Friday, 20 April 2018

World of Damnation written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Rykerzon is a maximum-security planetoid designed to hold the most dangerous criminals in the star system. The Governor plans to reform its inmates, with the help of the Kandyman. But two prisoners prove particularly troublesome: the alien fugitives known as the Eleven, and Miss Helen Sinclair.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor gets eaten by a big spider. That’s pretty novel.

Liv Chenka: Sometimes she think she has seen everything: end of the universe, time hopping nuns, exploding moons but today has been special. Liv sounds positively ecstatic to be with Helen again. Is there an element of unrequited romance there?

Helen Sinclair: I realise a lot of time has passed between DC and Ravenous but there’s simply no reason why she should suddenly have a personality bypass and be the Doctor’s enemy and the Eleven’s ally. We saw them go through hell and high water together, lean on one another in a crisis. Helen is intrinsically a good person and that was thoroughly explored. To have made her turn to villainy, even in desperation, would make a mockery of her previous appearances. She’s a caring person and so she is looking out for the Eleven naturally. He’s a link to her friends and her past. The more she knows him as a person, the more she realises that he is suffering all the time. Helen is sensible all over, except when she is on the run from the law. Where she comes from privileged men tell her what to do all the time. She was rather hoping that in the future things might have changed for humanity.

Great Ideas: The opening scene really made me pay attention. Not because for one second I thought that Helen had turned to the dark side and joined the Eleven but because it did something that genuinely surprised me, with Helen stepping in and soothing him. It takes something we took for granted in Doom Coalition (his schizophrenia) and does something touching with it.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s very odd that we are halfway through this box set and the search for Helen has only just started, despite little teasers at the beginning of the previous two stories that this was the Doctor’s motive all along. If he had wanted to find Helen that badly he wouldn’t have been enjoying diverting adventures that have absolutely nothing to do with her discovery along the way. It would be ‘Is she here? No? Right, back to the TARDIS!’ It strikes me as a problem with these box sets that want to lure you in with a continuing narrative, they also want to have their cake and eat it. If anybody bought this for the search for Helen (which is how it was marketed) they might be extremely disappointed at this point to have been greeted with frippery and nonsense for the first two stories. For me, who was a little fatigued by the apocalyptic melodrama by the end of Doom Coalition it has been a real joy to step back and enjoy some more laid-back adventures but for somebody fresh to the range to step on board here with promises of ‘the hunt for Helen’, well they might come to think that she is very unimportant because it has been all but ignored.

I don’t want to be the moaning Minnie of the Reviewniverse but given there are a spectacular number of sites out there that will simply suggest that every release and decision that Big Finish make is a stellar one (and by law of averages that level of consistent quality simply is not possible) I find myself being one of the few that will hit them with a little honesty. So here it is…the Kandyman? Big Finish has long plundered the depths of Doctor Who continuity and indulged in sequels to televised stories. The Daleks have been played out to death, and all the B-Level monsters (Cybermen, Sontarans, Ice Warriors) have had a fair showing too. One by one though, it appears that every single monster and villain deserves a resurrection. Fancy another Kraal invasion? Thought Morbius deserved more of a showing? Fenric hasn’t played chess against the Doctor for a while. It’s gone beyond a joke. I realise these productions are made by fans for fans but in order to appeal to a broader audience you really need to widen your scope and let your imagination fly a little bit. To take the Kandyman, a notorious character from a late eighties production, and flesh out his character some more plays out exactly how you would imagine: like a complete cash in. Is there a reason this character is involved beyond his previous appearance in Doctor Who? Not really. Did somebody go ‘hey why don’t we bring the Kandyman back?’ without any solid motivation beyond ‘wouldn’t it be cool?’ Almost undoubtedly. My question is…what next? Do we need to know why the Jagaroth were on the Earth in City of Death? Shall we visit the Mandrel planet? Does Amelia Ducat deserve her own spin off series? (Actually, I would buy that one). Where does this kind of fan service end? Is this as bottom of barrel as it appears? Well, yes. Does the Kandyman work in this context? He’s alright, but his humanoid appearance contradicts his previous showing and he’s relegated to the role of the Eleven’s stooge. Anyone could have played that role. That’s no criticism of Nicholas Rowe’s performance, which is excellent, I merely question the decision-making process around bringing back such an infamous villain. And wouldn’t it have made more sense if this had featured the Kandyman pre-Happiness Patrol in his humanoid form and that he turns to the confection suit as a result of these events?

Result: Was there an element of the tenth Doctor comic Thinktwice to this? A correctional facility, obsessed with reform, housing one of the Doctor’s previous associates. This is the first substantial piece of the Ravenous set, containing a little drama that the previous two stories have been lacking and for once Matt Fitton has given equal weight to both character and plotting. The first scene threw me off balance immediately and the scenes between Helen and the Eleven throughout were the best of the story, quietly reflective and beautifully played. What worked best for me was the atmosphere, mostly provided by Ken Bentley and his sound designers, but with pointers in the script at something sinister and surreal. The focus on confection, contrasting against the griminess of the prison setting works very well. I’ve spoken about the Kandyman in some depth above and he’s handled as well as could be expected, but I still think it was a questionable decision in the first place. It might have been nice, given that they had the limelight in the first half of Ravenous 1 had the Doctor and Liv not shown up in World of Damnation and Helen taken centre stage. They might have been able to spin out the ‘Helen working against the Doctor’ idea a little more convincingly but having the duo land six weeks after what is happening with Helen is novel. It’s the first part of a two-part story and they always have the advantage of setting up the threat and indulging in atmosphere without having to conclude anything satisfactorily and on that level it does a very good job. Should it be reviewed in isolation? Not according to some, but I’ve never gone along with the herd. A lot of this depends on what you think of the character of the Eleven. After his brilliant introduction in Doom Coalition I was never too persuaded by the schizophrenic nature of the character as it was too often played in a very OTT way but this was a laudable attempt to dial back that overdone madness and get in touch with the core of the man. A shame a lot of that should be undone before the episode is out, because I quite liked this more cerebral take on the character. Once a ranting villain, always a ranting villain. I liked this a lot, even if it doesn’t quite have the punch of your average new series penultimate episode: 7/10

Thursday, 19 April 2018

How To Make A Killing in Time Travel written by John Dorney and Ken Bentley


What’s it about: A disturbance in the vortex causes the TARDIS to land on the Scapegrace space station, where Cornelius Morningstar experiments in time-travel for nefarious purposes. But the Doctor’s plan to stop him winds dangerously out of control as the different agendas of criminals, murderers and alien dynasties conspire against him.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Scanner mad, apparently and a lover of a good mystery…especially if that mystery has grounded the TARDIS. Anything that is causing disruption to the vortex he will tamper with, and he has just the subtle genius to deal with it. Along with the modesty. He likes to deliver a lot of build-up…and then just flick a switch. Whenever he says there’s nothing to worry about…well you can imagine how that sentence ends. He has the true gift of making enemies very quickly. He is shocked that everything they seem to do makes the situation worse whereas Liv is very aware that that is often the case. He improvises well.

Liv Chenka: The Doctor states in a wryly amusing moment that Liv never jokes and she follows that up with a confession that she is very serious. I laughed out loud, it’s great to see these (genuinely very serious) characters having some fun at their own expense. The Doctor is a dab hand at acting as if he owns the place but it’s nice to see that Liv can follow in his wake just as effectively. The Doctor suggests that she is good with diplomacy and she wonders if he has ever spent any real time with her. When pushed she admits that her main role is to confine herself to a few cynical asides.
Standout Performance: I really appreciate how far Roger May goes with his performance as Morningstar, theirs is literally no restraint as far as this character is concerned. He’s quite repulsive and May plays him that way with no aspirations to come out of the story with anybody discovering nuggets of charm. Christopher Ryan is great value too, putting on a heavy accent and throwing himself into the role of Macy with gusto.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Of course it’s murder. People don’t accidentally shoot themselves and then jump through a dimensional portal, do they?’

Great Ideas: I really love how this story kicks off with a good five minutes of material that doesn’t feature the Doctor and Liv and offers very little in the way of explanation of what is going on. It’s refreshing to feel like events are already underway without having the Doctor to push the story into motion. In that way it feels like the Doctor is entering an existing world, rather than a manufactured one for this story only. The Cati are a dispossessed species attempting to regain their place on the galactic stage. Morningstar is after time travel so he can obtain history’s greatest artefacts and sell them for a fortune on the open market. The trouble is he doesn’t have the technical know-how to do this. Scapegrace is a neutral hub in the system for different races to do business without politics getting in the way.

Standout Scene: The death of a character 20 minutes into the story comes completely out of the blue and hinges the plot in a completely different direction. I really didn’t see this coming.

Result: Bloody hell! What’s going on here? I knew they were going for something a little different with Ravenous but I had no idea that they were going to let their hair down this much. How refreshing, I can’t remember a time in recent years where the eighth Doctor range had this much fun. Coming after the Time Lord heavy death of the future apocalyptic drama of Doom Coalition this might feel a little too lightweight and disposable but for me it’s very refreshing. It’s quite lovely to have a story where a guest character takes to the limelight as being the perpetrator of the entire plot and the Doctor and Liv are on hand merely to investigate and bring the truth to light. Having the audience one step ahead is fun and watching Stralla trying to improvise her way out of a very sticky situation proves very amusing. It has to be pointed out just how enjoyable Liv Chenka has been in this set so far and just what a dazzling duo Walker and McGann have become. I’ve always appreciated her dramatic acting chops but Walker’s deadpan humour in this really had me smiling broadly. Farce is described as a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations and add time travel and aliens to that and you’ve pretty much summed up How to Make a Killing in Time Travel. There’s a lot of running about, making excuses, deceits, twists and OTT dialogue. Also, some really witty asides and a sense that it’s okay to have a giggle in the McGannverse again. This sort of Williamsesque irreverence won’t be to everybody’s tastes but I lapped it up. God knows what the Ravenous element to this box set is all about and there isn’t even a hint of an arc at this point (hooray). This is as brazen and as pleasurable as this range has been since before Dark Eyes: 8/10

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Ravenous: Their Finest Hour written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the early days of the Second World War a strange and elusive craft attacks British targets. Could it be a German superweapon? Churchill calls for the Doctor’s assistance and with the help of a squadron of Polish fighter pilots the TARDIS crew take to the skies to investigate.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Don’t you think it’s rather breathtaking just how much the eighth Doctor has been fleshed out on audio? Anyone who is familiar with my scribblings will know that I also found his print adventures a joy, and he certainly had the most experimental and ground-breaking run in the comics too. But on the eve of his latest new epic it is worth considering the prolific number of stories that Paul McGann has featured in for Big Finish now and just how he has been the spearhead for the range for some time. When they were both in the main range it was both McGann and Sixie to watch out for but since he went it alone with his own series of adventures with Lucie, and then Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, his input is the most excitement that Big Finish generates. There’s something very exciting about a Doctor who is a such a blank page. And what’s surprising is that even after 100 or more releases, they are still finding surprising things to do with him. McGann himself is a terrific actor and has more than proven his worth in the role and because the storytelling has become bigger and bolder and more end of the universe than ever (from the Web of Time being threatened with Charley to the massacre at the end of Lucie’s run to the death of the future in Doom Coalition) it has given him the chance to indulge in some apocalyptic performances. Whilst I have missed standalone adventures, there is an undoubted frisson each time a new arc of adventures kicks off for the eighth Doctor and I cannot help but get caught up in it’s wake. There is something refreshing about slipping out of all the baggage that came with the previous arc and just diving headlong into a brand-new adventure with the eighth Doctor. He buzzes around like a caffeinated bee. When the phone rings in the TARDIS he comments that only the finest have the number and picks it up expecting Ringo Starr. Every time he looks in the mirror he gets a glimpse of a face he isn’t expecting. It’s a lovely, discreet reference to Night of the Doctor.

Liv Chenka: She seems to be the only one who is determined to get after Helen, whilst the Doctor is more interested in palling up with Churchill whilst the calculations work themselves out. Liv is a very conservative sort of woman and not the sort you would expect to have her head turned by Russian pilots. Much like her emotional breakdown in Absent Friends, this a surprising thread for the character but one which Nicola Walker plays beautifully. The moment when Rozycki compares her to his mother is priceless, her staggered reaction is nicely underplayed. It might appear to an outsider that the Doctor and Liv don’t like each other very much because they bicker like an old married couple but anybody who has been following their adventures will know that this is just how they communicate. If they weren’t insulting each other, then there would be a problem. She survived the Eminence, the Master, Padrac…for her to die in a plane in the Second World War seems such a small death. If people are going to threaten her friends and she will stop being nice. She’s got a Doctor on her side so piss her off and she’ll sit back with popcorn and watch him defeat them. Even though she knows that practically every one of his plans is far from perfect.

KBO: The rules of meeting up with Churchill is that there is no discussion of relative chronology. The Doctor doesn’t want clues to his own future. There’s an easy chemistry between the Doctor and Churchill that suggests a relationship of long standing and built on respect. It’s nice that he can call on his old friend at times when there appears to be alien intervention in the war.

Great Ideas: If mysterious black triangles are appearing in the sky and taking out military aircraft you better bet your bottom dollar that the Doctor is going to head to the nearest plane and try and take a gander. He’s like a moth to a flame to that sort of thing. The Hellian Blocks are at war but their evolved enough to realise that it’s a waste of population and resources. So they let another planet do it for them. They pick a world that’s already at war and choose sides randomly and whichever side wins, wins the war.

Audio Landscape: It’s astonishing how quickly a Second World War setting can be conjured up on audio with just the growl of aircraft, a siren and an awfully posh radio operator using the term ‘old boy.’ It’s all cliché, but it serves to set the scene immediately.

Isn’t it Odd: Liv writes off what she is hearing about the Second World War as history, which strikes me as a rather stupid thing to say given that everywhere they go in the universe is history of some kind or another. It feels like she is reducing the suffering that is occurring on the front lines to an academic exercise and that simply won’t do at all. Calling Liv’s death in a plane during WWII ‘small’ is another dig at the time, suggesting that to have gone down in this massive conflict is somehow less dramatic than what she has been through in Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition. If only Doctor Who could think up something half as ghastly as WWII, I say… The ending is sad but I felt both the writer and the director could have pushed the moment a little more. Compared to Liv’s outburst at the climax of Absent Friends, this was very passive.

Result: Their Finest Hour wriggles out of the arc constraints of Doom Coalition and tells a pleasingly simple story to kick start Ravenous. Churchill might be a little over-advertised given how much airtime he has in this story, but it’s always nice to have Ian McNiece back in the role and he enjoys an easy chemistry with Paul McGann. Nicola Walker, one of the unsung heroes of the eighth Doctor range for some time, gives a masterful turn as Liv Chenka, afforded a sweet romance with a Polish pilot and given a chance to explore her relationship with the Doctor some more. It’s so much more understated than the Doctor/Charley or Doctor/Lucie relationship (as wonderful as both of those were) and I think McGann and Walker have similar acting styles (subtle, until asked to really go for it and then they blow you away) which give the Doctor/Liv friendship a natural chemistry all of its own. For John Dorney this is a subdued affair, not trying to shake the foundations of the Doctor Who universe but instead gently easing in to the next phase of the eighth Doctor’s life. He’s always focused on character, which is why I love his writing so much. I always feel close to the people in his stories, even if the plot isn’t always as punchy as it might be. Big Finish is always so good at bashing out pure historical so when this dives into science fiction my interest waned a little, despite the fact that an alien presence was suggested from the start. To be honest the aliens made no effect on me whatsoever, but the rest of the story was easy to listen to. Doom Coalition started on a much punchier tale which immediately grabbed my attention but Ravenous has offered me what I have been asking for quite a while, to step back from all massiveness of an arc narrative and just enjoy some good old fashioned standalone storytelling. It was diverting with an authentic production and wonderful performances and as benchmark you can’t ask for much more than that. Unexceptional, but enjoyable: 7/10

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Eternal Battle written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: The TARDIS has landed in a war zone. The Doctor, Romana and K9 find themselves traipsing through an inhospitable battlefield. Strange lights flicker in the sky, and stranger creatures lurk in the darkness. When rescued from an attack by a Sontaran tank, the time-travellers discover they’re facing a far more dangerous foe than the battle-hungry clones. This terrifying fight has been going on longer than anyone can remember… and shows no signs of stopping. With the TARDIS missing and their luck running thin, the Doctor and his friends’ only hope of survival is to uncover the truth about what is happening on this planet. If they can discover the secret of the eternal battle they might just survive… but it might just mean the end of them all.

Teeth and Curls: Tom Baker is giving a very dominating and powerful performance throughout. In a serious situation he gives a serious performance and whilst I love the frolicsome Doctor from the Williams era, I think on audio he has delivered his best work when his comic excesses have been reigned in. The Doctor thinks he has brought Romana to the Lake District for a little sojourn but this time he has got it very, very wrong. There’s a standard order for the Doctor and associates to be executed should a Sontaran warrior come into contact with them, which makes sense given the trouble he has managed to cause for them over the years. It’s fascinating that the Doctor doesn’t seem to be unsympathetic with the Sontarans despite the atrocities that he has seen them commit. He truly will take each person on a case by case basis and judge them by their actions and not an entire species. These Sontarans are trying to keep a stiff upper lip against unsurmountable odds and the Doctor is willing to help because they are suffering. He truly is the Doctor after all. You’ve got to love how the Doctor is so excited to borrow a Sontaran tank. Imagine that on TV, with him atop a vehicle of destruction, laughing his head off, scarf flailing in the wind. It’s a steal from the book Millennium Shock (or at least a similar image) but it’s such a good one who cares? He’s very good at jiggery pokery, don’t you know? To have the Doctor fighting shoulder to shoulder with a noble Sontaran is a marvellous concept and I really enjoyed his relationship with Lenk. He’s very different from Strax insofar as he isn’t played for buffoonery, he’s distinctly a battle hardened Sontaran who is working with the Doctor to try and figure a way out of this situation for him and his men. I love the scene between them in the climax where they both remain true to their character and go their seperate ways.

Aristocratic Adventurer: There’s no real place for the witty banter that usually flows between the Doctor and Romana in this story so Romana is forced into the role of the intelligent, action companion. She’s sharp and moody (which is par for the course this season) and her dialogue is reduced to succinct and smart comments. She's handy with a shoe, though.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Doctor?’ ‘Well that depends, do I owe you money?’
‘A battle weary Sontaran, that is novel.’
‘Lenk, I’m going over the top!’ ‘No change there…’

Great Ideas: A depleted troop of Sontarans, on the edge of endurance and fighting a battle they are losing. It’s an interesting approach to the warlike race, putting them at such a disadvantage. Corpses are rising from the battlefield to fight again and again. Sontarans fighting the recently dead Sontarans, such a novel concept. Soldiers gathered from conflicts throughout history, no major wars and nothing that would attract too much attention. Trapping battles and entire wars in pocket continuums to demonstrate the futility of war to their students. They are contained within a time loop so they can be watched over and over and lessons from history learnt from. The idea is to prove that peaceful alternatives can be reached if you strive from them. The Doctor mentions the world peace and to Lenk that is the equivalent of swearing. Despite their precautions and their bubbles of war to learn from, war still came to Zykon and destroyed the population. The moral here seems to be that the same mistakes will be made over and over again, despite our knowledge of the past. That’s a very Scott and Wright ethic, it’s like the anti-Holmes approach to Doctor Who.

Audio Landscape: Dan Starkey is the go to actor to play a Sontaran these days and given his success as Strax that is hardly a surprise. However, speaking as somebody who finds Strax a little too comic book and has given the Sontarans an overly humorous angle of late it is refreshing to hear him playing a handful of deadly serious roles and proving he is just as adept at that. Leave it to Big Finish to remember that this race are supposed to be a threat.

Isn’t It Odd:
I do appreciate the notion of the Doctor and Romana walking straight into danger as soon as they exit the TARDIS, which is a stark difference from the usual frivolity that happens for the first ten minutes or so of most 4DAS. However, the idea of them running away from a slavering monster, represented by someone going ‘rawwwwrrrrrr’ might just tap into the fears of the casual audio audience that thing that is exactly what these audios are about. Not intellectual debate or character drama but people reacting melodramatically to nothing because we can’t see the pictures. For a second I thought I was back in Slipback again.

Standout Scene: The moment when the story pauses on the battlefield and the shadows come lumbering through the mist towards the Sontarans. At this point it’s still a mystery what the enemy is and the answer to what they are fighting is quite the surprise.

Result: Whilst scarce in nature, Big Finish have a really good track record with Sontaran stories and The Eternal Battle is no different. Being a self-confessed fan of war movies, Nicholas Briggs must have loved this directorial assignment and he really goes to town in making this sound as authentic as possible. It’s a story which really cuts to the point and doesn’t waste a word, something of a relief given how frivolous this range can be at times and it’s nice to enjoy a two-part story like this that makes so much time for suspense and atmosphere. If you look back at their previous record, it is very Scott and Wright to have zombie Sontarans like something out of the Walking Dead menace their way through the story. They have never been frightened of taking Doctor Who into graphic areas or really pushing the horror content and this is the sort of battle you won’t want to miss. The second episode lurches into something quite different. At first I thought we were heading into a War Games like scenario, which is how it is initially presented but pleasingly the narrative pushes to the other extreme from war and this turns out to be the ultimate exploration (or at least lesson) of peace. And then that is subverted again in a cruel twist when we find out what happened to the people of Zykon. Perhaps these developments come a little too thick and fast but at least this story is packed full of content and interesting moments and my attention never strayed for a moment. For a 4DA, this is well above average, memorable, and definitely worth a listen. The Eternal Battle is nothing like any 4th Doctor story you saw on screen and is all the better for it: 8/10

Monday, 9 April 2018

Torchwood: More Than This written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock


What’s it about: Gwen Cooper has triumphed against impossible odds before, but now she's finally met her match: Roger Pugh, Planning Officer for Cardiff City Council. Mr Pugh doesn't believe the world needs Torchwood. Gwen sets out to prove him wrong. For Mr Pugh, it's a day that'll change his life. If he can survive it.

Welsh Babe: Anybody who has become entangled with the government or any kind of bureaucratic department can empathise with Gwen’s plight in the first few scenes as she attempts to get planning position for a new base of operations for Torchwood. Gwen still gets shaken when confronting aliens but essentially takes it all in her stride now. After the things she’s seen, it’s just another day in the office. Pugh wonders if the existence of Torchwood encourages alien threats, which Gwen denies but there is no denying that their tinkering with the rift and their blasé approach to the universe at large has led to more chaos and attraction of alien nasties than would otherwise be the case. Nowadays Torchwood is about protecting people and not taking stupid risks. The fact that she has such a vital role in the survival of humanity makes Gwen feel terrified and humbled.

Mr Pugh: How fascinating to have a story told almost entirely from the point of view of an outsider who is being brought in to Torchwood. It’s essentially a copy of the story being told in Everything Changes but instead of ultra-naive Gwen being put through her paces we have a man from the Council, Mr Pugh seeing the day to day running of a covert alien fighting organisation. It works much better too because it’s told with much more relaxed humour and much less melodrama. The casual way that Pugh mentions that he knows about aliens because he’s read about them in the paper, is marvellous. Cutting back and forth to Pugh at his wife’s graveside and narrating parts of this story works extremely well. It allows us to get close to Pugh emotionally and for him to move the story on narratively. It’s established early that Pugh isn’t a fighting man which makes his endurance throughout More Than This the work of a brave man. The moment when Pugh admits that he let go, which is something he has wanted to do for years, it doesn’t need any explanation as to why because his wife’s death has already been very well established. The thing that makes him come to his senses that there is never more than this, there is no chance he will be reunited with her in heaven. But he’s open to the possibility, which offers hope. The world needs Torchwood and he has to help them create a base of operations.

Standout Performance: Eve Myles is clearly a talent and her continuing success beyond Torchwood is a testament to that. She broke my heart in The Unquiet Dead and returned to Doctor in quite a different guise in The Stolen Earth. I’m certain that Torchwood series one always played to her strengths because she works much better as the beating heart of Torchwood rather than the seduced vixen she became. Myles’ natural humour and likeability won through though and her characterisation has been a lot more consistent and enjoyable since. She’s especially fantastic throughout Children of Earth. On audio we’re up close and personal and her dulcet Welsh tones ring beautifully in our ears. She’s a phenomenon, effortlessly easy to get close to and portraying a character who is smart, confident and friendly. Listen to the moment where she has to bring Pugh to his sense in the climax. She’s instruction him with such conviction that even I sat up to attention.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Saving the world from the boot of my car is getting tedious!’
‘It used to make me feel bigger somehow. Imagining more than this. That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? That’s what all fantasies are about. We look at our lives and say to ourselves…there must be more than this.’
‘That’s what they always get wrong in the films. Special effects are flawless. Life isn’t flawless.’

Great ideas: Wonderfully on one call to the Council, Gwen is attacked by a hideous monster in the normal Torchwood line of business and Pugh’s response in his call back to her is that she will need to sign a health and safety form before proceeding further with planning permission. Plans have been drawn up for the space that Torchwood wants in Cardiff Bay for a new parking lot. Four years and it seems that the world has forgotten all about Torchwood. How cool is the idea of a liquid life form that can turn itself into a work of art and feed on the emotions of the people who look at it.

Isn’t It Odd: It’s a shame that the event that killed Pugh’s wife had to be directly linked to Torchwood. It’s a pointless piece of continuity and like with Buffy’s mum in The Body it would have been much more touching had it been a natural death, nothing to do with the supernatural.

Standout Scene: The stunningly written and performed scene in the middle of the story between Gwen and Pugh when they discuss the nature of fantasy and leaving a mark on the world before you depart. It’s so emotionally honest it quite took my breath away, especially after the frivolity elsewhere in this release.

Result:
‘We did it. We saved the world…’ Fascinating because it picks up after Miracle Day and continues that narrative that was left hanging by the TV series, More Than This abandons the American sojourn in favour of something a little more home grown, intimate and touching. This is essentially a fourth pilot for the show (after the first episodes of series 1, Children of Earth and Miracle Day), a way for newcomers to come to the series with no real knowledge of it (just like Mr Pugh) and take on board the Torchwood lifestyle. How very backwards to have this story then at the end of the first series, rather than kicking things off. Audio Torchwood wanted to establish that it can do and go anywhere in it’s timeline before continuing things where we left off on telly. Smart move. It’s such a cute idea, too, to have Gwen (who went through this experience herself many moons ago) expose the terrifying world of Torchwood to a Council Official who wants to turn the space they have earmarked for Torchwood Three into a multi-storey car park. The story hops from set piece to set piece as Pugh confronts the sort of dangers that Torchwood juggles and he comes to realise why such an organisation is vital to the security of the world. There’s witty lines, shocks and lovely moments of humour but more importantly there’s a lovely relationship that develops between Gwen and Pugh that surprises and moves. Guy Adams’ dialogue is very insightful and the script is beautifully played by both actors. Pugh goes from naïve newbie to giving Gwen advice by the end of the story and his monologues to his wife’s graveside really made him feel like a person who had a life beyond this story. Trust me with a lot of characters in audio drama I don’t always get that feeling. Lots of imaginative ideas abound too, in the little vignettes that we experience in the day in the life of Torchwood. Hugely enjoyable and a nice spring board for more Torchwood stories that take place after the body of television work, More Than This serves a purpose but it’s an involved piece in its own right: 8/10

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Heavenly Paradigm written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: With his plans approaching fruition, the Master travels to Stamford Bridge in the 1970s: a location he believes might hold the key to his success. But what terrible secret lurks under the stairs of No. 24 Marigold Lane? And what sacrifices will the Master make in the name of ultimate victory?

War Master: He’s deeply amused that the TARDIS materialises in the form of a police telephone box. It’s wonderful that he calls his own species one of the most terrifying in the universe. He takes delight in telling the Time lords he is visiting for purely altruistic reasons. When his motives match up with those of his peoples, he might just be worth listening to. When faced with one of his people brandishing a weapon and all he has is a cup of tea to hand he asks, ‘Are you scared yet?’ You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs and the Master is very particular about asking Cole if he thinks it is worth doing anything, whatever the cost to change the course of the Time War. Effectively his companion was agreeing to sacrifice himself. I do love how in this set the Master is completely honest and upfront, how he behaves to a specific set of rules. He never deceives anybody. He’s perhaps more honourable than the Doctor in that respect, whilst still behaving like a complete bastard. He doesn’t want a universe in ruins. If he did he would simply step back and let the War rip the multiverse apart. He wants peace and order and stability. He wants survival and power. He wonders if he is a product of his upbringing in that respect. Mrs Wilson points out that if he dispensed with his psychotic obsessions he could be the most wonderful man in the universe. Typical really, the one time he tries to make the universe a better place and it all blows up in his face.

Cole: Is Cole a little too naïve to have fallen for the Master’s charms quite so completely? I don’t think so because Jacobi plays the part so welcomingly (just like Delgado did, to a point where it was easier to champion him than Pertwee’s Doctor at times) and because he hasn’t actually been seen to do anything quite so resolutely evil as we would expect from the Master. He’s been very careful to present himself as a bystander in the War. It’s only when Cole is attached to the Paradigm and he still champions the Master that I was a little incredulous. Cole is labouring under the misapprehension that the Time lords have a sense of morality, rather than a sense of arrogance that they should dominate…well because they should.

Standout Performance: Nerys Hughes playing the perfect suburban housewife who is actually a Time lady in disguise. I especially liked how slipped her façade so easily when Cole has been knocked unconscious, from cheerful platitudes to straight to the point threats. She’s quite the talent, Nerys, and it would be nice for Big Finish to find a regular role for her. Jonny Green for again tugging at the heartstrings so effectively. And of course, Derek Jacobi, whose every utterance is one of sublime menace. Oh wait, that’s the entire cast. In that case, bravo.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I know exactly what I am doing! There is a reason I’m not called The Apprentice, you know.’
‘Making choices is what life is all about.’

Great Ideas: Even England in the 1970s is feeling the effects of the Time War. People can change gender in a heartbeat. Great swathes of history are being rewritten as the walls of reality come tumbling down. That’s rather frightening, isn’t it? To be living your life one day after the next only to realise that yesterday you never existed at all. If the War keeps going the way it is there will be nobody left, anywhere. A facility exists in the 1970s where the Time Lords keep their most terrifying weapons. A security weapon that bombards you with things that it finds in your subconscious. It would have a field day with my head. Trust the Time Lords to aim for the mind to hurt rather than any kind of physical pain. The Heavenly Paradigm is one of Gallifrey’s most shameful secrets. Certain decisions bring positive effects in our lives whilst others lead to consequence we might wished to have avoided. Imagine there was a way you could always make all the right decisions. You would live the perfect life. The paradigm examines a personal timeline and pinpoints the moments that can be changed to achieve maximum potential. Each person, each civilisation achieves the best chance of happiness. It’s designed to minimise conflict, to give you the best possible outcome. There’s a very arrogant assumption that The Time Lords don’t need fixing and that it is the Daleks who need altering to prevent the Time War from taking place. This is exactly what the Time lords were doing in Genesis of the Daleks, trying to turn the pepper pots into less aggressive creatures. This is a fascinating way to look at the exercise though, with a weapon that could iron out the entire timeline of the species and make such dramatic changes to the Web of Time (we haven’t had that phrase bandied about in a while). Nothing provides a great dose of potential energy than the fallout of cancelled probabilities. All those changes, all those possibilities wiped out and the Paradigm is juiced full of temporal energy.

Isn’t it Odd: This story does so well what Suburban Hell failed to achieve in the 4DA line, a suburban environment hiding a deadly alien secret. The Heavenly Paradigm achieves this by dialling back the weirdness and simply presenting a Time Lord facility in a mundane setting. Most people use their under stairs cupboard to store dull things but here there is a hangar for experimental aircraft.

Standout Scene:
Imagine the potential energy that could be reaped from the death of one man who created an entire race of robotic monsters that spread across the galaxy. With growing dread we realise that the Master is going to wipe Cole from existence, and the creatures he created in The Sky Man, in order to extract that source of energy and use it to manipulate the Time War. Big, big ideas but made to impact emotionally because we have come to like Cole. It’s like eliminating Hitler, or Davros, from history. Except he’s a really nice guy.

Result: ‘This is not what I wanted!’ This is a conceptual horror, told sedately, but giving you a lot to think about. The temporal energy shenanigans reminded me of the latter eighth Doctor Adventure books, particularly Sometime Never…, and the concepts fascinated me for the same reason. I love how the events of the Sky Man play such a big part in this story, giving that tale additional weight. It’s astonishing how quiet this story is and how economical it is cast wise, and yet how far reaching the ideas discussed are. It goes to show that you can created something epic without resorting to a cast of a thousand shouting voices, Dalek porn and pointless battle scenes without pictures. It the ideas hold weight and are brought down to a human level so they are affecting, you’ve got something huge in scale but still intimate. It’s a delightful disparity. This whole set has been leading up to giving the Master the chance to play God and turn the universe to his design. The last time he had a chance to do something on this scale he wiped half of the damn universe out. This time he’s even less in control of the fallout. The sequence towards the end of the story where the paradigm is activated and the universe is constantly in flux is quite astonishing in its possibility. Bravo for tying this so effectively into the Master’s established New Series timeline. Bravo for giving Jacobi the chance to return to the role and prove what a joy he would have been had he stuck around a little longer. And bravo for making a fully fleshed out character who is honourable in some ways and completely foul in others but always quite charming in his approach either way. It’s been a mesmerising experiment, this set, and one that was very worth trying. I certainly wouldn’t object to hear more from the War Master. He’s more than proven that he is capable of driving a series of his own. Blakes’ 7 proved that it was more than possible to have an anti-hero at the helm of a series and Only the Good shows you how that would play out with one of the finest character actors in the country took hold of that responsibility and ran with it. A risky gambit, but a successful one: 8/10

Only the Good box set: 8/10

The Sky Man written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When his new companion decides to save a planet, the Master indulges this most futile of requests. Materialising on a primitive, agrarian world, both the strangers quickly find their place in it… until fallout from the War invades their happy paradise.

War Master: It’s a great image of the Master, a Time lord in command of a TARDIS and completely impotent in the face of the Time War. It’s not like the Master took Cole to a world that he knew was bound to destruction because he gave him the choice of several. Unless he chose several that he knew were doomed… He’s always enjoyed hobbies that require patience and subtlety, going from a seed to a product of marvellous complexity. He could be describing one of his masterplans! Marvellous he suggests that he has the kind of face you can trust. The Master tending to his vineyard and keeping his nose out of Cole’s world saving activities is a fantastic conceit. It’s a little like what the Doctor does in Kill the Moon but handled with far more subtlety and believability. Plus, it’s just nice to listen to the man talk about something other than grandiose schemes and plots. It might seem heartless when he refuses to help this civilisation but he is still true to his word. When he arrived he specifically said that he wasn’t allowed to get involved and that his people would look unkindly on his interference and punish his appropriately (maybe he recalls watching the Doctor’s trial when recalling how they react to interference). If you asked him outright if he helped in any way he could refuse to say he did but conveniently he has left supplies to create a cyber race for Cole to use. He knows exactly what he is doing and exactly what his companion will do with those spare parts. The Master offering Cole the wine he has been making throughout the story, almost to toast his failure.

Cole: We’ve never seen the Master with an actual companion in the same way that Doctor travels with a friend. He had stooges that he manipulated in the Sea Devils and The Time Monster and Lucy was his wife and somebody he kept around to take his frustrations on. The closest was probably Chang Lee from the TV Movie and he snapped his neck so that didn’t go so well. It’s an interesting dynamic, having somebody in the Master’s TARDIS that he is willing to take to a doomed world and let him see if he can do anything about saving it. The doctor would often be known to remark ‘this is my best friend’ about his companions but the Master departs with a marvellous ‘treat him with sympathy, he means well.’ Cole integrates into this society naturally, with a few bumps along the way as he tries to ‘improve’ their lifestyle with technology that backfire and the romance that brews up feels very natural. He’s like a dodgy wine, apparently, after a while he’s bearable. They call Cole ‘the Sky Man’ because of where he came from. It surprises him when he finally says ‘our world’ rather than ‘your world.’ When it is clear that something deadly has come to this world and finger is pointed at Cole, he is quick to point out all the hard work he has done here and the character he has shown in helping this society. You can’t help but like this guy. Elidh means so much to him that when people start dropping like flies he is quick to make her a survival suit like his own. Coles tears when the Master turns up to take him away from the hell he has created were really affecting. Never before has someone saying ‘what have I done?’ hit me so hard. He doesn’t just carry the burden of this races construction but he also carries the weight of every planet they destroy and every life they take.

Standout Performance: Jonny Green gives a superb performance in The Sky Man, creating a Cole that it is easy to warm to and hard to condemn when his efforts go awry. The most important element of any audio drama is to have a character that you care about or can believe in and in both cases Green triumphs.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Typical. When a man decides to sew, he decides to sew in tin.’
‘A paradox made on a paradox…’
‘If they leave their world, they’ll burn the very stars and fill the emptiness of space with their screams…’

Great Ideas: The cover is phenomenal. Quite apart from a the very beautifully young man depicted (what? I’m only human!), it really sets the scene for this story effectively. The covers for both the Gallifrey and War Master sets have been above and beyond what I expect from Big Finish of late, certainly of the Main Range. This is a society that is aware of modern technology but chooses not to utilise it. Technology would have made them visible to those who are fighting the Time War, it is the best for of defence to maintain a peaceful, agrarian society. They slipped under the radar by keeping their noses out of the conflict. It’s astonishing how easily Cole’s efforts and his drive to help these people becomes something more sinister.

Audio Landscape: The robotic voices that kick in after the civilisation are encased in Cyber-suits are terrifying. ‘Retribution…’

Standout Scene: The moment Anvar was placed inside his survival suit really affected me. These are never specifically stated to be Cybermen but we have such a long-standing history with the creatures and the idea of being placed inside a cold metal suit and suffering a claustrophobic attack is stifling to listen to. It makes that moment of conversion so human and completely terrifying.

Result:
‘It looks…unfriendly’ Surprising, thoughtful, dramatic and gripping, The Sky Man sunk its claws into me and never let go. I was a little reluctant to have an adventure where the Master is sidelined and a one-off companion takes centre stage but Cole is characterised and intelligently and engagingly from the off and his integration into this simple society gently reveals shades of his character that surprised me. This is better characterisation than a lot of Doctor Who companions get in their respective ranges, Cole is sweet, funny and thoughtful. It’s a society that is painted beautifully too, an agrarian people who are proud of their lack of technology but with Cole’s influence slowly come to depend on it. I’ve seen this sort of story play out before on many science fiction shows, especially ones like Stargate and Star Trek. Where a regular is absorbed into a society that they visit and they have a profound effect on one another. But it is done here with such emotional honesty and naturalism that this really is the standard that the others should match up to. This reminded me of Goss’ The Winning Side for the Bernice Summerfield series, which was a real highlight of that period of the that range, insofar as I was engrossed by the cleanness of the writing where it felt like not a word was wasted, the quality of the characterisation and the doomy tone that led to some unforgettably dramatic scenes. The direction and performances deserve much praise, it takes some skill to make affecting drama like this seems so effortless. I really felt for these people and I had known them less than an hour. Cole thinks he’s saving these people from their deaths but all he is doing is providing them with an alternative purgatory. Watching this play out (given everything we know about Cyberman history) is devastating, but inevitable. All it takes is to put on a suit and all your problems will be over. The flesh is weak, technology is superior. Thoroughly absorbing and personal, this is audio drama at its finest: 10/10