Saturday, 22 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: Masterplan written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: 'If I'm going to die on an exploding spaceship frankly I can't think of anybody I would rather take with me...' Masterplan opens with a gripping five minute sequence where the Doctor tries to convince Professor Schriver that the Institute that he sets up (IDES) would go on to cause chaos and destruction in the galaxy. The Doctor tries to make the attack personal, like everything the Institute caused in the perverted timeline would be directly his fault. It reminded me of how he tried to play God in A Christmas Carol but it doesn't irritate me quite as much. In the Christmas special the Doctor was re-writing time to save a handful of people, something that he has always said is expressly forbidden. It made me question why he had let other people in the past die, if he was so invested in keeping these particular people alive. Whereas the eighth Doctor of Dark Eyes is already fairly damaged after the loss of some good friends (Lucie, Tamsin, Alex) and his adventures have taken a downward spiral of being incapable of saving a soul from the machinations of the Eminence, the Master and the terrible humanity/Eminence war. I don't condone what he is doing, but since the timeline has been corrupted anyway...isn't it acceptable that he might try and alter things back to how they should be or stopping them from ever happening in the first place? Who knows, he could be bringing an even more corrupted timeline into existence. This is the Doctor at his most eloquent, trying to persuade the professor of his good intentions...and at his most desperate given the lengths he is going to. If it comes to a choice between heading backwards in time and re-stirring the pot or allowing the Eminence to terrorise the universe at large the Doctor looks for the nearest ladle. With the Master gone, the timeline and the Doctor's friends are safe and if he has to die to make sure that his oldest enemy bites the bullet then so be it. The Master thinks it is easy for the Doctor to play the rebel when he was always the teachers pet. The Doctor chides the Master for daring to use the names of his friends that have died...and for suggesting that Molly was marked the moment she met him. Does the Doctor run because he doesn't trust himself to stay around and face the consequences of his actions? Russell T. Davies made a similar argument in Boom Town and I have to wonder if there isn't a grain of truth in the idea.

Alter Ego: Of all the ways the Master could niggle the Doctor, calling the TARDIS an antediluvian bucket of bolts takes the biscuit. After being so in control throughout the first two adventures it is nice to see the Master caught out for a change and forced to improvise. Things have been going a little too well for him of late and now it's time for the Doctor to intervene. The Doctor declares him a spoilt child that has to get what he wants or everybody suffers, the trouble being that he doesn't know what he wants beyond killing the Doctor. According to the Master they both want to change the universe, it is only the scale of their ambition that sets them apart. Why doesn't the Master kill the Doctor when he has the chance? Is it because he doesn't want to? Or is it because he needs the attention he so desperately craves? Humans come and go in the blink of an eye, he doesn't understand why the Doctor gets so worked up over them. He simply wishes to maintain order, that's why he plans to control the universe. They were friends once but the Doctor maintains that he outgrew the Master and his pathetic schemes. He enjoys hurting people, he enjoys being irresponsible...if that makes him evil then so be it. He wants peace just like the Doctor, which will only happen when the universe is of one mind. For a moment he is remorseful at the loss of Sally...but only for a moment.

Martyr: I wouldn't say that Liv hasn't worked as a character before Masterplan because she is being played by Nicola Walker who is a fine actress and she could inject life into the weakest of characters. However I would say that, Robophobia aside, she has hardly marked herself out as anything special from the norm. A reasonably resourceful woman with a decent moral code? Hardly enough to set my world on fire. In the comparison stakes I would say that Molly (loathed by some) was far more interesting because of her fiery personality, passion for their travels, interesting accent and history as a wartime nurse. However, things have started to turn around for Liv in this story, especially during the sequence where she gets to lock horns with Sally and try and work her way inside her head. Sally mocks it as amateur psychology but there is no doubt that Liv attacks her with some fervour, an act of spite that shows that she does have some fire in her belly after all ('You and I know who the Master really cares about. It's Molly, Molly with the Dark Eyes. You? You're expendable. Your days are numbered, Sally, and you know it.'). Liv has come to accept her fate in grand scheme of things. If that means she has to be sacrificed to make things right then so be it. She looks forward to letting all of her worries go.

Standout Performance: McGann and McQueen excel in their two hander scenes together. It's as good a Doctor/Master chemistry as you have ever seen.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We all rewrite history, Liv. Every day of our lives, every decision we make.'
'There's no genius without a touch of madness.'
'Who do you think you are, Doctor? Judge, jury and executioner?'
'It's not about the numbers. I look at what's in front of me.'

Great Ideas: Professor Schriver is brewing up the consciousness carrying gas that forms the Eminence, thinking that his research is for the good of humanity when ultimately his work will come close to destroying it. His work will result in untold suffering. It was given to him by the Master, meddling in history to create the Eminence and therefore allow him to increase his army of slaves in the future. I tell you what, he thinks big. Molly, awash with retrogenitor particles, is trapped in the teleportation casket and infusing the gas compound and stirring up what will become the Eminence. She is vital in the Infinite Warriors creation. The Master has scattered people across the stars spreading his antigen and when they are possessed by the Eminence the retrogenitor particles will react, combine and he will take control of them. He will be Master of all. 

Isn't it Odd: I can understand why people might be a little under enthused by the amount of technobabble that makes up the Master's plan. Whilst I like the idea of him creating the Eminence in the first place and snatching their Infinite Warriors away from them (typically over complicated and devious but quite clever all the same) the use of antigens and retrogenitor particles and teleportation chambers does make the plan seem a little...clinical.

Standout Scene: Scenes of the Doctor and the Master psychoanalysing each other might not be everybody's cup of tea but when scripted this well they deserve your respect regardless. The fate of Sally is remarkably dramatic, you can't help but feel sorry for somebody who has had their ego fed so completely by the Master and been walked like a lamb to the slaughter.

Result: Some Doctor Who stories fail to generate one big dramatic idea but Masterplan juggles two quite adeptly and proves to be the finest Dark Eyes instalment to date. You have the notion of the Doctor and the Master confined in one location and forced to discuss their relationship and back story but there is also the whopper of an idea of the Doctor re-writing history simply because he doesn't like the way things have turned out. So much dramatic mileage in both cases and Fitton goes further than I have ever witnessed before to tackle both and with some success I might add. I have never been a huge a fan of the Master, I have to be honest. Not because I don't find the character a lot of fun (because I do) or because he has been performed badly (because everybody who has had a go - even Eric Roberts - has brought something fresh and interesting to the part) but because his ridiculous schemes are often paper thin and easy to untangle and because his motives (despite nearly 50 years worth of appearances) are often utterly vacuous. Masterplan goes someway to addressing that, to nailing down the love/hate relationship between the two Time Lords and probing the Master's psychosis. I found that rather exciting. I bet Paul McGann was excited by this script too as it offers the Doctor some dramatic opportunities and dialogue. His performance steps up as a result and his scenes with McQueen crackle with energy and tension. For once the sound effects and music are at a minimum and rather than playing out as an action adventure without pictures the whole piece is generated of the exploration of character. The central plot of the box set isn't neglected either, Masterplan showing how certain elements of the first two stories came to be. I've read complaints that this set is too slow to get anywhere (we are three hours in and this is still practical set up for the finale) but there has been a focus and intensity to the storytelling that was lacking in the first two Dark Eyes sets (they were more diverse and whimsical but lacked this kind of cohesion). A great script, bolstered by gripping performances. The only thing that stops this getting full marks is all the technobabble: 9/10

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: The Reviled written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: After giving him a break from playing the protagonist in the previous story, Fitton is now committed to pushing the Doctor about as far beyond his comfort zone as he is prepared to go. The resulting drama is excellent and Paul McGann suddenly bursts in to life in the final ten minutes of this story in a way that we haven't seen since the first Dark Eyes set. You thought you had seen the Doctor angry before? The Doctor is always looking for the best solution for all races, not just the ones that he happens to like. You can understand why he might be a little cheesed off at having to hop around this time period and clean up his arch rivals messes - it must feel as though he has been doing that his entire life. The trouble with having so many companions is that you forget where you have left them most of the time. He always tries to see the best in people because in his experience when people know that is what you are looking for in them they help you to find it. Liv figures that even when it is none of his business that the Doctor cannot help but try and make things better...his philosophy is to always leave a place in a better state than how you found it. Of all the horrors that he has encountered in the universe nothing frightens him more than human beings capacity for vengeance. He's getting angrier with each passing story, feeling helpless as the Master and the Eminence and the Time Lords pull his strings and murder more people he could have saved. What use is a Doctor if he can't save people? A good question. Let's hope that he manages to resolve some of these issues before the end of this portion of the Dark Eyes saga or I can see him ending up in a more suicidal state than he was at the end of To the Death. The Doctor is coming to some very dangerous conclusions at the end of this story. Conclusions of the sort that he would later go on to consider at climax of The Waters of Mars. Could he really sweep clean an entire timeline? Re-write history, every line?

Alter Ego: It's almost as though Fitton is trying to use the Master to push as many of the Doctor's buttons as possible before locking them together in their own two hander in the next story. What he does at the climax of The Reviled, rob the Doctor of his chance of saving people when he is certain he has already achieved that, is perhaps the cruellest thing he could do. What a bastard. Sparks will fly, I tell you.

Martyr for the Cause: Sent by the Time Lords with medical supplies, the Doctor is suspicious about Liv's presence here but not her personal motives. She's been to the end of the universe and back, the Doctor has faith that she can cope with just about anything. At the climax we learn that Liv is dying and the Doctor promises to do something about that. He's planning some big revisions.

Standout Performance: It's nice to have Nicola Walker back and she certainly commits to playing Liv as realistically as possible. The downside to pairing her with the eighth Doctor in a dire situation is that there is no space for humour in their relationship and as such both actors come across as remarkably sombre. It's not that they are unpleasant to listen to, they compliment each other rather well in this scenario but it's hardly a relationship that will set your world on fire with excitement.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'My oldest friend and my oldest enemy' 'How does that work?' 'We grew up together studied together. We both found Time Lord society didn't entirely agree with us but came to different conclusions regarding the rest of the universe. I wanted to see it, he wants to run it' - In all their stories together over the past 40 odd years I haven't heard the differences between the Doctor and the Master described quite so economically and eloquently. Without delving into the psychological implications of this statement, Fitton has their relationship bang on the nail.
'I'm going to stop a war.' 

Great Ideas: Matt Fitton is very effectively managing to build a picture of this corner of the galaxy that is caught up the conflict between humanity and the Eminence (with the Master claiming entire worlds in the crossfire). Without its fatalistic tone, it reminds of Dalek Empire insofar as we are able to spend a great deal of time in the same time period and hop from world to world and see the damaging effect the conflict is having on the people. It's unusual for Doctor Who to hang around for quite this long across a spread of stories but it is yielding some interesting results and painting a detailed picture of the setting. This colony is the best lead that the CIA has on the Master who is dosing them with his retrogenitor particles. Earth Alliance has abandoned them and only Liv Chenka seems interested in helping them out. The war always seemed so far away, even when the garrison were called up they felt that it would be over with in a heartbeat. Two years later there is still no end in sight. The 'Roaches' are the indigenous lifeforms, a nickname that the first settlers gave them that has stuck. The Ramosans are intelligent and they are more scorpion than cockroach. They aren't a target for the Infinite Armies but the colonists do. Sally is there to do the Master's bidding, to take the colonists off the Ramosans' hands with a financial sweetener to make the transaction more palatable. The Doctor uses the communications equipment to construct a sensor shield around the continent with all human lives hidden from the Infinite Warriors. IDES have had the desire to colonise Ramosa from the very beginning, from the first exploration probes to the recruitment of the colonists. When it turns out the supplies that Liv has been provided with by the Time Lords are terminally dangerous I started to wonder if anybody was looking out for the people in this conflict. You've got the Eminence trying to recruit Infinite Warriors on the colony worlds, the Master trying to bend people to his will, humanity attempting to swell their armies numbers and the Time Lords trying to wipe people out. This conflict desperately needs a man of the people, somebody who is going to protect the players in this war of possession and murder. After Liv boarded the shuttle the Master landed his TARDIS around the transporter disguised as the transporter - when the colonists thought they were boarding Liv's ship they were in fact boarding his. More recruits for his cause. What the hell is he up to? The Eminence are unforgiving in their vengeance, burning worlds that they cannot convert.

Audio Landscape: Rain lashing, ghostly cries, wet foot in mud arrows shooting, alarms, gates opening, crackling translator, flame throwers in the distance, jungle sounds, burning Ramosans.

Result: I asked for a more robust story for part two of this saga and I was not disappointed. Matt Fitton is one of those rare Big Finish writers that comes along that ticks every box to make a story work - he has ear for memorable dialogue, he never forgets about his characters, his stories are complicated enough to engage but not too ungainly to be able to follow, he adds little details to a setting that make them more memorable than they would have been and he has a way of stirring up drama without cheating the audience. The only time I think he has failed to achieve one of these essential ingredients is when exhausted or failing story elements are forced upon him (Signs and Wonders). When he is left to get on with something original, he always delivers the goods (The Wrong Doctors, Return of the Rocket Men). For Dark Eyes he has been handed a great shopping list of ingredients and none of them are his own creations (The Master, The Eminence, Narvin, Liv, Molly) and yet he rises to the challenge of bringing all these elements together in a way that feels fresh and invigorating, for each of the individual elements and for the Dark Eyes story. There's a dramatic focus to the saga in this set that comes from one writer taking responsibility for all the stories and having a clear direction of where it is going. With The Reviled, Fitton gets to explore the conflict that is taking place and the effect it is having on the 'little people', how so many powers are trying to influence this war that those in the trenches are the ones that are suffering. The Doctor emerges as something unique because he is the only person that isn't trying to exploit the colonies, he's the only one that is trying to help them. It seems that no matter what he does to try and warn them, to protect them or even to intervene with their kidnap the victims of the humanity/Eminence war will always end up under somebody's thrall. It certainly makes for an exciting final fifteen minutes when the Master pulls off a deceptive coup. It's quite bold to snatch victory from the Doctor like this when he is already feeling vulnerable and it brings out an intensity from Paul McGann that quite took my breath away. It's time the rival Time Lords finally ran into each other, I think there will be a few choice words to say: 8/10

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: The Death of Hope written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: It's always quite unnerving to listen to the eighth Doctor interacting with the Time Lords with the foreknowledge of where both he and they are heading. At some point between Dark Eyes and Night of the Doctor the Time War will erupt and force the eighth Doctor to abandon his skin and transform into a warrior. That means some serious shit is going to go down. The fact that we are privy to this knowledge but the Doctor and the Time Lords aren't adds an edgy layer to events of the sort that I haven't felt in any other Big Finish series. His TARDIS has been ripped from the Time Vortex and impounded and he has been imprisoned by his own people. What he has been shown of the Master's activities brings out an anger in him that we haven't seen since the beginning of this Dark Eyes saga. His greatest enemy is abusing people he loves without them even knowing about it and amassing an army of his own. To prevent that from happening is his only desire now. The trouble is who does he save first...Molly, Sally or the colonists? Fitton has set up a lot of work for the war beaten Time Lord. Have we ever had the Doctor hang around this long and deal with the consequences of his previous adventures? It feels like he is settled in this time zone for some time, mopping up his mess.

Alter Ego: Unusually this opening instalment gives all the fun to the Master (don't the villains always have more fun?) as we observe one of his adventures along with the Doctor. I can't help but wonder if Big Finish were so seduced by the McQueen version of the Master (and naturally so, he's a delight) that they were tempted to give him his own spin off series (their all the rage these days). This seems like a fair compromise, for the Master to have a huge presence in the Dark Eyes series and for us to be able to observe him at work through the Doctor's eyes. This is quite a new take on the character because we rarely get to see the Master putting all the pieces of his plan into place, we usually catch up with him once his traps have been set and the Doctor has walked in to them. Now is a chance to see what happens to the Master between the Doctor's adventures, what he gets up after his last defeat and before his next (I hate to sound pessimistic but it's his lot in life). I love the idea of him walking into a tow under threat in a white hat and declaring himself a knight errand who has come to save them all. Such egotism. Is this the only time where the Master walks free of an adventure having achieved everything that he wanted? Horrifically, I could get used to this.

Dark Eyes: A prisoner of the Master, it has not yet been revealed what Molly's role is to be. Her Nan sounds like a lot of fun, a palm reader that her mother disapproved of. Given the reaction against her character has been that she is too acerbic, it's great to see a little of her wartime bedside manner at work. In her heart all she wants to do is help to heal the sick.

Standout Performance: You can tell when McGann is engaged by the material that he is playing, there is a certain frisson in his voice. It was there in Storm Warning when he first started out Big Finish and again when he first struck out in 45 minute stories with Lucie Miller and once again when Dark Eyes kicked off. When each of these formats has become the norm (the Divergent Universe, some of series two of the 8DAs and now at the beginning of Dark Eyes 3) McGann coasts a little, sounding a bit disinterested. The lines are delivered but there isn't any great passion in them. Mind you given he is merely an observer to events rather than the protagonist in this story could explain his ambivalence. Let's see how this develops throughout the box set. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Since when did Doctor translate into 'gun for hire.'
'Oh get back in your box...' - not a great line in itself but the delivery is wonderful. It's about time that somebody give the two finger salute to the Eminence.

Great Ideas: To give new listeners a chance to jump on board with this release without having to purchase and listen to over four hours of material to reach this point there is a summary of the events of the first two Dark Eyes set. Given it has almost been a year since the last instalment was released it is probably no bad thing that the experienced listeners are given a reminder too. I remembered all the elements (the Master, the Eminence, Liv, Molly, the Daleks, etc) but I couldn't quite recall how they were all linked. There is a war on between humanity and the Eminence and it is one the Doctor feels the Time Lords should have no part in. Is this one step closer to the Time War? There's talk of scrapping the fifty year war between humanity and the Infinite Warriors but playing about with the web of time is a messy business. An innocent woman was stolen from Earth's history - Molly O'Brien - and was turned into a weapon against the Daleks. When that didn't go to plan the Time Lords sent the Master of all people in to clear things up using the Eminence. In the original timeline the IDES scientific Institute was a research body established in the 1970s and little more than an academic institution that faded away in the 25th Century. In this new version of history, post Straxus, it is at the forefront of exploration, space travel, colonisation and technology. The Infinite warriors are the perfect fighters in war because they are merely empty vessels used to ship around the breath of life...they don't feel pain. Because these people have been touched by Molly and have been infected with the Dark Eyes virus, they are now immune to the Eminence. Anyone that the Eminence possesses that are primed with the Dark Eyes antigens will fall under his control instead. The crafty bugger. It was obvious that he was never there on philanthropic terms but to walk into a town of desperate people to recruit a new army of slaves for his cause...that's callous. With the Eminence infecting people with the breath of forever and the Master dosing them with retro genitor particles nobody in this war is fighting because they want to. It's a war of possessed soldiers.

Audio Landscape: Scratchy SOS message, breathing the vapours of the Eminence, gunfire, rubble strewn, all out war, the Master's TARDIS materialising.

Isn't it Odd: Very much the first chapter of this set, I'm not sure that The Death of Hope holds up well as a story in its own right but it certainly gets the audience up to speed and offers some intriguing hints for the future in its economic running time. I can make allowances for a story that has a weighty list of requirements like this but the next instalment needs a stronger focus on its distinctive narrative now all the preparation has been performed.

Standout Scene: The double meaning of the title really hits home in the last five minutes. The Master, happy with the results of his experiment, leaves the people of this colony to their fate. Or does he...?

Result: Part One of The Master Adventures. No wonder Paul McGann can't quite keep the irritation out of his voice. It's a clever, backdoor way of showing what a Master series might be like and with Alex McQueen playing the leading role it looks like it would be a delight to listen to. Regardless of the fact that they are in a set and all written by the same person I will be reviewing these pieces independently as they all have their own titles. The Death of Hope is all set up and prompts about the events of the first two series with hints of what is to come. As a story it certainly has more meat on its bones than The Traitor, which opened the previous set, mostly because of the Master's involvement and how Fitton waits until the last possible moment to reveal his true plan, stringing out the tension. There's not a great deal to discuss because so much of the impact of this story will depend on how it is followed up. Heron's world is nicely sketched in, it's populace represented by a handful of nicely drawn characters but I can't say I was overly concerned about their fate. Had this been a world that I was intimately acquainted with it might have made more of a difference. It's the Master that rises out of this story triumphant. He has achieved his aim but we still don't know how he plans to apply his newfound ability. I can't wait to find out: 7/10

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Masters of Earth written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on. The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy. When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators. By history. Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless... The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help

Softer Six: We have the best of both worlds with the Doctor and Peri these days. Once the black sheep of the Doctor/companion family, they have both matured exponentially on audio to a point where the characters are older and wiser and the actors are intimately acquainted and the net result is a partnership that rivals the best of the best. I've always enjoyed the spiky relationship between this pair but if you were to tell me that the day would come when they would be my favourite Big Finish team over any other combination of regulars I might have laughed in your face. There is a genuine warmth and affection between them now that is palpable. And yet there is still that spikiness and tension that rippled between them too, that can erupt when you least expect it. The Doctor admits with a laugh how much he has missed her these past five years. The Doctor has promised Peri a fresh start and complete honesty. Like an authentic take on the first Doctor's adventures, the Doctor is prevented from returning to the TARDIS to aid his rescue of Peri when it is swallowed whole by a bog. Instead he has to ride across country in a motorcycle, an image I would have loved to have seen on screen. It goes against everything that he believes in but the Doctor cannot get involved. He doesn't give a fig about the Web of Time, he just doesn't want to give the Daleks the heads up about himself or the TARDIS. Trusting Peri with this information, he asks her to do whatever it takes to prevent the Daleks from capturing him and finding out his role in their demise. Even if that means extreme action... This might be the only time in the Doctor's life where he has given his companion permission to kill him, that's how high the stakes are. The Doctor promises to never let Peri down again, a big guarantee to uphold. Listening to the sixth Doctor talk about Dodo is just surreal. He chooses his friends very carefully and his enemies usually choose him.

Busty Babe: Peri remembers that momentary fizz when the Doctor doesn't know where they are once they have landed. She saw enough executions on Krontep to last her a lifetime. She's even more reckless these days because she's enjoyed years of autonomy without his restraining influence. After her experiences as the widows assassin her own name sounds funny in her mouth like she is isn't sure who she is anymore. Because they have been apart for so long Peri has started to wonder if the Doctor has changed more than she thought and because it took him so long to look her up after the last time they were split she wonders if he will just leave her to her fate. After all, he doesn't seem to be particularly interested in getting involved in this conflict with the Daleks. One moment that really stood was Peri calming Ross down in a particularly tense situation when he doesn't think he can go on - this used to be Peri that panicked in these fraught situations. She's furious with the Doctor when he calls her a stupid woman and slaps him around the face, a violent act that shows that she has really grown a pair. You have to feel sorry for a woman who has spent the last five years in the thrall of a nasty from the Doctor's worst imaginings and as soon as she gets her faculties back she is preyed on by Varga plants and partially transformed. I think Peri might be in need of some major therapy once her travels with the Doctor are over. Peri channels Evelyn for a moment when the Doctor appears dispassionate about the loss of one of their friends and she is appalled. Her reaction to the Varga transformation is one of outright hysteria, a very natural response to having your body and mind consumed by pure hate. The writers have Peri react to the massacre at the end of this story in a way that Eric Saward should have had her do in the mid-eighties. She's appalled at the loss of life and how the Doctor got others to pull the trigger for him, keeping his hands nice and clean. In that respect she doesn't think he has changed at all.

Standout Performance: Concentrating the story in Scotland is another unique aspect, giving the story a distinctive location via the actors' brogue. It's a great cast of actors with very natural chemistry, something about how all the characters are working together desperately to survive that gels them into a strong unit.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Like brutal barons of old, the Daleks have cleared the Highlands.'
'I've parked better.'
'Watch out the human race is coming...'
'The Daleks are evil...but they exist. It's not for the likes of me to sign their death certificate.'

Great Ideas: The Dalek Invasion of Earth presented the ultimate post apocalyptic nightmare, the subjugation of the human race by the most evil creatures in the universe. Human beings were either exploited or killed. The planet was raped of its resources. Whilst I question the execution of the story in parts, on paper it is a compelling scenario and one of the few occasions where the Doctor has been on the Earth to prevent its occupation by an alien force. By the time he arrives to sort the problem out it the human race has already suffered for over ten years. It's a huge stain on the planets timeline and the Doctor's record. It is a period that has been mostly ignored since given the end of the story has already been told but it provides Cavan Scott and Mark Wright a fresh avenue to tell a Dalek story in, one where they can explore the psychological ramifications of Dalek occupation without having the burden of having to bring the invasion story to a climax. They can concentrate on their handful of characters and how they are dealing with the nightmare scenario. The human race is trying to hold onto its values but when it is every man for himself the social niceties tend to go out the window. There is always the chance that fresh writers can examine what was presented in an earlier story and offer a gripping new spin on it and the idea that the Dalek neck restraints are curved to prevent the slave workers from slicing their throats open and free themselves from Dalek labour is a case in point. Pure Scott and Wright. Meteor bombardments and sickness struck the Earth and then the Daleks moved in six months later like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The solar system is blockaded and other worlds are unable to stand against the Dalek Empire. A decade of occupation that almost brought the human race to its knees. Moira Brody is on record as being the leader of the Scottish resistance, a woman who was essential in the rebuilding of the Earth when the Daleks were defeated. Her timeline has already been polluted by exposure to the Doctor and Peri and he is starting to worry about further changes if they don't get her back where she needs to be. A forest of Varga plants in Scotland? They are a particularly nasty form of plant life native to Skaro and they have been shipped to the Earth as another arm of the Dalek invasion. The Daleks are turning the Earth into a battle platform that will be piloted through space and plan to shower each planet with Varga seeds prior to their invasion. Varga literally means 'devourer.' If a return to the Dalek Invasion of Earth wasn't enough with an added forest of Vargas, Scott and Wright throw in an ocean seething with Slythers to truly take you back to the height of Dalekmania. Without realising it this band of rebels have passed an intelligence test, managing to escape all the dangers that have been put in their way and reach what was supposed to be an island of safety. There are two types of robomen, the simpler versions and the Elite and unwittingly the Doctor and his friends have been tested to see if they have the appropriate skills to pass as one of the latter. Very sneaky. The Daleks are growing tired of rebel factions springing up all over the world and want to infiltrate those groups with sophisticated robomen that appear to be normal human beings. The trouble with double agents that can blend in seamlessly is that it can work both ways...and that's where things get a little be complicated. Who can the Doctor and Peri trust? Who can the Daleks trust? After all those years of fighting off Dalek subjugation is it any wonder that the human race has developed a sense of xenophobia? Would they become as intolerant of others as those who forced those feelings out of them? What if they had the strength to make sure that no other races in the galaxy had a pop at them? Would they really turn away from that opportunity? Fascinating questions this story throws up. Whilst the Doctor and Peri don't get to bring and end to the Dalek invasion (that was never on the cards), at least one arm of their attack on the earth withers away and dies because of their intervention. Who knows, by causing the Elite programme to fail they might have made a significant difference to the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

Audio Landscape: It's been a while since I have been this impressed by the direction of a main range adventure and it comes as no surprise that it was Nicholas Briggs that was responsible for bringing this two hour long action set piece to life. Birdsong, a lynch mob, a Dalek saucer descending and the landing ramp coming down, Robomen walking through wet mud, the TARDIS swallowed by a bubbling bog, authentic Dalek spaceship background noise and doors, lifted straight from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, pouring a glass of liquor. heavy machinery in the refinery, motorbike spluttering out, Daleks on the intercom, sparking Roboman helmet, gunfire, alarm, two Daleks taken down by a truck, a bracing Scotland wind, a sheep on open land, Robomen shooting at the truck, Dalek fire raining from the sky, the truck tipping down a ravine, dogs barking, Varga plants smashing windows and slurping in hunger for blood, seagulls screaming, waves both inside and outside the boat, a screaming Slyther attacking the boat, heart monitor, high pitched whine, a huge explosion, dragging the TARDIS out of the mud.

Musical Cues: I really enjoy Nick Briggs' soundtracks and don't think we get nearly enough of them these days. He is more in favour of ambient music rather than melodies which reminds me of the scores of stories such as The Dalek Invasion of Earth ad The Daleks' Masterplan. There were moments in Masters of Earth that reminded me strongly of Jubilee, The Apocalypse Element and Dalek Empire. That's a good thing.

Isn't it Odd: It was a creative decision to update the quality of the Daleks voices in Masters of Earth (the ones from Invasion Earth were particularly effeminate dictators) and yet Briggs chooses to keep the slurred voices of the Robomen authentic. I would have been bold and changed those too because at times the remedial brogue of the metallic slaves makes this sound like amateur hour. 'Escaped prisoner has escaped!' - Daleks have never been known for their scintillating conversation but this bunch are validly crass. With so many moments of high drama there were a few occasions when the story descended into an awful lot of hysterical shouting.

Result: I have often complained in the past about certain Big Finish stories coming across as big brash action adventure stories that feel like soundtracks to missing stories, presenting big set pieces that should be seen rather than heard. Rather than exploiting the audio medium for its greatest strengths, the exploration of language and ideas, the stories instead indulge in lots of shouting and explosions. Well I'm going to go against my own argument when it comes to reviewing Masters of Earth because it features more than your usual handful of action sequences and yet delivered by director supremo Nicholas Briggs I was able to shut my eyes and see every frame of the action taking place. Desperate rebels travelling across country and pursued by Daleks at every turn, Masters of Earth presents a gripping scenario that is well dramatised by the authors and expertly brought to life by the director. The action is fast and furious and I was helplessly caught up in dramatic kisses to Dalekmania throughout. The characters feel much more vivid than your average 2014 main range adventure too; battered , bruised and desperate, this band of unlikely friends have developed a no nonsense attitude to life that sees them through the hardships of this story. It's an unusual Dalek story insofar that the writers aren't in the position of having to put a stop to the threat because that has already been dealt with elsewhere so they can concentrate on their own band of characters and their journey exclusively. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish setting and it was a delight to hear so many distinctive accents in play, another unique selling point. Even the dynamic between the Doctor and Peri has been given a fresh lick of paint. Whilst they are far more comfortable with each other now they are older and wiser, her return has brought a bit of that spikiness back to his character and she is no-nonsense these days in an extremely forceful way. They make a great team but there is room for some very interesting tension that comes from knowing each other so well and trying to discover each other again after five years apart. That I wasn't expecting. The final surprise is the fourth episode, which from nowhere reveals that everything that we have been through in this story to that point has been for a purpose. What appeared to be a plotless jaunt through the Dalek invasion coheres into a very strong and well thought through narrative. I was prepared to be very cynical about another Dalek story (tenapenny these days) but this was much, much stronger than I was expecting. I thought the setting and characters were brawny enough that this could have been a pilot for a spin off series - mixing Terry Nation's Survivors and Dalekmania. I'd buy them if they were as good as this: 9/10

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Widow's Assassin written by Nev Fountain and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Once, long ago, in a land of monsters and corridors, a fair maiden was captured, and placed in a deep sleep. She was used to being captured, and she had a hero who rescued her on just such occasions. But this time the hero never came. And the fair maiden slept on.Eventually, a King rescued the maiden, and made her his bride, which many wise old women might tell you is just another way of capturing fair maidens. And still the fair maiden slept on. Then, the hero had another stab at rescuing the maiden from her prison, but he was too late. And, more importantly, he had forgotten the rules of fairy tales. He didn’t slay the dragon.

Softer Six: Let's be honest, it has been a while since a story has shaken things up for Sixie quite like this one. He was the golden boy in the early days of Big Finish with so much to prove and deliver in the wake of his condensed and controversial period on television. It felt that Baker was being favoured with all the best scripts in the first fifty releases and that period cemented him as the Big Finish Doctor to listen out for. Since then he has fronted some wonderful stories - in particular the brief period where he teamed up with Charley he had something of a renaissance - but the character has been coasting for a period. Jamie returned for a series of adventures that never really happened, although as a twelve part epic it was a great bit of storytelling. Evelyn returned for a trio of stories that were madly entertaining rather than anything extraordinary. Flip joined but had something of a mixed response. He hung out with Jago and Litefoot for a couple of stories. It feels like the script editor has been trying to recapture the magic of those early days again and trying everything to see if something sticks. New companions, old companions, fake companions. Nev Fountain has struck upon a winning formula in The Widow's Assassin and has managed to re-vitalise Sixie returning him to his roots and picking up pretty much where we left him on television, albeit so much older and wiser these days. Isn't it astonishing that the sixth Doctor has developed so much that the most controversial and innovative thing you can do is have him return the to scene of his most notorious act - leaving Peri to die...or not - and tie up those loose ends. It's a brave move and smacks a little bit of fan fiction so long after the event but written this intelligently and with such style you wont find me complaining. The result is an adventure that ultimately teams up the Doctor and Peri once again like they have never been away from each other...and gets away with it. Very well done.

He can't bear to see guards squabbling when they should be guarding. He describes the sounding of the TARDIS as the best type of portent: that a hero of infinite wisdom is coming to visit. He's never been known for his modesty. A sneaky reference to the new series is made with the Doctor hiding underneath Peri's wedding dress. He's very coy when he first meets Peri again, admitting that he was disappointed when he didn't get a wedding invite or any kind of message from her. He's willing to spend five years in a cell waiting for her to forgive him - or is he? - and he wont move on with his life until things are settled between them. I've had a problem in the past with writers tossing away the Doctor's years like this in the past but this is cleverest application of the idea that I have seen yet, especially when you find out what he has really been up to all this time. I loved the Doctor's insistence that unless he has been officially requested to investigate her husband-to-be's death he will remain locked in his cell. He doesn't want to risk upsetting her further. Even when he finds the cell door opened he fashions a key and locks himself back in. The Doctor doesn't like a potted history of the people he meets, even if they are suspects to a murder but instead prefers to dive in head first and depend on his wits. What I adored about the Doctor's characterisation in this story is how he is initially portrayed as a nervous man who is trying to find a way for his old friend to forgive him but in reality underneath all that is a fierce intelligence that has been busy working it all out. And yet his poker face remains unchanged until the last possible moment. There's a touch of the seventh Doctor about him in how he manipulates events and it surprises because Sixie is usually so expressive about everything and damn the consequences. I like this quietly scheming side to him. Ycarnos describes the Doctor as insane, traitorous and that he kept swapping sides...but that was what he experienced of him in Mindwarp thanks to Crozier's brain altering device. He's still adept with a right hook too, as Wolsey learns to his regret. The Doctor's deep rooted feeling for Peri is unearthed throughout the course of this adventure but never moreso than when he has the ability to make everything right but could risk losing her in the process. He cannot do it. He cannot lose her again. All this time he has lived with the aching regret that Ycarnos was able to save her when he couldn't and now he has the opportunity to do just that. Is there a mad, wicked, secret Doctor hidden away in the Doctor's mind? One who hates Peri and her whining voice and her ridiculous behaviour. One who was happy to leave her in an impossible situation with Ycarnos and move on with his life? I'd like to think not but we all have uncomfortable thoughts from time to time that rest in our subconscious. I thought the way the Doctor wrestled with his own private demons from the past was inspired and the explanation of how they had been made flesh was beautifully done, tying in with everything that we saw in Mindwarp. It's a huge psychological notion that logically springs from what some consider to be Colin Baker's least convincing moment in the role on television. Trust Fountain to coax something so effective out of a moment of pantomime lunacy. When the Doctor was blasted by Crozier's equipment, it regressed him to a child and awoke something in his mind... Mandrake was his first adversary and if he's not careful he could be his last as well.

Warrior Queen: Every time I think Big Finish have put out the ultimate Peri adventure - The Kingmaker, Peri the Piscon Paradox - Nev Fountain comes along and writes and even more impressive tale for the character. The fact that such a terrific writer has been actively engaged in giving an oft-criticised character - or at least certainly in the TV series - such development has been a real stroke of luck for the character. She's been treated to some of best development of any companion, certainly on audio. The Widow's Assassin is Peri's story as much as it is the Doctor's and we go on a massive journey with her here...and bizarrely end up exactly where we left off before she left the Doctor. There is a marked difference between the Peri we left on Thoros Beta and the one who is about to marry Ycarnos. Angry and embittered, she cannot believe that the Doctor left her to fend for herself and got on with his life and she cannot forgive him. She wont give him any kind of a way in because that might give him a crumb of comfort and she doesn't think that he deserves it. The fact that Peri refuses to investigate Ycarnos' death should be a massive hint that something is quite wrong with her. As the Doctor points out, the Peri he knows would be all over it until justice is served. Her massive change of heart five years later is another pointer. Peri has had her male admirers over the years but I don't think anybody can hold a candle to prince Harcross the Ever Patient. He gets the ribbon for number one fan. The result of Spectrox Toxaemia has left Peri unable to conceive children, something that she is unaware of and I'm sure will be handled sensitively in a future tale. For Peri to be confronted by the same vicious, spiteful sixth Doctor that she was tormented by after his regeneration is her worst nightmare come to true. She's stronger now than she was then and she knows how much he has changed over gives her the strength to give this phantom of the past a piece of her mind. Bask as Peri very persuasively figures out her strange environment and the message the Doctor is trying to get across to her. She might have been written dumb on occasion in the TV series but Fountain remembers this character is supposed to be educated and grants her a firm intelligence. Peri needs to know whether the Doctor still needs her or not...well what do you think the answer is?

Standout Performance: This story belongs to Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant but it is an ensemble piece in every sense of the words with many of the actors taking on multiple parts and doing some wonderful things with them. Baker always gives his all but this time he is rewarded with a script that dishes him out some of his fantastic material. He gets to be funny, intelligent, melancholic, nasty, poetic, sneaky and remorseful. Bryant matches him beat for beat, effectively playing four characters in this tale and imbuing all of them with a truth that makes the transitions effortless. What a nourishing script for the actress and she rises to the challenge at every turn. Colin and Nicola playing each others characters was just sublime.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The fact that I left without waiting to say goodbye...that was your message.'
'I have God on my side. Which God am I worshipping today, Drast?'
'Please allow me to break off a piece of myself as a gift to you.'
'I forgot that you were one of the educated ones...why couldn't you have been Jamie?'
'That's three yous in one breath, young lady.'

Great Ideas: When they were first introduced I was groaning at the thought of Welsh comedy guards called Guard One and Guard Two - yep that is their actual names - and thinking that we were heading into The One Doctor levels of parody. What happened instead was quite surprising. Yes, there was a line of mocking humour to how they were written throughout but because of their warm and delightful interaction with the Doctor and each other I really took to the pair of them. Within this crazy universe that Fountain has spun, they make perfect sense. So much so that I found the loss of one of them unexpectedly moving. Colour me impressed. If anybody detects a whiff of The Holy Terror about this story - with its dungeon setting, comedy and tragedy and larger than life characters that generate a great deal of pathos - it can only be a positive sign. I don't think there was any real chance that Brian Blessed was going to appear in this story so I wasn't surprised that Ycarnos was written out so brazenly. It is the catalyst for the dramatic series of events that follows so it was quite necessary too. Fountain isn't afraid to fill his stories with some colourful characters, to add a little but of whimsy and pantomime to a range that often shies away from the sort of thing these days. As a result the guest cast in Assassin really stood out. Wolsey the sheepish security guard goes on as much of a journey as the Doctor and Peri, reacting to its twists and turns with surprise and incredulity. He's our identification figure in this tale...and he's a ram. That tells you how nuts this story is. Then there's Pteratrark - I swear Fountain chose that name because he knew it would be difficult to write and pronounce - who's a fearthed aristocrat with an insane Eastern European accent and Flitamus, a monk bat that purrs his way through the story switching faiths and venerating his latest Holy cause. Colourful, crazy characters who seem a bit too broad at first but who you get close to throughout the course of the story and I was rooting for them both to win the hand of the Princess at the end. They're trying to win her over and turn their small Empires into larger ones. As for Drast and Tocrodi who make little impact at first...well they turn out to be two of the most intriguing characters to have appeared in a Big Finish for some time. Amongst all these exotic and outrageous characters there is even room for the Prince Most Deepest All Yellow, the first sea sponge of the anemone tribe. And the Empathy Sprite, the Princess' pet that can sniff out all of your worst qualities and judge whether you would be a good suitor. I don't know what Fountain takes in his coffee but I would love to try some. A hall constructed out of the skeleton of a Megaptera? That's macarcbre. Did the Doctor poison Peri's drink? As with the rest of this is not as simple as it seems. Mandrake the Lizard King makes a spectacular appearance at the end of episode three...and the truth behind his existence stretches far into the Doctor's childhood. There are three deaths in the final episode, one is very moving and two are simply hysterical. After everybody has been seeking the heart of the Princess, she winds up falling for the one man who doesn't want her.

Audio Landscape: Alarm, firing a weapon and taking a chunk out of the wall, clashing steel, the superb electronic voice for Prince Most Deepest All Yellow, the revolving throne, handcuffs, the mind probes activating.

Standout Scene: The Doctor's many disguises. The identity of the Ycarnos' assassin and Peri's poisoner. Mandrake's back story. The truth about the relationship between Flitamus and Pteratrark. All inspired revelations. Just as there was a thread of Peri mentions that ran through the previous Flip trilogy, it looks as though there is going to be a course of regret about Flip that runs through these Peri adventures. Or so it appears. Fountain saved my favourite twist for last and let's just say that the dramatic close to Scavenger is paid off in true style at the end of The Widow's Assassin. I never saw that one coming.

Result: This story had some of my favourite twists and turns in it of any Big Finish story so I had to listen to the story twice within a day to make sure that I was giving it a fair review and not just judging on my reaction to it's surprises. I had thought we were long past stories that were as whimsical, as colourful, as emotive and as outrageously inventive as this in the main range. It would appear that Nev Fountain has an endless stream of creativity locked up inside of him and he has been allowed to let his imagination run riot with this tale. It's a story that has so many layers to it that it might take several listens to realise how perfectly the jigsaw of insane concepts comes together. It heads to some pretty whacky places but what anchors the story is the genuine emotion that Fountain manages to generate. Whilst it is making you laugh at the gags and gasp at the revelations, there is an seam of poignancy and pathos that runs throughout that prevents it from tipping over into farce. I can understand why those who like their Doctor Who stories grounded might reject this as it is off somewhere in the stratosphere for the majority of its running time...but you would be denying yourself the pleasure of an intricately plotted, madly funny and startlingly creative piece of work. It's a story that evolves with the advent of each cliffhanger, the sign of good writer utilising them well. Episode one brings together the Doctor and Peri, sketches in this corner of the galaxy and the vibrant characters, episode two mixes the comedy of the battle of suitors with the drama of the murder mystery of who poisoned the Queen, the third episode plays along much more traditional lines of crazy science fiction ideas and answers a lot of questions left hanging by Trial of a Time Lord and then the story rouses for genuinely surprising fourth episode where we learn something quite extraordinary about the Doctor's past. Those who have rejected Steven Moffat's attempts to add to mythology might sniff at the shading that is added to the Doctor's character but I for once found it far less off-putting than the climax of Listen. At the heart of all this is the sixth Doctor, who is characterised magnificently, and Peri who enjoys some of her best ever moments. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant seize the opportunity to play a script this nuanced and have cemented their place as my favourite current Big Finish regulars. They learn a great deal of intimate knowledge about each other because of this adventure and going forward it will make them an even stronger pairing. Like all of Nev Fountain's opus, repeated listens only add to the overall experience and this is his second knockout in the main range this year. It's the best cover for ages, too: 10/10

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Shakespeare Code written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare...investigating witches?

Mockney Dude: 'I've only got one heart working! How do you people cope?' There's a giddy joy to the Doctor and Martha's adventures in this story that is quite infectious to watch. Now the season is long past it marks itself even more given the jet black path the season would take in its second half (the run from Human Nature to The Sound of Drums is unquestionably bleak). At this point they are simply enjoying themselves and because this is packaged as a one-off trip for Martha they are both making the most of it. If there is one thing that the Doctor can't resist it is a mystery and as soon as Loves Labours Won is mentioned they are there for the long haul. The Doctor cannot resist slipping in the odd quote but with Shakespeare's thieving brain on the case he has inadvertently created those quotes in the first place. Don't think about it too much, your head might burst. The Doctor is such a thoughtless bugger, utterly unaware that when taking your latest companion for a spin and sharing an intimate moment with her that you don't start highlighting how much better your previous companion was at this. Sometimes he just doesn't get human emotions at all. It sounds like an insane notion to have the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare investigating witches from another dimension but somehow it works wonderfully well thanks to the chemistry between Tennant, Agyeman and Kelly and the witty script. He's moving with the times, not explaining things in educational terms these days but indulging in pop culture references to get his point across to his companion (Back to the Future). Seduction is one form of magic that definitely wont work on the Doctor. Watch the scene of Martha starting the Doctor's second heart and then tell me these two don't work together. What on Earth could the Doctor have done to have upset Queen Elizabeth I so much? Maybe we'll find out one day...he certainly looks eager to enjoy that adventure. When Tennant is on form and enjoying himself this much, it's very easy to get dragged along with him.

Doctor-in-training: Martha asks a lot of smart questions about travelling in the TARDIS. How is the ship powered? Do you have to pass a test to fly it? Can she change her own history? Will she be carted off as a slave because of her colour? She's a bright lass, this one. She's had worse than crap being thrown at her working late night in AandE. She's got an eye for the Doctor but it's clear that he doesn't reciprocate but she is still willing to hold out, even turning down the Bard himself (especially since his breath stinks). Martha's attempt to subdue the Carrionites is hilariously bad and I love her little dash of pop culture at the climax. She's working out just fine.

Alas, Poor Yorick: Do these celebrity historicals do more harm than good by offering up an idealised version of the historical figures? I certainly don't think so. The sad truth of the matter is that for the young of today looking at the past is a mugs game and the innovations of the future is where all the excitement is. As such you have to offer a little incentive to entice children in to learning about our history. By all means teach them about Nero and the great fire of Rome but offer up a hysterically funny, horny version of the character that children can laugh at. H G Wells' was a man who was touched by genius when it came to writing science fiction but if you want to explore his impact on the genre shove him into a colourful story on an alien world that is full of dazzling ideas that inspire his writing. The new series has followed the trend; Queen Victoria being menaced by a werewolf, Agatha Christie on the hunt for a giant wasp, Vincent Van Gogh fighting an invisible demons whilst trying to grapple with his psychological ones too...  I have been moaning about the lack of a pure historical for an official yonk but I can see why we have to make a trade off by adding a science fiction element to secure the interest of the children. One of Sydney Newman's initial remits was to educate but the whole method of teaching has changed since the sixties.  You can't ask kids to chart Marco Polo's journey through China in their free time these would have to add in a couple of monsters to sweeten the pill. The Shakespeare Code offers up the most idealised version of a historical character yet. Rather than the stuffy, collared academic you might imagine gracing the screen, this version of Shakespeare is young, charismatic, sexy and a terrible flirt with ladies and gentleman. He's the height of cool and he's written some damn good plays too. This was a very sensible approach if you ask me - this is a Shakespeare that kids can relate to and whilst they are basking in his presence a little history can be fed to them at the same time. The truth of the matter is that there is relatively little documented evidence about what Shakespeare was like or even what he looked like, it is his plays that have been examined in great depth and many conclusions about his character drawn. This almost gives Gareth Roberts, Russell T. Davies and Dean Lennox Kelly carte blanche to create whatever sort of man they want. And the one they choose to whip up I find rather intoxicating. He's introduced as a celebrity of the time, playing up to the crowd ('Shut your big fat mouth!') and stirring up anticipation for his next piece. Like a lot of men, his trousers do a lot of the decision making and as soon as he claps eyes on Martha he welcomes her and the Doctor into his world. He's a man of many vices but speaks of a tragic past that could explain away his flaws, losing his son and doing a spell in Bedlam. It could also be why he pours himself into his writing, to travel on a sea of storytelling and forget his woes. Shakespeare finds the idea that he isn't the cleverest man around invigorating, the sign of a great learner. The only aspect of this interpretation of the character that really got on my nerves was how Shakespeare figures out the Doctor was an alien who travelled through time. Vincent Van Gogh and Robin Hood both had the same uncanny ability to read the Doctor and in both of those cases it made no sense either. Shakespeare is left in the presence of the Queen pretty much the exact point where their association began. I think his future is bright, for the time being at least.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Do people shout that? Author, Author!' 'They do now...'
'Whoa Nelly! I know for a fact that you have a wife in the country' 'But Martha, this is town...' 'Come along we can flirt later' 'Is that a promise, Doctor?' '57 academics just punched the air...' - great banter between them all.
'I never think much of sequels. They've never as good as the originals.'
'Let us out!' 'That's not gonna work...the whole building's shouting that.'

The Good:
* Has London ever been captured quite this beautifully in a Doctor Who story before? Certainly not to my mind. The luxurious, cinematic CGI rendering of the city in Elizabethan times is one of the places where the new series reveals that it can knock spots off the original, under funded, run. How gorgeous is that opening shot? The moon dazzling off the lapping river Thames, ships sailing past and inviting lights glowing in windows. Whilst it is perhaps too sumptuously lit, Bedlam hospital is unpleasantly brought to life with prisoners scratching at the bars, screams echoing through the halls and a menacing CGI shot of the asylum dominating the sky. Check out the moments when the physical location work is combined with the romantic CGI backdrops - it is pure cinema. Huge crowds of people are added to the Globe in order to give it the riotous feel of the time when this was the most popular form of entertainment.
* Doctor Who has tended to avoid the rather obvious nasties of fairy tale mythology in the classic series, offering up science fiction versions of classic bedtime chillers. Primords rather than werewolves, that sort of thing. It has never touched upon the notion of evil witches before, probably fearing that the idea would be taken too far and played for laughs. Whilst all the trappings are there (the bubbling cauldron, the flying, the cackling), the Carrionites and played for real. The first thing we see them do is tear a man to shreds whilst laughing their heads of...a man lured who was lured to his death by his libido (there is a message there, I'm sure...). Forcing a man to choke to death on water in dry land, vomiting up great mouthfuls of seawater is quite unpleasant to witness and the Doctor is stabbed through the heart via a stuffed doll. Their quite a vicious bunch on their own, imagine the carnage their entire race would cause if let loose upon the Earth?
* Political correctness gone mad, indeed. I've read academic examinations of this episode that seem to have missed the point that it is supposed to be entertaining and gone straight for the race card claiming that it makes some very ugly assertions about minorities. Tommy rot. The truth of the matter is that racism has always existed and people have always made judgements. It's a sad truth but an undeniable one and pretending as though it never happened hardly paints a realistic view of history. Shakespeare's comments might be near the knuckle but he's so intoxicated by Martha that his poetic talent is spun into overdrive. I see very little to object to here and the arguments that have sprung up strike me as critics who are trying to delve a little too deeply into something that is essentially supposed to be a bit of fun. Sometimes you can examine these things too deeply and forget the original motive for watching.
* The joining of witchcraft and the power of etymology is dazzling, this isn't Doctor Who simply dabbling in magic but inventing a creative new science that has evolved around words. And why not? Logopolis did precisely the same thing with numbers, which was more scientifically accurate perhaps but no where near as imaginative. To me words are the most powerful tools in creation, they give us the ability to communicate, to build meaning into our lives; to challenge and debate, to tell wonderful stories and go on incredible adventures and never leave your armchair. Knowledge is power and the basis of knowledge is words. You have to make the leap from that to a language which can manipulate the fabric of reality but this is Doctor Who we are talking about. Imaginative leaps are a necessity. Words stir emotions in us all the time and harnessing those emotions and using them to effect others is a bold concept that I can buy into because words have a profound effect on me. I liked the use of the power of a name, an old idea that stretches back into fairytales. When you think about it, when somebody knows your name that does give them a certain power over you. The whole your identity in their hands. This is an extension of that idea, that somebody can harm you with your name.
* I find the climax of this adventure quite stirring. The rules have been laid down about words and their power, we've been informed of how the shape of the Globe can be applied to harness that power and the Carrionites have been said to have been tied away by the Eternals. Which means the use of certain words in a play can unlock their prison and release hell on Earth. Narratively speaking, it makes absolute sense. Then you have the astonishing visuals of the Globe on fire with spectres which genuinely looks as if chaos has been unleashed. The shots of the Carrionites spreading their wings and flying out into Elizabethan England are extraordinary. I'm not always keen on how practically every episode tries to pull off an ambitious, cinematic climax but in The Shakespeare Code it feels very right. Add in a dash of Harry Potter to keep the kids happy, allow Shakespeare to prove his worth with words, trap the monsters in a crystal ball and explain away where Loves Labours Won vanished to and you have a hugely enjoyable, satisfying resolution.

The Shallow Bit: Freema Agyeman is so delectably gorgeous you could almost believe that she was hired for her visual sumptuousness rather than her acting talent. Her smile is so bright it could light up any room. Dean Lennox Kelly isn't traditionally handsome but he attacks the part with such charisma it was impossible for me to resist.

Result: Given its humble ambitions as an early season bit of fluff, it's hard to imagine how this episode generates such a dramatic response, both in its favour or not. I've heard people tear it to pieces and suggest it is the nadir of the show since it's revival and I've read glowing appraisals saying it is precisely how the celebrity historical should be handled. Whilst I don't think it is one of the all time greats, I find there is so much to enjoy in The Shakespeare Code that I settle into it's world of wordsmiths and witchcraft with incredible ease. Essentially this is a case of 'Doctor Who and Shakespeare team up to take on witches' but to sum it up so starkly does the story and the production a disservice since both have been crafted with a lot of care. It takes a lot of effort to pull off something as entertaining as this and certainly to do it this stylishly. To my mind Gareth Roberts has been on a path of diminishing returns when it comes to Doctor Who. He's a witty, intelligent writer but often seems lumbered with the weakest slot of the season. The episode after the opening spectacular, the mid season graveyard slot, the pre-finale wake...he never seems to get the chance to prove himself like he did on The Sarah Jane Adventures where he often secured the most dramatic position of the season. His work under Davies was strong (especially The Unicorn and the Wasp) but under Moffat he's working to a formula that has been repeated three times over and getting weaker with each attempt. When he can conjure up something as intoxicating as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane what is Roberts doing wasting his talent on The Caretaker? The Shakespeare Code was his debut script and you can see that he is bubbling over with glee at the chance to write for the series. The dialogue sizzles, the ideas are imaginative and he offers great scope for director Charles Palmer to fill the screen with classy imagery. It's a story that features a strong Doctor and a sassy companion landing in history, forgetting all about the TARDIS and story arcs and simply having a rollicking good time investigating a mystery in Elizabethan England. That sort of unpretentious storytelling is so rare in the series these days it should be applauded and once you add in the cinematic visuals and the wit you have massively entertaining episode. I haven't even mentioned Christina Cole who gives an absolutely stellar performance: 8/10

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: The show is fond of these self-explanatory titles these days...

Indefinable: Probably his most Doctorish showing so far this year whilst still retaining everything that makes Capaldi's Doctor so unique from his immediate predecessors. Because he and Clara are on awkward terms it is his chance to prise himself from her apron strings and investigate on his own. It's about damn time he claimed his show back and he dominates this episode, displaying as much warmth and humour as he does attitude and bite. It's a healthy antidote to anybody who might have thought he has plumbed new depths of bastard lately (last week he suggested a child be murdered before him and skipped out on the climax). Whilst there is the 'one last trip' with Clara angle to consider, it isn't the focus and that means the Doctor can get on with doing what he does best, dealing with a whopping great mystery, getting to grips with an icky monster and trying to save as many lives as possible. Yes, I can see why many people are suggesting this is the highlight of season eight so far. He scrubs up very nicely and offering jelly babies in a cigarette case and trips in the TARDIS to handymen reveals a gentler, more amenable side to the Time Lord that helps to build a more rounded picture of him in an episode where he is deliberately walking young women into potentially homicidal scenarios. The Doctor leaves Clara with no doubt that when he drops her off it will be the last time he sees her. Once she has made her choice he isn't going to play games or hang around, he's got planets composed entirely of shrubs to be getting to. I love the scene where he is talking to himself and makes the suggestion that this is the work of a mummy (he says 'mummy' with the same gravitas that Tom Baker would). He's not above pointing out peoples vices in order to expose them and kick them into action. I loved the moment when he was smoothing his way into the Professor's good books, it proves that he is capable of being polite whilst never dropping his cool facade. The Doctor is at his best when surrounded by the scientists and taking charge of the situation, trying to understand what the mummy is and why he is working under direction. You can see the keen intelligence, the ruthless need to unwrap the mystery and his willingness to sacrifice himself and others exposes that he will go to any lengths to do it. Rather than offering words of remorse to a man who is going to die in 30 seconds, the Doctor instead asks for details about their animated cadaver. Clara is impressed that the Doctor saved everyone but he refuses her praise and makes a glib remark about letting everyone die. At least he's true to himself. The scene on the beach is the closest you are going to get to a tender moment between this Doctor and Clara. It's beautiful because it's so subtle, which is as affectionate as he gets. It's taken two thirds of a season but Capaldi is firing on all cylinders now.

The Impossible Girl: I have one major reservation about Clara in Mummy on the Orient Express but aside from that aberration (albeit a major one, dealt with below) this is a pretty inoffensive showing for the character. For once (and it is very rare this season) the focus isn't on her (they'll make up for that next week) and she is allowed to embody the companion role in the same way that she did last season when we barely knew a thing about her. The difference between then and now is her much improved chemistry with the actor who plays the Doctor and Coleman's absolute confidence in the role now. I have re-watched season 7b in the past week whilst cross training and I don't think I have ever seen an actress struggling so much to make something out of so little characterisation (especially in Hide and Nightmare in Silver). In comparison the Clara of Mummy is at peace with her role in the series and Coleman is able to bring a lot more personality because she isn't caught in the middle of an arc that is deliberately making her character a mystery. I was a little perturbed by the fact that Clara stepped from the TARDIS with the Doctor on speaking terms after her impressive rage at him last week but Mathieson makes good sense of the sudden reversal, making this Clara's last hurrah in the TARDIS and making an attempt to say goodbye to the man that she has become alienated from. It gives the train added atmosphere, a feeling of melancholy that the Doctor has chosen this location as the last one to see his companion out on. Clara has figured that she doesn't hate the Doctor but she cannot travel with this version, not the way he does things. Until the climax Clara is essentially kept out of action and out of the way - I could almost believe that in one version of this story (following the dramatic climax of Kill the Moon) that she wasn't present at all. Little of what takes place plot-wise would be affected. When she realises she has been used by the Doctor to bring another victim to the mummy, Clara is furious. It makes even more of a mockery of her decision at the conclusion.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We apologise for any distress you may have just experienced. Grief counselling is available on request. On the bright side, I'm sure you've all collected a lot of data. Well done everyone!'
'I'm the Doctor and I will be your victim tonight. Are you my mummy?'
'Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones...but you still have to choose.'

The Good:
* Maybe we'll skip over the season which produced the cuddliest T-Rex stomp-stomp-a-stomping through Victorian London, robots who are more stylish than they are scary hanging out in Sherwood forest, the mobile dustbin with waving arms that is advertised as the most perfect killing machine ever devised, the Admiral Ackbar substitute that is mooning over its lost mate in the vaults of the bank of Karabraxos or the forest of the night swamps modern day London and forgets to add any kind of threat to the situation. You might be under the impression that Doctor Who has forgotten how to scare its audience. But that's only half of this years content. Season eight for me is the year where Doctor Who managed to (occasionally) find the fear factor again. Firstly you have the Daleks who have been allowed to get back to doing what they do best (murdering the fuck out of everybody) but other nightmarish creatures come in the form of a haunting silhouette sitting on a child's bed, an indefinable threat at the end of time, giant spiders with drooling fangs nesting on the moon, two dimensional nasties from another plan of existence that will suck the dimension from your body in their attempt to say hello (or not). They've all been conceptual horrors that have worked because I haven't quite been able to rationalise them or make them safe. You can't communicate with them, simply run away. And that's the same problem with this weeks macarcbre creation that drags it's putrid, scabby feet through the plush carriages of the Orient Express. A Mummy might be a recognisable horror from folklore but it is one that I have rarely seen realised this unpleasantly. The last time one showed up on the programme it turned out to be a servo robot slaved to an alien God trapped on Mars. This time round there are no such concession to make the walking cadaver safe. Ribs exposed, dressings barely covering its decaying flesh, sightless black orbs for eyes, gnashing, broken teeth and a impression of putrefying for years before being animated and let loose on its victims. So horrible that it wasn't able to make it into the trailer for series eight in fear of scaring off the little ones for good. What's unique about this mummy is the off the wall notion that once it has you in it's sights you only have 66 seconds to live. The way these set pieces play out with the victims unable to escape the rotting carcass within the cramped setting creates some of the tensest moments in a Doctor Who episode for quite some time. I especially like the murder of the chef who tries to put a door between him and the mummy and he still winds up with its filthy hands around his throat.
* I may have mentioned it several times before but I just love stories set on trains. I couldn't explain what it is beyond the boyish obsession with transport, the urgency of drama taking place on a rapidly moving vehicle and the general atmosphere that comes with the clickety-clack of the wheels bouncing off the track. Trapping a bunch of characters in a confined space with a threat coming at them is hardly a new idea in Doctor Who (it was the Troughton eras bread and butter) but how sparkling is the notion of a Mummy savaging the passengers of the Orient Express that is worming its way through space? That's a purely Doctor Who notion that should get any fans toes tingling. The first time I spotted the train cart gliding through the stars and heading towards a nebula I clapped with excitement. The boldest, nuttiest setting for some time. Inside is pure 1930s and as we all know from experience that is where the BBC designers absolutely shine. Plush decoration, elegant costumes, subdued lighting, food and drink aplenty and even some catchy entertainment, the Orient Express is stunningly realised to be the height of luxury.
* Foxes version of Don't Stop Me Now is delightful. Doctor Who isn't usually the sort of show that has the time to play out an entire song within it's economic time frame and I would therefore suggest you check out the full song on YouTube which comes dressed with plenty of clips from this season. It's one of the most impressive trailers for Doctor Who I have ever seen. 
* What a story set in one confined location needs is some well defined characters to bring it alive. Since this was originally a setting for an Agatha Christie book (which the title apes) it makes sense that the assembled guests should be vividly characterised, even if they are just fodder for the snarling cadaver. Impressively, Mummy on the Orient Express has three characters that really stood out and if I'm honest that is three more than the average these days in generally characterless world of Moffat-Who. Whilst it does become a little obvious later on that there are plenty in the crowd who haven't been handed a personality (especially when the lab is in lockdown), Captain Quell, Perkins and Maisie all strike me as a strong guest cast that are afforded enough time to make an impression. It might have something to do with the way he is shot in the shadows when he first appears but there is a sinister air around Frank Skinner's Perkins that makes him a little more interesting than the loyal engineer he ultimately turns out to be. I certainly wouldn't have objected in him hanging around in the TARDIS (a long term fan, Skinner had to have the chance to take a spin around the console room) and making the odd appearance in subsequent episodes (whilst not stepping outside the ship at any point). That might have been an fun idea to play out for the rest of the season. Perkins is the character that the Doctor has most related to all year; hanging out in the shadows, trying to fix things without making a fuss and not having to ingratiate himself with the passengers. Yes, you can see why they might get on. Daisy Beaumont imbues Maisie with enough regret and sadness to make her more than a flapping victim of fate and I found the admission that she had long wished her grandmother dead an excellent bit of character shorthand to understand the sort of person she was. Most impressive of all though was David Bamber's Captain Quell who manages to convince with relatively little screen time that he has had a chequered past, seen some terrible things and is living out his life in a safe job where he thought he could retire comfortably. There are acres of off screen history that is alluded to and the viewer can sketch in, especially when you see how keen he is to hit the bottle. Bamber is willing to expose the character at his best (brave and uncompromising) and worst (despondent and irrational). It's an impressive performance that could get lost in all the melodrama. The fact that the character is marked because of suffering from post-traumatic stress is expertly woven into the episode so the moment makes perfect sense. It's been a long time since characters were whipped up this instantly, it was a skill that RTD excelled at that Moffat lacks. Mathieson should be enticed back for this skill alone (let alone all the other qualities that shine in Mummy and Flatline).
* I'd recognise John Sessions' voice anywhere. His clipped, upper crust affectation proves remarkably sinister, even if we never find out who he is. The kiss that is blown to And Then There Were None was not lost on me.
* Decompressing the kitchen and sucking the staff out into space because the Doctor made a phone call? That is harsh. I proper kick in the gut for the Time Lord. In an era where it looked like nobody could die, Moffat has returned the show to it's roots of murdering innocents in creative ways. About damn time.
* The exquisitely shot and scored scene on the beach. One of the best Doctor/Clara moments, highlighted as such because it is followed by one of the worst.

The Bad:
* What the hell is wrong with Danny Pink? I cannot relate to this guy at all. Clara phones him up and tells him she is on a train that is travelling through galaxies that is being stalked by a mummy. If that was me on the other end of the phone I would be desperate to join her. Somehow Danny makes the idea of travelling in the TARDIS sound like the dreariest of notions. Why would a character be created who does that? And why would our beloved companion fall for such a funless jerk?
* After heaping praise on the general look of this episode I have to admit I wasn't impressed by the lab set. It was over lit and reminded me a lot of 80s Who, offering no shadows for the mummy to hide in anymore.
* Who the frick was John Sessions' character? How can something that important to the plot (especially after the whole affair is exposed as a scientific expedition posing as a luxury trip) be conveniently left blank?
* Perhaps any explanation would have been a disappointment? Remember earlier in the season when I discussed the nature of horror and how the reasoning behind the unnatural occurrences often spoils the level of threat? That's exactly what happens here. A slavering zombie decked in mucky bandages stalking innocent victims. That's scary. A soldier of a war that we've never heard about re-animated for no good reason and convinced by the Doctor that the conflict is over. That's just puzzling. I'm not sure the situation is adequately explained at all but Capaldi talks with confidence and speed you might just be bewitched into thinking it all makes sense. I was left scratching my head as to how any of this was relevant. The Doctor says 'we surrender' and the mummy stops killing and is reduced to ashes? Worst soldier ever. Surely those that filled it 'full of kit' thought of that? Who modified it in the first place? And what was up with the 66 seconds malarkey? Did I miss the explanation for that? And who controlled Gus? Why did they want the mummy reverse engineered?
* Clara's off. She's definitely off. She's had a massive barney with the Doctor. She's had an adventure with him that practically serves as a coda to their adventures. She's resolved to leave the heartless man the Doctor has become and enjoy her relationship with Danny. Whilst it has held up the action at times this character arc for Clara has been woven into the season rather nicely, right back as far as Deep Breath where she began trying to understand who this man was again. This is an effective way of proving just how alien Capaldi's Doctor is, that he has alienated his companion enough to leave. And now she's off. Definitely off. Oh wait, no she isn't. In one of the most obscene moments of character reversal Clara decides actually she wants to keep hanging with the Doctor just because and never mind about the wobble that she had. What. The. Hell? The climax of Kill the Moon worked so well because the Doctor has been acting so callously, something he keeps up in this episode. To wipe away Clara's reaction to all this so glibly makes the whole journey we have been going on seem so pointless and it makes a mockery of the previous drama. Oh yeah, sorry, I was angry but I want to make it to the end of the season so everything is okay now. I was dumbfounded. Just at the point where Clara has started to exhibit some personality she is dialled back to her factory settings in the most unconvincing manner. Mind you if it came to a choice between travel with a callous bastard and a life with a funless maths teacher... Creating drama that you simply shrug off when it has done it's job? The whole thing feels off and utterly unnatural. 

The Shallow Bit: How do they do it? Every time they give Jenna Coleman a makeover they somehow manages to make her look even more gorgeous than the last time. This time she is dressed for the period (mock 1930s). Anyone who is persuaded by the female form claiming that Coleman is the most gorgeous creature to have graced Doctor Who could quite possibly be telling the truth.

Result: 'To our last hurrah...'  Another strong episode, albeit for completely different reasons to Kill the Moon. I was a little hesitant about Mummy on the Orient Express after my first viewing because I was so appalled by the climax - it is the reverse season six syndrome. Back then I was convinced that a handful of sub-par episodes were good because they ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that blew my mind away (The Almost People, A Good Man Goes to War). With Mummy you have a generally very engaging episode that reduces that frustratingly refuses to provide any decent answers and climaxes on a moment of character reversal that obliterates any character development for Clara in an instant. Like Flesh and Stone, an arc intrusion in the last scene threatens to leave a lingering feeling of disappointment in a piece that has so much to offer. Maddening. However I want to focus on the positives because this claustrophobic chiller is packed to the gills with them. A stylishly attired, captivating, occasionally genial and fascinating twelfth Doctor with ample opportunities for Capaldi to impress for one thing. A genuinely frightening monster with a catchy twist (gone in 66 seconds) for another. Setting the episode on a train scores it instant marks from me (its a childhood obsession I cannot shake) but the realisation of the setting deserves high praise too. You can see precisely why the Doctor chose this spot to say ta-ta to Clara. There are a handful of well-drawn characters to push the story along and the set pieces of the mummy stalking its victims are genuinely ghoulish. Director Paul Wilmshurst captures the stifling feeling that you cannot escape this nasty creation no matter what you try and do. For the first 40 minutes the episode juggles its plot, shocks and characters with real skill and it's only when it comes to wrapping everything up (hoho) that the narrative falters. Simply put, the answers are non-existent and make very little sense of what has gone before. As much as I can praise this story for getting so much spot on, I cannot offer full marks to a writer who dazzles with frights in the one hand but has no reasoning to back it up in the other. Funny, scary and engaging...but frustratingly kept from being absolutely top dollar: 8/10