Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Ghost Monument written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai

This story in a nutshell: Winner takes all…and the Doctor claims her Ship...

Oh Brilliant: Whittaker is finding her feet and I’m pleased to say rather quickly. I like how she doesn’t feel the need to completely dominate a scene how many Doctors of old could (particularly Hartnell, Pertwee, both Bakers and Capaldi) but take control without commanding everybody. Again, it’s very Troughton. It’s lovely to see her in a tight spot on a spaceship, tossing out insults, pulling levers and expressing her knowledge. This is the Doctor alright and never moreso than in a crisis. She’s very sure in her ability to get her friends home, which is something that has run through the series from the First Doctor with Ian and Barbara to the fifth Doctor and Tegan to the Tenth Doctor and Martha. Her mouth runs away with her in the best Tennant and Smith traditions, but with more moments of humanity and less moments of overt humour. She isn’t trying to be the funny women in every scene, despite some witty lines. A lovely mention of Venusian aikido, it appears the show isn’t abandoning the past quite as much as it suggested. I do like the idea of outthinking bullets but the message of ‘no guns’ was overstated. I liked her (very) blunt attitude towards Epzo, it’s the one occasion where she shows her teeth in this story (‘What do you care? You don’t care about anything.’). She doesn’t always have all the answers and she asks lots of questions. The Doctor is back to experiencing adventures rather than being one step ahead all the time. Goodness knows what the Timeless Child is all about, but it looks like even if this season is abandoning the usual spread of an arc across the season it is definitely championing some character arcs (which in this day and age cannot be avoided). I’m not sure about that moment of defeat at the end, it feels very uncharacteristic of this most optimistic of Doctors.

Graham: It’s the most convincingly handled set of regulars in quite some time because a great deal of thought has been given to the idea of what it would be like to find yourself in outer space after living a perfectly normal life. The Ponds and Clara shrugged their shoulders at this stuff and so there was no real sense of going on a journey with them (and besides they were far too caught up in mysteries and arcs to be accessible from the beginning). Graham is especially compelling because he’s just a normal bloke who is trapped in an impossible scenario and is trying to make the best of it. He’s the most natural and the funniest too. Bradley Walsh underplays his part beautifully whilst scoring every laugh. The initial scenes of the three of them acclimatising to spaceships and alien planets are some of the best scenes in the episode. I appreciated the scene where they all discuss whether they can trust the Doctor and simply decide, based on her actions and her character, yes they can. It’s great that there is no manufactured tension between the regulars just to make the story juicy. They all get on very well, and work together very well. It’s a lot harder to write interesting people that get along, it’s much easier to write them in unrealistic conflict. Bravo for taking that approach.

Ryan: I raised my eyes to the heavens as Ryan grabbed and had his ‘Call of Duty’ moment. It felt very out of character given he has been quite a considered young man until this point. However, his ridiculous girly screaming as it all goes horribly wrong is actually the funniest thing in the entire episode and really made me laugh out loud. It’s not exactly Joss Whedon style humour led characterisation (he has an ability to make you laugh with his characters by having them fall flat on their face) but it did warm me to him after this spectacular moment of idiocy. Huge kudos for the scene where Graham and Ryan discuss Grace, the sort of character pause that the show abandoned in the past couple of years. It’s where Chibnall’s writing is at its best too, real people discussing real feelings. He writes people far better than he writes science fiction. Ryan’s dyspraxia gets a mention again, I’m pleased this is going to be a running thread. 

Yaz: The weak link in the regulars at the moment, but through no fault of the actress. Yaz is just waiting for her episode to shine. For right now she is a perfectly serviceable, if unmemorable, member of the ensemble.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you’re an interfere then those are excellent nose hairs.’
‘You talk about this stuff far too much. And you don’t talk about it enough.’
‘Don’t ever take them for granted.’ Wise words. 

The Good: An immediate shout out for the visual this year that are standing out much more than in previous seasons and the arresting opening sequence that is told entirely in silence with the spaceship appearing the grappling hook being revealed in the reflection of somebody’s eye is extraordinary. Doctor Who has so often been told (for budget reasons) in words so to see it leaning so heavily and creatively on visual storytelling is refreshing. The spaceship crashing onto the planet is the sort of set piece we have always dreamed of on Doctor Who but the show could never quite afford. Don’t get me wrong Doctor Who has often shown great ambition and bravery in its action set pieces but more often than not the budget conspires to a resulting dodgy model shot or a reaction shot. This looks as though it has sprung from your local cinema, it’s dizzyingly stylishly shot. I rather like the idea of human beings being irrelevant in this sector of space. Too much has been made about the indomitability of humans in the universe, it’s nice to visit somewhere where they are immaterial. Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley deserve a massive round of applause for bringing Angstrom and Epzo to life so convincingly. I haven’t seen detailed guest characters of this ilk for some time, especially ones played with such down to earth conviction and given this much screen time. These are people I can believe have lives outside of the confines of this story. And Chibnall didn’t go down the obvious route of the two of them being in love with each other, it’s just mutual love/hate friendship all the way. As much as they are merely distraction techniques, the Sniper Bots and wraiths are responsible for some decent looking set pieces. As delaying tactics go, they look pretty. It makes a lot of good sense to set the Stenza up as the new Big Bad of the season and to have one of them appear in the first episode and then to see the devastating effects of what they can do out in the universe in the second sets them up well. It’s just a shame that they were pretty underwhelming in execution. Loving the new TARDIS; it’s a little too early to make any solid judgement but its back to the more organic look of the Tennant era (which I LOVED) and the use of crystal is inspired. I especially love the new walls as you come in. Very Invasion of Time. 

The Bad: If you were excited about Art Malik’s participation you might be disappointed to discover it is little more than a cameo in two scenes that bookend the ‘plot.’ However, he’s as good as you would imagine, but in a very underwritten role. Having the TARDIS revealed as the ghost monument completely the guts the story of its emotion at the climax. The Doctor and friends should have gone along with the racers simply because it was the right thing to do, rather than because the Doctor wanted to score a win with the TARDIS. Imagine the climax had the TARDIS been revealed as the monument with no previous warning or expectation, it would have been a really climactic and satisfying scene. Instead we have to go with the Doctor thinking she has lost and the ATRDIS just appearing out of nowhere. Which doesn’t have anywhere near the same sort of emotional power (which I thought Chibnall was all about). What was the point of the flesh-eating microbes in the water if we were never going to see them in action? Chibnall is such an obvious writer at times – the introduction of the cigar is such an noticeable plot point (can anyone say Hexachromite?) that will be relevant to an escape later in the episode you can practically see a huge arrow on screen screaming IMPORTANT. Moffat was better at hiding this sort of stuff. Sniperbots and sentient wraiths are merely present to add a little tension to a story that honestly lacks any, they are distractions techniques to fill time and give the regulars something to fight to delay finding the TARDIS. Truly, they don’t amount to much in plot terms.

The Shallow Bit: We’ve been through so many title sequences since the show has come back that I’m kind of used to them swapping and changing by now. Whittaker’s is no better or worse than any of the others (except Matt Smith’s series 7 one, fuck knows what that explosion in a rainbow factory was all about); it’s more organic and amorphous and it’s pretty short. Inoffensive I would say, but not a patch on the original Christopher Eccleston one which seemed to suggest the joy of travelling the universe like no other.

Result: Lots of nice details and moments, but an uninspiring storyline. I’ll add a caveat to my previous review with regards to the series; Doctor Who is about people again but that is all it seems to be about for the moment. Challenging plot details need to be added because this was a perfectly serviceable run-around but it had a plot as light as last weeks and it lacked the excuse of having to set up the main characters. As a result, it feature a lot of very good character moments that explored the new dynamics and gave the guest actors plenty to work with but I can’t pretend at any point I was particularly surprised or engaged with what they were going through. It’s a fascinating conundrum, with Moffat I was often dazzled by his sparkling imagination but disappointed by his lack of heart. With Chibnall it seems to be the reverse problem. And heaven forbid if I praise Russell T Davies once again but he did set the benchmark when the series returned with The End of the World; a stunning little piece that married intense character beats, fun, excitement, shocks, terrific creativity and visual splendour. He knew that in the second episode that the show had to show everything that it could offer and in comparison The Ghost Monument is a little neutered. Because as entertaining as this was at times, I truly hope it isn’t all the show has to offer now. And where Moffat presented too much as a mystery (the characters, the individual stories, the arcs) with too many unanswered questions, Chibnall simply presents his ideas straight up with no ambiguity or ability to surprise. A planet that moves, a space race, a ghost monument, a missing TARDIS, deadly water, sentient cloth…these are all decent ideas that are worth building up but the Doctor and her companions merely hop from one set piece to the next with the end game something that is spelt out since the beginning. Countering that you have two brilliant guest characters, very well played and with interesting backstories. And this is an excellent chance to see the regulars gel, for Whitaker to take charge of the show through some moments of danger and for Graham, Ryan and Yaz to step into peril and still want to move on at the climax. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention how beautiful this episode looks and the lengths that the production team have gone to to ensure this show matches the expensive American imports on Netflix. Chibnall said that was his aim with the production values and they have achieved that. The cinematography is phenomenal, the direction stylish and the score refreshingly unhysterical and atmospheric. I liked The Ghost Monument, but there were moments where I was clock watching between all the decent character beats: 6/10

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Seizure written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: As if it wasn’t enough to be trapped in the labyrinth of a dying TARDIS and pursued by a ghost, the team find themselves face to face once more with the Eleven. But the Doctor has bigger things to worry about when he discovers they’re being hunted by the only creature to strike fear into the hearts of a Time Lord: The Ravenous.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor isn’t a complete bastard and if the Eleven is sending out a distress signal then it is probably for a good reason…or a trap. Either way it is worth checking out, despite the complete disinterest of his companions. He practically emotionally blackmails his companions into heling out their old foe, asking if they would genuinely leave someone to die. TARDISes and Time Lords are telepathically linked and if this had been the Doctor’s TARDIS in this much pain it probably would have broken him. He leads a bruise worthy life. I’ve heard Paul McGann play angry and weary and jolly lately, but it’s been a while since I have heard him this perturbed. He makes the atmosphere in the broken-down TARDIS work because of his nervous and distracted reaction to it. He really is worth his weight in gold, this actor.

The Eleven: Oh groan, I thought we had tied this character up and assigned him to the rubbish bin? I thought we had moved onto the much more desirable prospect of the Twelve? No, he’s back and it’s not about time and he’s still banging on at the voices in his head. Insane and capable of great violence, apparently. Why then is he presented in such a comic book way? He murdered the previous inhabitants of this TARDIS and stole the ship.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘TARDISes do love a corridor. It gives them something to do whilst they are coming up with more rooms.’

Great Ideas: The Doctor is very empathic and a dying TARDIS has a certain anxiousness in the air. As a TARDIS dies it should continue to constrict; dimensions folding in on one another, rooms shrinking, corridors shortening. Areas that they are in could simply cease to exist because when a TARDIS is in distress it tends to forget certain parts of its geography.

Isn’t it Odd: Ravenous is proving to be a very odd set of adventures indeed. As a series of standalone adventures it has delivered pretty well with six of the stories scoring above average in my book and providing everything from a reasonably diverting time to a near-perfect adventure. However, as a linked series of adventures with a running arc it is least satisfying that Big Finish has ever produced with little or nothing to join these stories together, no sign of a continuing storyline and only now, eight hours into the narrative are elements emerging that make any sense of the umbrella title of the sets. It’s certainly not the first time Big Finish has promised one thing and delivered another (Zagreus promised to a multi Doctor story, the Divergent arc promised to be good) but I could imagine if arcs were your thing that you might be bitterly disappointed by this point. The one saving grace is that the remaining stories on this box set have been extremely good in their own right, but that doesn’t quite make sense of their utter disconnect from the central storyline, which is conspicuous by its absence. I made similar complaints about Doom Coalition and it would appear that they have learnt nothing from that exercise. DC could have been condensed down into two box sets of four episodes but I’m willing to bet at this rate Ravenous (the core material of the arc) could be squeezed down into a third of it’s sixteen-hour length. The Ravenous almost couldn’t live up to expectations because we have waited so long for them to make an appearance. It’s not the culmination of a great narrative resulting in their appearance, it’s more the sigh-worthy appearance of an (underwhelming) creature that I had forgotten was relevant. It has lines like ‘my mouth is actually watering…’ and ‘I’m so hungry!’ It’s no scarier than Kroagnon or the Wire. The synopsis states that the Ravenous are the only creatures to strike fear into the hearts of a Time Lord but let’s be honest with Big Finish stretching the mythology of the Time Lords to bursting point that is quite an overstatement. There seems to be a threat that they are terrified of coming out every other month these days. And why are the Time Lords the benchmark for everything these days? The most terrifying Time Lord weapon! A foe even the Time Lords never managed to defeat! It must be so tedious having to live up to that kind of reputation. The climax just sort of…happened. The Doctor and his friends just leave. The end. Well, if only it was that easy every week. The Ravenous is defeated by the TARDIS just going.

Result: It sounds like a wonderful idea for a Doctor Who story, doesn’t it? A Decaying TARDIS, a monster stalking the Doctor and his companions around the corridors and an old enemy to fight. I can see why the producer jumped at the chance to tell this story, it seems rife for scares, drama and atmosphere. It doesn’t quite turn out that way despite the efforts of the director to make this as much of an assault of weirdness as possible. Much like the Time War material that Big Finish has put out there is a general lack of imagination when it comes to Time lord technology and how it manifests itself when it is malfunctioning. I think this could have been a really trippy, terrifying, surreal experience. I can imagine a writer like Lawrence Miles or Rob Shearman taking this concept and running with it, turning the experience into a nightmare you can barely comprehend and putting the regulars in an impossibly frightening spin of madness. Guy Adams goes for a much more straightforward, linear approach; with a ghost floating down the corridors going ‘woooooo’ (not quite but it isn’t far off) and the great titular Ravenous monster of the providing to be little more than a screeching Doctor Who monster. At this point in the set (halfway through) it is astonishing that this is the point where the arc has reared its head and that practically everything before it has been standalone. The Ravenous ultimately turn out to be a bit toothless, all talk and no balls. If you want to make a supposedly terrifying new foe make an impact then let it do something shocking. This might have been a good moment to lose either Liv or Helen, have them cut down in action just as their relationship with the Doctor and each other has reached its height. It would have made the creature far more exciting than a cheap Wire knockoff (‘Hungrrrrryyyyyy!’). I had switched off by the end, there was nothing risky happening, nothing surprising. It’s the definition of a Doctor Who run around (because that is all anybody really does) sowing seeds for future stories and the climax is so forgettable the Doctor and his friends just sort of leave. I hope the Ravenous turn out to be bit more exciting than is promised here: 4/10

Friday, 12 October 2018

Fairytale in Salzburg written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: With the Doctor and most of the population condemned to hell, Liv and Helen race against time to discover the source of all this chaos, and to find the one man who can save the people of Salzburg from eternal damnation.

Physician, Heal Thyself: 'Think of me as your guardian angel...' Bad ideas are his favourite kind, he can spin them into gold. You can’t re-write the past, he says with some degree of certainty although we know that is not always the case.The last scene is lovely, how it ties up the Doctor’s part in the story and how it turns him into a Christmas miracle. It’s lovely.
Liv Chenka: ‘Who out you in charge?’ ‘Circumstances! We don’t have time for an election!’ Even if she knows she will be gotten in the end that will never stop her from trying. What is it about Nicola Walker, who can sound so deadpan and causal in the part of Liv Chenka and yet when she is given emotional material she manages to absolutely break my heart. She did it in Absent Friends and she does so again in the climax to this tale.

Helen Sinclair: Helen has a point; how is believing in wishes that come true any more absurd than the things they usually have to deal with? In the circumstances of giant mythical demons stomping around European cities throwing people into Hell, Helen is willing to suspend her disbelief. Gambling life on a ‘might’ is business as usual. She’s just really, really smart and she proves that throughout this story.

Standout Performance: Some people have voices so rich and full of character that they were simply made for audio and Sian Phillips is one of those people. It’s a shame that she is shunted off into the framing device that holds this half of the story together because I would happily have had her as a main participant, such is the joy of luxuriating in her beautiful voice. Who the Pilgrim turns out to be is one of the loveliest moment in a story packed full of them. I guess I should have known when she was able to operate the controls of the TARDIS.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t you think if wishes could come true that the world would be a bit of a nicer place?’
‘We’re going to save the day!’
‘That’s the sound of salvation!’
‘I want my lovely, beautiful and clever friend back!’
'Nobody wants a tragedy at Christmas.'

Great Ideas: Trust John Dorney to take the story down a route that you wouldn’t expect. Anybody under the impression that Fairytale in Salzburg will pick up where Better Watch Out is going to be boggled as we head back in time to before the chaos broke out to give the entire situation more substance and explanation. We discover how the Krampus came to be, the work of a desperate woman and a mischievous wish maker, and get to see the Doctor, Liv and Helen arriving from the point of view of the guest characters. It’s a really fascinating reversal because in the first half they were the focus of this scene and this time around they are just three people in a crowd enthusing about snow and Christmas like everybody else. And why not? The Doctor is not the central figure in everybody’s lives. The TARDIS is a bit like Santa’s sack – you’d be amazed what you can fit in there.

Result: ‘They’ve got your scent!’ Atmospheric, surprising, scary and really fun, Fairytale in Salzburg brews up a magical spell. The first 15 minutes of this story are a revelation, belonging entirely to the guest the guest characters and barely featuring the Doctor, Liv and Helen and showing that this Christmas spectacular really is something a bit different. With a very strong guest cast and some mighty fine characterisation you barely notice that the regulars are missing. When they do take their part in the action their dialogue is better than it has ever been before, suggesting relationships that have grown into something quite special built on mutual trust and an education of experiences. I was dazzled as one great line hit its target after another. In the wake of so many Big Finish stories where the dialogue can be so functional, it’s lovely to have a writer presenting his script in such a witty, memorable way with lines steeped in character. The climax of the story, with the myth coming full circle and the identity of the Bishop revealed, should be ridiculously corny but it’s presented so honestly that it worked a treat for me. I feel a Christmas story deserves a touch of magic and Fairytale in Salzburg certainly doesn’t disappoint. This could have been a simple tale of good versus evil but instead it becomes a tale of salvation, of hope and of being very careful what you wish for. How it cements the future of one of the Doctor’s companions is surprising and beautifully handled. This is confidently presented tale, superbly directed by Ken Bentley and with sound design and music that compliment the story magnificently. To have a two-part story where neither part is a disappointment is a rarity and this is terrific example of promising much and then delivering something very different and paying off because of it. McGann, Walker and Morahan are a formidable team these days, sporting an effortless chemistry. I’m a little scared because when a team of regulars reach an apotheosis like this it usually means it is time to split them up before they get stale. Listen to this story as soon as you can, it’s Big Finish at its brilliant best: 10/10

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Better Watch Out written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor hopes to take Liv’s mind off recent events by treating his companions to a traditional European Christmas. But not everybody is full of the spirit of Christmas when a wave of misery follows the Krampus as they run through the streets of Salzburg.

Physician, Heal Thyself: An enthusiastic Paul McGann is the most enthusiastic that the Doctor can be but not in a Tenth Doctor and Rose ‘I want to murder them both’ kind of way. His infectious attitude drags you along with me and makes you want to be a part of the adventure. When he delights in Christmas at Salzburg and crunch of snow on the ground, I want to grab his hand, laugh, and leave big deep footprints in my wake as I explore the city. This is the Doctor of The Stones of Venice, of Other Lives. This is the 8th Doctor before he got all brooding and steeped in the Time War. And with Helen and Liv by his side this is the smiliest introduction to a Doctor Who story for an age. The Doctor has a brilliant way of choosing food in the myriad of places he visits – just choose the one with the silliest name. He flatters himself that he can be extremely helpful in almost every situation. Is this what the Doctor does now? Heading around the universe and paying the rent of those who cannot afford it? Unbelievably the Doctor describes Liv and Helen as a few of his favourite things. He’s not armed, well except for a sharp wit and a cunning mind. He’s the baddest boy of the lot and he has killed hundreds of thousands. It’s been a long time since he’s seen a gateway to Hell.

Liv Chenka: There is no Christmas on Kaldor and so Liv is brought up to speed on all the festivities. Initially she is a bot of an old Scrooge about it but she soon slips into the festive spirit. Rather wonderfully Liv tries to pick apart the Krampus myth and ask how the monster and St Nicholas decide who is naughty and nice, whether they have a list that they check between them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Very chocolate box. Very biscuity.’
‘Traditions are largely baffling if you’re not used to them.’
‘Which one of use hasn’t been bad at some point in their life? Eaten too much cake, told a white lie. I think it’s operating a zero-tolerance policy!’
‘Time to burn!’

Great Ideas: The Krampus only comes for the bad children. The lazy ones, the violent ones, the ones who tell untruths. Santa will bring you presents but the Krampus will steal you away. He steals into the dark to drag the naughty children away, taking them to Hell. This is Doctor Who’s first attempt at a Grinch style Christmas story and it immediately gets off on the right foot by turning the idea of the Krampus into a dark myth to scare children with. The story of the Krampus coming for the little girl in the middle of the night is automatically scarier than anything the TV series managed in any of their Christmas specials (except maybe the Dream Catchers from Last Christmas, but they were pretty much a bog-standard Doctor Who monster and not Christmas themed at all). Every December 5th people dress up as the Krampus and take to the streets giving nuts and sweets to the children. A monster that is behaving like the mythical Krampus rather than one from its historical origins.

Audio Landscape: The squeaking footsteps of the Krampus approaching. Brrr. The Doctor calls Christmas in Salzburg perfect and if he is referring to how it provides the sound designer with a chance to provide a stunning audio backdrop then he is not wrong. With a swelling seasonal soundtrack and lots of activity and a hive of expectation and excitement, it is the most enticing 8th Doctor audio environment for some time.

Musical Cues: A terrific score, bright and cheerful and full of Christmas cheer.

Standout Scene: ‘He rises!’ With all this talk of the Krampus throughout, I was waiting for the moment when he would finally make an appearance. Dorney saves the best to last and it’s an astonishment that something that is anticipated throughout is not a disappointment but a memorable emergence.

Result: ‘It’s time for us all to go out and meet monsters!’ Believe the hype that will surround this release, it’s a Big Finish Christmas special that delivers on it’s promise and out Noel’s the TV series by getting the atmosphere right, the imagery right and the dark thread of scary Christmas myths right. It’s a story that has a tangible sense of Christmas without ever descending into tweeness, and it uses its lightness of tone to contrast the nasty idea of the Krampus against and provide a truly memorable Christmas nasty. This story addresses my main issue with A Christmas Carol (a story that I still cannot bring myself to review because I had such an allergic reaction to its central idea that I found abominable) and turns the Doctor into a man who tries to bring some Christmas cheer to a right old Scrooge but he doesn’t do it by perverting his timeline but instead simply talking to him. If Paul McGann came a knocking a Christmas and started enthusing about festive cheer I think it would melt the heart of even the greatest sourpuss. And he gets the most wonderful reception in the wake of his celebratory exuberance. What’s the worst Halloween film of all time? To my money it’s Halloween III Season of the Witch and there is an air of that film in this in the grisly idea of the Krampus masks melting onto the flesh of the people playing monster and having them embody his spirit. Fortunately, that is where the comparisons end. How the story goes from seasonal merriment to chaotic horror is effortlessly achieved and by the end of the story you’ve got apocalyptic madness descending on Salzburg. John Dorney provided the best standalone adventures in the Doom Coalition series and he’s outdone himself here. Again, I question what the hell any of this has to do with the Ravenous (maybe this will all turn out to be a massive misdirection and that all these apparently unlinked stories have a great deal in common) but who gives a flip when you can generate as much atmosphere and chilliness as this story does. Dorney taps into a creepy angle on the traditional Christmas tale, and Ken Bentley executes this story with more verve than anything he has directed in yonks. It’s an absorbing, simple tale that takes one grand idea and runs with it and uses its time to indulge in its setting and its regulars. More please. Oh wait, there is...: 9/10

Escape from Kaldor written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Returning to a home world she’d rather forget, Liv reluctantly accompanies Helen to the grand opening of a luxury shopping mall. But when a glitch in the system sends the Robots of Death on a rampage, Liv’s past comes crashing down about her.

Physician, Heal Thyself: It’s amazing that the Doctor can hang around with so many humans and not really learn a thing. That’s not entirely fair, the Doctor has demonstrated a keen understanding of human behaviour over the years when the time is right (see his summation at the end of Vincent and the Doctor) but it seems that no matter how good his intentions, sometimes he can just get it wrong (his triple whammy of taking Ace to Gabriel Chase, to meet her mom as a baby and then back home in season 26 is quite an adept example). He’s always interested in new technology.

Liv Chenka: It’s interesting for us but weird for Liv to be brought back to Kaldor, where she belongs. It mirrors the beginning of the second Time War set where Bliss was taken for a homecoming but we have known Liv a lot longer so it’s much more involving and alienating. She doesn’t feel like she is from Kaldor, she spent most of her days looking at the stars and longing to be away. Liv has some unfinished rage towards Kit and pretty much anyone with a desire for wealth from the Founding Families stock. She lost touch with her sister years ago when Liv was barely out of college. Tula had her career to think of and wasn’t even there for their father’s funeral (she paid for it and thought that was involvement enough). The scenes between the two women feel very real, families are full of this kind of resentment and it’s very well brought to life by both actresses. Sometimes it is hard to believe that two performers who have never worked together before are siblings but I had no trouble buying Walker and Rushbrook. She’s never said sorry to her sister, and she has carried the burden of having to deal with her fathers’ death ever since he finally slipped away. Despite the fact that she hasn’t spoken to Tula in ten years, she doesn’t hate her. It hurt Dad that Tula never came back. He missed her. She was the favourite that Liv could never live up to. The backstory of Liv’s father has run through her adventures and has provided some of the most touching moments. It’s hard to believe that Liv has been a companion for 4 years now, that this is her 30th story and that she is still revealing new shades to her character. Whilst you have to credit the writers with this, Nicola Walker is a huge part of making it all count for something.

Helen Sinclair: Helen is enjoying the chance to spend some time with Liv after their recent exertions and given how many times Liv has been to London she is enjoying the chance to see where she comes from for a change. She says without apology that the Liv isn’t a friend to her but more like family. Helen is the voice of reason when the shit hits the fan.

Standout Performance: Which Paul McGann do you prefer? The lighter, more carefree one of the Doom Coalition and Ravenous series or the darker, more uptight version who is heading the Time Ware series? I listen to one and I think that is where his strengths lie and then I listen to the other and I re-evaluate. It’s fair to say he is simply a damn fine actor who is still finding interesting things to do with the Doctor after a huge manifest of audios under his belt. His scenes in Escape from Kaldor were the least interesting (because they were the least suspenseful) but by his mere presence alone he ups the interest levels and makes those scenes of exposition worth listening to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re building virtual people. You can’t do this job if you don’t have some ego.’

Great Ideas: People like being surrounded by beautiful things on Kaldor. Some parts of human nature never change, and some descendants of the Founding Families cannot see beyond their privilege. The whole angle that the Robots are simply children waiting for the right instruction is a worthy one. How the Doctor considers them a new lifeform just starting to evolve is very sweet.

Isn’t it Odd: Talk about starting off on the wrong foot; Escape from Kaldor opens with several cardinal errors. We’re partway through a story with no idea of how we got to this point, it’s a particularly unconvincing crowd scene that sounds like three or four people trying to sound like a mob and generally it is a lot of ugly noise pretending to be drama. It’s hardly a massive revelation when the Robots of Death start killing people…when, you know, they are called the Robots of Death in the synopsis. I’m not sure if ‘Purify’ is going to catch on like ‘Exterminate.’ ‘Delete’ was bad enough.

Standout Scene: A brilliant coda to the story which plays the timey-wimey card (are we still doing that?) and scores big time with a use of time travel that is satisfying, a chance for a character to grow in the blink of an eye and leaves some unanswered questions about Liv’s absence and what she has been up to. Very well done indeed.

Result: What is it about these pauses in the eighth Doctor, Liv and Helen’s adventures that are so refreshing? It was magic when it happened in Absent Friends and again in Ship in a Bottle and the opening 15 minutes of Escape to Kaldor captures that sparkle between them again when Liv and Helen get to relax and soak in each other’s company. I think it is because their adventures are often so hectic and interconnected and lacking respite that when we get the opportunity to simply spend time with them talking as regular people that you get the opportunity to realise what interesting and engaging characters they are. I’ve never heard any of the Kaldor City audios but it’s a setting that intrigued me from Robots of Death and few Chris Boucher PDAs alone, and the two Doctor Who audios that have handled these themes (Robophobia and The Sons of Kaldor) were both fairly engaging. It’s where Liv comes from, so bringing her home gives us a chance to see how much she has evolved since her debut. The inclusion of her sister was a nice touch, giving the story a more personal edge than it otherwise would have. I was impressed with how scary they managed to make the Robots on audio, with some genuine jump out of your seat moments and scenes of high drama. Big Finish rarely makes me jump anymore, and you would think on audio it would be uniquely qualified to do so. I still have zero clue what the Ravenous are all about and I don’t think we are going to find out anything significant any time soon but like with the first boxset of this series we’re getting some decent standalone adventures before the arc kicks into gear. And when those stories are as entertaining as this, who can really complain? Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a revelatory piece that will blow the mind of a Doctor Who fan into a thousand tiny pieces of amazement, it’s a well-paced, well-made throwaway story about the Robots of Death that probably should have been the beginning of the Ravenous series (and we could skipped all over the pointless Helen is missing nonsense) rather than the opening story of the second set. Enjoyable: 7/10

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Woman Who Fell to Earth written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jamie Childs

This story in a nutshell: ‘We don’t get aliens in Sheffield…’ 

Right, This Is Going to be Fun: ‘There’s a moment when you’re sure you’re about to die…and then you’re born again...’ Literally falling into the action from the sky, Whittaker’s Doctor makes an immediate impression by simply being so much fun. Whilst there are a lot of efforts to make her a little quirky, she really doesn’t need the help because she brings a cheeky, snappy energy to the part that makes your eyes draw to her and never want to leave her. Yep, that’s the Doctor alright. Davison was also ‘looking for a Doctor’ in Castrovalva, a nice touch. When half an hour ago you were a white-haired Scotsman and now you’re a beautiful blonde with nothing in your pockets I’m guessing you would be a little frazzled upstairs. I liked very much how empathetic she was to all of her new companions; whether it’s watching Ryan ride his bike, letting Graham have his moment of disbelief that she is an alien or apologising to them all for having to witness a grisly murder. There’s a gentleness to her character that doesn’t come from her gender but from her nature. Matt Smith had it too, so did Davison. When she’s asking how everybody knows each other it’s almost like the Doctor is actually selecting her new friends to travel with. Even when the Doctor is a little uncertain of who she is I was confident that Whittaker was absolutely sure she should be playing this role. She’s effortlessly confident and I love that. It’s a far cry from the first half of Capaldi’s opener where he was a raving madman. If you want to point at one scene where you say ‘yeah, that’s the Doctor’ it’s when she throws across the curtain declaring ‘this is gonna be fun!’ and sets to work assembling a sonic screwdriver from old bits of toot. The whole sequence is a delight, especially her reaction to the already malfunctioning sonic screwdriver. That’s the point where I realised just how gorgeous this Doctor was going to be. Her ‘get behind me now’ is the moment she really takes charge of her troupe, doing the Hartnell thing of confronting the alien menace head on by standing in its way. She’s a Doctor who will have a plan by the time she reaches her destination. How she undermines serious moments with irreverent humour is almost Troughtonesque, and I love how it isn’t overplayed (like so much of Matt Smith’s could be). I didn’t even need the ‘I am the Doctor’ moment, but I understand that is practically a rite of passage now. It feels very right on for the Doctor to be purchasing her new outfit from a charity shop in Sheffield. How gloriously unromantic. It’s a glorious costume too; hotchpotch yet practical, stylish and yet complete without style. It’s unique to this Doctor and she looks glorious in it. 

Ryan: Surprisingly this turns out to be Ryan’s episode more than anyone and he was the character and actor I knew the least about going in and to be honest he was the character and actor I was most impressed with leaving the episode. It’s not because he is imbued with particularly complex characterisation but what Tosin Cole does with the part is quite magnificent. He’s relatable from the off, speaking directly out of the screen to the audience, a man who isn’t afraid to talk about his feelings. I felt a bond with him immediately and there were no missteps throughout the episode that made me question that. A sweet guy with a huge heart and a love for his grandmother, he reminded me very much of my partner. The whole ‘I can’t yet ride a bike angle’ might be a little forced if it weren’t for the skill of three actors making those scenes really count. Dyspraxia is a fascinating condition that I knew little about (way to go Doctor Who, still teaching me knew things after all these years) and it means we are automatically on Ryan’s side. I think he is going to be one to watch throughout the series, not only because Cole is so damn cute (sorry but I do have blood pumping through my veins) but also because I think his condition is going to be relevant and a worthy obstacle in the future. Mickey was a loser you really wanted to prove himself, Jack was hyper confident and Rory was the dork you wanted to get the girl. I liked Ryan because he was gentle without ever losing the sense that he was a bloke. 

Yazz: Immediately authoritative but in quite a reserved way, making Yaz an officer in training is a great idea because it gives her skills that will be useful in her adventures but she still has an awful lot to learn. I love the accent, it’s great to have a more regional slant to the show. She’s somebody who thinks she is capable of more, who wants to be tested. Be careful what you ask for, Yaz.
Graham: Bradley Walsh could so easily overplay the whole ‘man trying to get his adopted grandson to accept him’ angle but instead gives a much more considered performance than even I was expecting. Weirdly since the announcement of all of the cast it was Walsh’s name that excited me the most because he strikes me as a man very akin to Catherine Tate, who is known for a particular line of entertainment who would probably surprise everybody in Doctor Who. I was not wrong. He doesn’t bring that showbiz attitude with him at all but instead grounds his character entirely in reality. He’s a reliably solid presence in the episode, a kind and serious man who is trying to understand quietly all the weird things that are going on around him. He strikes me a little bit of the typical bloke with his football scarf and love of a pint and that is exactly the sort of character we have never seen travel in the TARDIS before. It’s almost what my Dad would be like as a Doctor Who companion, except Graham is far more likeable than my Pops could ever be. His relationship with Grace anchors the episode; she’s a bit cheeky, very sweet and completely in control. Their relationship is unforced and I was waiting throughout for the inevitable loss because I knew there were only three companions in this new series and not four. His speech at Grace’s funeral is the first genuinely moving moment in Doctor Who in a long time, probably since Wilf tried to give the Doctor the gun in The End of Time. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s gonna kill us!’ ‘It could have done that already.’
‘We can evolve but still stay true to who we are’ – a really important line to all the naysayers.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve bought women’s clothes.’ 

The Good: A huge shout out to the stunning cinematography, which is the best the show has ever scene with some stunning landscapes brought into focus and expert camerawork with a wide lens that isn’t a afraid of drinking it all in. The score is also fresh and relevant, lacking the overdone vocals or melodramatic stings of Gold and instead giving this opening episode a contemporary, down to earth feel. I think I would like a little more bombast down the line but as an episode that is trying to connect with a modern audience again, it really does its job in grounding the piece. The offscreen deaths make this perfect entertainment for all the family. Doctor Who has always excelled at graphic offscreen deaths (go watch The Greatest Show in the Galaxy for some really terrific examples) and The Woman Who Fell to Earth continues in that tradition. We don’t even need to be told how horrid the corpses are, the implication is nasty enough. The cod-Predator knock off was a little obvious until he took his mask off to show the grotesque array of teeth stuck in his head from his victims’ mouths. That was a brilliantly gruesome moment. Chibnall remembers to give his extraneous characters little moments to make them people; I particularly liked Karl from the train who just wants to get to work and feel valued. Doctor Who loves a bit of spectacle for no reason these days. There’s literally no reason at all why Karl should be a crane driver accept to provide a tasty looking set piece at the climax but fortunately it means we get to lots of fun things at crazy heights. It’s a good thing that he wasn’t a lollipop man. Imagine how exciting the denouement would have been then. Huge kudos for the character led coda, which took these characters that we have gotten to know over an hour and broke our hearts a little. I realised how much I had been made to care. Big thumbs up for the cliffhanger too. 

The Bad: The plot basically. However, I don’t feel I can be too hard at this junction because, like Rose, the plot was just there to service the characters and provide a bit of jeopardy. The idea of two alien races using Earth as a battleground is a really exciting one but we don’t get to see that reach anywhere near it’s potential here (that was done far more effectively in Doomsday). The quirky science fiction elements are just an excuse to bring these people together and see how they react to the situation. So, I’ll give Chibnall a pass, this time. But the next time he pens an episode these characters will be very well established I’m looking for something with much more substance. Grace’s murder was signposted by the writing and the direction so in the end I was waiting for that moment rather than shocked by it.

The Shallow Bit: Whittaker with her blonde Rachel cut and dishevelled clothes is a beautiful and bold statement for the show. She’s stunning.

Result: Massively enjoyable for the most part, even if it is a little thin on plot. The big shout out is for Whittaker’s Doctor, the news of which was greeted with national interest. The simple fact of the matter is that she’s a delight. Easing herself into the role confidently, effortlessly connecting the audience (well, to me, because I am the audience for the purpose of these reviews) with moments silliness and authority and assembling a bright new team to join her on her adventures. Would you just look at how much of this review I have spent talking about the characters and if there is one thing I’ve really missed in the previous 6 seasons it is relatable people whose adventures I want to share. I got a sense of the Sarah Jane Adventures at times with its focus on characters, Bradley Walsh and Predator stand in and an increased sense of fun. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense at all, there were plenty of things Doctor Who could do to learn from its CBCC sibling. The dialogue is much more functional and less stylised than we are used to; Moffat’s wit was both a strength and weakness because whilst his characters spoke pure quotes it meant that they rarely sounded natural whereas Chibnall’s dialogue is less memorable but much more realistic. I think that was Davies’ biggest strength, he could marry both things (quotability and realism). There simply isn’t much story here to speak of but is merely dressing in order to bring these characters together into a functioning unit and on those terms it does its job very well. It’s like somebody has taken a musty old cellar that is obsessed with relics (I don’t mean Capaldi but rather the obsession in the shows recent past with celebrating its continuity) and opened the windows and let in sunlight and fresh air. With a refreshing new Doctor and a warm family to travel the universe with and what looks like a serial developing, the show has gone back to its roots but brought itself bang up to date. It’s a promising approach and I’m left really excited for next weeks spectacular. The plot itself is worthy of a 7 but I’m inclined to be kinder because this lays out its characters in an engaging way (the extra time was devoted to them and the episode was all the better for it) and with some pleasing aesthetic improvements. Doctor Who is about people again: 8/10

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Rulers of the Universe written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all. Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication. The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives - intact…

Hello Sweetie: This is as good a time as any to tackle the idea of River meeting the classic iterations of the Doctor. Is there a point to this beyond the novelty of experiencing the chemistry between Kingston and Baker (x2), Davison, McCoy and McGann because there is no good storytelling reason for it to take place? Since the Doctor can never know who River is, the writers have to constantly find creative ways for her to meet him but to have no impact on his life as herself because that happens for the first time with the tenth. And it’s a bit of a one trick pony, but with the Doctor’s making an appearance on the cover of every set it’s clearly a trick that this range will be playing over and over again. I would have far more respect for this series if River went at it alone without the need to drag on Doctor Who for inspiration. But it would seem that she is intractably linked to him and everything that happens in her life has to revolve around him. I’m not sure what that says about River as a strong female character but I don’t like it very much.

Breathless Romantic on the Verge of a Midlife Crisis: ‘You haven’t seen me angry. Not yet.’ This is the early days of the Time War for Paul McGann, probably around the time of his first or second box set set during that period. He’s angry and depressed, a far cry from the cuddly puppy he started his life as (especially in Big Finish terms). It’s not his War, it’s nothing to do with him, he simply tidies up the mess left behind when he finds it. At the moment he is keeping right out of it. He knows things are serious enough that if it ever actually touches somebody they will be begging to get out. He was never one to let people suffer so when he discovers that millions are in danger from the SporeShips he immediately sets about trying to uncover their mystery. River considers this incarnation of the Doctor young, naive and idealistic. The kind of Doctor that thinks he can run from a Time War. There are certain Doctors that River isn’t allowed to play with. The Doctor’s method of defeating his enemy here is quite ingenious. For once the climax of a Big Finish story is built around the idea of the Doctor being one step ahead and having a complete plan in place rather than him having to improvise a rather naff way of bringing the story to an end. The Doctor tells River not to get on her bad side.

Standout Performance: Without a doubt, there is incredible chemistry between Kingston and McGann. Maybe that justifies the experiment in itself. River’s Doctor was always Matt Smith but for some reason that always felt like a mother trying to seduce her sons’ friend. With Capaldi it was built on respect and with Tennant there was such a shroud of mystery so it was a one-sided chemistry. With Alex Kingston and Paul McGann, it is just sexy. Just about perfect, in fact.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You know the biggest mistake your little club ever made? Annoying a psychopath with time on her hands. And the second biggest? Involving my husband.’
‘Amateurs are the best kind of everything. They do it for the love.’
‘You’re not Gods. Just a cruel, ancient and powerful race. And you should not that in my time of life I’ve had quite enough of those.’
‘Do all the world building you want in pre-history!’

Great Ideas: A super rich Elite with a penchant for the remote control of planetary systems, calling themselves the Rulers. They want in on the Time War, they think they can exploit it somehow. Pictograms have appeared on all the planets where life has been wiped out by SporeShips. A race of people that look at entire civilisations as experiments in a petri dish. One step into the Time War and your entire civilisation might vanish out of existence. A pendant that can keep you ten nanoseconds ahead of your enemy, a Time War weapon that the Doctor has managed to procure.

Isn’t it Odd: The Doctor is as prominent as River on the cover of this set, and he’s mentioned forwardly in the synopsis for this instalment and in the marketing video. All of which goes to show that in order to generate sales Big Finish are happy to blow any surprises that this story might hold. It feels like Fitton is going for a Night of the Doctor style surprise in the pre-titles sequence with Paul McGann’s beautiful voice turning up unexpectedly but given the company has been raving about his inclusion for yonks before this was release, it feels like a waste of effort. I wondered why River never managed to find out anything definitive about the SporeShips…we were waiting for the Doctor to turn up and discover all the answers. I’m not sure that is the sort of message this range should be promoting.

Standout Scene: The moment when a very confused and intrigued Doctor asks River (under the guise of Miss Spritz) to tell him more about herself. The music swells excitingly and for a moment you have to wonder if River will spill everything just to be able to spend some time with the Doctor as herself. The last monologue is the first time the dialogue approaches anything like what Steven Moffat would have put in River's mouth.

Result: ‘The fact that you want to be part of it means that you utterly fail to understand it…and stop calling it my War!’ With the Time War making its presence felt and the Doctor playing a big part, this has an immediate advantage over its predecessors. The question is when a story features the Doctor this heavily are you listening to it as a River Song story or a Doctor Who story? I was immediately more interested in this than at any other point in the box set but it was for entirely the wrong reasons. It worries me that River hasn’t managed to successfully stand on her own two feet away from the Doctor, the first two stories in this set being exceptionally weak compared to the latter, Doctor-centric material. However, Rulers of the Universe is a gripping listen because Paul McGann is simply too good playing grumpy and much of the material is enlivened by his bad-tempered performance. This is actually much better material than McGann’s Time War set, with the backdrop of the conflict feeling much more dangerous and the inclusion of the SporeShips tying this into the larger narrative of the box set. You might think that this a pretty ambitious bit of storytelling but the best of this story is borrowed from the television series. River feels much livelier and engaging in this story, again down to the Doctor’s proximity. She feels much more like her old self because we are so used to her taking part in Doctor Who. Alex Kingston notches up the level of desperation in her voice because she is interacting with one of the real Doctors and the sparky relationship she has with McGann supersedes anything that she had with his peers. The SporeShips continue to be an interesting notion and their builders are a genuinely frightening presence. It has been a while since I have heard a Big Finish production give an alien race this level of menace. Dramatic, climactic and hectic, The Rulers of the Universe is a memorable end to a disjointed box set. I proceed cautiously, assuming that River will always work when she is paired with the Doctor but unconvinced of the point of her having her own series otherwise: 8/10