Friday, 28 February 2014

The Reverent's Carnival written by Martin Day and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: Bernice Summerfield has never been to Moros Prime before - and it’s unlikely she’ll be rushing back. Moros is a world of diplomacy and warfare, ruled over by a variety of creeps, dandies and outright weirdoes, where cybernetic implants are the latest fashion accessory and the native humans are ethically harvested for their organs. Peter Summerfield, however, has a job to do: heading the security team at the country estate of Willem van der Heever, the effective ruler of Moros Prime. Because Van der Heever is throwing a masquerade ball – which means fancy dress, fluorescent peacocks and an almost certain attempt on his life. Van der Heever is not without his enemies… But as Bernice and Peter uncover more about his past, whose side will they end up taking?

Archaeological Adventuress: Van de Heever has been reading up on Bernice's old papers before she turned up. He believes in being thorough and knowing the people that visit his world. When she wants to go snooping she talks herself into it. Literally. The coverage that Bernice will give on the events here will be nuanced but positive and that is the only reason she is kept alive.

Dog Boy: He is many things but normal barely begins to describe him. His newfound respect and friendship with his mother is a massive plus. As much as the dissent between them provided a moment or two of decent drama, it isn't something I would have wanted to have played out long term. Plus the chemistry between Bowerman and Grant is so strong that keeping them apart was a crime. It is lovely to hear him making digs at her, laughing with her rather than working against her. Peter's presence is something of a mystery. He's been requested to make sure that security is tight for Van de Heever's party but he already has a security team in place. Why specifically request an outside to do a job that you are already paying people to do? He is allegedly the best at his job in the quadrant, which is quite high praise to live up to. Peter's half Killoran lungs give him an advantage over the others when it comes to the gas attack.

Great Ideas: There is a real old school vibe to this adventure insofar as it is only Bernice and Peter who are involved, it takes me back to seasons nine and ten. Van der Heever has invited the great and the good of Moros to his carnival and Peter is organising the security for the event. What could possibly go wrong? If Van der Heever is a dictator at least he is a civilised one and even the one he is fighting is a benign one. Drone bombers, clone fighters that don't feel pain...the sacrifice is minimal. But what about the other side? After reading the blurb I was wondering if we were going to head into Cyberman territory, cybernetic implants becoming the latest craze to strike Moros Prime. But it is just a touch of local colour. There is something to be said about the threat of terrorism keeping a society on its toes. An estate that functions like a small town, completely self contained. If the war gets any worse the estate could be treated as a fortress and Van de Heever could continue to run things from his own little bolt hole. He used to be married but she disappeared in mysterious circumstances - a hovercraft accident. There were discrepancies in the post-mortem. Evidence has been discovered that show that his ex-wife might have been about to expose Van de Heever in some way. Half the fun of a masquerade ball is not knowing who you might be talking to and not knowing what kind of indiscreet gossip you might overhear. His ex-wife was a Kai called Nexo, one of the indigenous people of Moros Prime that Van de Heever is now systematically trying to wipe out. In her suicide message she reveals a plan to execute her husband on the night of his carnival. Nexo tried to convince him that they were more than mere donors and that they had a heritage of their own that was worth preserving. As soon as there was an attack on his life he became paranoid and Nexo realised it was hopeless trying to work towards a time when the Kai would be placed on the same legal footing as humans. Van de Heever planned to gas his guests at the carnival all along, rid himself of his enemies at the party and pin the blame for the whole thing on Kai terrorists. Attaching Peter and Benny's names of Van de Heever's attacker will keep every alien government of his back for decades. He will claim they were in league with Nexo. Nexo did manage to stab her ex-husband with her assassins blade but it was whilst he was inside her head. His shell of a body is dead but Van de Heever lives on inside his ex-wife's body.

Audio Landscape: Fastening seatbelts, door opening, birds screaming and tweeting, a shuttle coming in to land, heart monitor, trickling water, ticking clock, screams, bedlam, gas hissing, choking.

Isn't it Odd: There seems to be a discrepancy between the Moros Prime is described in the synopsis and the Moros Prime which is realised by the director. Reading the blurb I was preparing myself for a colourful, bizarre, creepy setting, one built up of eccentrics, fad gadgets and threats of terror attacks. The one which I found myself in felt quite bureaucratic and officious, polite party chatter and deathly silent rooms full of official conversations. I never really got a sense of the larger population, of the world at large. Why doesn't Peter remember their adventure on Mortis Dock? Have a missed something? Or is this the Epoch re-writing his history/memory from behind the scenes?

Standout Scene: Did Peter die on Moros Prime during the gas attack? Why can't Bernice remember he own son anymore? Why are people suddenly being deleted from her life?

Result: 'The King is dead...long live the King.' An interesting enough story but hampered by some economic direction that never really gave Moros Prime a sense of place. Martin Day has written a clever little piece that only requires a few characters to fill in the details of an entire world, characters who go on to shirk off their masks like those at the masquerade ball and reveal their true identities and motives. It's fantastic to have a good old fashioned Benny and Peter story but the emphasis has really changed so they both have resourceful role to play in the story, working together to pick apart the mystery of Van de Heever's past. I hope that Peter makes it into the phase of Bernice's life because the chemistry between Lisa Bowerman and Thomas Grant is very believable. We have come a long way with Peter and now he has grown up and serves as a strong participant in these adventures it would be a shame to lose him. To be frank none of the other spin off ranges have been around long enough to boast this kind of development of character. The Revenant's Carnival really comes alive in its final fifteen minutes but it is a shame that until then the soundscape is so scarce and the whole piece is so reliant on the dialogue to build the world up around us. I'm not saying that is a poor approach because audio drama relies on description to create pictures but it usually works in tandem with the soundscape to create a vivid picture of where we are. Dialogue heavy scenes can be a little wearying on their own. This is not a poor story by any means; the plot is surprising and there is another bombshell ending that is starting to build a frightening picture of the future of Bernice Summerfield. A lonely future. The execution of the first half aside, this is an intelligent little tale: 7/10

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Big Dig written by Hamish Steele and directed by Scott Handcock

Box Set Synopsis: When Bernice Summerfield was invited to participate in a cult archaeology broadcast on the mysterious world of Saravas, she could never have imagined the secrets she might unearth there… or the terrible Truth that would stalk her back to Legion. With friends and family by her side, Bernice quickly finds herself flung into the face of danger: either combating deranged despots at terraformed garden parties, appeasing gunslingers in the White Rabbit bar, or simply attempting to survive on a barren desert planet, all alone… The odds are stacked against her, and this is undoubtedly the end for Bernice Summerfield… but she’s determined to go out fighting!

What's it about: Bernice has been invited to appear on a very special live edition of the archaeology series Big Dig: a programme she grew up with as a girl… which now makes her feel very old. Not as old, however, as the mysterious stone robot she unwittingly uncovers during an excavation on the planet Saravas. With no other trace of civilisation, this could be the only clue to the Truth of the planet’s inhabitants. But when Ruth and Jack start acting strangely, Bernice realises there was a reason things were hidden… and secrets aren’t the only things to be buried. Welcome to the biggest Big Dig ever!

Archaeological Adventuress: Bernice has always been something of stroppy diva so you would think that reality television would be made for her. She wonders why everybody around her seems to be so young...but ponders that maybe it is because she has gotten older. She's hardly considered an A-lister, despite a rousing introductory speech by the presenter of The Big Dig. The reason that Bernice loves archaeology is because it turns you into an idiot and makes you realise you don't know the first thing about the universe. Among the accomplishments she has listed are being part of the dig that unearthed Domainia's internal moon, helping to resurrect the Five Kings of the Hobblecraft and even giving away the Blue Blood Nebulae at its wedding to the Loki meteorite! Astonishing to think that of all the adventures we have experienced with Benny, there are so many more that we haven't. Everyone has heard about Saravas, one of the great impossible digs. Nothing beats field work and it has been an age since she has had the chance. All archaeologists have an obsession of finding something that can be named after them and Bernice has finally discovered something that might qualify. That's if the idiotic reality TV presenters don't get in there first. Bernice's impressive Golonaut becomes a Rockbot in the wink of an eye. Talk about dumbing down. Bernice is not so quick to jump to the conclusion that the 'Rockbots' are an army, she's seen too much in the universe to jump to the conclusion hat every species is warlike. She refuses to flirt with her co-presenter just to bump the ratings up. She might not have much integrity but she would like to protect what little reserves she has left. Bernice takes an incredible risk waking into what appears to be blistering sunshine to prove a point but sometimes you have to bold to make your point. Shepton tries to get into Benny's head too, suggesting the only reason she knows that Jack and Ruth can't let her down is because she doesn't trust them. Big Dig is one of the reasons she got into archaeology in the first place, it is one the reasons that she is the woman that she is today.

Mysterious Girl: Rather than simply including Ruth and Jack because they are Bernice's companions of late, Hamish Steele has worked a number of very good reasons to include them. I loved the way that with a little prompting (and some hypnosis), Shepton could take their happy group and manipulate them all into turning on one another. Ruth is convinced that Benny is angry with her because she is young and pretty and resourceful. She is told that Benny is interested in Jack romantically and she is simply a spare part that hinders her goal to cosy up to him. But they are also present because at the conclusion...they're not.

Standout Performance: Watch how effectively Phillip Bird switches from tedious reality TV show host to dark puppet of the Epoch. It's such a vivid switch in character that for a moment I thought they were being played by different actors.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Now you are going to make me feel very old' 'Don't worry, you're amongst archaeologists. The older the better.'
'Try harder. Since we've started digging we've lost ten million listeners.'
'I'm sorry did I miss the meeting where everyone decided I'm now a man hungry tart?' 'We had to have a meeting?'
'Technology this advanced occurs only on planets confronted by war. It's a sad truth but peace stunts imagination.'

Great Ideas: Saravas is a world which is renowned for being frustrating in almost every way. Only one rainy season per decade, no seas and an atmosphere that essentially comes and goes as it pleases, Saravas has remained unpopulated for 5000 years. What happened to its inhabitants all those years ago? They left almost nothing behind to clue up modern day archaeologists. That sounds like that sounds like a job for Professor Bernice Summerfield. I love the way this story starts off like your bog standard Bernice Summerfield adventure, another dig on another dusty old planet and how it lures you into thinking (for the first 20 minutes at least) that this is going to played out along very similar lines. The people of Saravas didn't write - it was the greatest of sins to record anything in writing. Proving that some archaeology is just guess work most of the time the arches are initially coined as temperature gauges, when the sun is visible through all three arches the planet gets roasted. Or at least that is the best guess. I understand Hamish Steele to be something of a Doctor Who fan and so I am certain he must be aware of the humiliating tale of Paul Jerricho who played the Castellan in Arc of Infinity mistaking Colin Baker for a general dogsbody and asking him to head off and fetch him some coffee. That is deliciously spoofed here with both Jack and Ruth being mistaken for members of the crew and being hopeless at whipping up a round of drinks. Don't let the idea for Celebrity Shark Jump leaked out, ITV would be all over it. Mind you I can think of  a few celebrities I would like to see have a go. Showing just how blustery and overblown these reality TV shows are, The Big Dig opens with an incredible fanfare before falling into awkward silence as the scraping and brushing begins (with painful commentary). Another great gag is Bernice discovering the artefact and having to cover it over and relive the moment all over again because the microphones weren't on when she discovered it. Shepton's slow descent into villainy was very nicely handled, starting with a few offhand comments on air before he was hidden behind the scenes where he could start manipulating everybody one at a time. Benny figures that if you can control the suns, you can control the people. The 'this is the truth' sequences took the risk of becoming repetitive and predictable but the way Steele uses Shepton's manipulation of the Big Dig crew to tell us more about them was inspired. The real Saravas is a network of ancient, colossal tunnels. With the mikes still rolling, we get to experience everything first hand from Benny once the illusory Saravas is stripped away. Shepton forcing Ronnie to believe that her boyfriend is having an affair whilst she is away is horribly cruel, she is crushed by the revelation, choking up bile but forced to accept that it is the truth. The brains of Saravas are the archives of all knowledge on the planet, maintaining the truth of what has happened. An entire planet hidden away from the rest of the universe. Saravas is not a planet but a construct, a facility. One that was set up to determine the impact of truth on primitive minds. The  natives of Saravas were part of an experiment, one that sought to create new types of worlds. Worlds that might be indestructible. Saravas was constructed through deceit and the Rockbots, the Epoch were the enforcers of these lies. The Epoch were the Gods of this world and then they constructed other worlds, other planets throughout the cosmos. Once they mastered other worlds they started to map out new realities, mapping and re-mapping history, time and again. All the legends of Saravas were formed by the Epoch but it was the people that believed them. The stories became the truth and it eventually reached Bernice Summerfield when she was a young girl. They knew that she would come one day so they invented the legends when she was a girl. The 150 million people listening to The Big Dig are going to start killing each other, escalating the threat even further. '150 million lives are nothing to the Epoch' - absolutely chilling. I can remember in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS that I was appalled that the knowledge that the knowledge the Doctor shared with Clara about her 'impossible girl' status was wiped. The Big Dig pulls off a similar trick by having Benny forget about all the developments she has learnt in this story. But there is a massive difference - the events in this story did take place and they do have massive ramifications for the range at large and Bernice in particular. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS pressed a big reset button and made all the events of the story that have played out absolutely pointless. A bit like The Curse of Fenman. At the end of this story Bernice has lost her too closest friends. And she doesn't even remember. Given the title of this box set, I'm sensing a theme... Bernice was the only survivor on Saravas.

Audio Landscape: Wind blowing, awnings flapping in the week, digging and scraping, cutting to an advert break, screams, Rockbots bursting through the walls, stomping through the tunnels, heart monitor.

Isn't it Odd: As soon as there was a mention of giant metal men I immediately thought of the Epoch but that didn't make the escalation of their threat any less gripping. It is about damn time somebody started to connecting all the threads that began in the Epoch box set but it has been such a long stretch of stories since then you could be forgiven for having forgotten most of the information mentioned here.

Standout Scene: The gripping moment when Bernice realises that the suns are aligning sooner than anybody expected and everybody is about to get roasted alive. Live on air. Not only is this a startlingly dramatic moment but the upshot of this development is what pushes Bernice towards the truth of the function of the arches, dispelling all previous theories. The last twenty minutes are absolutely superb, the reality of the situation spilling out in the most dramatic fashion and the story transforming from one thin to something very different.

Result: Fulfilling the same remit as The Curse of Fenman by bringing the audience up to date with elements of the plot from the past, The Big Dig gets about as much right as finale of the New Frontiers set got it wrong. For a start this is a extremely strong story in its own right and one which builds up to its revelations through a plot that adds layers and layers until the bombshells are appropriate to drop and demolish the lot. The Big Dig kicks off like a standard Bernice Summerfield adventure but slowly gets darker and more twisted as it goes until the fantastic final twenty minutes when I was kept on the edge of my seat with the gripping developments. I might be in the minority but I thoroughly enjoyed the Epoch set that kicked off this period of Bernice's life and have been longing for some kind of follow up for the central menace of that story. The Big Dig re-introduces the Epoch very effectively, giving those who weren't on board four box sets ago a chance to keep up with the developments. The characters are well served as well with the regulars and guest cast coming alive vividly and all of them being manipulated in directions out of their control. Their true colours come to light when the pressure is on, allowing us to experience who they really are whilst the cameras roll on. Not only are the Epoch built up as a genuinely fearful adversary but there is a shift in Bernice's reality at the end of this story and two very important people are stolen from her life. This looks ready to be the most gripping of story arcs the range has ever attempted, as long as they can keep this momentum going. The way the whole story plays out on air and all the terrifying developments are broadcast to 150 million viewers back home is just the icing on the cake, reminding me brilliantly of Ghostwatch. Full marks, I haven't quite been this glued to my headphones by a Bernice Summerfield adventure in a long time: 10/10

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Curse of Fenman written and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: It’s Advent Day on Legion: a time that traditionally calls for celebration; a day spent with the people you love, when all the family come together, setting aside their differences… or when they bring old scores to settle. An old foe has been biding her time, manipulating the people and events around Bernice Summerfield for as long as any of them can remember… She knows so many secrets – the secrets they’ve all been hiding – but not everybody wants to learn the truth. Today is the day Avril Fenman comes to Legion. She comes to claim her son… and to set Bernice on her final, lonely battle. But will her friends stand by her, one last time?
Archaeological Adventuress: Beta Caprisis is Bernice's real home world but she always calls Earth her home. Her father survived and her mother was exterminated. The question of her age comes up but that is such a long story I don't think anybody should even try and go there. Brax suggests that Jack ask her himself. Imagine trying to pick apart her timeline and pinpoint an age? That would take a box set on its own. She probably has the right to be a little annoyed that her friends have been spying on her son for some time and thinking he is stark raving bananas and have completely failed to inform her. Especially when there have been ample opportunities to do so.

Mysterious Girl: Good on Ruth for no longer pussy footing around Peter and telling him outright that nobody else can see Antonio because he doesn't exist. Sometimes it takes somebody on the periphery to confront people - had Bernice tried this tactic I think it might have damaged her relationship with Peter for good. Although she has to work on her pitch a little beforehand, telling somebody that they all think he is mad isn't exactly the most delicate way of breaking the news that they have been spying on him and think his boyfriend is a figment of his imagination. Ruth is irritated by Jack's reaction to Benny thinking they are a couple. 'Dear God no!' is quite harsh, I agree. She is nervous when it comes to meeting her sons partner for the first time, someone that he loves. We finally get to see the sort of woman that Ruth was before she her mind was wiped and she wound up a priestess of Poseidon. The daughter of a corrupt despot by all accounts, a thoroughly nasty piece of work that was brought up to think of the public as lowlife scum who deserve to be subjugated. The sort of woman that would order protesters executed and run away if the tide turns and the public gains the majority vote. The thought of having to work appals her. She knew defeat when it was coming and she murdered her father when the support was against him. She figured she could at least use that act in her favour. Our Ruth is shocked by these revelations and thinks that everything she has ever known is a lie. She doesn't like who she was. Jack tells her to remember that person and make sure she is never like that again.

Dog Boy: If it makes everyone happy he will go along to the Advent celebrations that Irving is arranging, even if he cannot really be arsed. Bernice wonders what Adrian would make of Peter now he is all grown up and living his life with another man. I would really love to listen to that scene because I could imagine it might be extremely awkward in all the best ways. Back when he was existing in a forced labour camp all Peter wanted was to be able to find his mum, the only person who had always been there for her. Antonio used to tell cheap jokes about their relationship and Peter never lied it. He thought what they had was serious, something solid, something to hold onto during those dark times. Finally Benny and Peter have a chance to heal their relationship, sharing his loss of Antonio and being able to support him.

Super Villain: Irving has never truly understood the meaning family until now. That odd feeling when you wake up one morning and realise that the people who orbit your life mean something more to you. He still doesn't know if this is his universe or a parallel one but he does know there was another Irving Braxiatel who hurt the people he has come to consider his family. He now understands why he did the things he did, something that was a mystery when he first arrived on Legion. He never argues with Bernice and she has instructed him to celebrate Advent. Bernice learnt a long time ago to never argue with anybody called Braxiatel (that's outright bollocks but it serves the moment well). No Braxiatel in any reality likes being manipulated. He wants to be the Irving Braxiatel that his predecessor never was. On his own planet he was one of the best. Benny wants to trust this Brax and she stopped trusting the old one years ago.

Jumping Jack Flash: He was born into a family of lawyers and insurance handlers who neglect to give a damn about what is right and focus on exploit people for every penny they are worth. Jack was different, he did care about their clients and the ethics of their business which made him a great disappointment to his father. Jack's dad has no qualms about sending his son off on a dangerous mission if it means they will obtain a wealthy client. If it all goes horribly wrong and they miss out he can always reap in the life insurance on his son. I'm not sure what I was expecting when it came to Jack's past but I certainly didn't imagine it being quite this comical.

Standout Performance: I've said it before and I'll say it again, Sean Biggerstaff has a gorgeous Scottish accent. A shame he was bumped off here, as I go on to explain later he would have made a fine (and sexy) addition to the cast. His chemistry with Thomas Grant really sells the relationship far more convincingly than the writing.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I have two...perfectly adequate parents!'

Great Ideas: Fenman gazed backwards through time and saw everybody she needs gathered in one place and she manipulates Braxiatel into making sure that it happens. That is why Braxiatel bought Legion as his bolt hole, the planet where the staging of this grand finale will take place. The first mention of Toothless Bob who would go on to play a much more essential part in The Brimstone Kid. Antonio Tulloch was real but he died on Bastion. To wipe out the Deindum, Brax and Benny created a paradox but it went slightly wrong and reality fractured and was rebooted. After the defeat of the Deindum Peter woke up on a slaver ship with none his friends around him. We learn that Adrian and Bev are rebuilding the Maximaderas solar system after bringing down the Deindum almost single-handedly. Fenman travels and controls people through crystals, they are scattered through time and she focuses finds and inhabits them. Avril wants Peter because she considers him her son, not Bernice's. The Braxiatel Collection is now run by...other people (Irving gives us no more explanation than that). The Epoch re-mapped the solar system for their schemes.

Isn't it Odd: The Pandora virus that has been locked away in Brax's head since the early Galifrey days is suddenly relevant again. Considering they have gone to some lengths (aside from a quick mention at the end of one of the adventures set on the alternative Gallifrey's in season four) to fail to connect the Braxiatel from Gallifrey to the one from the Bernice Summerfield range I think it is a big ask to get the audience up to speed on a plot element from the former series that is now pertinent in the latter. There is a good chance that the Bernice Summerfield audience has never touched the Gallifrey range (they are tonally about as far from each other as you can get). 'Advent wouldn't be Advent without plum pudding...' - don't go nabbing lines from far superior stories! I remember there was a first season episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series where they attempted a sequence of outright comedy. The show had a dark tone and one that didn't successfully lend itself to a farcical dinner party sequence. It felt for that episode as if the show didn't know whether it was trying to be funny or dramatic. It was not an experiment that they tried again. The Curse of Fenman reminded me strongly of that episode during the Antonio sequences because it was teetering on the edge of being comical (with everybody coming along to the Advent celebrations with a different opinion on whether he exists or not and the resulting madness of them all spilling the beans at once) whilst also going for the emotional jugular (Peter discovering that his boyfriend hasn't been real since he escaped Bastion) and tragedy (the pain of losing him in some grossly overwritten heartbreak). Frankly it all feels a bit odd and makes me wonder if the outcome (this fresh madness) was worth all the build up. I have a feeing that it was supposed to have a far more emotional impact than it does but the 'death scene' is so overplayed and scored that this was comic highlight. A shame because Peter and Antonio's might have been quite a refreshing relationship, especially when you add 'foot in mouth' Bernice into the mix. As it is portrayed here it is just bizarre, like something you expect to see in Dante's Cove. 'Whatever happens on Bastion, stays on Bastion...' - that made me chuckle because it sounded like a line from a cheap porn movie. Jacob's hippy cool-man dialogue is enough to make you want to hide under the sofa for a decade and never come out again ('That's some cool dudage word, you dig me?'). Antonio's murder is utterly inconsequential, he is killed because he and Peter refuse to leave Bastion without each other and the slavers want a deal, and so they murder Antonio to prevent any further problems in their negotiations. Apparently Antonio's love for Peter was so strong that some of Avril's mental energy from the crystal transferred into Peter...or something. This is the payoff from the Antonio storyline, a quirk of magic made him manifest himself inside Peter's head because their love for each other was so strong? Spare me. Why would Avril suddenly come after Peter now? It's been decades. Where has she been until now or did she just come over all maternal at Year Zero? There's an awkward dump of information about the Epoch set when Jack and Avril are reunited on Legion where they discuss the multiple Benny's, the Epoch and Zordin's constantly shifting surface. These plot elements have been completely forgotten for nine stories over several years...and suddenly they are brought up in a release already top heavy with continuity and one that they have nothing do with? Fenman went to all those lengths to get Jack and Ruth to Legion just to steal their youth and vitality? Forgive me but weren't their two easier catches that  she could have found that would have required a lot less effort. All Fenman's plans and schemes were leading up to the point where she could be reborn into her son's lovers body. That's just icky. Fenman's plans have been known to Braxiatel from the start and he has made allowances to stop her from the very beginning. Rendering all of this rather pointless.

Standout Scene: The reveal of Antonio was probably the best surprise of the box set. After spending so long trying to convince the audience that Peter is bonkers, it is a great surprise for Ruth to be able to see him too.

Result: More a series of long winded explanations than a piece of drama, The Curse of Fenman is trying to be a season finale full of exciting twists and turns but falls short in several key areas. One massive misstep is the casting of Georgia Moffett as Fenman, a performance that brings to mind every panto villainess and ice queen that has ever been depicted ('You are too late Irving! I have won! And I shall take my son! Cackle! Cackle! Cackle!'). Never once a genuine menace and always feeling as though she is winking at the audience, this part should have gone to an older actress with much more gravitas. As much as he understands these characters inside out and back to front, Gary Russell is not the man I would choose to script such an essential story because he doesn't quite know where to hold back. There are so many points where the audience is being blatantly manipulated; whether it is trying to be funny, poignant or cute. It is such a shame because the amount of character development that has been injected into the regulars because of this story is impressive (we learn Ruth and Jack's back story, Brax's history is explained and the whole Antonio thing is put to rest) but the presentation of the story, both in how it has been crafted and in how it has been directed has all the conviction of a daytime soap opera. Russell wants you to believe that this where the fates of all the characters has been heading the whole time but with no hints along the way it feels like a writer trying desperately to pull everything together at the last minute and explain everything away as being manipulated by Fenman. It is not in the least bit convincing because none of this has been developed in the stories leading up to it, it is just dropped on the audience at the last minute and wrapped up just as swiftly. This is how not to conduct an arc because it feels as though it is being made up on the hoof. If it wasn't and this was how it was always planned, well that's even more worrying. The Curse of Fenman has a worthy goal, to explain how everybody made it to Legion and where they came from. However these revelations would have been far more effectively spaced out over the past six releases rather than condensed into one great info dump of flashbacks and exposition. The whole thing left me rather cold, not least because Fenman's master plan amounts to absolutely nothing: 4/10

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Bad Wolf & The Parting of the Ways written by Russell T Davies and directed by Joe Ahearne


This story in a nutshell: A Daleks are back to their old tricks…but this time they've found religion.

Northern Adventurer: The Doctor’s tired look and exclamation of ‘you have got to be kidding me!’ is what I imagine was Christopher Eccleston’s reaction was when he read the first half of this script. It's wonderful to see his Doctor in some darkly played comedy because it allows us to see him do what he does best, be all broody and mysterious and yet be very funny at the same time (without some of the excesses earlier in the season).  You believe the Doctor’s threats when he points directly at the audience and tells the creators that he is going to stop them. I would hate for this incarnation of the Doctor to be after me. When the Doctor holds his hand out for Lynda to join him all I see is a charismatic and wonderful man, the ninth Doctor has truly arrived and he’s offering the universe up to strays again. We’ve had the Doctor return to the scene of a previous adventure and see the consequences of his interference before (The Face of Evil) but 100 years of suffering because he thinks he was doing the right thing, that has got to hurt. The idea of somebody manipulating the Doctor’s life to trap him is (as he so often says himself) fantastic. You feel every second of the Doctor’s guilt and pain as Rose is (apparently) blasted to death in front of him… at these moments I always think of Jackie and how she is going to kill him. I’m not all that fond of big, rousing speeches and do think they got more and more ridiculous as the series went on (especially the one in Voyage of the Damned… ‘I’m the Doctor! I’m 900 years old and I think rather a lot of myself' blah blah…) but I have to say Chris Eccleston does a fine job with some pretty cheesy dialogue (‘every last stinking Dalek' – what is he Abalsom Daak?). You believe him and are pretty scared for the Daleks, that’s how convincing Eccleston is. The idea that the Time Lords died for nothing since the Daleks always seem to survive haunts the Doctor, the fact that we later learn that he was responsible for their deaths must make him ache with guilt. The Doctor screams at the Daleks so dramatically they physically recoil. There is an unforgettable shot as the camera zooms in on the Doctor resting his head against the TARDIS doors as the Daleks scream at him from outside. It is one of my favourite moments from the first season – it sees the Doctor tired and defeated, sagging with guilt at his actions and facing the impossible task of having to deal with a race of self loathing Daleks that he has helped brought into being Daleks. It’s a beautifully small moment that is packed with so much meaning. The Doctor’s awkward goodbye with Lynda is really sweet where he kind of goes to kiss her but ends up shaking hands. He hasn't quite got the hang of this personal stuff. Tricking Rose into entering the TARDIS and sneaking her off to safety against her will is the most selfless act he performs in his ninth incarnation. How can you fail not to love the ninth Doctor during these scenes? ‘That’s okay, I hope it’s a good death’ he says about facing an enemy that cannot be defeated. Telling Rose to have a fantastic life is enough to bring a tear to the eye. His solution to wipe out the Daleks but also all of humanity forces the Doctor to confront his actions in the Time War and he looks truly pained as he considers which way to jump. He's been here before and lived to see the consequences of his violent actions. Has the Doctor ever been this interesting before? I can think of three times – the initial spiky first Doctor who I was not sure was an ally or an enemy, the second Doctor forced to confront his past and face up to his actions in The War Games and the fourth Doctor dancing around the decision to wipe out his deadliest enemies in Genesis of the Dalek. Davies has really made the show about the Doctor rather than an adventure serial that simply features him. We get to understand the universe as the Doctor does; he sees all that is, all that was and all that ever could be all at once. The ninth Doctor dies because he absorbed all the energy of the time vortex and every cell in his body dies but not before snatching a quick kiss from his companion. Has this been a love affair all along and this moment of intimacy the culmination? I'll leave for you to decide but I certainly didn't object to the act and it is pulled off with some stirringly romantic music and effects. I love how the Doctor tries to explain the process of regeneration to Rose before it takes place to make it as easy as possible for her. He doesn't seem at all unhappy to be going, perhaps recognising that he will shirk off this war torn incarnation and get a chance to start anew without all the baggage. Unlike when the eleventh Doctor stepped out of the tenth's shoes and you knew instantly that this was a mad and cheeky fella that you will have a lot of fun with the tenth Doctor’s brief appearance here is confined to a few lines and it is hard to grasp what he is going to be like. However the whole thing feels so gloriously upbeat and bright that I was sure that it wasn't going to be a disappointment. A shame to lose an actor of Eccleston's calibre in the role but he provided us with an unforgettable season and many startling moments. I remember feeling quite perturbed at the time that he would so willingly walk away from the series not it was a success for whatever reason but time has tempered my feelings and now all that is left is his incredible legacy in the part which will never be forgotten. Eccleston was great and I genuinely believe the show needed an actor of his gravity to force people into giving the show a chance again. Good on him for giving it a stab and making such a great job of it.

Chavvy Chick: If these two episode had seen the end of Rose’s character I think a lot of people (including me) would be declaring her one of the all time best companions. It's astonishing how right both the writing and Billie Piper’s performance feels compared to the rather more irritating version of Rose who turned up in series two. She looks great in this story and it really is the character at its height both in terms of her relationship with the Doctor and her confidence. You can’t help but laugh along with Rose as she enjoys the Weakest Link piss take. The first touch of Rose’s jealousy as Lynda refuses to leave the Doctor and she looks mightily miffed that somebody else cares for him as much as she does. If only it had stayed as small looks in the next series but she is about to turn into the green eyed monster. I can't believe that I was ever unconvinced about Piper's ability to play the part...the scene where she screams at the TARDIS to her back to the Doctor is heartbreaking and one of the few moments in Doctor Who that gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. The sheer mundanity of stepping from the TARDIS to dreary Central London with the thought that this is going to be her life once more really makes you feel that the character has lost something substantial in a very visual way. This is the moment when Jackie comes around to liking the Doctor because he brought her daughter home when things got tough. The whole point of the discussion of Rose's safety in World War Three is to make the pay off in the finale so rewarding. Jackie steps up to the plate and helps her daughter return to the horror that the Doctor is facing because she can see how devastated she is. And she understands that the Doctor needs her more than she does. The Doctor/Jackie relationship is far less fractious from now on (it helps that Tennant is much more cuddly and owes his life, literally in The Christmas Invasion, to the Tyler clan). Her speech about the Doctor showing her a better way of living her life is beautifully written and performed. How loaded with emotions is the scene between Rose and Jackie when she admits she met her dead father? I was moved to tears again. Davies is so good at this sort of thing, tugging at your heart strings from natural human interaction. I miss these moments.

Jack of All Trades: I tend to forget what a great little run for Jack these first five episodes were before he wound up on Earth in charge of Torchwood. He here's quite irresistible, his flirty behaviour, forthright bisexuality and rude sense of humour are all very new to Doctor Who and very welcome. I love the little nod he gives to his cock when the defabricator does its business – this is an actor that doesn’t lack a certain amount of irresistible charisma and clearly nothing to be afraid of. Nothing could quite have prepared me for the scene where Jack pulls a gun out of his ass – I still heave with laughter every time I see it. Imagine this in Hartnell’s time! For Jack saying hello is flirting, according to the Doctor. Does he look like an out of bounds sort of guy, he asks with a machine gun in each hand? Jack telling Rose that she is worth fighting for single handedly justifies his existence in the series and how he quietly kisses both of them is a perfect touch. He hasn't been around for long but Davies manages to convince the audience that there have been a wealth of adventures between The Doctor Dances and Bad Wolf, such is the strength of feeling between them. Jack doesn’t batter an eyelid when the Doctor saves Rose and leaves him there to die. He admits that he was much better off as a coward and can see how much he has grown as a character spelt out in his selfless actions in this story. What a casually brutal death he suffers. What a world of fascination his character is about to undergo after Rose brings him back to life. Simon got in a right paddy the first time we watched this because Jack (his favourite character) got left behind. If only he had known.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Am I naked in front of millions of your viewers?’ ‘Absolutely!’ ‘Ladies! Your viewing figures just went up…’
‘Then you are unemployed and yet you’ve still got enough money to buy peroxide.’
‘And then we’re gonna get you!’
‘But that’s a compact laser deluxe!’ ‘Where were you hiding that?’
‘Driven mad by your own flesh. The stink of humanity. You hate your own existence.’
That’s how good the Doctor is!’
‘My head is killing me.’

The Good Stuff: I remember when the premise for Bad Wolf was announced and a friend of mine wasn't even willing to give it a chance because he was convinced it was going to glorify reality television and he thought Russell T Davies had finally gone mad. He texted me afterwards to say how much he loved it. Davies is clearly a lover of popular television culture and he manages to poke fun at reality TV without ever demeaning it in this episode and provides a lot of laughs and scares by taking recognisable shows and turning them deadly. It might not be entirely convincing (would anybody really watch the Trinny and Susannah bots committing facial surgery on unwilling subjects?) but it's a bloody good laugh all the same. The pre titles sequence is one of the most surreal and I really love that they drown out the moaning drivel of the house mates with the best thing about Big Brother – the music! This might be the gayest observation I have ever made in my life but those multi coloured hand chairs in the house are simply divine. I want one. The lighting for The Weakest Link is naturally dramatic and so it makes a terrific moody setting for Doctor Who. It’s a symbol of how much faith people put in this first series of Doctor Who that Anne Robinson, Davina McColl and Trinny and Susannah all agreed to take part and send up their own shows. The first mention of Torchwood is very subtly handled. Davies allows you to relax into the daft parodies before suddenly slapping you around the face when things suddenly get nasty. You can see how this insane premise is going to work. The Controller is a masterpiece of design and lighting, so simply achieved and yet it looks so striking on screen. I wish we could have had the time to learn more about her. Davies wasn't a fan of the design of the Droids but I rather like them, art deco tech with deadly appendages. Bad Wolf being written all over the universe is the first time Doctor Who had attempted to weave an invisible arc into a series and it might be because it was so novel but I still think it is one of the most effective (the planets disappearing in series four is the only one that thrilled me more). Suddenly I have to give The Long Game more consideration as the location is revealed to be Satellite Five - even the title makes a whole lot more sense now. This is an Ark in Space/Revenge of the Cybermen scenario where the two shows can share the same sets and spread the design budget a bit further. Davies is very good at creating a whole world out of a line (the great Atlantic smog storm with news bulletins that let you know when it is safe to go outside and breathe the air) in precisely the same way Robert Holmes did. Creating whole worlds out of words. I realised this has been pitched at just the right level when I was actually shouting with excitement at the screen as Rose plays sudden death and the tension cranks up even further. Subtle use of continuity (the Isop Galaxy, Lucifer) will please the fans but otherwise go unnoticed. exactly how it should be. I love the idea of the Controller bringing the Doctor to the game station to defeat the Daleks - it makes sense of how the Doctor, Jack and Rose happened to be involved in the first place. She’s a fascinating character and it is a shame that she was killed off so quickly (although the shot of her being ripped from her station is startlingly dramatic). I'm not of the opinion that just because you can visualise an entire fleet of Dalek saucers that you should (and they try and pull it off a couple of times a year these days which has become quite tiresome) but that doesn't mean that I was an excited eight year old again when they were revealed. Seeing half a million Daleks streaming through space makes you tingle all over with fanboy joy. Dicks and Letts happily admit that this is the sort of scope they were trying to achieve in stories like Frontier in Space/Planet of the Daleks. The cliffhanger is so unique I don’t know how to judge it, it’s so rare to have a cliffhanger that is as optimistic as this (the only other example I can think of is in Evil of the Daleks) but its definitely sitting in this category because it is desperately exciting and upon first transmission had me bouncing on the sofa desperate to see the next episode. Missiles being fired at the TARDIS? How dynamic is his story? Finally somebody bothers to write a scene where the Daleks simply try and murder the Doctor as soon as they see him. It has always bothered me that they have never done that before. The thought of the Daleks harvesting humanity to create more of their kind repulses and throws open the interesting notion of their self-hatred. One of the defining characteristics of the Daleks is their racial purity and the notion of perverted humanised Daleks murdering because they despise themselves a genuinely frightening idea and psychologically much more interesting than the norm. A little mention for Jo Stone-Fewings who gives a wonderfully understated performance as the male programmer (what a shame he didn’t get a name!) – it’s the sort of strong incidental character that Davies excels at. The function of his character could have been performed by anybody but his inclusion adds more depth to the story. The concept of the TARDIS standing on a street corner gathering dust for all eternity made me choke up. After all, that's how it all begun. The shot of those revolving chickens is so appallingly routine it brings home everything that Rose has lost. There’s something pleasingly old school about the Daleks streaming through the corridors and cutting down the resistance. If Power of the Daleks is half as exciting as this it will be quite a treat when we finally get to watch it. The Daleks take a little detour just to murder innocent people and decide that bombing whole continents is the way to bend the Doctor to their will. They truly are the epitome of evil. Best death of the year: Lynda being sucked out into space by the silent Daleks, it is an astonishingly well executed sequence that had me on the edge of my seat and an unforgettable end to a pleasant character. The idea of pouring the TARDIS into a young woman’s head is highly original and proves that Neil Gaiman (as fantastic as The Doctor’s Wife was and it was brilliant) is simply borrowing a great idea. To have the Doctor explain the process of regeneration to Rose and thus reassuring the kids in the audience that this is perfectly natural is a touch of genius.

The Bad Stuff: ‘She’s been evicted…from life!’ should never have made it to the studio. Jack actually looks pretty ridiculous with that bloody daft giant gun made out of the defabricator. I know it was the idea but Roderick is as annoying as pubic louse! Jack screaming and waving his big gun about is ultra camp (‘your stupid freaking game show killed her!’). I realise it would rather spoil the well-filmed surprise return but the Controller should really have said ‘the Daleks’ rather than ‘my masters.’ ‘What is the meaning of this negative?’ is another duff line. Thankfully the Emperor comes along because the Dalek dialogue is as banal as ever. What a shame the new Emperor is no where near as visually impressive as the original – they should have knocked up a CGI version of the Evil of the Daleks one and we could finally see him in all his glory. While I love the insanity of the Dalek psychology on display I could have done without the religious leanings which I felt did them no favours at all. Making this a battle of Gods doesn’t make the material more epic. Whilst the long shot of the chalk on the playground is striking it seems a little odd that Rose doesn’t notice BAD WOLF in huge letters right in front of her! In real Eric Saward fashion Davies kills off his entire guest cast because they have fulfilled their plot function. ‘Am I becoming one of your angels?’ – ugh. Despite where it leads and how strong the scene the Rose/TARDIS is the ultimate deus ex machina. I don’t object to sealing the regeneration with a kiss after all if I was going to go I would probably lock tongues with Rose too but ‘I think you need a Doctor’ is one of the worst lines in Doctor Who history.

The Shallow Bit: Jack squeezed into black jeans and a tight white shirt...phwoar. Rose is practically edible in this story. I can’t believe they gave the Trinny and Susannah androids breasts…or that Jack actually cups them at one point! Jack in the noddy is shot as risqué as a family show will allow and perhaps we should be pleased that the gratuitous butt shot was excised (besides suggestion is far more arousing than revealing everything). We get our first companion on companion kiss and the first time the Doctor locks lips with another guy and the world doesn’t end. Go figure.

Result: With a few forgiveable flaws Doctor Who’s first attempt at a two-part season finale is a complete success with many memorable, shocking and dramatic scenes. Joe Ahearne’s handling of the material is superb and he manages to pile on atmosphere and scares whilst always highlighting the actors and giving them the focus. This story mixes the epic science fiction world of Doctor Who with Davies’ enchanting domestic character-based vision for the show to blistering effect and the eleven weeks of material that have come previously inform so much of what takes place here. No Doctor Who season has been structured this skilfully before so that so much of the finale rewards. Somewhere in the second episode around the time where Rose is sitting in that god awful takeaway restaurant I realised that not only had Davies' unique approach to the show really worked but it was starting to produce some of the most epic and personal Doctor Who material we had ever seen. The reality TV parodies work like a charm, the first episode making me laugh like a nutter before things turned very black and for once a Dalek invasion feels positively cinematic. The massacre that takes place in the second episode puts the Daleks on a level of menace that is way above anything we have seen in the previous season. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper have managed to bring the show back with an explosive real bang and save their best performances for their last story together and the ninth Doctor and Rose are simply made for each other at this point. It’s unique in Doctor Who’s history to have a cliffhanger and a regeneration that both feel so positive and the ending promises great things for the future. Both episodes earn a practically perfect 99/10

Monday, 24 February 2014

HMS Surprise written by Alexander Vlahos and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Mortis Dock: the last manned shipyard in the cosmos… Population: six thousand and two… And now, not a soul in sight… at least, until Bernice, Peter and Jack are drawn off-course. Where have all the workers disappeared to? Why is Jack behaving oddly? And what is the secret of the HMS Surprise? Only a stranger in a lighthouse holds the key… but can he be trusted?
Archaeological Adventuress: Peter only brought Bernice along on this mission because it is more her field of expertise than his and it is nothing more than that. Although he is calling her mum again, which is a good sign. The tried and tested Summerfield method is to throw caution to the wind and see what happens. She has never taken her own advice, always big on the 'be careful and stick together' whilst wandering off in the other direction. I loved the gag of Jack getting wound up because all he can hear is furious panting on the intercoms and when she gets a moment Bernice informs him it is just her making her way up the stairs. Well, she's not as young as she was. Peter might not like it but as soon as she realises her son is in danger Bernice's maternal instincts kick in. And there is nothing a mother wouldn't do to protect her son. Bernice always thought the Healers were a fairy story that her dad told her about. She never thought she would ever meet one.

Dog Boy: Peter always put up with Jack precisely because he never showed an interest. Antonio was there for Peter on Bastion and looked out for him before Irving came along. It isn't that surprising that things developed the way they did given the hardships that they suffered. When he panics, calls Bernice 'mum' like a frightened little boy. If you are frightened enough, every man would call out for his mother.

Jumping Jack Flash: Bernice knows when Jack is lying because his lips are moving. He used think there was something relaxing about the sound of the sea but now he thinks it is all very unnerving. He doesn't normally do delicate because he doesn't know how to handle it (other than badly).

Standout Performance: It is easy not to expect a great deal from the guest performers of the spin off ranges of Big Finish. They are the hidden ranges, the ones that sell less and probably attract lesser known talent because they don't have the lure of the 'Doctor Who' banner. However I am constantly surprised by the quality of performances that these ranges manage to attract. Geoffrey Breton is a great example. A young actor just starting out in his career, he plays the one speaking guest star role in HMS Surprise and bring a huge amount of personality, pathos and interest to the role. It helps that the character is well written but this is a performance that has been considered, the lines have been studied and every nuance is wrung out of them. Colour me impressed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We'll be out of here before you can say emergency temporal shift...'

Great Ideas: Shuttles, cruisers, passenger ships, freighters...plenty of ships have been vanishing at the Mortis Docks for a while now and it is about time somebody found out why. As far as they can see they are just vanishing into thin air. Mortis Dock was one the last manned shipyards in the cosmos. There were 600 people living here and there should still be some remnant of society about. Nothing has been recorded on the Docks for a year, no records have been made whatsoever. Lucas' family owns the Dock and he was raised in a family of Dock workers. Everything that is left belongs to him, such as it is. The Dock workers come in dripping wet, growing out of the water, adapting to fit the circumstances. Like zombies, parodies of the people they once were. An ancient all powerful being that controls everything, consciousness and thought, alive on an derelict ship from 1964 in an abandoned dock. The Healers are an ancient race whose soul purpose in life was to inhabit, protect and serve. Born to embody objects, buildings, vessels...all those derelicts that are still standing but shouldn't be there are chances that the are inhabited by one of the Healers. They inhabit good natured objects, ones which are considered worthy of salvaging an they give up their lives to allow them to survive. Archaeologists have a lot to thank them for. This Healer is trapped inside a warship, having made a mistake to inhabit and salvage an object that it finds immoral and now it can't get out again. The foghorn has been the Healer crying out, asking for help. It's only means of escape is a worthy vessel for it to transfer into. The ship (with the Healers influence) killed everybody in the Dock and the Healer inside it regrets that decision and can see only one way out. Suicide. Lucas' entire life was dedicated to saving lives, he was a fire warden. That's why the Healer has been keeping him alive, so there is the possibility that he could save one last life and provide a vessel for it to escape in.

Audio Landscape: Alarms, the hull creaking, the Iverfield falling out of space, horns, rolling waves, machine screaming and fizzing, whispering voices, squeaking ships, sonar, detonation alarm.

Musical Cues: Like Shades of Gray last year, HMS Surprise relies heavily on it's soundtrack and James Dunlop as perfectly in tune with the material and the music is especially effective as we race towards the conclusion and the violins start striking discordantly.

Standout Scene: Bernice tries to offer the Healer her body as a worthy vessel to transfer in to and...well you can imagine what comes next. Her reaction is much more subdued than you might imagine.

Result: An atmospheric and creepy listen which relies on some sinister ideas to make you squirm before flourishing in the last ten minutes as a surprisingly thoughtful SF tale. You've got a great setting (a decaying shipyard), a great 'menace' (an intelligence birthed in a derelict ship) and Scott Handcock on hand to provide some lovely frights. He's by far the best of the Bernice Summerfield directors. That's not a slight to Gary Russell, who is the only other person working on the series at the moment, because I think Handcock is the best director to have ever worked on the series. He seems to have a terrific understanding of the audio medium and how to get you to feel something about the story is being told, especially if it is a chiller. Big Finish Towers would do well to assign him to some of the other ranges as his is an untapped talent that has scarcely been exploited. HMS Surprise really reminded of one of the old school Bernice Summerfield adventures with a tight mystery, a tiny cast and a rock solid plot that is surprisingly attention-grabbing given the economy of the cast and setting. Lucas is the only guest character but he's effective enough that you don't need anybody else, he provides the details of the mystery and the solution and is engagingly played by Geoffrey Breton. If you removed Peter and Jack you could happily slip this into seasons three to six and I mean that as the highest of compliments. I wouldn't mind finding more out about the Healers, they are ripe for further investigation and I can think of a number of tales that could spring from the charming idea. A second writing/directing combination of Alexander Vlahos and Scott Handcock is a must at some point in the future: 8/10

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Boom Town written by Russell T Davies and directed by Joe Ahearne



This story in a nutshell: Everybody takes time out in Cardiff to pause and reflect…

Northern Adventurer: By this stage of series one Christopher Eccleston has made peace with the role and is delivering some near flawless performances. This story throws a mixture of comedy and drama at him and whilst he was only cut out for the latter earlier in the season he has now perfected the former. The Doctor is such hard work but he’s worth it, he says whilst flirting cheekily with Jack. It is wonderful to see the ninth Doctor and his friends laughing in the café, his life is just starting to come together again before the devastating events in the next story. Eccleston’s slight eyebrow raise when Margaret drops her teacup is priceless. Don’t worship him because he would make a very bad God. Davies takes this opportunity to reflect on the Doctor’s lifestyle and we have never had such a harsh light thrown on his methods and the carefree way he walks away from whatever situation he has made. It’s not always like this, having to wait and deal with the consequences of his actions and Margaret is spot on when she says he is always the first leave. Remember all those Troughton stories where he was out of the door as soon as the crisis is averted and the mopping up has to begin? How strong is the Doctor’s stomach? Can he sit with a person he is going to kill and take supper? All this introspection is very New Adventures/Eighth Doctor Adventures and its very welcome addition to the new series. What I love is that these ideas are tossed into the air, the finger is pointed but the episode doesn’t come down on either side. We are left to consider what Boom Town says about the Doctor and to make up our own minds. His happy go lucky lifestyle leaves devastation in its wake, always on the move because he daren’t look back. Playing with so many people’s lives he might as well be God. All of this psychological evaluation felt fresh and interesting in series one but too much can be a dangerous thing...there would be times over the next seven series where I fear that the show is focussing so much on how the Doctor is feeling that it forgets to let him enjoy his adventures. But that's for later, as I said at this stage this was a fascinating peek into the psyche of one of the most closed off Doctors.

Chavvy Chick: It aches me to watch the series one episodes where Rose is portrayed so confidently knowing what comes up next year when she pairs up with Tennant. Style wise this is certainly the best she looks, all wrapped up in woolies and rocking the pigtail look. It's great to see Rose saying that she loves the TARDIS as it is. Mickey to bring her passport was just a pretence because she wanted to spend some time with him. I did like it when she tells Mickey what she gets up to is none of the Doctor’s business. The Rose/Mickey relationship is given a great deal of consideration in Boom Town and picks up a lot of the threads that were left hanging at the end of World War Three. One thing is clear, the personal lives that the companions have left behind have become a running storyline that the series will dip in and out of when it sees fit. Is it fair that Mickey is left waiting for his honey whilst she goes running off with the Doctor? Is it fair that she shoves the great banter she has with the Doctor and Jack in his face as soon as he shows up? Even Rose (who often thinks about number one first) declares that Mickey deserves better at the end of the episode.

Cheeky Chap: Boom Town is the making of Mickey offering him precisely the sort of development that there wasn't time to give him (but was desperately needed) in Rose. Watch as he very shyly asks Rose out on a date, he is trying to feel his way into their new relationship. When he tells Rose that he is dating Trisha Delaney it is clearly just a ploy to make her react and a reminder that he isn't sitting idle. He admits that at least he knows where Trisha is and she won’t leave him like Rose did, making him feel like nothing. Clarke is excellent when Mickey almost breaks down, slightly pathetic and very indignant. That was the point where I fell in love with Mickey the idiot. If Rose picks up the phone Mickey will always come running but he wants to know if he is supposed to wait forever because he will. He needs a promise that if she comes back, she will be coming back for him. Unfortunately all of this good work almost threatens to go out of the window when Mickey selfishly shouts after Rose when she runs off to help out with the end of the world. Come on Mickey, sometimes there are moments when you have to put your feelings aside and simply react to a situation. You are reminded briefly of the pig headed idiot from his debut story. When Mickey walks away from Rose at the end I was left wondering if he did it for his sakes or hers. Either way it looks like their affiliation has come to an end.

Hunky Hero: Jack is sidelined slightly to allow the others some development which is a shame given how little time he would spend in the Doctor's company. At this point the character is foot loose and fancy free (well he'll never be fancy free but you get the idea) and an absolute delight to be around. Torchwood would turn him into somebody far more uptight and crude but I am much more in love with the morally loose jock from series one, the guy who learns to have a heart thanks to his exposure to the Doctor.

Sparkling Dialogue: Boom Town is loaded with fantastic lines and if I recited them all I would pretty much be typing out the entire script so here are a few of my favourites…
‘To the future! And believe, it will glow…’
‘This is persecution! Why can’t you leave me alone? What did I ever do to you?’ ‘You tried to kill me and destroy this entire planet!’ ‘Apart from that?’
‘Oh…I sound like a Welshman! God help me I’ve gone native!’
‘Dinner in bondage. Works for me.’
‘You’re pleading for mercy out of a dead woman’s lips.’
‘Some date this turned out to be!’

The Good Stuff: Annette Badland as Margaret Slitheen is still one of the best villains that the new series has given us. I'm so pleased that she has been signed up to Wizards vs Aliens because we need to see more of her on TV. Margaret is utterly charming until to encroach upon her territory and then her vicious nature springs forth (and best of all she is a female villain where there is no indication that she has at some point played hide the sausage with the Doctor...or that she might want to...as seems to the case these days). Hooray that they managed to shoot on one of the few days of the year that the sun comes out in Wales. Joe Ahearne goes to some lengths to make the City look as chic as possible. Electrifying swimming pools, runaway cars, icy patches – Davies shows an aptitude for quick fire comedy dialogue. Is this the first Doctor Who story that has a scene in the ladies lavatory? Amazing how Davies can turn a scene around on a sixpence and Margaret’s sudden realisation that she is going to kill a pregnant woman (I remember Simon first watching that scene and going ‘Uh-oh’). The Slitheen costumes look a lot better this time around, glistening wet skin and mostly kept hidden in close ups. The whole sequence with the gang preparing to trap Margaret, deploying their phones and covering all of the escape routes has just the right touch of frivolity to it. The music is awesome and I always laugh when Mickey trips over the utilities trolley in a way that Doctor Who rarely makes me laugh out loud. The teleport gang is inspired and you have to feel sorry for poor Annette Badland who was forced to run back and forth for the sake of her art. I can’t decide whether a pan dimensional surfboard is jaw-droppingly cool or agonising embarrassing idea (I have heard compelling arguments on both side of the fence) but regardless it is certainly an original plan of escape. Having a prisoner in the TARDIS is an interesting idea. Woman’s Wept sounds like the sort place that should be rendered in CGI. Margaret’s attempts to poison the Doctor are more very funny moments, played deadly straight and that just makes it more chucklesome. Just think the next time you are out for dinner the Doctor might be on the table next to you dining with one of his enemies. The dialogue in the restaurant scenes is extraordinarily thoughtful (‘And that’s how you live with yourself, because once in a while, on a whim, when the winds in the right direction you happen to be kind’). It's the kind of dialogue you can indulge in when you take the time to step back from the bangs and flashes and plot devices and engage with the characters. The climactic last ten minutes borrows plot twists and visuals directly from the TV Movie (shots of the town being struck by an apocalypse, similar low angle shots of the TARDIS under attack, the universe threatening to be torn apart by the heart of the TARDIS and the Ship performing a magic trick on somebody's life) and is no worse off for it. It's great to see the TARDIS mythologised in the new series, given appropriate reverence and abilities. Each production team has taken this machine and added to its myth and the new series team is no different. All of Margaret’s chatter about her murderous nature being bred into her at an early age is paid off as she says thank you when she knows is going to get a second chance. She knows she could never change her nature but given another chance she could do it all again differently. The difference between this and the Doctor's perverse manipulation of Sardick's timeline in A Christmas Carol is that Margaret brought all of this upon herself. It wasn't the Doctor's choice to turn her back into a child. He's not playing God yet.

The Bad Stuff: There is way too much continuity in the first ten minutes that explains why they are in Cardiff and why the TARDIS is shaped like a police box.

Result: Turn away if you want to hear a wrap up that condemns Boom Town because it is one of my favourite episodes of the first series. Like The Unicorn and the Wasp later in the series what we have here is a tried and tested action director turning his hand to something lighter and more character based and doing a bang up job of it. It’s an episode that juggles dialogue concerning consequences, capital punishment and the pain of being left behind when people get on with their lives without you and it examines the ninth Doctor better than any other episode in this season. Christopher Eccleston is a revelation in a story that shows how this Doctor's life is all coming together (his trio of companions are a delight and it is rare to see him smiling quite so much) but he's also allowed some quieter moments, a chance to examine the Doctor's carefree attitude to adventure when there are so many lives at stake. His scenes with Annette Badland manage to be very funny and extremely poignant which is a tough act to pull off. Who cares that there isn't the budget to produce something more blockbusting, Davies returns to the tried and tested method of the classic series and uses the lack of money as an excuse to give the episode more meaning. Boom Town is a pause between two massive two parters and yet manages to have far more to say than either of them. Light and frothy and dark and thoughtful, it’s far more than the soap opera of repute: 9/10

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Handful of Dust written by Xanna Eve Chown and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: “S.O.S. Emergency. Please send… an archaeologist?” On a routine postal mission for a deranged millionaire, Bernice, Ruth and Jack intercept a distress signal from the most haunted planet in the galaxy: Nemeqit.Taking their newly-christened shuttle – The Irverfield – down to investigate, the trio soon find themselves confronted with a pair of childlike extra-terrestrials; Vonna Byzantium, presenter of Paranormal Planets and part-time diva… and an awful lot of dust. But something else is going on beneath the surface of Nemeqit, something none of them ever imagined. And this time, Bernice really can’t save everyone…

Archaeological Adventuress: Bernice is keen to meet Antonio, Peter's much discussed but never seen (in more ways than one) boyfriend. What has Bernice's life come to when it has resorted to her working as nothing more than a glorified delivery girl? No wonder she seeks out her own mystery to solve on the way back. She can't resist a distress signal. Having been a deity herself she can tell you it is not all it is cracked up to be. The responsibility of having to pull a religion out of her bag for Bel and Lud is one that requires a great deal of consideration - does anybody have the right to hand somebody something as identifying as a belied system. Ruth makes a good point though. If they don't do it and somebody else with no scruples is put in the same situation they could well take advantage of it an turn themselves into a deity. If she was told that she was going to die then the only thing she would want would be to hold her son and tell hi she loves him. Sometimes, just sometimes the universe is a stranger place than even Bernice can imagine.

Jumping Jack Flash: Still something of a mystery, I have to admit that he has almost unnoticeably become one of the regulars that I rely upon to provide a good time these days. I can't wait until we get to learn Jack's back story because I am sure there is a great deal of worth to be learnt but for the time being he forms a part of the hugely entertaining trio of Benny/Ruth/Jack that seems to be the heart of the series now.

Standout Performance: Bowerman, Antoine and Ames are like a well oiled machine now. Bowerman in particular makes Bernice's investigations seem fresh as a daisy despite the fact that she has been doing this for the past fifteen years. Peter Sheward and Charlie Hayes deserve a round of applause for bringing to life what could have been very annoying characters with a great deal of innocence and charm. I wasn't keen on Ellen Salisbury's Vonna Byzantium though, far too many 'my lovely's' and not enough passion that would make this ambitious character come alive. There's a similar character in The Big Dig that shows precisely how this should have been done.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You have to help us remember God.'
'They're asking me to go out there in the dust, do some digging and make up a religion for them...in a day!'

Great Ideas: Christmas is called Advent on Legion and seems to involve an awful lot of drinking. The ancient people who once flourished on are now lost to the myths of legends. As their technology advanced they turned from their old beliefs angering the spurned deity who paid them back with devastation. Fires raged until nothing was left on the plant but dust. At least Bernice comments that legends like this are tenapenny...because it is exactly what I was thinking! Once they landed and were assaulted by dust I couldn't help but wonder if this was going to play about with similar ideas to the Blakes' 7 episode Sand. Lud and Bel are an intriguing mystery, a pair of perfect humanoids living in Eden who woke up after the Dome cracked to find a world that was perfectly suited to their survival. The whole notion of Paranormal Planets, a reality TV show that hops from world to world, Most Haunted style, and catering for the thrill seekers that believe in the great beyond is terrifying (that such self delusion should stretch far into the future). The public are crying out for a new series after their cancellation (thanks to a fake ectoplasm incident which we don't learn any more details about) and Vonna Byzantium (the name alone deserves a health hazard) is on the lookout for fresh, exciting material. I doubt they will find it on Nemeqit. The seven characteristics of life are movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, excretion, nutrition and another 'r' word which eludes Benny for the time being. Nemeqit is dying, a 2000 year old death and it is using its last breath to keep Bel and Lud alive. Nemeqit was their mother, the dome acting as the egg with two baby planets gestating inside until it cracked open and let them out. Their skin was cracking because they weren't big enough to hold them. They were planets, after all.

Audio Landscape: Screams, the surface of an alien world, footsteps, wind, knocking.

Isn't it Odd: Maybe I'm becoming a bit of a curmudgeon in my old age (does 33 constitute old age?) but I didn't find the gag about Brax naming the ship the 'Iverfield' at all amusing. It felt like it was trying to be cute. The baby planets and reality TV ideas feel like they belong in completely different stories and fail to gel when they are brought together in the second half of A Handful of Dust, one failing to have any impact on the other. It feels like the writer was under running and added the Paranormal Planets nonsense to pad the story out a bit. It jars horribly with the highbrow tone of the rest of the piece.

Standout Scene: The reveal of what Bel and Lud are is actually rather lovely, living planets. It's the long, unmemorable trek to get there that is the problem. I certainly never guessed what they were, that's for sure.

Result: I'm not sure what to make of A Handful of Dust. The keyword that seemed to leap out at me was 'adequate' and it was a story that I failed to feel any great passion towards. The trouble with the Bernice Summerfield range is that there have been so many stories now that unless you are creating something massively original it is difficult not to compare the adventures to similar ones in the past. There have been plenty of mysteries on alien planets and this isn't one of the more intriguing ones. I couldn't work out what was missing, the story seemed to be angling for something cerebral with its themes of religion and mythology but there didn't seem to be any great stakes involved in solving the riddle of Bel and Lud beyond not leaving any loose ends. None of the characters seemed personally involved with what was going on. The Paranormal Planets angle is amusing for a minute or two but I didn't find the character of Vonna Byzantium especially funny and the whole reality TV angle would be utilised with far more skill in the first story of the Missing Persons box set. Even the realisation wasn't as gripping as I have come to expect from this range. The direction was sufficient but I felt it could have been spookier given the ideas (a haunted/dead planet) and an injection of pace would really have helped move things along. Ruth and Jack are present but for all we learn about them they are not essential to the story, this would have played out just as efficiently with Bernice travelling to Nemeqit alone. Balancing all of these negatives (or adequacies) was a strong cast who make the most of the material they are given (my pal Peter Sheward is really sweet as Lud). I want to be kinder to a story that is trying to make you think but it is a piece that seems torn between offering something intellectual and something amusing and falls a little short in both areas. Year Zero proved that this range can jettison the humour and really make you think but A Handful of Dust doesn't have anywhere near the same focus or shrewdness. Not one of my favourites: 5/10

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Everybody Loves Irving written by Miles Richardson and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: Bernice and Braxiatel have never quite seen eye-to-eye… but now he wants to make amends. He’s taking her on a leisure drive across Legion’s deadly surface to an Ikerian settlement not far from Legion City. Their mission: shopping. The Ikerians are renowned traders, dealing in everything from the finest art to cut-price battlecruisers. They’re willing to do a good deal too. After all, they know Irving Braxiatel of old… and better than this Brax knows himself. Everywhere they go and everyone they deal with, Braxiatel’s reputation precedes him. He has good friends and even better enemies… but one thing’s for certain. Everybody loves Irving.

Archaeological Adventuress: If you have been missing the chemistry and repartee between Lisa Bowerman and Miles Richardson then sit back and enjoy the ride because for the most part Everybody Loves Irving is the equivalent of one of those US sitcoms with the two characters in one set bouncing witty dialogue back and forth. It is nice to see Bernice get a little down time after her hectic exploits of late and Bowerman sounds as though she is having a blast relaxing into Richardson's quirky script. Bernice is suspicious of Brax wanting to take her shopping, especially when she barely has two coins to rub together. They haven't sat down and discussed the subject of hr salary and as far as Bernice is concerned real archaeology doesn't come cheap. She wont sit by whilst Brax makes negotiations with a sexist Ikerian who considers Bernice to be his 'pet'. Her dad always used to say if you come up against anything intractable then give it a good thump. Irving has brought Benny to his newly purchased base of operations because she has a habit of sniffing out trouble. She makes some token objections to being treated like a skiv but I think she rather likes the idea of working with Irving again. Either that or she wants to keep a good eye on him, starting with his base.

Mysterious Girl: Ruth considers Bernice her best friend and is grateful that she looked her on the road to Legion. She feels affection towards Peter too and tries to reach out to him, trying to see the situation from his skewered point of view.

Dog Boy: Brax found Peter when he had given up home and gave him a life on Legion. He has stood by him and Antonio ever since, looked out for him. Ruth tries to explain that everything that Bernice has done since she met her on Atlantis was with the aim of finding her way back to her son. Irving found Peter in a slave pit on Bastion, where he had to fight in the arena and learn to take care of himself.

Super Villain: Clearly Richardson has been waiting for the day that his character regained dominance in Bernice's life considering he put pen to paper and wrote the most Brax heavy script in an age. And why not? He's a fantastic character that has been surprising and thrilling me for the past fifteen years of my life. After behaving so abominably to Benny and manipulating her life in so many appalling ways I never thought we would see the day when we could relax into a comedy atmosphere with the two characters again. Russell and Handcock have created the perfect way of giving the character a second chance, wiping the slate clean and starting all over again. It would appear that Braxiatel is comfortable financially no matter what guise or period of his life we visit him in. He's an extremely resourceful man. There are a lot of Braxiatel's about and this version of him only understands the half of it (what hope do the rest of us have then?). He knows there is a purpose to having so many iterations of himself at large and that one of Braxiatel's is privy to the master plan and he is working towards finding the answers. He's just hoping that it wont lead towards anything that he is going to regret. Gallot had dealings with another Brax, the one that Benny spent ten years with and nearly screwed up her life for good. The one who murdered Benny's husband. Wherever this version of Irving goes he is learning more and more about Benny's one and he likes the sound of him less and less. Is this a ploy? Is this Benny's Brax play a long con? I guess we will just have to wait and find out. There are certainly hints that the old, devilish Brax has been to the silo before. When Irving talks about home and Bernice asks where he means by that he gets cagey and insists that some things are private.

Great Ideas: Draconian brandy is the finest in the galaxy but they don't drink a lot of it themselves so that leaves pretty for the rest of us. The perfect cure to a hangover is Tolken eyeballs in brown spittle sauce. Yes, you've guessed it...we're back in Bernice Summerfield The Sitcom territory. When it was played for a laughed in The Worst Thing in the World I never for one moment that it would become something a reality all these years down the line. I have to admit it does make a decent contrast to the other two stories in the Legion box set though, as different from the race against time drama that Vesuvius Falling was to the psychological horror that Shades of Gray so terrifyingly explored. Legion might be strange in that it fails to have any kind of running theme or arc plots, featuring three such disparate pieces but it does go to prove that in this new dawn for the character that diversity is still the key. The Ikerians will quite gladly trade with anybody regardless of your race or preferences. The Ikerians are prolific breeders, hence them having to construct a protective dome on Legion and their high population means they have a large workforce. They are humanoid but somewhat vertically challenged. Brax is the market for a crater to create a little bolthole in, one with a fully functioning rocket silo and a ship. Bernice sings 'The Sky's No Limit' jingle from the Epoch storyline so it looks like the ties to that set haven't quite been severed yet. What ever happened to the Epoch? Who is it that tried to murder Bernice in the bath? Or was it simply an accident?

Musical Cues: A shame that they don't release the soundtracks to the audios anymore because the Legion box set features some excellent music courtesy of Daniel Brett. He is working his ass off to make the insubstantial material in Everybody Loves Irving as enjoyable as possible. Check out the sequence where the plumbers arrive and reveal who they are to see what I mean. It's not a great gag but you'll be halfway convinced that it was because the music is so damn fun.

Isn't it Odd: Richardson creates a sense of urgency with the two unknown visitors to Legion rushing towards to Irving's new base of operations...only for them to turn out to be space plumbers there to make sure that the hot water is running. Did I miss something? Was this supposed to be an operatic gag that left me heaving on the floor because it falls way short of the mark. It's worth a smirk, if anything but not the substantial build up it is afforded. Although I did like the jokes about not having the parts and 'you wont even know we're here.'  What the hell is going on with Peter and his imaginary boyfriend that nobody else can see? I couldn't work out if it was supposed to be dramatic or amusing...it's just pretty weird.

Standout Scene: Nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Bernice asked for the music to be a little funkier and 'Adventure is my Game' started piping out of the speakers. I thought we had long forgotten that abomination and to see it return only to have the piss ripped out of it...well I was cracking up.

Result: Perhaps they should have included a laughter track. Everybody Loves Irving is pure sitcom Benny and very hard to take seriously. Everything is a comically exaggerated; the midget salesmen, the banter between Bernice and Braxiatel and the fact that they share a bed, Peter's imaginary lover, the Al Capone-style businessman to the plumbers that are presented as the new big bad. It's a strange place to leave the Legion box set, far more concerned with setting up a bolt hole for Brax and his new companions to settle into than pulling together any narrative threads that have been started in this box set. Having three stories doesn't really give the writers the opportunity to tell a larger story unless you are going to tell one long serial and so instead the choice was made to tell three completely diverse standalone tales. Everybody Loves Irving is far more interested in asking questions rather than answering them, whetting peoples appetites for Missing Persons. There isn't really a narrative to speak of, not a great deal seems to happen throughout and I was left waiting for a punchline that never came. The real saving grace was the chemistry between Bowerman and Richardson which is a continuing delight. It does feel a bit of a waste of an hour given the juicy threads that have been left dangling. I would rather invest my time in the continuing domestic drama between Peter and Benny or the mystery surrounding Ruth, Jack and Irving than wasting my time listening the to sitcom exploits of space plumbers. Given there is only eight more stories from this creative team left to be told it seems strange to waste any of the valuable spots in the schedule on something quite this vacuous. An odd release, one that defies justification and climaxes the Legion set (which has otherwise been dense and thrilling) on a strangely unfulfilling note: 5/10