Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Recorded Time and Other Stories directed by Ken Bentley

Softer Six: There is such a natural chemistry between Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant after so many years of working together I find it a joy every time we get to enjoy a release with this pair. I always found the relationship underrated on television but now they can soften the characters and make them good friends rather than sniping allies and it is a very warm companionship to experience. Sixie is clearly the standout revelation of the Big Finish main range and I like how they turn to his Doctor to see in the anniversaries. The Doctor is mistaken for a fool because he wears motley to court. That coat of his gets him into more trouble than not! He swears that his coat will be the height of fashion in the future and Henry almost chokes on his wine at the thought! As much as he might try Henry’s awesome presence wipes the strain of lavatorial humour from his mind and so to remind the Doctor not to be cocky he is put in the stocks for the evening! He describes their journey as ‘circum-perambulatory’ which is just about the most sixth Doctor word I have ever heard. The Doctor admits that he and Peri make a great team and refuses to act in any way that might threaten her life. He’s mastered the Dark Tower of the Death Zone on Gallifrey, solved the riddles posed by the Cybermen’s tomb on Telos and survived the City of the Exxilons – you couldn’t ask for a better scout than him! The Doctor has great fun embellishing Peri’s name much to her horror! Hilariously the Doctor has to rouse a speech which will woo Peri and he conjures up a list of compliments from finding her spirit beguiling to her many other attributes which are not unattractive (ooh you dirty beggar!). As soon as the amnesiac Gray spots the Doctor she wonders if they have found themselves in a prison for clowns. His pockets contain a ball of string, spare buttons and a toy mouse! He declares that the question marks on his collar are extremely odd (ahem) and he might not remember who he is but he doesn’t think he is the sort of person that is usually wrong. Judging by his attempts the likelihood is that the Question Marks is a Diva rather than an Opera Maestro. Nobody seems to noticed that he possesses a superior intellect! The Doctor refuses to leave Gray to die alone and talks to her until it happens – he tells her about his relationship with Peri.

Busty Babe: Easily my favourite companion to have leapt from the TV series to Big Finish, Peri is such a feisty and fun character that manages to have real hidden depths and there is the added bonus of Nicola Bryant’s pleasurable performances. I always get the impression that she simply adores her Big Finish work and the single best performance I have heard in an audio in recent years was her superlative turn in Peri & the Piscon Paradox. Peri studied British history at High School and doesn’t need the Doctor to spell out who everybody is. I nearly choked on my coffee when Peri had to perform a dance of love…the poor girl tries her best, but really… Considering how insistent and pampered the man is (not to mention with a taste for an execution if he doesn’t get his own way) I wondered how on Earth Peri would remain virtuous once she takes the King’s eye. She’s roped in as Anne Boleyn’s lady in waiting which is just another name for the King’s whore just as Anne herself was Queen Katherine’s when she was on the throne. Peri trying to give Anne some counselling has to be heard to be believed – this is not a time of reason and manners unless it is in the aid of advancement. Brilliantly as the King approaches to have his sport with her she grabs a candlestick to protect her virtue and winds up knocking the Doctor across the room! When Peri realises that the voice controls on Sendos are activated by female voices only she takes charge with some authority. Typical Peri, she wanders off on her own and falls for the sales patter of some sideshow huckster. When Mr Darcy dares to enter her bedchamber in a bold declaration of love I was starting to worry that Peri really wouldn’t escape this story unflowered! Nice to see Big Finish keeping up that fine tradition of Peri being the object of male lust throughout the galaxy…although in this case it is a character programmed to find her desirable. Earthy and inspired selection by Peri to attack the Mindsmith forces the Doctor to admit that even he is impressed with her.

Recorded Time written by Catherine Harvey

What’s it about: The TARDIS travellers find themselves at the court of Henry VIII, where the tragic Anne Boleyn will soon be discarded by her King in favour of the lovely Perpugilliam Brown. Or so it is written…

Standout Performance: I thought Paul Shearer and Laura Molyneux did a very fine job with the tricky roles of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Shearer embodied the arrogance and ambition of King who is never told no and Molyneux gave a sympathetic turn as one of the most notorious women in history.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you know any good bottom jokes?’
‘Don’t cut my head off if you don’t like it!’
‘Actually more clothes suits you…’ – says the Doctor to Peri!
‘Thus we fulfil the prophecy that one day a Queen of England shall burn!’

Great Ideas: A pathway unfolds beneath the Doctor and Peri’s feet and the palace shifts closer to them…not the usual events of a visit to the court of King Henry VIII! The Scrivener rewrites history, he can literally write down details and they will come true. What an incredible power that must be. The pen is made from the feather of a temporal phoenix, a long extinct bird and sometimes it has a mind of its own and forces the Scrivener to write. An immortal bird whose wings is said to have beaten the seconds of time itself. Henry found the pen when he was a little boy and forced the Scrivener to write his brother dead so he could become King. The ink is made from time drawn from the Scrivener and every time he writes it takes time from him, each death is a piece of his life. Nobody wrote Anne Boleyn’s son dead but the pen cannot bring him back to life. She fears death at Henry’s hand for not producing him a male heir. Henry wants to be become immortal and conquer time itself, it seems there is no end to his ambition. As Henry demands that Anne be burnt to death as a witch the Scrivener writes her the quickest death he can think of in a hurry, a clean blow from a French sword. Harvey very pleasingly gives Anne Boleyn’s well-recorded death a very Doctor Who twist of the Pudding Lane/dinosaur extinction variety that the mid eighties were fond of. The pen called out for an immortal, the Doctor and Henry wants him to take up the pen and continue his work. Anne asks the Doctor to tell people that she was not the scarlet woman that history chronicles.

Audio Landscape: Quill scribbling against parchment, a flowing river, a party atmosphere at court with lyre music playing in the background, a crackling fire, whipping up a strong wind, Peri smacking Henry with a book!

Musical Cues: During scenes of incantations of the Doctor plays some menacing and yet very pleasant courtly music.

Standout Scene: The Doctor offers Anne the gift of knowing that her daughter would go on to become the greatest Queen the world has ever seen, a comfort now she knows she will be going to her death. Its one of those moments where the Doctor travelling into the past allows him to give something special to those who suffer.

Notes: The co-incidence of this release coming up just as I am two thirds through Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn girl is extraordinary. I am thoroughly enjoying the book (although I didn’t think I would as I had this preconceived notion it would be a romance rather than a political drama) and I have just reached the moment where Anne Boleyn realises after a miscarriage that Henry is catching other women’s eyes just as he did hers and will be ensnared before long. And along come the Doctor and Peri…

One of the very first sixth Doctor audios dealt with an assassination attempt on Queen Mary and now we get to meet her father. It would wonderful to have a sixth Doctor tale with Queen Elizabeth and he would complete the set of Tudors!

Result: A fortuitous release that ties in with The Other Boleyn Girl that I am currently reading (although the takes on Anne Boleyn are diametrically opposite!), Recorded Time is a very fun story to kick off this collection and a piece I would have loved to have seen televised in season 22. It’s a great story for Peri who gets all the best lines but it’s a witty script regardless with a fantastic idea at its heart. Recorded Time educates and amuses and puts a very Doctor Who stamp on Tudor history: 8/10

Paradoxicide written by Richard Dinnick

What’s it about: On the legendary lost planet of Sendos, the Doctor and Peri find themselves caught up in the hunt for the cache of galaxy-busting super-weapons stored inside its fabled Armoury.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Su-Peri-or female voice!’
‘I don’t want bolshie Volshi in the skirting boards!’
‘You must travel to the heart of the armoury to meet your destiny.’

Great Ideas: Why is there a distress call being made by Peri from the lost planet of Sendos? The planets surface resembles ancient Rome in a neo classical style. It is the planetary equivalent of the Marie Celeste because one day it was a developing world with a flourishing civilisation and then…gone. There is a legendary stash of super weapons on the planets blasted surface and the armoury has been found but never opened. It is camouflaged somewhere within the ruined city. You can’t argue with the logic of having the Doctor take them back through time to steal the weapons before the armoury has ever been built! Once they have travelled back in time the Inquisa demands the weapons or she will destroy the settlement. Peri’s voice was sampled and used as the voice of the armoury. The Sendosa built the armoury because their race died from a terrible plague that came from space which was the weapon the Volshi used when the Doctor brought them to the past - they killed the Sendosa for a collection of bigger and better weapons. It’s a temporal paradox of unfathomable depth, they came to the planet to steal the weapons and went back in time to do so and wound up being the reason they were created in the first place. The Armoury was constructed so only the Volshie could open it – it was created as a trap all along so the Volshie can be brought to answer for their crimes. A device lies at the heart of the Armoury of the exact same specification of that which the Volshie used to destroy them – justice is served. The fact that it was Peri’s message that attracted them in the first place provides the perfect symmetry in this gleeful timey wimey adventure!

Audio Landscape: Scrabbling over a rocky landscape, gas masks, rockets launched, the ship crashing into the planet, the clanking locks of the armoury opening.

Musical Cues: Richard Fox and Lauren Yason are Lisa Bowerman’s composers of choice in the companion chronicles range and they never disappoint in providing atmospheric and emotive music that really compliments the drama. It is wonderful to see their names turning up in the main range and surprise surprise they adapt to the demands of each episode with their usual skill. Paradoxicide has some memorable techno stings which grabs the listener with the terrifying concept of a cache of super weapons and does far more work than the script in confirming that they are best left hidden away.

Result: Paradoxicide has the nuts and bolts of a great story and I can see why it was commissioned – they plot as it stands is a very solid one and once again there is a strong role for young Peri. Where it falls down is the guest characters who are written without much charm or interest and thus the performances are pretty flat. However the story gets more and more thrilling as the episode continues and I was hungry to discover what was at the heart of the armoury. Taken as a whole though this is very clever stuff, a tad predictable once you realise what the paradox is, but still very satisfying when the Volshi get their comeuppance. Flawed but exciting all the same: 8/10

A Most Excellent Match written by Matt Fitton

What’s it about: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a mind of her own must be in want of a husband. But which of Miss Peri Brown's rival suitors will be the one to win her hand: handsome Mr Darcy, or the mysterious Doctor?

Standout Performance: It astounded me that both Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant sound as if they have walked out of a costume drama. This isn’t the sort of genre I would expect them to excel in and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ever-impressive Mr Baker sounds for all his arrogance rather like an impossible suitor for dear Peri whereas the young lady herself has more than a touch of Cora Crawley from Downton Abbey to her. Applaud as Philip Bretherton slides from the laborious charms of Mr Darcy to the aggressive ambition of D’Urberville and finally Heathcliffe! And I thought the performers had a tough job in Recorded Time!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What an unconscionably arrogant fellow! I can’t imagine what everyone sees in him!’ – doubly funny because he is talking about the dashing Mr Darcy and because the Doctor himself could happily be describing himself!
‘I’ll admit its been a while since I had read the book but I completely forgot the part where Mr Darcy turns out to be a mind stealing alien parasite!’
‘My ladies were always happy with bonnets and balls!’
‘And the Doctor as you know is a gambler! A risk taker and habitual thrill seeker! Oh he might appear the upright pillar of society but anyone who knows him at all knows he has a much more questionable lifestyle!’ – Not only a great description of the main man but Nicola Bryant speaks the words with such vigour!

Great Ideas: The very idea of the Doctor proposing to Peri is enough to make me heave with laughter – what a positively terrifying match! The 2351 Galaxy Fair sees Cranton charging more than a pretty penny for The Austen Experience. It’s based on the events of the book but certain parts have been embellished. Nobody has ever come under the influence of the programme as Peri has although a few gents have offered Cranton a little extra to keep their wives under. The device is made from technology acquired from the Mindsmiths of Askertan, well known for their mind control technology on the battlefield (possess your half your enemies forces and the battle is a formality). Unfortunately there is a Mindsmith alive in the simulator. By marrying Peri the Mindsmith can take Peri’s mind and escape into the real world. Proof that looting from a war zone can have terrible consequences. The Mindsmith leaves Peri to escape so that it can latch onto the Doctor’s incredible mind – it could see the awesome impression he had left on her mind and how she knew he would enter to help her to escape and laid the trap. Tilly substitutes the matrix from Emily Bronte to Charlotte Bronte and conjures the burning of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre to murder the Mindsmith within the programme.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, a horse sighing and trotting off, the burbling of the Experience machine, ticking clock, a fire tearing through the hall, the destruction of the machine, the fairground background.

Musical Cues: A gorgeous piano score which is bubbly and very enjoyable to listen to.

Standout Scene: Has Peri ever been so wonderful when she heads into the simulation and takes on the Mindsmith and rescues the Doctor?

Notes: A couple of things worthy of note – Matt Fitton is a fresh new talent who has in recent years contributed to Andy Weston’s Consequences fan fiction series (the same Andy Weston who embarked on the short lived but massively popular The Third Zone Webzine) and it is well worth checking out his work on Andy’s site. Secondly I am a massive fan of Pride & Prejudice, both the novel (one of the most evocative uses of language I have ever read) and the BBC television serial from the 1990s (which to my mind is the most perfectly cast period drama I have ever watched). Needless to say I went into this episode with high expectations.

Result: I know storytelling possibilities are endless but Doctor Who seems to go out of its way to prove this and A Most Excellent Match switches genres, literary icons, twists with frequency and proves to be a unique experience. There is plenty of imagination, a large splash of literature and another smart ending. All it lacks is some emotional consequences - the theme of this anthology seems to be fun over character development but when stories are is delightful as this who’s complaining? Great stuff: 8/10

Question Marks written by Phillip Lawrence

What’s it about: Five survivors of an unknown catastrophe wake to find themselves caught in an inescapable trap. But can the oddly-dressed man in the question-marked collar work out what's really going on before time runs out – for good?

Standout Performance: This is an ensemble piece and all five performers work wonders with the stifling material.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m not a what, Mr Stone! I’m a Who!’

Great Ideas: Much like The Cube the opening scene of Question Marks is extremely disquieting with Peri finding herself trapped with a stranger and with no memories to fall back on. They discover they aren’t in a prison but an abandoned spaceship. I love the idea of the Doctor being named Question Marks after the marks on his collar. There has been deliberate sabotage on the ship…is one of the five amnesiacs responsible? All the evidence points to Question Marks. Did energy weapon erase their memories? Peri and Arnie discover a dead body and the big question is which one of them killed him. There is a sea of magma above them which proves Question Marks’ theory that they aren’t in space despite all the evidence to the contrary. Question Marks figures out that they aren’t soldiers, they are scientists and that this is a research base. There was a power surge in the transmitter coil of the transmat that wiped their memories and electrocuted Jameson. Lava seeps along the vents – if it doesn’t consume them it the fumes will choke them. The five people that found themselves without memories are just copies of the people who transmatted away to safety – mayfly copies created by an unstable transmat device. Partial traces, echoes.

Audio Landscape: Falling into girders, the lights snapping on, steam hissing, the hull groaning, spaceship instruments bleeping, molten magma leaking into the Question Mark’s prison, bubbling lava, the place smashing up around Gray.

Musical Cues: The constant battering of uncomfortable music was an excellent choice and you are never allowed to relax for a second.

Standout Scene: The reveal at the end is a blinder and the more you think about it the cleverer it is until only one person is left standing and the last exchange is absolutely devastating.

Result: Saving the best for last has become a common feature of the last couple of anthologies and Question Marks is a superlative mystery tale that grows more and more uncomfortable to listen to until it hits you over the head with a devastating final twist that makes you want to go back and listen to it all over again. It’s a claustrophobic piece, brilliantly acted and Ken Bentley’s direction has rarely been better than this. I was knocked out by the intelligent handling of the amnesia, the way the mystery was slowly peeled away by the clues discovered and the heartbreaking final scene that had me reaching for a tissue. A perfect example of what Big Finish can achieve: 10/10

Overall: Far superior to bloated, overblown nonsense like Zagreus and with its pleasing mixture of styles and celebration of the finest BF Doctor and an example of how far you can take television companions such as Peri (who has both Henry VIII and Mr Darcy eating out of her hands!) this is Big Finish at its best. You’ve got a historical revelation, a genocidal trap, a shocking marriage proposal and an appalling fate for an amnesiac Doctor and Peri. I continue to be amazed that two of the least liked regulars on TV continue to be so awesomely utilised on audio and that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant can stick two smiley fingers up at their critics for proving over and again that they were made for each other and the series. Its easy to see why these scripts were chosen as each of the fresh writers shows great potential and its further proof that Big Finish should extend beyond its usual pool of writers and sample new talent. I hope we see more of all of them. A final word for the creators of this piece - director Ken Bentley and the sound designers and musicians Richard Fox & Lauren Yason – all three are at the top of their game and proof that BF are using the best in the audio business. The best anthology since Circular Time: 8.5/10

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