doctor is traveling with a young woman named Sheena (Olivia Vinall). As the story continues, the Doctor addresses her by different names while his tales of how they met continue to shift. Finally, she vanishes from the play entirely and nobody remembers that she even existed. It’s a shockingly effective device, expertly seeded through the script and hitting like a ton of bricks. History is changing because the Theseus is caught in the fallout of the Time War, and even the ship itself changes from a luxury space-liner to a ship full of desperate refugees. Things get less interesting when the Daleks show up, but the story is rescued because it wholly embraces the utterly ludicrous conceit of space trolls living in hyperspace tunnels demanding tolls for passage.
If the rest of the stories followed suit, this would be an amazing set. Unfortunately, the set slowly shifts to telling more ordinary war stories. “Echoes of War” by Fitton is the second story, featuring the Doctor and the refugees from the first story traveling across a jungle planet in search of shelter. But a Dalek is trapped with them, and its damaged casing coupled with Time War fallout means it no longer has its memories. So the travelers must work with the Dalek without accidentally jogging its memory, lest it wake up completely and kill them all. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the recent Companion Chronicle “Across the Darkened City,” you’re right – it’s basically the same story. It retreads the “can a Dalek be good” ground, and the tension it creates is undercut somewhat by the fact that the travelers just have to avoid saying the word “Dalek.” The story is thrilling enough to be entertaining, but it’s crying out for more depth.
The low point is the third story, Fitton’s “The Conscript.” For some reason, they decided that the Time War needed a “new recruit” story, so the Doctor is forcibly conscripted into the Time Lord army. There’s a drill instructor, a sadistic underling, and every clichéd sequence you’ve seen since Full Metal Jacket killed the genre. Yes, there’s a bit where Time Lord recruits march while chanting to the “I don’t know but I’ve been told” cadence. The Doctor doesn’t want to cooperate, of course, but complies when the platoon is punished in his place. The end of the story makes a play for relevance, when we learn the essential hopelessness of the war, but it doesn’t make the preceding hour any more interesting. If you really want to see the Doctor go through boot camp, I guess this is the story for you – but why do we need to reduce the Time War once again to 20th century war clichés?
Fortunately, things pick back up at the end, with Dorney’s “One Life,” which attempts to tie the overarching plot up in a neat bow and largely succeeds. We spend the first story in pursuit of a Time Lord renegade we simply assume is the Doctor; here, both we and the Doctor learn that he was never the renegade in question. In fact, the renegade is potentially the way for the Time Lords to win the war: he has the ability to alter the course of history using nothing but his mind. Rather than use this awesome power to end the war, he goes into hiding, using a Chameleon Arch – so naturally we discover that he’s been in the story the whole time as one of the supporting characters. There’s some good characterization here – the renegade exhibits a ton of pathos as he tries to construct an ordinary life for himself, Ollistra cares only about ending the war as quickly as possible, and the Doctor positions himself furiously between them, understanding the desire to end the war but not wanting to force that viewpoint on another. The big flaw here is that the renegade is too powerful, and as such the story doesn’t provide a truly satisfying explanation of why he didn’t win the war. If he possessed a literal weapon, and didn’t want to carry it into battle, it would sit more easily – but as he can literally rewrite reality itself, that explanation doesn’t satisfy me. I understand the slippery slope argument and not wanting to act like a god, but ending the greatest and most destructive war in the history of existence is hardly something that necessarily leads to seeking universal domination on one’s own.
After Sheena is unceremoniously written out, we’re introduced to our actual new companion for this range: Bliss, played by Rakhee Thakrar. Unfortunately, she’s totally unmemorable. I kept waiting for her to set herself apart from her comrades and make it obvious why the Doctor wants her around, but no. Hopefully she’ll get some actual material to perform in future sets. Overall, The Eighth Doctor: The Time War, Series 1, is a mixed bag. When it’s blazing new trails into the Time War, it’s excellent; when it’s retreading old ground or regurgitating war clichés, it’s tedious. Thankfully, Paul McGann is excellent throughout. Furthermore, this is much better than any of the War Doctor sets. But yet again, I ask: was RTD right? Is it possible to dramatize the Time War? Or will every attempt fall frustratingly short? I suppose we’re going to find out.
From 4.2 - The Outlierson
THE EARLY ADVENTURES: THE OUTLIERS
The second of this year’s Early Adventures comes from Simon Guerrier, which is always a good sign. “The Outliers” brings the Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie to an underground mining town on an alien planet, and slowly builds the suspense into an interesting, if morally questionable finish.
I’ll start with the setting, which is fantastic. The TARDIS lands on a mining colony, which is so massive that it constructs housing in each excavated section to house additional workers and increase productivity. There’s no sky, just a massive rock ceiling far above, and everything exists in what must be a perpetual state of gloom. Deep in the colony, the streets of one of its towns are flooded, and the houses are empty. Naturally, there’s an alien creature abducting people, and just as naturally the Doctor and his companions are thought responsible for the disappearances. In this way, there’s very little that’s unexpected about the story – it’s much like “The Savages” or “The Sensorites,” where the humans turn out to be the bad guys and the alien outsiders turn out to be the victims.
There’s one particular twist that complicates matters, however. We discover that the alien creatures living in the water have been taking the human miners, and we also discover that they have been doing so because they feel threatened by the human intrusion onto their world. The mining technology, in fact, is quite capable of wiping them out entirely. But rather than capturing the humans and holding them captive, the aliens, in a desire to learn more about their “enemy,” have been dissecting (vivisecting?) them. The Doctor stumbles upon a room full of human body parts, organized into piles by type – and it’s implied that thousands of people have disappeared in this manner. Given that most of those that disappeared were, presumably, ordinary mine workers, it’s remarkably cold how quickly the story writes them off in the interests of sending everyone home happy. Neither the Doctor nor his companions seem particularly bothered by the slaughterhouse – I don’t mind stories where an evil villain gets his or her just desserts, but these are largely innocent victims. I don’t mind exploring this idea, either, but at least half of one episode should have given over to this moral debate if this was the direction they intended. Instead, it’s brushed aside as the story rushes through the denouement in typical Troughton-era fashion.
Of course, if there was a ton of incident in the story and there wasn’t room for such a debate, I’d understand – but this is one of the slowest-burning Big Finish stories in recent memory. And it works quite well: Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design skillfully uses silence to enhance the creepy nature of the script, while the moments of action spring out effectively at the listener. Guerrier’s characters, while drawn from archetypes, are hardly one-dimensional; even the “villain,” Richard Tipple (Alistair Petrie), is operating from conflicting and interesting motivations. This isn’t surprising, given that Guerrier remains one of the best writers in the Big Finish stable, but it’s always nice to hear stories like this set in an era that didn’t like to focus too much on its characters.
The regular cast is fantastic as well. Frazer Hines plays the Doctor, of course, as well as Jamie, and his Troughton impression is simply effortless by this point. Anneke Wills handles the bulk of the narration, which plays to her strengths, and Elliot Chapman continues to acquit himself as a superior Ben Jackson. Add in Lisa Bowerman’s fine direction and you’re looking at a very strong story. As above, the ending raises questions that were perhaps unintended, but that’s the only flaw in an otherwise intriguing script and excellent production.
From 231 - The Behemothon
Marc Platt’s “The Behemoth” gives us something we haven’t had in a while: a pure historical featuring Colin Baker. As you’d expect from this author, it’s a smart story that spends a great deal of time developing its environment. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly slow and features a surprisingly low amount of incident and character development.
“The Behemoth” is evidently based on a true story of a Dutch captain, Van Der Meer (Giles New), and his captive rhinoceros, Lady Clara. But it’s actually about different possessive relationships in 18th century England. Central among these relationships is Sir Geoffrey Balsam (Glynn Sweet), who owns a massive brassworks operated by slave labor. His sister, Mrs. Middlemint (Georgina Moon), has one of his slaves, Sarah (Diveen Henry), as a servant. While slavery provides “The Behemoth” with its most obvious social commentary, as well as the moral imperative for the Doctor and his companions to intervene, the script doesn’t examine it beyond the superficial level. It’s a very traditional tale of an oppressed people finally rising up and overthrowing their oppressors, but it shies away from showing any of the truly horrifying elements of the slave trade. I understand that there are probably content guidelines restricting Big Finish from showing things like that – and Platt isn’t a visceral writer in any case – but without that, the message is a fairly anodyne “slavery is bad.” Okay, cool.
The script’s exploration of the treatment of women is much subtler. Mrs. Middlemint is, on the surface, a clichéd portrayal of a vapid lady of means, but Platt includes interactions that demonstrate her capability and intelligence. Yet these qualities are being suppressed, largely by her brother, in the interest of protecting her from herself. This sort of paternalistic thinking is one of many ways that women were denied equal place in society, and Platt’s script illuminates this in a subtle, intelligent fashion. Mrs. Middlemint’s final victory is easily the most cathartic in the story as a result. Of course, there’s also Titus Craven (Liam McKenna) physically abducting Flip and dragging her off to become his wife – this is, shall we say, much less subtle. But while Craven viewing women as property isn’t that surprising, the way that most people automatically take his side is much more shocking.
This is the first full story to feature Constance and Flip together in the TARDIS. I made this comment in my review of “Quicksilver:” “If the next story with this TARDIS crew shows Constance and Flip laughing and carrying on like old friends, it will be a crushing disappointment.” Well, here we are in that next story, and sure enough, Constance and Flip are laughing and carrying on like old friends. “Quicksilver” was appealing in large part because of the differences between the two women, and how they had to learn to tolerate one another. To see that entirely abandoned in their first full story together is disappointing, but entirely expected from Big Finish. And it’s a shame, because they’ve been giving Lisa Greenwood much better writing since her return to the monthly range, a trend that continues in this story.
As far as the plot goes, there’s virtually nothing to discuss. The story’s pace is positively glacial, with very little happening episode-to-episode. Platt fleshes out a very believable setting and populates it with detailed characters, which helps a great deal, but the story isn’t deep enough and the regular characters aren’t served well. Jamie Anderson really captures the feel of the era from the director’s chair, and the sound design from Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian is quite believable. Overall, “The Behemoth” is a solid story, worth a listen – but is too flawed to become any more than that.
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.