Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Face of Evil written by Chris Boucher and directed by Pennant Roberts

There is a very interesting premise at the core of The Face of Evil, more interesting than a computer with a split personality that split up a colony ship into two separate tribes. The Doctor has often been portrayed as a flawed hero but we never really get to see evidence of this so to hear him admit that on his last visit he tried to help and misjudged his tinkering (and his ego) is quite a shock. Much like The Ark it is fascinating to set the story long after the Doctor's first visit and to explore the consequences. Whilst hardly apologetic the Doctor is clearly horrified to see the far-reaching results of his handiwork, you realise just how much of an impact, how much change he has caused when he doesn't even recognise the planet or the people until the end of the second episode! I love this idea of the Doctor failing, its one of the reason I will take him over James Bond (actually in latter years Bond has been portrayed as a flawed hero so that is a pretty moot argument of mine) any day because the Doctor can lose and lose spectacularly. A lot of people die in this story and none of it would have happened had the Doctor never visited. He's the catalyst for everything that takes place.

The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen and looking at it objectively it is easy to see why. It isn't one of the big hitting spectaculars like Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Deadly Assassin, it doesn't have the rich visual splendour of The Robots of Death of Masque of Mandragora. Even The Hand of Fear has Lis Sladen's creepy turn as the possessed Sarah and her moving departure at the end of the story. In comparison The Face of Evil is a studio bound tale set on a faceless alien world full of visual science fiction clichés such as tribesmen and insane computers. But to write it off as such is to do the story a great disservice.

It is a very clever piece from writer Chris Boucher that takes big ideas like God-worship and split personality and applies them to a tale that is low on action but scores well intellectually. Hinchcliffe is still taking risks three stories from his departure, most producers would keep it safe and just use writers they can rely on but this young, dynamic producer is still drawing fresh talent to the show. A bold but successful step, the script is lively and packed with amusing dialogue and clever quips (but then with Robert Holmes lurking in the background that is practically a given). It's beautifully structured too, the first two episodes introduce the main concepts; the mystery of the Doctor's influence on the planet, the scientific equipment scattered about a primitive colony. After exploring the Sevateem camp the story switches location for the last two episodes into the Tesh ship and introduces the heart of the problem in the memorable third cliffhanger. It holds back its answers for as long as possible but it is more satisfying as such because we have seen so much evidence to give the revelations some weight. Because it is a more considerate story than usual it demands more time to deal with its climax, which unusually takes place halfway through the last episode with plenty of time to deal with explanations and the future of the colonists. It's not a perfect story but you cannot fault the effort that has gone into the writing, which is unusually dense for this series.

How bizarre is it to see a companionless Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I don't think I could have managed a whole story with the Doctor addressing the camera as he does at the beginning of this story. Although it is rather fun imagining that you are the companion, that he is addressing you personally. If the production team had been even braver they would have roughened Leela up even more, had her dirty and dishevelled, like she really lived in the wild. As it is the Dads need some incentive to tune in so Louise Jameson debuts in clean skins looking as though she has just taken a bath. A sanitised savage she may be, but she s still stunningly beautiful and of course a superb actress to boot. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral and that is all down to Jameson's acting choices.

There is immediate potential with Leela that isn't apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jamie and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jamie and Victoria were companions from the past and Leela is a savage warrior) who require a lot of explanations for the scientific side of things. It allows the writer to feed information to the viewer without the companion looking stupid. But it's more than that, I firmly believe the key to good comedy/drama is healthy culture clashing and to pair up an eccentric scientist with a homicidal savage and you have character gold. I think the interest in Leela as character waned when Robert Holmes gave up the script editing reins but there were plenty of wonderful moments scattered about her first five stories to justify the experiment. As is often the case, the companion simply cannot shake out of the clichés of the role but Leela managed it more often than a great many. Indeed Louise Jameson's compelling performance as the naive savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering in precisely the way Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the situation together.  and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didn't even understand at the beginning and even looking at her own people exactly the same way we saw her at the beginning, thus begins her education. It's a smart relationship, one of a handful that stood out in the seventies.

Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in The Massace but more often they are background elements (Underworld has a twisted religious sect at it's heart but we never get involved enough in it's workings to understand much about it). The Face of Evil deals with a heavy religious theme and has the balls to be less than positive about it. It is almost a deconstruction of the God myth, Xoanon is simply a diseased computer with delusions of grandeur but the myth behind this 'God' is an extremely powerful and destructive force. It shows how propaganda can lead to a belief system of its own, through Neeva (tricked by Xoanon), the Sevateem are manipulated into fighting and killing on behalf of their God. And Leela who actively speaks out against Xoanon is threatened with execution and banished from the settlement. It exposes some of the dangers that come with raw religious beliefs and shows you how far people are willing to go in the name of their icon. Even more interestingly the story opens out into religious war, with the two fractured halves of Xoanon's personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh. We see two homicidal factions that dismiss the other's beliefs and wish to see their false religion stamped out. All very interesting. I suppose the question is how far into exploring religion can a four part SF serial from the 70's go? Much of what I have discussed here is background information and there to be picked up by those who choose but they will be others who should dismiss my claims and read something completely different into the story, or even that it has no commentary at all and is only a rather witty (if drab) adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that a story should throw religion in such an unforgiving light. Certainly of you look at this story with religion in mind it has some very damning comments to make. What is bloody brilliant is the idea (and realisation) of a savage community with technological equipment scattered around their settlement. The way in which the Sevateem has compartmentalised these objects into their society is very creative. Neeva's glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment, driving home the idea of how this civilisation came to be.

One huge fault with the story and one that the Hinchcliffe era is so keen to avoid usually is the design. It is a very dour looking story which starts with the sets and then extends to the rest of the production. The bare and unconvincing jungle, the sterile corridors of the survey ship, simple hut like dwellings. The costumes: savages in simple leathers (realistic but hardly eye catching), the Tesh in bizarrely camp makeup and green quilted uniforms. The direction is lacking too, occasionally there is a moment of genius (like the test of the Horda) but sometimes Pennant Roberts sticks to dull static shots for his fight sequences and let's some shoddy production errors pass by his eye. Little of this story pleases the eye and I find myself bored and wanting some vibrancy. No trouble of that in the next two stories. Another massive problem is the third episode; this is another season fourteen story that suffers from the curse of the third episode. This instalment seems to comprise of some embarrassingly inefficient laser fights, both in the jungle and in the Tesh ship and a bunch of manual-inspired Tesh being civilised and camp with each other. It is not until the unsettling cliffhanger the things pick up where we are finally privy to some explanations. Perhaps a more dynamic director could have livened up this change of location but it's a pretty slovenly 25 minutes as it stands.

One thing the story gets very right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced British character actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Price's Tomas is the token nice guy but there is nothing queasy about his sensitive performance. David Garfield plays Neeva with the right amount of hypnotic naiveté; I love it when he interrogates the Doctor by waving scientific equipment in his face and screaming religious propaganda (although I dread to imagine how somebody would judge this had they never seen Doctor Who before and walked in on that scene). But best of the bunch is Leslie Schofield's enigmatic performance you can see a character who is watching every plot twist and seeing how they can twist it to their advantage.

It is a story that takes the psychological and religious angle over straightforward action adventure but still manages to tell a fairly entertaining story. It is far from perfect (it's not exactly the first story you would show a non fan, or even the tenth) but there is an intelligence to the story that is hard to ignore. Personally I find it a little too dry in places, the direction freezing up too often but I would still bill it as a strong story in its own right and one that manages to push the boundaries far better than the acknowledged and overrated stories that make similar claims, such as Kinda.

Just think the entire universe could be the handiwork of a clapped out computer with split personality syndrome: 7/10

Sunday, 3 July 2016

And You Will Obey Me written by Alan Barnes and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: The Master: wanted for crimes without number, across five galaxies. The Master: escaped his pursuers. Last known location: rural Hexford, England, Earth. The Master: dead and buried in an unmourned grave, in a lonely churchyard. Apparently.
An English Gentleman: It's unusual to enjoy a solo fifth Doctor adventure, usually he is encumbered with companions and it's rather pleasant to see him left to his own devices. Amazing how much easier things are without argumentative kids getting in his way. The Doctor thought he had the Cranleigh cup already. He forgets the golden rule of an auction house, don't bid too high, too quickly otherwise everybody thins what you are after is valuable. The fifth Doctor is the one incarnation I can imagine seeking out the Master for reasons other than to ensure that he is up to no good, simply to do a good deed by his old friend. They might have had their differences but there is an element of concern. When the Doctor attempts to exhume the Master's body he assumes he is the closest thing to the next of kin to him than anybody on the Earth. The Doctor's TARDIS was parked down the road in Little Hodcombe, which dates the story very nicely chronologically (I've noticed that Barnes more than any other writer likes to position his stories within the TV series).
Batshit Crazy: The Master was handsome once, maybe even twice. The idea of the Master living out his days in a dilapidated cottage in the country, a ghoul in a forgotten shell of a building is an alluring one. I felt sorry for him, relying on this bunch of not terribly interesting kids to facilitate his recovery. As soon as he appears the story automatically lifts, he's so unapologetically evil he gives the tale a massive kick in the teeth. The Master as some kind of cut price Fagin sending his little gang of teens out onto the streets to do his bidding? I'm not certain that is an exercise worth investigating. He's desperate and a little scared of being discovered.

Standout Performance: There's little that is convincing about Sheena Bhattersea's performance, regardless of which character she is playing. Frankly I lost track of who she was supposed to be after a while and didn't care to backtrack and find out.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The clock is a time machine!' 'What clock isn't?'

Great Ideas: The Doctor is trying to buy an ornamental grandfather clock that he believes to be the Master's TARDIS. The building that the Master was holed up in was burnt to the ground and all that was left was a body and a grandfather clock. The Doctor cannot let the Earth become a battleground for intergalactic assassins. Why did the Master hide himself away 30 years ago? Was he hiding from assassins? Has he regenerated and in his post-regenerative state he has forgotten that he was evil (wishful thinking, Doctor).

Audio Landscape: A stunned auction house crowd, traffic, a car on gravel, birds wheeling in the sky, travelling in a car, a staser. Do you think sound designers get thrilled or dismayed when they are asked to bring to life giant dragonflies that can talk?

Isn't it Odd: Barnes does have a bad habit of including some very strange, unnaturalistic dialogue at times. A very minor example is the Doctor opening the glove compartment of a car and declaring 'Gummie sweets!' in a very casual manner. I just don't know a soul on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos for that matter who would say that. And the story is littered with such examples, moments where characters say some pretty unusual things to add unnecessary detail or simply to be a little quirky. Some people have a knack of pulling naturalistic dialogue out of their ass (Russell T. Davies), others don't (Moffat) but have their moments. Others simply struggle and I would put latter day Barnes in the third category.  By the end of the first episode (with a pretty limp cliffhanger) the story has already started to falter and singular lack of the Master in a story that signposts his presence is annoying. The dragonfly assassins really aren't as memorable as Barnes seems to think they are, they remind me of the Terravore from Jonny Morris' script but put together with half the imagination. The Doctor doesn't much care for violence and as such sucks a pair of giant dragonflies out the main doors? Seems a little out of character. 'Staser not laser?' 'Taser not staser?' It feels like the 'Brickyard' gags in Trial of a Time Lord, a joke that is flogged to death. The Doctor makes the kids realise that the things that the Master promised them were in their power all...they are a gullible bunch, aren't they? Davison gives an impassioned performance but this material really is obvious. 'You Will Obey Us!'

Result: It almost feels like a deliberate subversion of the norm in the Davison era. The Master is usually trussed up in a disguise and pops up completely unexpectedly halfway through a story. And You Will Obey works in the opposite way; everybody knows about the Master but he is nowhere to be seen and the surprise is that he doesn't show up for the length of the bible. I prefer the original approach. And You Will Obey did little for me until Beevers did show up, the story proving to be a typically confused, continuity ridden mess that I have come to expect from Barnes of late. There's little in the way of engaging characters, plot or dialogue, indeed each of these things was clunky in the extreme, testing my patience throughout. I started doing weights halfway through episode two just to give myself something to do. I realise this is part of a trilogy and plot points here may be vital later down the line but that doesn't mean that this has to be such snooze fest in its own right. It reminds me of The Defectors in the locum Doctors trilogy, a tedious misstep at the start of a three part epic that gets things off on the wrong note. Realistically, this could happily be cut down two episodes and start with episode three where all the exposition begins. The whole Master/Fagin angle with his army of little tykes has potential but it takes ages to get to the point of the story and the characters are insufficiently developed to make their liberation from his influence worth investing in. It should be triumphant but it's written in such an obvious way. Beevers gets the short shrift, this is supposed to be his showcase in the trilogy and he's barely gets to appear. The main range has proven that it can pull it socks up with the recent fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa threesome (oo-er) but it is stories like And You Will Obey Me that do little that is fresh and interesting and instead rely on popular villains being written for in ineffective ways to generate sales. By any stretch of the imagination this simply is not good enough. Borrow it from a friend: 3/10

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Trouble With Drax written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Altrazar. The temporal Atlantis, a place lost to time. Believed by many to be a myth, it has long been the perfect location for the rich and powerful to hide away their most dangerous secrets. Until now. Because the somewhat crooked, not exactly honest, wheeler-dealer cockney Time Lord known as Drax has found a map that leads to its location. And, at the behest of a manipulative businessman, he's going to use it. When the TARDIS is dragged out of the space-time vortex, its crew aren't best pleased to see the Doctor's old school friend, even less when he pressgangs them into joining a raid on the most secure safe-house in history. However with Romana and K9 held hostage, the Doctor has little choice but to agree. With Drax in tow, he heads for the planet.  Which is where the trouble starts.

Teeth and Curls: He think the Black Guardian is long bored with them by now. If he's risking his life to get something then he likes to now what he is risking his life for. Being press ganged at gun point rarely puts him at ease. By re-introducing Drax you have the naughty schoolboy fourth Doctor of season seventeen shoehorned into the role of the responsible one by default. The Doctor might be frivolous but Drax is downright irresponsible and he's forced to lay down the law. It was the same with the first Doctor (who could be very naughty) when he met the Monk and the third Doctor when the Master showed up. These larger than life characters force the Doctor to behave and try and marshal them. In this period the Doctor might play the fool but he is usually the smartest person in the room and has the whole thing figured out from the start. Here he has met his match. Drax might be a rogue but he's a rogue with an enormous imagination and an incredible amount of affront, enough so that his plans even shock the Doctor.

Noblest of them All: Romana is spending far too much time worrying about the Black Guardian these days. She's such a bossy miss when the Doctor just wants to play in the universe and tramp down wherever he wants. As soon as Drax described Romana (thinking that she is Princess Astra, naturally) as a stuffy old ice queen I was on edge waiting for her to unleash that tongue that could cut through steel. In true season seventeen style, Romana is one step ahead of the Doctor. He has to have the twist spelt out to him but she figures it out for herself. And no matter how lecturing the Doctor might be, it's nothing compared to Romana when she gets going on temporal responsibility.

Remember Me to Gallifrey: 'You Mockney maniac!' I was always rather keen on Drax in The Armageddon Factor but then I was always rather keen on The Armageddon Factor in general despite it's lowly reputation. One of Bob Baker and Dave Martin's final collaborative ideas was to come up with this cockney wheeler dealer in space, a Gallifreyan Del Boy who will involve himself in any seedy operation if he thinks that he will earn himself a quick buck. It seems a shame that Big Finish keep missing out on the original actors who played their parts on TV because they dream up stories for their characters a little too late; it happened with Elisabeth Sladen and the 4DAs, Kate O'Mara and the Rani and now Barry Jackson and Drax. Jackson's interpretation was all charm and twinkly eyes, he's an easy character to remember (and another contender for 'I wish they had hung around in the TARDIS for a while...'). Ray Brooks (the boy with the knack who doesn't find life so easy in the year 2150AD) steps into his shoes effortlessly and gives a winning performance. He might be one regeneration on but Drax hasn't changed that much between incarnations. He's still a rogue, still talking in archaic slang and still up to his neck in mischief. When he was in the TARDIS in The Armageddon Factor Drax fitted a recall device in the TARDIS so he could summon it whenever he wanted - child splay to an engineer of his standard. As the twists pile on and we realise the full extent of Drax's duplicity it is clear that the further down his regenerations he travelled, the more formidable his intelligence became. Each incarnation is distinct and memorable.

Standout Performance: At first I wondered why Big Finish would throw quite so many impressive guest stars at a throwaway story but the reason soon became clear. It's a lovely conceit, Ray Brooks, John Challis, Hugh Frazer and Miranda Raison all playing the same character. Or different incarnations of the same character.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's such a silly name for a profession. What do you do? I'm busy for a living. It's like they picked the first thing they could think of.'
'A bit of an 'and?'

Great Ideas: The earliest the ruse is planted is in the first scene, Dorney starts his subterfuge there with two versions of Drax appearing in different guises but way before the notion is even apparent. There's a bird flying about in the TARDIS that is mentioned here (and heard) but we have no idea why as of yet. It sounded like a crow and with mentions of the Black Guardian left, right and centre I can only imagine that there might be link as we lead up to the finale. One thing is for sure...if the Black Guardian is up for a rematch he is going to use a weapon more formidable than a mop. The Rutan's Tendril is a drinking hole that the various incarnations of Drax hang out in throughout his life. By creating his lure around the location of a temporal Atlantis, Drax builds in a wonderfully mythic quality to the con. A cautionary tale for Tim Tots nobody really believes that Altrazar is real. A dumping ground for all the secrets that nobody wanted you find; incriminating evidence, unfortunate personal histories and even people. Who could possibly resist going looking for something as mysterious sounding as The Enigma Casket? A planet that is experiencing all of its potential futures at the same time - I can only imagine how that would be visualised but in my head it is a catastrophically beautiful affair of possibilities. I really love how Romana explains the idea of regeneration, not assuming that everybody listening will understand it. It's the writer making concessions to the fact that there might be somebody out there who isn't a hardcore fan of the show and anybody can listen and still understand the big twist. A Blinovitch Limitation Effect Limiter, try saying that a few times after ten pints. The sheer nerve of holding an auction where everybody is different versions of the same person simply to convince the Doctor that a ploy is real is pure Drax.

Audio Landscape: A spaceship screams into view and lands, a crowded scene in an alien bazaar, craft flying overhead, the Fuzz firing their alarm, firing on a law enforcement vehicle, the TARDIS coughing and struggling and landing, pub atmosphere.

Musical Cues: The music doesn't sound that much like the fourth Doctor era, there is a distinct feeling that the range is pushing away from the kisses to Dudley Simpson. I don't think that is such a bad thing at this stage as there is the danger of the that side of things becoming repetitive. Instead this opts for a hyper camp, outer space yomp style of music that let's you relax into the tone of the piece immediately.

Standout Scene: I remember John Dorney once discussing the nature of cliff-hangers and how they have a specific purpose in the plot, not just moments of false jeopardy but hinges in the narrative that can twist the story in a fresh direction. He builds his entire story around the cliffhanger of The Trouble With Drax, at the point in which the truth about Drax is revealed it feels like an arbitrary shock (it comes from nowhere because there is no indication whatsoever before then). Then later in episode two it becomes clear that the entire narrative is constructed around the idea and it had to be revealed at this point in order for the rest of the story to take place. Basically I'm saying that he's a clever bastard.

Result: 'Oh you have got to be kidding me!' John Dorney must be applauded for squeezing such a memorable story into the fourth Doctor adventure 50 minute format. The Trouble With Drax is essentially a one trick pony but it is a trick that is repeated over and over again and gets more outlandish and hilarious as a result. I can only imagine to make a tale like this work that he began with the final scene and worked his way backwards - a truly bizarre maelstrom of multiple personality's and attempting to figure out how he could possibly reach that point. It's one of the best scenes in this range to date, perfectly articulating the out there nature of the Williams era. This is terrific fun, more fun than about 90% of this range has been so far and one that carries you through with it's infectious sense of brio. By reuniting Tom Baker and Lalla Ward and bringing the focus on the madness of season seventeen the incredibly backwards thinking and clichéd fourth Doctor adventures have been able to let their hair down. Drax is a delight, Ray Brooks paying lip service to Barry Jackson's interpretation and the big twist making me ask the question of why no production team tried to do this sort of thing with anybody else but the Doctor before. Drax always struck me that he liked to be the centre of attention and he goes to extreme lengths to ensure that that happens here. What I really love about this story is that Drax has dreamt up a ridiculously complicated scheme to obtain something that makes the whole piece possible...and quite throwaway as a result. But don't mistake that for something that isn't worth listening to because this is a more enjoyable experience than countless 4DAs that are full of their own importance. Full of zip and zest, fun and imagination, The Trouble With Drax provides a riotous ride that loves to surprise: 9/10

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Technophobia written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: When the Doctor and Donna visit London’s Technology Museum for a glimpse into the future, things don’t go to plan. The most brilliant IT brain in the country can’t use her computer. More worrying, the exhibits are attacking the visitors, while outside, people seem to be losing control of the technology that runs their lives. Is it all down to simple human stupidity, or is something more sinister going on? Beneath the streets, the Koggnossenti are waiting. For all of London to fall prey to technophobia...

Mockney Dude: What I love about this pair more than anything else is that they are knocking about the cosmos for the fun of it, simply because they love being together and there are so many great things to see and experience out there. It's the same vibe that I get from the fourth Doctor and Sarah and the fourth Doctor and Romana II. He and Donna are not a couple...she helps him 'in the community' (and she makes it sound like a charitable act. He talks but its all geek to Donna. He seems more concerned with technology than human beings. Some of his best friends have been robots...and blokes. The Doctor is the last person you should give caffeine to, especially this Doctor. He's having fun to a point but when he suddenly turns cold and says 'no more' you really listen. He's the one Doctor who sends chills up my spine when he gets angry because he's usually such a jolly fellow and yet we have seen evidence of how far he will go when he is pushed to the limit (the climax of The Runaway Bride, The Family of Blood, The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars). He doesn't like aliens messing around with London, the most exciting city in the world. If there's one thing he doesn't like it's a know-all which earns him a scoff from Donna. He's adept at acting the fool, asking the right questions and generally causing a great distraction performing a sleight of hand that defeats the aliens. Like Tom Baker at his best, Tennant's Doctor can play the clown whilst being very clever indeed.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna Noble; Chiswick Cherubs, Tooting Temps and Wimbledon Wonders how wonderful it is to have you back. When you have a Doctor/companion combination that worked as sublimely as the tenth Doctor and Donna it is hard not to compare everything that comes afterwards to that magic. Perhaps that is what I have done, perhaps a little unfairly but this was my new series team. The one point where the show seemed to be aimed squarely at me and relationship between the Doctor and Donna (and the chemistry between Tennant and Tate) had a great deal to do with that. Donna was always brave yet vulnerable, sassy yet smart, human and yet pragmatic. She was somebody I could really believe in and I loved the fact that she wanted to travel the universe without trying to get into the Doctors pants. The question is whether Big Finish can replicate the success of this character and give her an equally sparkling existence on audio. On the strength of the reviews of this set and the opening story, the signs are certainly looking good. Tate is on dazzling form throughout and seems to relish the fact that she is playing Donna Noble again. She's the fastest shorthand in the West. She's dated worse than some of the robots on display...from what we have heard (and seen) of Donna's relationship history it looks like she has fallen in with quite a bunch of losers in her time. Perhaps it's time to meet one of them? She's learnt how to time travel responsibly; no sneaky peeking at Autumn collections of lottery results in the future but she might have nipped to Henriks for the latest Katie Price perfume. She wont make jokes when people are dying, she has more respect than that. Donna has always wanted to drive a bulldozer but then she has been trying to live up to the subtlety of such a vehicle all of her life so it is understandable. She's quick to refute the idea that she and the Doctor are a couple and that she is available.

Standout Performance: It's that ability that Tate has of throwing herself into the madness of everything and Donna clearly having a whale of time throwing out one liners...and then suddenly stopping and breaking our hearts with a line. Donna's 'I told him if he comes with us he would be safe' is a great example. Tate switches mood effortlessly, painfully. It's almost like she wants the audience to be unprepared for the emotion. That reminds me of Russell T. Davies work at it's best, a jolly romp until it stabs you in the heart. Niky Wardley's Bex with an X isn't the most memorable of characters but she works well with Donna, probably because Wardley and Tate have a long history of working together and a good friendship (Temps United). She's also sufficiently different from Tamsin for it not to be a problem that Bex is being played by an actress of an ex audio companion. See Beth Charmers, it can be done!

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Robots running amok? Donna, we're on!'
'Last time I saw somebody that jumpy they were standing on a supernova!'
'Always invoice for the whole day. Double time for the end of the world.'

Great Ideas: People are claiming that modern day technology is becoming too complicated to use. Well either I'm getting old (a distinct possibility) or this statement is very true but you only have to ask my husband about a recent tantrum I had about turning Amish after attempting to get to grips with the impenetrable library of music that is Apple Music. The Doctor states that technology is supposed to make your life easier but what about when the technology progresses to such a rate that it is more economic and reliable than human beings? Computers building computers - why does that send a chill down the spine? Super smart to neo-Neanderthal in minutes, that's why the technology is so damn complicated. You could make an argument that the glut of reality television and the media thinking for us has made society dumber so technology seems more sophisticated than it is. Kevin Jones the train driver - a very down to Earth character that made a great deal of difference in this era of the show.

Musical Cues: Damn, I love that version of the theme tune. I love it. It transported me back to season four all over again and gave me goosies all over. The score isn't hugely memorable in it's own right but what is memorable about it is the fact that it is a new series Doctor Who adventure that isn't scored by Murray Gold. It's fast paced, modern and skips you through the story, it's a decent stab at his style.

Isn't it Odd: Given that this is a story of technology that has run amok I thought the examples that we got lacked a little imagination. Hoovers? Looking at the technology that is around my living room right now I can already see a ceiling fan (catapulting off and chopping me in half), a fish tank (exploding and showering with glass)...even my computer (melting and gluing me to the table as the rest of the technology around me finishes me off). It's the sort of thing Davies would have gone to town with but Fitton is rather restrained. Plus the technophobia in the story is only really got to grips with in these scenes. It's not really the psychological explanation I was expecting.

Standout Scene: The one scene that really drove him the sinister nature of technology gone awry was set in the underground when you realise just how much technology reliant we are. Donna and Bex are surrounded by potential weapons.

Result: 'An alien? He looks like he works in menswear!' Technophobia both plays it safe and manages to perfectly capture that feeling of confidence and 'nothing can stop us' attitude that lit up series four like a beacon. It's a witty, slick and furiously paced audio and I was beaming throughout, mostly thanks to the punch the air reunion between Tennant and Tate. For once all the build up was worth it, this genuinely captures the magic between these two actors all over again. Thank goodness. Fitton manages to ape the Davies London obsession and create a nostalgic (when did series four become something to get nostalgic about?) invasion of England's capital, that feeling of madness gripping the city as another crazy alien stunt plays out. There's elements of The Lazarus Experiment, Partners in Crime and The Poison Sky...any of the contemporary Earth stories really but I don't think it was such a bad idea to ease everybody in gently before heading off and doing something crazy experimental. I really like the idea of an alien invader attempting to take over by making the human race thick; maybe they just needed to increase the screenings of Don't Tell the Bride and The Only Way is Essex whilst tripling the print run of the Daily Mail and their plan to make the human race stupid and conquer them could have been achieved with far less fuss. With all of the London's technology a risk the tale isn't perhaps as imaginative  or scary as it could be but that might be a timing issue, there is an awful lot to pack into 60 minutes. Contemporary London - check. The Doctor and Donna on form - check. Regular Joe's making a difference - check. Humour and pathos - check. There is certainly enough elements that work to self-assuredly call this an authentic throwback to the greatest new Who season of them all. The story as presented is worthy of a 7 but the magic brewed up by Tennant and Tate automatically elevates it a point. They are just brilliant together: 8/10

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Torchwood: Uncanny Valley written by David Llewellyn and directed by Neil Gardner

What's it about: What has made billionaire Neil Redmond emerge from his long seclusion? Captain Jack knows the answer, and is prepared to go to any lengths to prove it. A couple of years ago, Neil Redmond was in a terrible accident. His recovery has been long and slow, but now he's back and looking better than ever. Much better than ever. Dark forces have been behind Neil's transformation. Dark forces that Jack has been hunting for a long time. But Captain Jack's never been able to resist the darkness.

Here He Comes in a Great Big Tractor: You can count on Jack to do the wrong thing at the right time and you definitely trust on him following his libido wherever it takes him. When NJ proposes that they have a liaison I just knew he wasn't going to be able to resist. One thing you can say about Jack that is always consistent is that his head is led by his cock, even if it leads him into some awkward situations. And it doesn't get much more awkward than this, sleeping with the duplicate of an ex-lover whilst his disabled counterpart is watching and listening to every moan and groan. Jack probably finds the whole idea quite exciting, not only because he is playing about with the ultimate sex toy but because he is voyeuristically being watched at the same time. It was probably the best shag of his life. And NJ knows precisely how to press his buttons by promising him the best sex of his life without any strings attached. Hang on is this post-Ianto? I don't think it would matter to Jack either way. I reckon some part of Jack would love to indulge with NJ because it would upset Neil so much. I think underneath all that heroism and bravery there are some really ugly desires. The world is made of two types of people; those who like things to remain as they are and those who seek out new experiences. Jack is the latter. He's died so many times but he finds it is always the legs the mend together last. The one thing you need to get up and away.

Standout Performance: NJ is such a fascinating character and played with such restraint by Steven Cree that makes his actions all the more creepy. He's a ruthless, emotionless automaton supposedly and yet his every act seems to bring on an emotional response in people. He is very adept at manipulating people and bringing them to his will by giving them everything that they desire. By the end of the story he exhibits jealousy, rage, revenge, pity, envy...and he does it all without one raising his voice of showing a hint of emotion in it. That's a hard act for Cree to pull off but he does so without batting an eyelid. It astonishes me that Big Finish can edit stories together so well - Barrowman and Cree weren't even in the same continent when this story was recorded and yet you could never tell. Their chemistry is extraordinary, in either pairing. I loved the fact that NJ was beguiled by Jack because he is only the second man who knows about his artificial nature and he will do anything to indulge in him because of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Something physical. Urgent. Devastating.'
'Why are you doing this?' 'Because I can.'
'I don't like all this emotion, it's unedifying.'

Great Ideas: How can one man be in two places at the same time? Neil Redmond had a car accident and it was said that he would never walk again. Redmond went from being a man who suffered a terrible accident to being just about everywhere in the media. The idea that somebody would make an exact replica of you to go and live your life whilst you live the life of a cripple is perfectly cruel. There is nothing to say that Neil couldn't live his own live from a wheelchair perfectly well. NJ is an exact copy but somehow sexier, funnier and more charismatic than Neil was. He is the man that Neil wishes he could be and he gets hooked on the idea of live his life through NJ, experiencing everything that he experiences. Neil still has every desire...he just cannot feel anything anymore. Adding Jack to the already complicated relationship between Neil and NJ tips the balance and before long they are at each others throats. I love the very creepy idea of the perfect mirror image of yourself throttling the life out of you. It's sick.

Audio Landscape: Rainfall, buzzer, cocking a gun, ticking clock, car screeching on the road, mobile phone ring, crackling flames, smashing glass, rain falling, bones knitting together, NJ sparking, fizzing and popping.

Isn't It Odd: With so much emphasis put on the Committee on audio, you start to wonder why it was never mentioned on the TV. Still it is being woven so expertly throughout these tales it doesn't really matter. NJ is the work of the Committee. case by case Jack is blowing their cover and he wont stand for their interference anymore. There's hints that the Committee were invited to Earth...but invited by whom?

Standout Scene: The story dares to stray into the very prickly area of self-love. What would you do if you had a perfect replica of yourself to play about with? Would you be so bold as to take that leap and have a sexual encounter with somebody that is essentially you? Isn't that the ultimate form of masturbation? Ask yourself what you would do in the same situation if there were no repercussions whatsoever. I'd like to say I wouldn't...but in a very perverse way I probably would. Of course this is the tipping point for the story, where Neil and NJ's relationship takes on a much darker stance. Suddenly there are real feelings involved, they are practically having a relationship and Neil is deliberately sending out NJ to have sexual encounters with people. But is it because he wants to enjoy those encounters or because he wants to keep an eye on his new boy toy that has his face? It's a hugely self destructive path that ultimately ends with Neil trying to kill his alter ego when he cannot take handle his selfish lustful behaviour anymore. When it feels like NJ is deliberately trying to hurt him, which he is. And he's enjoying it.

Result: 'Who do you think invited them here in the first place?' Twenty minutes into this story and I couldn't figure out why it had had so many plaudits laid at its doorstep. Sure it was engaging enough but there was nothing there which suggested it was any better than your average Big Finish audio. And then NJ entered the scene and things became a lot more interesting. Suddenly this rather tragic tale of a man who has suffered a terrible accident took a much darker hue, highlighting some very complex feelings to do with disability, identity and sexuality. By the end it becomes one of the most complex audios, certainly in terms of character and definitely one of the most adult ones because it is willing to hold a mirror up to humanity and ask some hard questions. The answers aren't always pretty. That is one thing I always liked about Torchwood, it was never afraid to take a good look at the uglier side of humanity but it rarely touched upon it with the sort of clarity and complexity as Uncanny Valley does. Jack barely features for the first half of the story but he more than makes up for it in the second half, giving in to his baser desires one minute and proving stronger than I thought the next.  The real credit has to go to Steven Cree who gives an extraordinary double performance and isn't afraid to toss caution to the wind and head into some creepy and narcissistic corners with David Llewellyn's involving script. I was pretty blown away by his acting. Astonishing that these Torchwood audios have managed to tell some of the most significant audios by focussing on telling ambitious character tales in a very economical way. Other ranges take note. Uncanny Valley surprises because it is uncomfortable listening and impresses because of it too: 9/10

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Torchwood: One Rule written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What's it about: It’s been three weeks since the Mayor of Cardiff was killed by a shop dummy and the fight is on to see who will replace him. Yvonne Hartman is visiting the city to retrieve an invaluable alien device. She's in charge of Torchwood One, she's saving the British Empire and she doesn't care about local politics. But she is going to find herself caught up in that fight. There’s a bloodthirsty alien stalking the streets and there’s a special offer on at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. It’s the 26th of March 2005 and it’s the day that everything changes.

I Wish I Hadn't Killed Her Off: Thus speaks the great Russell T Davies when he realised what a fabulous character he had in the shape of Yvonne Hartman, especially in the hands of Tracey Ann Oberman. She's probably the living embodiment of sass in the Doctor Who universe, River before her time without any of the outrageous sexism, overdone sexuality and crazy violence. With Yvonne, she commands your attention simply with her word and her attitude. The joy of these Torchwood audios is that it is a chance to re-visit old characters that worked extremely well without mucking up any of established continuity. It does as well to remember that Torchwood was initially set up in Doctor Who (back when arcs were there to add colour to a season rather than the beating heart that keeps them alive) and not an entity in it's own right and Yvonne was at the heart of that. She thinks that Torchwood Three is very retro and the staff are very cute. What an awesome idea, bringing Yvonne to Wales to comment on the state of affairs there. Her 'I'm from London' says everything you need to know about her patronising attitude. I couldn't help but wonder if she was going to get a rude awakening. When someone tells her she has a big ego she merely retorts that they are very observant - you've got to admire that level of self confidence. Yvonne is privvy to information about the sort of threats that are attempting to topple the Earth and it's terrifying. Torchwood keeps it quiet because it knows that the population cannot cope with that information. New Years Eve 1999 and Yvonne hadn't been working at Torchwood for long, the phone rang and she listened whilst the head of Torchwood Three killed his team one by one and raved about something coming and everybody having to be ready. It would be enough to drive anybody away from the organisation, rather than encourage you to keep fighting. Yvonne recognises that Torchwood has to be strong and ready and she is just the woman for the job. She's not the sort of person who calls for help whenever she is stuck and she has an ability to get people on side by simply charming them. Yvonne threatens to have somebody shot for suggesting that she is a drag queen. The only Queen that Yvonne has anything to do with is the reigning Monarch that she has tea with twice a week. She knew things had to change when she took charge of Torchwood London, she didn't understand why they had access to so much alien tech but they didn't utilise any of it. Of course Yvonne knows about the Committee. She's practically blaze about it. She has to make a choice between Barry having a nasty accident and getting his just desserts or having somebody in power in Cardiff in the palm of her hand. With a heavy sigh she realises for Queen and Country it is better to sell her morals and take the advantage. It's a cracking scene because you can see that Yvonne would do pretty much anything that will give her an advantage. But she'll still stab him in the leg for his troubles, for screwing with her. Wow.

The Crew: Ianto was a member of Yvonne's team in Torchwood London and her unusual method of staff relations might mean that she is responsible for all of his heartache to come with Lisa (I do wish people would stop referencing that terrible episode).

Standout Performance: Some top quality Welsh accents in this tale although if you aren't a native English speaker you might find some of them a little indecipherable.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Torchwood Cardiff. Excellent as an emergency backup system but they're not really professional.'

Great Ideas: I'd forgotten the sort of Doctor Who continuity that could be played about with in Torchwood and the mention of a Dravhan scanner really made me chuckle. Something or someone is killing off potential Mayors of Cardiff. Hardly the sort of emergency that Yvonne is used to dealing with. There's a wonderful moment where Yvonne examines the human condition, the ability to skip over traumatic events with the pointless humdrum of everyday life because that is easier to deal with. There was an invasion of Earth three weeks ago? Who cares when we are missing the latest episode of Strictly! Just like the government, Torchwood Cardiff and Torchwood London don't really get along.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, a hulking great monster growling, takeaway music, screaming panic, taking pictures on phone, rock bar atmosphere, bar fight, a bottle being smashed, sirens, throwing up, toilet, hair dryer, rainfall, Helen being torn apart.

Standout Scene: The reveal of the killer was a genuine surprise, especially because he was treated as such a joke throughout.

Result: A whirlwind tour of the best of Cardiff, featuring clubs, pubs and toilets. What is this? Unbound Exile, the sequel? No, it's a rough and ready character drama penned by Joseph Lidster and featuring the gorgeous Tracey Ann Oberman as Yvonne Hartman. She's hardly shown Cardiff at it's best (certainly this was not my experience of the city when I visited) but it gives her plenty to sneer at which is delightful to experience. There is a reason that the character section is bloated and the great ideas section is so empty, this is heavy on character and pretty light on plot (it's there but it doesn't dominate in the same way) and it gives Yvonne a chance to truly come to life in a setting that is out of her comfort zone. Oberman is so good that I would actively encourage the producers to give her another shot at this and I would love to see more of Torchwood London. I would suggest that Lidster is given the brief too as he clearly understands exactly what makes her tick, making her enough of a diva to be the same person that appeared in Army of Ghosts whilst including moments of humour and sympathy. It's a story that feels less robustly plotted than those that it follows but I don't think that is really the point. The idea is to stick close to Yvonne and to experience the story as she does and to simply revel in the awesome way she has of getting things done. Personally I consider that a very good use of an hour. The director drew more attention to itself this time around and it doesn't surprise me to see this was the work of Barnaby Edwards, always a reliable pair of hands. I liked how the Committee was slipped into the story too, during the moment of the biggest surprise. The Committee puzzle pieces are starting to assemble and it's clear they have been around for a long, long time. An intriguing one off and a very enjoyable one. Yvonne Hartman rules: 8/10

Torchwood: Forgotten Lives written by Emma Reeves and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: It has been four years since the Miracle, and Gwen and Rhys's lives have gone back to normal, very normal. They're raising their daughter (they've got pictures they'd be only too happy to show you), they're living in a nice house, and they're almost on top of the laundry. Captain Jack Harkness has been missing from the world and their lives for a long time. But late one night the phone rings, and they're summoned to an isolated part of North Wales. The Bryn Offa Nursing Home contains a dark secret, an alien threat, and someone who really shouldn't be there. Gwen and Rhys are about to discover that Torchwood stays with you for the rest of your life.

Welsh Babe: Ahhh Gwen, our identification figure (supposedly) through the first season of the show. Bizarrely that is the only season where I don't get on with the character. I found her too selfish, too enticed by the whole Torchwood world and too morally corrupt (flirting with Jack and sleeping with Owen) to be somebody worth investing in. It was when the writers decided to settle down the character, to focus on the positives of her relationship with Rhys (who she ultimately chooses over the organisation) and to allow her to show some genuine humanity (especially in standout episodes like series two's Adrift) that she found her place in the show. I think Eve Myles' performance improved greatly with each passing season too, from boggle eyed wonder and horror in series one to some haunting reflections in Miracle Day. It's nice to catch up wit Gwen ad Rhys after the Miracle to see what they have been up to. This is the first story to pick up the reins from where the TV series left off so I assume that there are no plans to do anything with the characters at the moment. She's unsure whether Jack is who he says he is...probably because she never thought he would be humble enough to let himself grow old. It would appear that no matter how much they reject the Torchwood lifestyle that it will always come back to bite them in the ass. Gwen always was pretty hooked on the lifestyle so it doesn't take her long to get back in the mode of taking charge and saving the world. Even Rhys notices it. She certainly remembers her strong arm tactics, learning from Jack in all the worst ways by brandishing a big gun and bullying her way to the truth of matters. If they want to warn Gwen off then stealing the mind of her daughter is not the way of going about it. Nothing would make her fight more. There does seem to be an uncanny link between Jack and danger, as soon as Gwen invites one in the rest of her family gets a healthy dish of the other.

Bulldog: 'Bloody Torchwood!' I love love love Rhys! In the first two series he was the everyman that cut through all of the organisations pretensions and pointed out how ridiculous they were, whilst still being a little bit in awe of what they do. Meat was a wonderful turning point for the character, where he was suddenly in on the secrets and taking part in the operations. He's earthiness is exactly what the series needs to ground it. He had me laughing before the title music kicked in in this audio. Rhys admits that he is working for Torchwood now - well he's helping his wife and the organisation seems to only consist of the two of them - which is a huge step. He's a little overdramatic when it comes to he threats.

Standout Performance: A huge round of applause to Kai Owen for managing to ride over the usual embarrassment that is produced when characters are possessed and instead managing to completely embody another character.

Great Ideas: One of the great strengths of the Torchwood audio range for Big Finish is that they aren't telling much of an arc story (beyond the mentions of the Committee that are running through all of these tales) and so they can dip in and out of the entire timeline of the series. The show had changes of regular cast so often that it is easy to pinpoint precisely where any particular story is set simply by who is taking part. The creators are not going for obvious choices all the time too. As well as featuring the main characters (Jack, Gwen, Ianto, Tosh) there is space to flesh out intriguing one of characters such as Yvonne Hartman and semi regulars such as PC Andy. The series is taking a similar route to Dorian Gray, the stories not following in chronological order and thus each is a terrific standalone tale in it's own right and offers something very different to it's neighbours. A great deal of thought has been put into what will make this series work on audio. It's suggested that the Committee caused the Miracle, giving the idea to the Three Families. Wheels within wheels. Nice to see established continuity and new continuity bound together like this. Has Jack really wound up in a nursing home in his late 2000s? There's a great deal of mystery surrounding this character and whether he is who he says he is. The story never shies away from the fact that dementia is hell, not only for those suffering it but for those who are trying to pick up the pieces. It's a generally forgotten illness because it is one that is put down to old age and very often we like to tuck the elderly away in this country and forget about our own dwindling mortality. Losing somebody, piece by piece, is absolute hell. You want to help them but it is difficult. Looking out, they think they are the ones that are making perfect sense. The Evolved are the only species that managed to resist the Committee. Mind swapping is the basis of their society. It is their gift, you treat everyone well because you could be them tomorrow. They want to bring their gift to the Earth, to eliminate judging of the weakest members of society because that might be you in the morning. They see potential in the planet, offering peace. It's a benevolent invasion, in the words of Terrance Dicks 'the worst kind.'

Isn't It Odd: The idea of Anwen being brought into the story in such a dramatic way is excellent, it's just a shame that the performance lacks any kind of delicacy. 

Standout Scene: People that want to make your world a better place because it is for your own good. Every planet needs a Gary, somebody who is willing to take a hit for those around them. He embodies the best of humanity. Selfless individuals do exist and he is the only person on planet Earth that is worthy of the gift of the Evolved. The fact that he is taken against his will away from a life he loves almost seems like a punishment for being a nice guy. Let's not try that then.

Result: Dementia is very close to my heart. I have relations that suffer and in my volunteer work duties I have seen the damaging effects of the illness, the resilience of the families that are dealing with a sufferer and how it can be managed. When the Sarah Jane Adventures tackled the subject in Eye of the Gorgon I thought it was superbly done and now it is Torchwood's turn to take on the same theme. If this had been the TV series (certainly the first two series) I dread to think what might have transpired - alien hosts eating away at the mind and turning the elderly batshit crazy probably. But in the freshly laundered Torchwood audio series subtlety and thoughtfulness are the new watchwords and the Emma Reeves has written an elegant script that takes hold of dementia and ensures that nobody comes out the side of the audio unaffected. It brews up some heady emotions, some that sneaked up on me. I loved the are they/aren't they nature of the nursing home, are the suspect experiments and alien involvement just the paranoid delusions of somebody whose mind is atrophying or are they a genuinely up to something sinister? Like the first two stories in the range there is nothing predictable about this tale, it sets up an interesting scenario and always takes a surprising path. I'm almost regretting the fact that I am going to have to head back to the world of Doctor Who, these Torchwood audios are truly blazing a path of quality through everything else Big Finish is doing at the moment. Great title too: 8/10