Saturday, 27 June 2015

Mona Lisa’s Revenge written by Phil Ford and directed by Joss Agnew


This story in a nutshell: The Mona Lisa steps from her painting to claim her brother…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: ‘Seems like no-one wants you around, Sezza! Even your son…’ Wow, how much does Sarah Jane remind me of my mum during my teenage years when she comes down on Luke like a ton of bricks about his room. She’s a tad over the top about what is essentially a messy room but I can remember my mum having to tell me that she was disappointed in me (the ultimate weapon of mothers, that statement) because I refused to take responsibility of my own space (oh and I seem to recall the odd mouldy cup in there like Luke does too). It’s a nice reminder that Luke is growing up and getting a little out of control (as most teenagers do) and as a mother you can’t hold onto your precious little boy forever. This isn’t just enforced development for the sake of it, it’s a touch of foreboding for his departure from Sarah Jane’s daily life in The Nightmare Man (only two stories away). This makes his passing a little more natural and a little less sudden. Its unbelievable that a show in the CBBC schedule would feature a scene as touching as the one where Sarah Jane discusses the pain of losing her grip on her son. But then that is this shows raison detre, the ability to throw in genuinely adult (or should that be adolescent) issues whilst dealing with monsters from outer space. If Elisabeth Sladen is going to take a rest for a story than having her trapped in a painting is certainly more imaginative than her investigations into supernatural goings on at a nearby hospital (although the glimpses of that in Mark of the Berserker were fun).


Graphic Artist: Watch Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony in this story, especially in part one. Whilst Tommy Knight remains as likable as ever it is clear that the real acting talent in this team belongs to Rani and Clyde and there is a real sense that they are completely stepping out of his shadow to take dominance over the show. When Clyde talks about art being in the soul and that it is something that captures your soul and not your mind its another reminder that there is much greater depth to him than you would perhaps see on the surface. He admits that as a child he used to draw for company because he never had any siblings and this is the first time he has felt that he could actually do something with his art when he leaves school.

Boy Genius: Its nice of Luke to think of what’s good for Clyde rather than bowing down to his image and putting his work in for an art competition is the start of a promising trend where he looks out for his friends best interests rather than the other way around.

Journalist in Training: Rani’s impersonation of the Mona Lisa is hilarious. Anjili Mohindra’s comic timing is impeccable.

The Genuine Article: ‘You can’t fake this kind of class…’ Your reaction to this story is probably going to be based around your opinion of Suranne Jones’ turn as the Mona Lisa. Jones is hot property these days and its great to see that this show continued to acquire the services of some quality actresses to bring its characters to life. Mona Lisa is loud, crude and brutal and it gives Jones the chance to go over the top and have great fun in the role and yet at the same time she manages to find some real pathos in the villainess at the same time. She’s a brassy northern painting brought to life and she’s packing a Sontaran blaster stolen from Clyde’s painting. She’s been hanging on a wall for five centuries and its driven her slightly kaka, all she wants is to knock some heads together and have some fun. The way Harding fawns and lusts after Mona Lisa adds a layer of complexity to their relationship, she can exploit him with her expressive sexuality. There’s a clever notion in play that Lisa cannot exist outside of the gallery and step into the outside world, she’s trapped within the confines of the building and all she wants to be able to walk free like any normal person. She might be a dangerous lunatic who is jealous of the woman who inspired her creation but there is a lot going on beneath the surface of all the bluster. Like all good Doctor Who/Sarah Jane villains (Sil, the Master), she has a penchant for giggling like loon when things go her way.


Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Nothing stays perfect forever…’
‘Her most detailed personal profile can be found on Peapodsoulmates.com where she lists her interests as salsa dancing. She says she is ‘open minded and willing to try…’ ‘Thank you Mr Smith!’
‘That enigmatic smile that everybody bangs on about – wind.’
‘This sultana blaster…’ ‘I think you mean Sontaran’ ‘Whatever…’ – this isn’t subtle dialogue but the performances are just delightful.

The Good: Finally a great use of the Millennium Centre! Instead of posing as a space station from the future, an alien hospital, a building for Amy to grow old in or an underground Silurian debating chamber, here it is utilised as an art gallery (much like it was in Vincent and the Doctor) and as such we can wander around its vast and splendid corridors as the public services building that it actually is. Jeff Rawle and Suranne Jones are broken out before the credits kick in, its another terrific cast for a Sarah Jane Adventures following on from an appearance by Donald Sumpter in the last story. Sam Watts’ amusing classical musical score is another winner for the composer, highlighting the quality of the art and the look of the story. There’s a lovely role for Haresh in the first episode who gets to be more than the monster breathing down Clyde’s neck. Instead he is proud of something the boy has accomplished and played far more likeably as a result. Phyllis Trupp is one of those comical characters that is touched by tragedy and its played to the hilt by Lisa Sadovy, her unrequited love for Curator Harding a delicate thread running through the story and making both characters more interesting for it (there’s a touch of Revelation of the Daleks’ Jobel and Tasembeker about them). Showing he has a great eye for detail (I would never say that Phil Ford’s plotting is at fault), the very first shot of this story is the solution to the problem at the climax – a drawing of K.9. Its clear that the episode is building to a dramatic moment surrounding the Mona Lisa and I love how Joss Agnew captures the moment in such a blackly comical light, the unveiling of Miss Trupp captured in the painting. Its even touched with tragedy because she would love to harvest the affection that Harding has for the real painting and so putting her in its frame looking so plain and dumpy is really quite soul destroying for her. It also introduces the idea of the Mona Lisa being able to walk from the painting and trap others in oils which is phenomenal on anyone’s watch. Mona Lisa can also steal anything of use that has been painted in the gallery so soon avails herself of a Sontaran blaster from Clyde’s artwork. You’ve just got to love a show that is playing around with ideas that are this kooky. It reminds me of Doctor Who at its best. Watch out for the reference to Planet of the Dead. Sarah Jane being trapped in the painting with a look of fear trapped on her face feels like it has stepped out of Sapphire and Steel and proves to be one of the more conceptual cliffhangers the show has attempted. Without a method of time travel (occasionally circumvented in episodes such as The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith) there has to be a way to bring elements of the past and future to the show and extracting the Dark Rider from a painting is one of the more imaginative on offer. Suddenly the story becomes a romp around the art gallery as the kids are pursued by a highwaywoman packing flintlocks. The whole idea of the Abomination by Giuseppe de Cattivo is so captivatingly explained I (to my shame) actually looked it up online to see if there was such a painting/artist. Fortunately (its nice to know that I’m not an exclusive sap) others had done the same thing! Obviously I didn’t believe in the idea of sentient paint made from alien elements (or did I…?) but this is exactly the sort of myth that shows like Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures can build their stories on (like the Gorgon in season one). Kudos to Phil Ford for duping me so completely. Proving once again that the Sarah Jane Adventures recognises discretion where Torchwood dives in head first, Mona Lisa’s Revenge mimics the ending of End of Days with a slavering, horned beast being released. Instead of having it stomping over Cardiff in a ridiculous fashion it is all achieved with glimpses of its hands and silhouette and subtle lighting making the effect far more frightening. We never get to see the whole of the Abomination but the glimpses on offer are more than enough to make you sweat. This show would never take the obvious route of having Miss Trupp and Harding fall into each others arms at the climax and it undercuts the romantic possibilities with a cracking insult (‘you art tart!’).


The Bad: Unfortunately the painting of Clyde’s that is getting all the recognition really isn’t that good.

Result: In turn Mona Lisa’s Revenge is inventive, colourful, surreal and exciting. Most unlike a Phil Ford script, this feels more like something that Gareth Roberts would put together if he had taken enough mind altering drugs. By the time the cliffhanger kicks we’ve strayed pastSapphire and Steel territory (policeman trapped in paintings) into the sort of creativity that has always made Doctor Who such a treat for is audience (the Mona Lisa breaking free of her painting and re-imagined as brassy northern psychotic that can pull any resource that has been captured in oil from a painting). Its absolute madness but played engagingly by the cast and injected with some slick touches by director Joss Agnew who judges the tone of the piece with absolute precision (because as exaggerated as this is it could have dive bombed into caricature of the show I recognise). There’s even space for a twisted love triangle between Lisa, Harding and Miss Trupp which makes all of their characters more interesting because of it and a burgeoning distance developing between Sarah Jane and Luke pre-empting his departure in a few stories time. My one complaint is that the second half doesn’t quite have the snap, crackle and pop of the first and things lead to a slightly underwhelming conclusion. But the energy levels are high, the gags are relentless, the cast are at the top of their game at this point (Mohindra and Anthony rule) and the whole piece is elevated by the lighter than usual tone. Kudos to Suranne Jones who manages to go wildly over the top and make me crack up whilst still finding subtleties to exploit within the character of Lisa: 8/10

Saturday, 20 June 2015

A Day in the Death written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Andy Goddar



This story in a nutshell: Owen Harper: walking corpse.

Dangerous Doctor: 'I'm made of glass...' The finest study of Owen Harper in his time on the show bar none, A Day in the Death opens with an impressive montage that reveals the drama, heartache and development that the character has already been through. Imagine experiencing death and yet not being able to rest? That is the premise for this episode, now that Owen has come to terms with the fact that he met his maker in the previous episode. He's still living the same life but he's not feeling anything and he is surrounded by people who eat and sleep and love and (ironically enough) it is killing him inside. He's no longer a member of the Torchwood team but a subject for study, relived of his position in favour of Martha Jones. Jack couldn't have just let Owen go during this troubling adjustment period, instead turns him into the coffee boy in Ianto's stead. If Owen hurts himself no he wont feel it but he will be stuck with the scars. Bruises wont heal, bones wont mend...he's fragile. That's a nice way of having to calm the character down and force him to live a quieter life. Owen shows the appropriate concern for Parker, something that was entirely absent from his character is the first series. It took him to die for him to start acting like a human being. The episode tries to convince you that this is Owen's swansong and offers a dry run of the parting of Owen and Tosh, a scene that is surprisingly affecting an would be even more so come Exit Wounds when it is played out for real. Owen is scared that if he closes his eyes he will be trapped in the darkness but recognises that he has friends around him now who will be his light. Especially Tosh.

Jack's Crew: Has there been a simmering tension between Ianto and Owen that I haven't been aware of? Owen mentions how far the previous butler has come on in the past year, always out on missions and sleeping with their boss, but I think that is all said in the heat of anger rather than being rooted in anything long term. Ianto stands up for himself, talking about his relationship with Jack proudly when it is dismissed as something of a fad. I can't decide whether Tosh turning up and asking whether she can eat when Owen cannot indulge in any pleasures of the flesh is insensitive or not. Given how he has treated her on occasion it is probably karma. It is long past time the two of them discussed their unrequited love and Owen considers this the perfect time given that he is now safely off the menu. He goes hell for leather, pointing out Tosh's insecurities and her obsession with him, questioning her choice and trying to push her away. As I have said before when she is shoehorned into the role of a victim Tosh really comes into her own and Mori's doe-eyed reaction to this onslaught might just break your heart.

Marvellous Martha: Whilst I question whether she was used to her full potential post Reset, Martha has managed to slip into the Torchwood team as if she had always been there and I certainly wouldn't have objected to her having stuck around for the rest of the season. It's not easy to cross fro one show to another as effortlessly as this, especially when you are a character that is created for a particular core audience and you have stepped into a series that is aiming for a completely different audience.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Just because we're both planning on jumping it doesn't mean we have some kind of special connection.'
'I'm Doctor Owen Harper and I'm having one hell of a day.'

The Good: Lidster has hit upon a brilliant framing device to hold the episode together; Owen and a woman who is planning on committing suicide sitting atop a roof and discussing what the future will bring. One man who can go on living and a woman who has choice to. There has always been something of the bizarre about the Torchwood team but until now it has just been the most collection of flawed and sexually corrupt human beings ever to have been assembled in one environment. To have the man who cannot die heading the organisation and the man who died and lives on as their Chief Medical Officer seems to fit somehow. A true bunch of grotesques. Whilst having Maggie lose her husband just one hour after her wedding is perhaps a little unsubtle (even for Torchwood) it does leave room for the vividly shot scenes of the bride wandering the motorway n her blood soaked wedding dress. A shocking image. How superb is the music for this episode? Never trying to push the drama but underscoring it instead, providing the character moments with an extra layer of feeling. I especially like the piece when Owen infiltrates Parker's house and approaches the man himself, it's strange and uplifting and exciting all at once. Owen testing his newfound invulnerability by running for miles and jumping in the nearest lake and floating beneath the water for far longer than a human being would be able to is very dynamically shot. When heat sensors are barring your access to investigate a property you need a dead man to perform the mission, Lidster finding fresh ways for the show to utilise Owen. Parker is a great character, an ancient millionaire, collector of alien artefacts and somebody that Torchwood has been monitoring for some time. He's played by the inestimable Richard Briers; a stunning piece of casting for the series and deliciously growlsome performance for such a optimistic man who has turned bitter thanks to ravages of age. It is a firm reminder of Owen that his condition might ultimately be a blessing. Barring accidents he will never wither away and die like Parker, once impressive and reduced to a paranoid and fragile old man. In relatively short screen time, Parker becomes one of the more vivid characters to have appeared on Torchwood. Beautifully realised, the Pulse is revealed to be little more than a placebo for Parker, a device that is giving him hope of survival when his body has already given up. Watching him clinging on to this device in bed is a great metaphor for our fear of death and the lengths that we will go to to try and hold on to life. You might be convinced that the Pulse is going to punch the breath of life back into Owen but this episode doesn't resort to any cheap tricks like that. His condition is long term. Finally this show has real consequences. Reversing the usual 'life is shit' nonsense that Torchwood often pedals out, A Day in the Death has a gloriously upbeat climax that reveals that sometimes life can throw great surprises at you. The final scenes of the Pulse reaching out into the sky are magnificent because they manage to connect with the audience intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. It's a stunning climax and hardly anything happens.

The Shallow Bit: 'Skinny guy in tight jeans jumps into water? I was taking pictures.' Martha gets to kiss Jack before she leaves but only because everybody has had a go.

Result: 'You get to live forever...I get to die forever.' A superb character drama that never resorts to cheap tricks to make its impact. I remain convinced that Burn Gorman is the strongest member of the early ensemble and when he is given the appropriate character material to play he runs with it and never looks back. My problem is that he was characterised appallingly at times, often seen to be a complete bastard with no redeeming features. In series two the creators went out of their way to change that and turn his reputation around and come episodes such as Reset, A Day in the Death, Fragments and Exit Wounds he has been completely revolutionised. Russell T. Davies mentioned in The Writers Tale that the TV Skins put its main character through hell in the second series in order to force the audience to connect with him and Torchwood does precisely the same thing with Owen, making the same mistakes and jumping through the same hoops to rectify it. Owen had to die and live on for us to get close to him but in the examination of that macabre notion, Joe Lidster makes many profound points about life and pushes Torchwood into new areas of sophistication with the themes it can explore. Pretty much every member of Torchwood is dead inside anyway (as would be revealed in Fragments in one way or another) so it strikes me as perfectly natural that they should actualise that physically with two of the characters. A Day in the Death doesn't have the usual overload of plot and extreme content but instead chooses to examine its regulars and use the device of Owen's immortality to expose how things have shaken up the team. Like Adam, things are different because of this and the development that the team is experiencing in the second year is phenomenal. They might even be a functioning unit by the end of their second year. Gorman excels and there is a terrific support from Richard Briers and Christine Bottomley and director Andy Goddard deserve a round of applause for shooting this elegant episode with real artistry. What a shame that Lidster wouldn't write for Torchwood again. Their loss was SJA's gain: 9/10

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Cloisters of Terror written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: St Matilda’s College, Oxford is haunted. The building was formerly a convent and, so the story goes, three ghostly nuns wander its passages during the hours of darkness. The story goes on to say that anyone who sees the ‘three sisters’ will not be long for this world. When one of the students mysteriously disappears, the Dean of the College, Dame Emily Shaw, has no option but to call in the police. Her call appears to be answered when a Police Box arrives in her study; the Doctor and Leela have come to investigate and uncover the dark secret that has lain buried beneath the college for almost a thousand years...

Teeth and Curls: Given the uncomplicated nature of the 4DAs and the basic characterisation of the regulars it is easy to overlook just how well Tom Baker and Louise Jameson have gelled on audio. Listen to their first scene together and bask in the glory of two actors who have settled their differences, enjoyed several years of working together and slipped into a groove where they can practically finish each others sentences. The Doctor is no good at explaining things because he makes them sound more complicated than they need to be...or does he soak things in pretence to spare people the headache of having to get their heads around who he and Leela really are? He is happy to admit that he used to work for UNIT and that they probably think that he still does. St Matilda's is an all woman college and the Doctor doesn't even notice...he's clearly not the man he is going to be. Walking around and soaking in the atmosphere of a college feels very right for the Doctor, a man of learning. Causing offence is a by product of an enquiring mind. There's nothing he can't damage if he puts his mind to it. The Doctor sounds a little half-hearted about sacrificing his life at the end of the story, almost as though he would feel a little embarrassed to go out in such an anti-climactic way.

Noble Savage: More of a case study in social naturalisation than an assistant. If there is any danger you can always count on Leela to run towards. Leela under a hypnotic influence threatening to harm the Doctor...didn't we cover this ground in The Evil One? Thank goodness Jonny Morris doesn't think to hang the entire story on this.

Dame Shaw: Liz's mother Emily made such a fantastic impact in The Last Post that I am not surprised to see her back (indeed such a story was mooted even in the special features of her debut as you can hear David Richardson's eyes lighting up as he realises he has stumbled upon another character that really works), despite the tragic death of Caroline John. Liz is still working for the British Rocket Group, preparing to put a base on the moon. Emily seemed a lot more savvy in The Last Post, up to her nose in all the strange affairs that were going on behind the scenes of the public. She's a lot less sure of herself here, blanching at every extraterrestrial plot twist that the Doctor suggests.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Men in the college? Where will it all end I ask myself?'

Great Ideas: Much like the superb SJA adventure Eye of the Gorgon, if you have seen the Sisters in this story it spells out certain doom. It's a bit of a cliché but it if you listen to this story in the dark and cosy up with the characters genuine terror you might just find some fingers running up your spine. The disappearances of girls are happening in a strict geometric progression and they are becoming more frequent. Young women have been going missing for centuries and it has been dutifully hushed up by the members of the convent. Using the ships telepathic systems to send out astral projections - the appearance of the sisters in peoples rooms is all smoke and mirrors. Volunteering to sit on a powder keg and prevent it from going up is a pretty good qualification for sainthood - the girls that have been kidnapped haven't been used for an obscene purpose but to help save lives. That's quite novel, I suppose.

Audio Landscape: There's nothing insanely pioneering happening but the opening scene features some superb sound design courtesy of Jamie Robertson that is worth pointing because I am always banging on about how good he is. Well here is the chance to isolate a few minutes of material and for you to check it out. Compare and contrast to the opening of Last of the Cybermen recently (which began with similar disturbing weather conditions) and you can see the huge difference a really good sound designer makes against merely an adequate one. Choir singing makes for an extremely atmospheric opening, the rumble of thunder and the coming of rain, a ticking clock, ducks quacking on the water, the squeakiest door of all time, anti-tamper force field, sonic screwdriver, wind blowing a gale, banging on the door, a freezing wind, a ruddy great explosion!

Isn't it Odd: After the setting and premise have been established nothing especially surprising happens in the first episode. The interactions between the characters is enjoyable enough but the plot holds no revelations. Even when science fiction comes crashing into the story with a juddering bump it feels like the author has seen State of Decay recently (three seats from the cockpit of an alien spaceship?). 'I've never known a better knocker outer than you' probably looked better on the page than it sounds once recorded. It doesn't sound like the Doctor at all. We have to deal with the background of the story in a brief flashback sequence because there isn't the time to let this portion of the story breathe properly. As is often the way with Doctor Who stories, once you strip away the supernatural elements and explain them with science...they become decidedly less interesting.

Standout Scene: Sister Francis going from villainous to martyr made me raise an eyebrow.  

Result: To say that a 4DA is offering nothing revolutionary can hardly be a surprise to anybody who has followed the range regularly. Recently I heard a suggestion that this arm of the fourth Doctor's adventures is deliberately unambitious, that they are light affairs catering to an audience that want to lie back and let a story wash over them rather than challenge them. Sometimes I'm in that mood and these stories fit the bill perfectly. Even the superb Dorney/Fitton two parter this season was frothy and amiable rather than anything that really made me work at unearthing its treasures. Jonny Morris delivers a fun enough script but it follows the 4DA pattern; well made, acted and scored but lacking any ambition than killing an hour in a reasonably amusing way. Like so many of these economically told adventures, I can't imagine waking up with a burning ambition to listen to The Cloisters of Terror again in a hurry like I do with the best of Big Finish. Everything played out in a way that made sense and the setting was rather nice and the atmosphere of ghostly spectres was very in keeping with the early Tom Baker television tales. The trouble was I never had a genuine sense of danger, especially with the Doctor taking everything in his stride and Leela and Emily acting more flippant than anxious. The SF elements don't really come off either, feeling as though they were dumped into the story rather than part of the narrative from the get go (when I'm sure that is not the case). I think if this was double the length with time for Morris to allow the characters a chance to breathe and spend more time with the aliens of the week and set up their plight this might have appealed more. As it stands it is like a bite size chocolate bar, over too soon and lacking in substance. After listening to four companion chronicles that utilised their time to tell intelligent, thought-provoking and staggeringly dramatic tales these 4DAs seem all too opaque. If Big Finish were looking at producing quality over what sells, I know which range I would reduce to box sets and which I would be releasing every month. Stunning cover, though: 5/10

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Locked Room written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Steven Taylor left the Doctor and the TARDIS to become king of an alien world. But it's now many years since he gave up the throne and went to live in a cell in the mountains, out of sight of his people. He's not escaping his past – quite the opposite, in fact. As his granddaughter, Sida, is about to discover...

Hmm: A manifestation of the Doctor made out of pure light? A hologram beamed from across the stars. Each night Steven will be able to reach out to him and each night they will have longer together. This planet is turning so they only face wherever the Doctor is for a brief while. The Doctor is incredulous when he realises that Steven gave up he throne. He's always been willing to let somebody die if the ends justified the means (at least in his mind).

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven said he would never return to the city, that he planned to lived out his days in seclusion in his house in the mountains. But life is what happens despite all your plans. He's having a radio telescope built and he's making big plans. I love this new dangerous Steven, the sort of man who would lock his own granddaughter in a room overnight to prove a point. Steven has made travelling in time sound exciting and magical but it is easy to forget how strange and frightening it could be too. Does he yearn for those days again? Or does he just yearn to be young again? Steven always took pains to spell out he cost of travelling with the Doctor (given he experienced the more tragic aspects more than most), the people who died, the countless multitude of names he never knew and the ones he had been close to. Katarina, Sara, Oliver. The sacrifice of giving up the throne was all his own doing, nothing to do with the Vardan. Steven isn't sure he could live with himself if it meant that every action he had taken was under the direction of an alien presence in his mind. Steven wondered where his daughters coldness came from as it was often directed towards her daughter. Even Sida becoming President wasn't enough for her. Steven has always been a moral soul, one who has the courage to stand up for his convictions. Does that mean he was willing to suffer the consequences of sacrificing his own daughter in order to stand up for what he believes in? Did giving up the throne ultimately kill Dodo?

Standout Performance: There is something about Purves' interpretation of Hartnell that is a cut above all the others. He doesn't sound much like Hartnell but he has the attitude, the snippish behaviour and the wisdom of the character that transform his version into the real thing. I can understand perfectly why they waited until the last two stories before the Doctor had a substantial role in events. A huge round of applause for Alice Haig too, who has taken what was a pretty thankless role as Steven's granddaughter Sida (a role that was initially just somebody for him to narrate the story to and to react to the tale he was spinning) and turned into a character who really commands the attention. Sida is every bit Steven's granddaughter; assured, intelligent and capable of looking after herself. It doesn't surprise me one but that she wound up as President of her world. Lisa Bowerman makes another appearance but a much more attention grabbing one, disguised through a silky filter and purring with menace.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Reaching out across space to grip the hand of an old man who wasn't there...'
'Amazing what happens when you say you wont be available. The whole world wants a quick word.'
'It's frightening. Being in charge. Making the choices when no-one else will dare.'

Great Ideas: It's nice to be rewarded for listening to these stories in order with elements of all of the Steven adventures cohering in The Locked Room, particularly The First Wave. Simon Guerrier proved in that story that the Vardans could be a genuine menace if treated with the right amount of seriousness and ingenuity. A race composed of pure energy able to move on any wavelength at the speed of thought. They could reach into your head and read your secret thoughts, fry you alive in an instant. These Vardans aren't sheets of tin foil being waved about but an insidious threat that can beam inside your head in an instant and fry your mind before you can even develop a thought of panic. Oliver didn't die for nothing, the Vardan invasion was halted and he saved the lives of his friends but it does stick in the craw to think that an echo of their existence survived. The Vardan has been manipulating Steven's thoughts for all these years, making him do its bidding to reach out to the Doctor and bring them together again. Having a moral debate about killing one to save many is much simpler than putting the ideas into practice. The Locked Room doesn't skimp over the massive responsibility of having to take a life. I love the idea that in order to kill a Vardan you have to unravel it into a string of 1s and 0s.

Audio Landscape: A drill burrowing into the ground, hover cars, walking on shingle, the Vardan shimmer, gunshot, bolts being thrown, grappling on the floor. 

Isn't it Odd: Why? Why are the companion chronicles so overwhelmingly successful when the main range continues to struggle and stutter every month? On a creative level I can see that David Richardson is producing and Jacqueline Rayner is script editing and both have proving to be at the top of their game for many years now. They don't seem to be suffering from Who fatigue in the same way that Briggs and Barnes do over at the main range of late (if The Defectors and Last of the Cybermen are anything to go by). The length is also a factor, an hour is a great length to tell an audio story in. Just long enough to entice and excite without any time for padding. It also helps that the best writers seem to attract to this range, including the best contributors to the main range such as Jonny Morris, John Dorney and Matt Fitton. I also think I prefer the personal narration that the companion chronicles afford, we get much closer to the characters than we do in the full cast dramas of the main range. It's one of the reasons I struggled with the initial Early Adventures, before I adjusted to the format. Every just comes together so well with this range, I'm extremely pleased that the stories are continuing.

Standout Scene: The Vardan escaping it's cell and wrecking havoc is a staggeringly dramatic moment.

Result: 'The thing about life, the one lesson that I've learnt is just when you think you know what is going on, it hits you with something unexpected...' Every now and again the companion chronicles creates a secondary narrative to hang the central narrative of a story on that takes on a life of its own and needs an entire story to deal with its weight of expectations. It happened with the Sara Kingdom trilogy and the house haunted by her presence, it happened in the Zoe tetrology and her returning memories in her prison cell and now it has happened in the Steven Taylor trilogy detailing his old age on the planet of the Savages. It's a real feather in the cap of the writer (usually Simon Guerrier if I'm honest) that the method telling these stories is so substantial that they demand their own attention. Where The Founding Fathers is all set up, The Locked Room delivers the sort pay off that makes it by far the superior story and is far more the sort of standard I expect from Guerrier. It's an intimate piece that gets inside it's characters heads and shines a light on the disturbing things that are festering in there. Characterisation is paramount and both Steven and Sida are treated to some gorgeous development, built into a story that has personal consequences for both of them. Purves' Doctor gets a real chance to shine too and his is my favourite of all the interpretations, gruff, thoughtful and burningly intelligent. The Locked Room features the return of a really awkward monster from a television story, reborn in the first Doctor adventures as a terrifying foe. Most of this story is contained to one room but it has far reaching consequences and with each passing scene it gets more and more absorbing. Am I greedy that I fancy a few more stories set on this world featuring these characters? Maybe, because the story feels pretty much told. I'm sure Guerrier has something else equally gripping up his sleeve next: 9/10

The Eternity Trap written by Phil Ford and directed by Alice Troughton



This story in a nutshell: Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani join Professor Rivers and Toby Silverman to Ashen Hill Manor, the creepiest haunted house this side of The Others…

Until Next Time…Ms Smith: This episode is a great example of the sassy Sarah Jane Smith we all remember from our childhoods, you know the one who fought robot mummies and walking brains and way before she started getting menopausal and hanging around with young kids! I exaggerate as usual but there is no denying that Sarah is much more about letting her feelings all hang out these days (it’s the finest development of character so I’m not complaining, especially in stories like The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith) and it is healthy to reminds us of Sarah of old. She is delighted that Professor Rivers has invited her along and is determined to find a scientific rationale behind all the supernatural events. Her view of the universe is very detailed and she understands the need to believe in the afterlife but she can’t (perhaps the Doctor had more of an effect on her than even we realised). ‘You really shouldn’t believe your own press you know!’ – I really liked that line considering her occupation. She has fought the worse things and barely blinks an eyelid at Erasmus’ tricks.

Sarah’s gang: This is the first indication that Clyde and Rani can hold the show up without Luke; they are confident, contemporary and effortlessly watchable together. Someone has to hold \Clyde’s hand as he faces all the dangers but watched how they keep grabbing for each other – I think love is in the air! Its not like Rani isn’t tempted by eternal torment but she has school in the morning! She doesn’t scare that easily but would feel much better with a Ghostbusters proton pack. I love the pop culture references they keep dropping in; I bet the kids love it too! Clyde aint afraid of no ghost, he’s taken on practically every creep in the universe. He’s not just an action hero; he’s a style icon!

Sparkling Lines: ‘It’s a super spook smack down!’

The Good Stuff: The opening is truly winding and a good indication that you might have to hide the kiddies away for this unsettling piece. There is a sudden pan into the creepiest of mansions, children screaming and their father crying out for their souls as we fade into modern times – it’s a great tension-building teaser. Floella Benjamin is definitely giving a CBBC performance but still think she’s fabulous, a really fun returning character as the show builds up its own mythology. The location is stunningly authentic, a genuinely spooky old house. The musical score is pure horror movie and all the more effective for it. It was dark when this episode was transmitted and I was stuck at work but my Simon was at home and even he found it unsettling, the wet footprints, children laughing and crying, Darkening reaching out from the mirror, the eeriest nursery ever with a chilling lullaby, a manic rocking horse, a disembodied voice crying out for help, toys coming to life, a child singing and GET OUT scribbled on the blackboard! This is pretty strong stuff for a kids show! Adam Gillen gives an enjoyably twitchy performance as Toby and has a nice backstory and good reason to be there. The lighting Darkening’s laboratory is gloriously moody; it genuinely looks like a set from a slasher movie! There is a great scene where we see Darkening’s victims through the ages on the stairs, wearing clothes from various eras. The Billiard Room chaos continues the frights with the balls potting themselves and the triangle going loopy and attacking Clyde and Rani! All the ghosts are revealed to be living people trapped between thanks to Darkening’s trans dimensional accelerator. If they switch off the machine then these people will die. Darkening has been stealing their life energy to gain immortality. The glowing red eyes in the dark and the POV shots really spooked me! I love the simple explanation of all the paranormal activity; Marchwood has been trying to scare them away to save them. Darkening was trying to get home but was using living people to obtain his freedom. The last shot of Marchwood finally reunited with his children is lovely and I can imagine them haunting Ashen Manor for many years to come.

The Bad Stuff: Donald Sumpter is super creepy when he is an apparition in part one but becomes a little too camp (especially ‘Maaaarchwood!’) in part two. I’m still not that sure how they defeated Darkening except that it reminded me strongly of the ending of the Masque of Mandragora (Sarah must have remembered!) and I didn’t understand that either!

The Shallow Bit: Daniel Anthony is really, really hot. There, I said it. Bang me up.

Result: Almost uniquely, The Eternity Trap is an entirely plot driven Sarah Jane Adventure which is a very welcome. Doctor Who’s Midnight saw Alice Troughton create a frightening atmosphere with minimalist elements and here she conjures up a similarly uncomfortable story with lots of subtle, corner of the eye techniques. This is a mini horror movie for children with an intelligent script and highlighting the regulars at their confident best. Even the non event episodes are treasurable, it is hard to fault this spine chilling, moody piece: 8/10

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Founding Fathers written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: The TARDIS lands in Leicester Square in the summer of 1762. When the Doctor, Steven and Vicki find themselves locked out of the TARDIS, only one man can possibly help them. But the American, Benjamin Franklin, has problems of his own...

Hmm: On the planet of the Savages there is a copy of the Doctor's mind in a jar left over from when the contents of his brain were drained in Steven's final story. It's a guiding intelligence for the people now. That's very important to remember otherwise you might be highly confused as to whom Steven is conversing with. Because he has the Doctor's memories he must approximate to the man. He has direct access to the city's information systems and he is on the cusp of deciding to stand for election. He never asks for anything and is selflessly devoted to the peoples welfare. In the face of Benjamin Franklin, the Doctor is unsurprised and cool as a cucumber, inventing a quick cover story so they can stay close to him. He considers the scientist quite something but that makes him a dangerous prospect, especially once he has access to the TARDIS. He's not above sneakily using physical force to make sure his secrets stay that way, just like he did in An Unearthly Child. Assaulting Franklin is entirely in character. The assertion is made that the Doctor in a jar considers people unimportant if they aren't going to make an impact on society but that could be said to have come from the real thing. The Doctor who picked up a rock to kill a caveman, who was ready to let the Thals walk to their deaths, who was willing to sacrifice Ann Chaplet to keep history on track. He's always liked simple solutions but doesn't like sentimentality.

Aggressive Astronaut: Steven missed so much on the planet he used to rule during his years of self-incarceration. Steven's granddaughter used to like hearing his tales of travelling with the Doctor. He finds a job as a boatman rowing passengers across the Thames and enjoyed the time on the water, often working well into the night. Steven enjoyed feeling useful. Whilst Steven always had what you could say was a chip on his shoulder, it was always tempered with a great sense of humanity and when it counts, humility. The older Steven is a much more prickly character, especially when dealing with the Doctor in a jar.

Alien Orphan: Vicki's role is naturally diminished because Maureen O'Brien isn't involved in this release. She's present but often hangs about in the background of scenes remaining silent, which is quite unlike her character.

Standout Performance: There are too many things to love about Peter Purves' narration. I can understand why he was given the main slice of the action for this box set because he is such a confident, engaging reader. And like Maureen O'Brien he barely sounds a day older. How comes they can so perfectly capture their younger voices and actresses such as Deborah Watling and Katy Manning have difficulties? I guess that is what 40 a day does for you. I really admire Lisa Bowerman as a performer and think her Bernice Summerfield is now the definitive article. But thanks to a recurring role in Jago & Litefoot and turning up in other stories such as Whispers of Terror her voice is extremely recognisable now. I understand that as the story's director it makes financial sense to use herself as the third voice, giving this more of a full cast feel, but it did distract somewhat having such a identifiable voice in the mix.

Great Ideas: It's one of the earliest examples of a celebrity historical. Who is Benjamin Franklin I hear you ask? A scientist, author, political theorist, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat. Of all the figures of history that the Doctor has met he is one of the most impressive. Franklin's experiments, proof that lightning is not fire in the sky but proof of electrical force, are discussed in some detail. There's a great gag about not being sure when the next storm will come because Franklin needs one for his experiments...but this being England there was certain to be one sooner rather than later. Abigail Bolt, Franklin's lady friend, is not mentioned in any of the history books and the Doctor suspects foul play from the start. Was she a time traveller here to change history? It was entirely possible since they did have experience of that kind of interference before. American politics are given some consideration too, given Franklin's future and birthright. Whatever the Doctor in a jar is, he has developed the ability to move into other peoples bodies. However it burns out their bodies and minds as he does so, something the Doctor deeply regrets. The Doctor is technically overwriting peoples brains, whatever objections he might make to the contrary the subjects would have 'died' anyway. The death penalty has been called for but nobody is sure if the Doctor is even alive in this state. Now he's a public enemy. He's decided to transfer himself in to the system and stop being a threat to others.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, crowds, horse and cart, banging on the TARDIS door, quiet chatter, bubbling vat, a squeaky door, bobbing on the water, exchanging coins, crackling fire, lightning, pelting rain, running footsteps, an explosion, banging.

Standout Scene: One of the many things to admire about Simon Guerrier's writing (please don't ask me to provide a list because I will be here all day - my suggestion is that you listen to the Sara Kingdom and Oliver Harper trilogies and formulate your own, it wont be hard) is that he never goes for the predictable cliffhanger. It's so easy to simply end on a moment of false jeopardy but with his companion chronicles Guerrier almost always uses the pause in the action to hinge the narrative in a new direction. Here he provides a wonderful moment, Franklin finding himself in the TARDIS. Here the Doctor is trying to prevent the course of history from changing and he has confronted one of the finest scientific minds of the age with a device that is beyond his comprehension. It's atypical and rather gorgeous. And it leads to the most enjoyable scenes of the whole story as he tries to use his scientific knowledge of the time to puzzle out the Ship. That alone makes this story well worth a listen. 'A more credulous mind might consider that we have passed beyond the veil...'

Result: One of the joys of early Doctor Who were the many sojourns into history (without the need of a monster to back the story up). I would always consider it a success if the adventure had encouraged to further research, either into the period itself or the people that feature. To my shame I knew very little about Benjamin Franklin before listening to The Founding Fathers but thanks to Simon Guerrier's enlightening script I was encouraged to read on and I discovered that throughout his life he achieved more than most people could ever dream of. That Doctor Who, an adventure serial can broaden my knowledge of history is a glorious thing. Despite the detailed content I thought this was one of Guerrier's lesser companion chronicles, narratively speaking it does flounder rather and doesn't gather the sort of momentum that the best of his stories do. The whole story is pitched at gentle level without any moments of serious drama or danger. I was educated but I can't say this was a particularly entertaining story, it's a little too serious for its own good. With intelligent dialogue and characterisation, it still has much to recommend it but don't turn to The Founding Fathers when you are looking for a story to cheer you up. Bizarrely the story just comes to a sudden halt and remaining time is given over to the secondary plot, which turns out to be much more interesting. Then you realise the whole thing is set up for the finale of the box set, which promises to be a doozy. Enlightening on an intellectual level, the scenes between Franklin and the Doctor in the second episode are very strong: 7/10

The Unwinding World written by Ian Potter and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Office life is tough, the commute is a grind, nothing works quite as well as you'd like. Vicki seems to remember things being better once, before the little flat. It’s time she put some excitement back in her life. It’s just a shame the Doctor can’t help.

Hmm: The Doctor genuinely thinks you have to know where you are now in order to know where you are going next. I wonder if he is talking geographically or spiritually? Sometimes Vicki thinks he knows more than he is letting and other times she is sure that he doesn't. She doesn't understand the nature of the Times Lords and thinks the Doctor is a genuinely old man rather than the aged youth that he actually is. He can be difficult at the best of times but on this world he is all fury and rage, obsessed with his work. He likes to ally himself with the best of human nature, to fight for truth against oppression. When he says he thinks it is time that some hard lessons are learnt I can imagine William Hartnell baring his teeth and letting the Doctor's subversive side take over. How awesome is the idea of the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan living in a small flat together with the Doctor madly scribbling on the walls as he makes more and more observations about the culture they have found themselves entrenched in.

Alien Orphan: Vicki is not short of an opinion or two when pressed for one and she will gladly point out the flaws in any given society. She has picked up some unusual phrases from Ian and Barbara, 20th Century terms such as wobbly which mean nothing in other times on other worlds. She doesn't think the TARDIS is supposed to be the shape that it is. They didn't want to come to this world to start a revolution just to stretch their legs. I loved the moment when Vicki revealed what she was really up to, why she was really chatting to the system. You realise that this teenage girl is a lot smarter than she looks.

Standout Performance: Maureen O'Brien's voice, when modified properly, sounds just like it did when she was in her early 20s. How does she do that?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You'll best understand history by those who've lived through it.'
'It's choosing not to choose.'

Great Ideas: A bit of paper never freezes and loses your work - never was a truer word spoken given the problems I have been having with my laptop of late. Losing the TARDIS is something of an occupational hazard during this period of the show. It's if it doesn't happen when things seem odd. The Bureau of Correction is where serious threats to the system are dealt with. Why would dissidents use the image of the TARDIS as their symbol of revolt? There is something rather wonderful about the Doctor teaming up with a bunch of old dears to take down the system and return this society to a less sophisticated way of life. I really enjoyed the unusual device of the system lip reading the Doctor's conversation in the nursing home, it means that we cannot be certain that the slip ups are the computer struggling with the words or a classic Billy fluff. Also having Vicki being forced to watch events that are occurring in real time means that we get to experience her reaction whilst they are happening, rather than after the events looking back as is so often the way with the companion chronicles. I really enjoyed the brief conversation about graffiti and how can tell you an awful lot about a civilisation, it's artistic forms, propaganda and aptitude. Vicki uses Pompeii as an example but I would love to hear Sherlock Holmes go to town on some modern day graffiti - I bet he could pretty much sum up our entire culture by its content. Imagine a world where people cannot imagine things getting any better because they have forgotten that things have gotten worse. Some kind of fluid is being sprayed on the food and drink that makes the populace forget certain key things, that allows the world to wind down and nobody to remember it being any different. The idea is that the fluid interacts with the level of flicker on the view screens - so those in charge can control what people are reading and watching, unpicking the subject in their minds. And apparently, the people on this world have a lot to forget. Over the years I have seen for myself the sort of adverse effect that media can have on people, how it can shape prejudice and encourage inflammatory and reactionary voices so I can well believe that whoever is controlling the media in this society has the people in the palms of their hands. Some people like to make up their own minds, others like to have their minds made up for them. We are an inherently lazy culture these days. The people of this world thought they were ready to make contact with an alien species but they were hopelessly out of their depth and the ensuing war saw them systematically wipe out the alien species in unforgivable carnage. The aliens body language and physique was different and provoked hate - relations were never going to be possible. The system is going to unpick human progress for three centuries in order to make the next first contact process smoother and successful. Ian Potter is about to tell you that what Vicki and her friends are doing is anything but what the people of these world did to the Kenosians all those years ago. I love the fact that there is a question mark hanging over events, a black mark on this revolutions. Will they become better people for remembering the horrors of the past? 

Audio Landscape: Punching in buttons, screaming, a vehicle in descent, a hover scooter rushing by, security robot sirens, explosions. 

Standout Scene: What seems to be a city being oppressed for much of this story's run time becomes a city that asked to be oppressed. And that is a very different thing. And far, far more interesting. The moral of the story is that it is alright be ashamed, that everybody has done bad things in their life and that is something a lot of people need to hear. You have to remember because it allows you to learn, to become better people.

Result: There are some actors that I simply love to listen to. It helps that the stories are strong but there is something about the way they narrate that has me absolutely gripped every time. William Russell is one, Peter Purves another and Maureen O'Brien completes the set of first Doctor companions that always provide thoughtful and winning commentary. She has tapped into that youthful exuberance that Vicki had in spades but brings her more mature acting skills for the moments of drama and exposition. She reads beautifully and that gets The Unwinding World off to a flying start already. There's a good reason for this story to be narrated too, a conversation between Vicki and an operating system that they are trying to bring down. Things begin amiably enough with Vicki explaining about their arrival but it soon becomes clear that the system is aware of their subversive activities and that's where things get very interesting. And when it becomes clear that the people were once aware of the systems systematic unravelling of their society and three centuries rewind, things become even more gripping still. This isn't a action romp or a nostalgia fest, it isn't a thoughtless exercise. Ian Potter is setting out to make you think. What really appealed to me about this story was that it made the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and especially Vicki extremely smart and capable, it showed that they could out think an oppressive regime if they all work together.  There have been eight seasons of companion chronicles before this and there has never been a story quite like this one before. It's unique and I really like it: 8/10