Monday 27 November 2023

The Star Beast written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Rachel Talalay

What's it About:
Think Partners in Crime mixed with Journey's End with a massive dose of Doctor Who Weekly thrown in for good measure. It's a healthy reminder of when the show was the most popular thing in the media and the audience at homes minds before the show gets rolling in a brand new direction again...

Mockney Dude (Redux): The least controversial decision since bringing in David Tennant in the first place is bringing back David Tennant to give the series (and crucially fandom, which for whatever reason has split down the middle in terms of controversy and opinion) a settling feeling before Ncuti Gatwa (who shows enormous promise already) takes the keys. Did I for one second feel as though this was the fourteenth Doctor rather than the Tenth? Beyond one line questioning whether he says 'love' this time around, not at all. Was I happy to see him back given my heart was full to bursting whenever Jodie Whittaker was on the screen? Oh yes. Tennant is a proven talent and still my favourite new series Doctor and he waltzes back into the show with swagger and panache. As he turns up in a central London backstreet grinning away to familiar Murray Gold music, it felt like I was back in 2008 again. You know, the last time the show was on everybody's lips. It's like he has never been away, and if had any nerves about once again being asked to raise the shows profile you couldn't tell. 

The psychic paper still thinks the Doctor is a woman. He's clearly not forgotten his masterful handling of the law in The Stones of Blood and still carries that ridiculous wig around with him. I love how gentle he is with the Meep initially, nursing its hand and happy to help get it home. He's every inch the hero as he makes magic shields from his sonic screwdriver to help protect his friends. Tennant breezes through this story like he has never been away but it is during the emotional climax with Tate that he reminds us all why he is here and what he can do. He breaks his voice in such a way when he screams 'no you are not!' at Donna for calling herself nothing again. The Doctor has been living with the loss of his best friend for so long and he cannot bear to hear her say that she is worthless now they are back together. Russell being the bastard that he is forces the Doctor into the only possible situation that could break both of his hearts - he has to kill Donna in order to save London and 9 million people. 

Tempestuous Temp: When I was told that my favourite showrunner was back, I thought my luck was in. Then to discover David Tennant (my favourite Doctor) would be the incumbent of the TARDIS again I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Finally to discover that Catherine Tate, my single favourite companion of the new series and possibly beyond would be joining him I finally left all that British reserve behind and let the tears break. Series four was such a special time for me. A point in the show when it was in the zeitgeist in terms of popularity, quality and chemistry. Donna was a huge part of the equation and the run from The Unicorn and the Wasp through to Journey's End is still my personal favourite of any season of Doctor Who, classic or new. I had to pinch myself. Surely this could not be real? 

Of course Donna is still missing the alien incursions even when they are right under her nose. Donna doesn't see things in black and white (she's too complex for that) but she does see things in a sense of right and wrong. And it's right that she protects her daughter. So the conversation she has with Sylvia where she has easy answers about what she feels about her transitioning feels so natural. She loves Rose, she's gorgeous and she will do anything for her. It's a simple, loving response. She's happy with her life and her family but some nights she lies in her bed and wonders what it is she has lost. There is an absence of something. Tate delivers those lines with such aching emotion. I adore how she takes the screwdriver from the Doctor during a tense moment like it is the most natural thing in the world even though she doesn't remember that life. When we learn that Donna gave away all her money to help people who were living in fear I couldn't possibly love her any more. She says it was 'the sort of thing he would do' and we don't know if she is talking about the Doctor, her Dad or her Gramps but it works with any of them. Brilliantly, selflessly, Donna agrees to sacrifice herself for her daughter, her family and all the people she needs to save. She doesn't give it a second thought. The second our Donna is back the first thing on her mind is how she gave away her money. She's back! Her assertion that brining up her daughter is an adventure all of its own is fabulous. Donna is in the TARDIS for two minutes and she's already thrown coffee on the console. We're back. 

The Nobles: My single complaint about Yasmin Finney is that she is clearly older than the 15 year old she is playing but I have been watching 20 somethings play teens in my favourite programmes since the late 80s and if that means we get a nuanced performance instead of another member of the Brood then  happy days. How lovely that Donna has been living domestic bliss with a kind husband, a thawed out mother and a sweet daughter. What terrible accident has befallen Nerys? Shaun says the great love story is putting up with somebody as wonderful as Donna (with all her flaws) and not complaining about it. It's a brilliant re-imagining of Sylvia as somebody who has come to realise how special Donna is. She's so much gentler but still fiercely protective of her (the brilliant 'You!' when she realises the Doctor is about). You get the feeling that Sylvia has been deflecting every alien invasion since The Eleventh Hour so that Donna is protected. We think for one terrible moment that Wilf is dead in the Doctor Who universe and because we still reeling from Bernard Cribbins' death it hits hard...until Russell reverses that and we suddenly have the promise that we will see him in an upcoming special. 

Great Dialogue: 'Sometimes I have dreams about impossible things.' 

'Word of can wear a suit that tight up to the age of 35...and no further.' 

'That woman from Abu Dhabi who buys your stuff...she'd love that one.' 

'Nerys! Now it all makes sense. That viper in the nest! I'm not going anywhere. We could sell mad Paddington for a million quid!' 

'The eyes! That's solar psychedelia!' (What a brilliant idea) 

'No stun guns for me! Just die!' 

The Good: Sweeping heroic music in the way that only Murray Gold knows how, a purple haze of magic trailing from the TARDIS as it bursts through clouds of timelines and a sense of huge optimism in how expensive it all looks, the new title sequence is just gorgeous. I loved 13s for its atmosphere, sinister key drop and inky weirdness but this feels like it is making a statement that Doctor Who is punching its way into the consciousness of the Not We again. 

I mirror David Tennant's response to the news that they are adapting The Star Beast for television. Absolute shock that they have the nerve to take a comic strip from the 1980s and bring it to life in 2023. But then thinking it about it it has all the hallmarks of a Davies season opener. Light, silly ('The fat just walks away...'), comic book (Judoon platoon upon the Moon) and unforgettable (Auton invasion). Plus weaving the story of Beep the Meep landing on Earth with the return of Donna and her family means you have a healthy mix of madness and emotion and I cannot think of a better way to describe Russell's approach to Doctor Who. 

Go visit Camden Lock. It is a thriving market in the heart of London with the most gloriously eclectic collection of stalls, food stands and people. I hope featuring it in Doctor Who brings a hive of fans there. You'll walk through a range of humanity, wares and enticing food smells. It's one of my favourite places in England. 

Milson-Wagner steelworks!

There has been some appalling anti-Trans commentary online in the wake of this episode being released very often from the people you would expect it from but at times even from surprising corners. The very reason that the positive representation is needed is because of that kind of reaction. Russell is taking hold of something that certain people want belittled and removed and giving it a safe home in one of the biggest television platforms there is and he is normalising something that is perfectly natural for a younger audience. Identity and ownership of self is a personal choice and Russell makes Rose a gentle but strong character who is dealing with her own questions, loneliness, and abuse from the kids around her. Sylvia is vital someone who wants to get it right but sometimes fails and Donna is as she always was, burning with protection for people who are mistreated. It's tackled sensitively at first before becoming a dominant theme in the climax of the story, being threaded creatively and emotionally into the narrative. I don't have all the answers on this subject because it is not something that I completely understand as I have never been through it but I am of the opinion that this a personal journey for each individual, that nobody has the right to take a personal choice of identity from anybody and I am willing to be educated and explore the idea further. I think Russell is opening a door to that in a very constructive, optimistic way. Doctor Who has forged ahead politically for most of its life and I am pleased to see with Russell back at the helm it is time to tackle some of these issues again. I was so pleased he took this stand, and I know it is offering inclusivity (some people use that word as if it is dirty, it's not) and that can only be a good thing. Bravo.  

Beep the Meep. Wow. What a brilliant idea, and so wonderfully brought to the screen by all concerned. Doctor Who hasn't been water cooler chat in my world since series 4 and I'm pleased to say I've been hearing a buzz about Meep and its insidious ways since Saturday. It's leaning into the Gremlins vibe by taking this cute, innocuous creature (it's so Doctor Who that he literally squeals 'Meep Meep!') and turning it into the nastiest war criminal we have ever seen. The animatronics are extraordinary but it is how the actors behave around the puppet that brings it to life (I'm calling it the Farscape Effect) and Miriam Margoyles was the perfect choice to voice the Meep because she really captures that helpless sweetness in the creature until it unleashes its rage and fire and then she just goes to town with the madness. It's a huge success by all concerned; batshit crazy in the best Doctor Who way and utterly hilarious with it. This is the strongest indication that Doctor Who is for kids again after years and years of quite serious storytelling and this psychotic, cute as hell gonk from outer space is reaching out a hand to that portion of the audience again. Of course the is the definite article. 

More Shirley please. I have adored Ruth Madeley as Hebe in the Big Finish series Purity and she is just as confident here as Shirley, UNIT's latest scientific advisor. She's armed with wit and smarts, and a badass wheelchair too. I love the line about not making her the problem when the situation is at height. Her familiarity with the Doctor felt perfectly natural and I adored how she said 'off you pop to him  utterly confident in her ability to deal with the spaceship so he can go and sort his personal issues. The wave between them made me cheer. 

My favourite section of the episode was the scenes at night in the Noble house. Starting with Donna discovering the Meep in the shed ('What the hell!') to Sylvia trying desperately to deflect all the madness away from Donna, to the idea of a tuna Madras (gross!) to awesome action sequence as the Wrath Warriors turn up to claim the Meep. It's emotion, farce and action all mixed up in a heady brew. It's the best firefight we've seen in Doctor Who to date as Rachel Talalay shows her stuff sweeping down the road with pyrotechnics going off, cars flying, doors exploding, CGI warriors flying and animatronics crawling through attics. Throughout all of this madness Russell remembers to keep it funny and every single 'Meep Meep!' is perfectly timed and got a big laugh from me (the man sleeping as everybody creeps past on tiptoe - including the Meep - is the best visual gag on Doctor Who in years). It's this sort of set piece that I've missed. So much goes into this five minute sequence from the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects. It's the showpiece for me. And a word for the Wrath design, which is very faithful to the original comic but just looks gorgeous on the screen. Russell is never afraid of putting weird aliens on the telly, and this bunch are unforgettably so. There's not mistaking the fact that you are watching Doctor Who. 

We haven't seen anything quite as absurd as the evil Meep raised high and baring its sinister teeth as its phallic rocket ship steams behind and its army of possessed soldiers cry 'Hail to the Meep!' I love this stupid show. The dagger drive is so ridiculous. I want more of this. 

The binary/non-binary ending is bound to be divisive because it carries with it the suggestion that Rose is trans because of her mother and the Doctor merging whereas that is obviously not the case for anybody else on this planet. It's a smart use of the metacrisis, it comes with the message of 'be yourself', it truly embraces the idea in this new era that the Doctor can be male or female (I think the Jodie detractors would hope that this would be swept aside) and brings all the elements together in a very clever conclusion. It's giving a science fiction spin on a real life experience and I think Doctor Who is a place that can cope with that. It also brings huge inclusivity to anybody who is experiencing transition, it's making the language positive to children and it is using television to spread the word that this is perfectly normal. Is it cheesy? You can't make these kinds of statements without a little bit of cheese. I like cheese. 

The new TARDIS interior is gobsmacking. A fusion of classic and new, huge, otherworldly and you can run around in it! I loved the atmospherics of Jodie's (I really don't mind dark) but this riff on the classic model (but with a huge budget) just feels right. The Doctor runs about in it because that is exactly what we want to do. 

The Bad: We've got all that Disney money (although I'm reliably informed that that isn't present until Gatwa shows up - which makes sense in terms of marketing the show - bring the classic/new series to an end and start again with Doctor Who Series 1) let's say Bad Wolf money (remember His Dark Materials?) and we open on a special effects shot that would embarrass Star Trek Voyager in the 90s and a catch up exposition dump that would make The TV Movie blush. After the astonishing visuals of Power of the Doctor I was very confused. I'm pleased this is 'bring Doctor Who to an end' trio of specials rather than a bold new start for the show because this is a very confusing and dictatorial way to do it. More to the point; who on Earth are the Doctor and Donna talking to? Us? Because that doesn't happen again in the episode so that makes this a very strange breaking of the fourth wall to kick us off. I wouldn't put it past Russell to be cheeky enough to think 'screw it, I've got to remind everybody of where we left these two characters and so let's just have them address everybody.' 

Poor old Fudge has been short changed in this version of the story. He had a much bigger role in the excellent Big Finish version, which is much more faithful to the original text. 

For the most part I love Murray Gold's music, but he isn't doing anything new with his music for The Star Beast. It feels exactly like series 4 again. It's like a big emotive, melodramatic fingerprint. We've been spoilt by some unique atmospherics in the previous regime. This is the only thing that feels like a step backwards to me. However Gold is too creative to get stuck in the past. I'm sure we will be seeing something bold and brilliant and new soon. And the weird orgasm breathing in the end title music is baffling. 

The message to let it go is a great one - although I know plenty of men who are capable of that too. 

Result: 'We've got a bloody Martian in the shed!' Utterly preposterous in all the best ways, The Star Beast is about as safe a bet as Russell T. Davies could have made whilst still being extremely confident in everything it is doing. Tennant, Tate, Sylvia, Beep the Meep, all tried and tested successes before and so it was a good chance that the audience would take them to heart again. There's two stories taking place here and both of them are great in very different ways. The story of Beep, the demented yet endearing Meep is a firm invitation for kids to start watching Doctor Who again and it manages to be in turns very sweet, utterly camp, surprising (if you don't know the origin story) and by the conclusion embracing the pantomimic. In short, all the things I love in Doctor Who. On the other hand you have Donna and Rose's story, which has the unfortunate task of having to pick up 15 year old plot threads and remind the audience of them but once that is done it runs with a character piece that explores identity, claiming yourself (both Donna and Rose do by the end of the story) and letting go. Russell imbues the script with the sort of heart only he can bring to Doctor Who and any shortcomings in the story (the pacing is a little hit and miss at times) can be ridden over with just how much this gave me the feels. And how funny it is too. I haven't laughed this much at a story in years and years (the sense of humour with the previous two showrunners just doesn't chime with me in the same way). I think this is Russell easing the audience back into his vision for the show in a very adept fashion and for anybody that thinks this is a step backwards to 2008 it is worth remembering that that was the last time the show was massively popular and so a healthy reminder of that is no bad thing. But there is no way that this sort of heartfelt fluff is all we are getting and once this introduction is out of the way the weird and the scary and the innovative will come. I watched this twice in one night and thoroughly enjoyed myself both times. Bringing back Rachel Talalay to direct what is essentially a light season opener was a stroke of genius and she ensures that all the set pieces look magnificent. I wouldn't want Doctor Who to be as slight or as message driven as this every week, but I feel as a mission statement for the series getting on a firmer footing with the general audience this had all the right moves. And for it's inclusive message, this is a vital piece of the shows history. The Beepest of all the Meepest Doctor Whos: 8/10 

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Survivors Series 02

Welcome back to the Company's most adult and terrifying series as we embark on the second series of Survivors. After the meteoric success of the first year that managed to not only capture the fatalism and despair of the TV series but also transfer it to audio and make it sophisticated in a whole new way is there any way they can replicate that kind of triumph in series two? The answer is yes and no, because what you get is pretty much more of the same but it manages to continue to be just as well written, acted and executed with just as many disturbing moments and a feeling of disquiet that simply isn't there with other ranges. It appears there is a scattershot approach to the storytelling this time around (where the first set very much felt like a continuing story) but by the time you get to the last story it is tying up elements that were introduced in the first and it does feel like a coherent story. The cleverest part of this is episodes two and three which tell different stories at the same time and feature all the female characters in one story and all the male in the other and explores the different kinds of stories you can tell with a certain gender at the helm. 

Dark Rain by Ken Bentley kicks off the set in suitably intense style and features the two strongest of the original characters, Jackie (Louise Jameson) and Daniel (John Banks) having to fight for their lives and being rattled by the experience. It's a great way to catch up with the characters and remind us what their fears and motivations are and this is effectively one of those submarine stories where the water rises up around their waists and the characters no that they are going to die. Jameson and Banks deserve massive kudos for the work they do here, I have seen this situation played out loads of times before but never quite as raw and as real as it feels here. We spend a nice amount of time with our regulars from the TV series too, and this box set really integrates both extremely well (without ever going back to The Grange because the TV series is currently occurring there) and the search for Abby's son Peter is the focus, and Jenny, who is pregnant with Greg's baby. The most shocking moment in this story was Jackie's confession about her children and how she feels she doesn't deserve to die. I think she is the most uncomfortable character to be around because she is so kind and gentle and yet is clearly suffering from PTSD in a massive way. 

Mother's Courage by Louise Jameson is a lot of peoples favourite from the set and I can see why because it takes a very simple idea (what would happen if there was a refuge run completely by women in a post apocalyptic world) and forces our characters to face the consequences of that. I was hard on the Eighth of March set and this story goes someway to explaining why because it is a much more mature celebration of women working in Big Finish; a smart script, hard hitting themes of motherhood, friendship and female strength and terrific performances from the actresses involved. My two complaints about this story are that the idea of a community that rejects men to such an extent that it would kill Jenny's child if it was a son isn't taken quite far enough (I almost wish that the pregnancy was further along so she did have the baby and we could have all the suspense of what the sex is) and so this is all talk and no action. But also that this is very similar to the story that played out last year with our heroes stuck in a twisted community that could offer them salvation if they leave their morality to one side. However, the reactions of all the characters to this set up is excellent, the dialogue is frequently hard hitting and Jenny and Abby really come off brilliantly in this, as strong as they ever were on TV. It somehow manages to be a celebration of men and everything they bring to society, and a firm reminder of their evils too. Thoughtful stuff. 

My personal favourite of the year was The Hunted by Ken Bentley and that seems to be for all the reasons that other people didn't like it so much. It has a thin plot - the men of the group are hunted out in the woods by a wild animal and meet up with a hunter who can help them track it down - but it soon becomes the equivalent of a horror movie as it transpires a group of survivors are taking advantage of the hunt and posing as animals in the dark to murder people. This really scared me (my other half can attest to that who had to hold my hand for the whole second half) as the boys face the laughter and mockery of murderers out there in the dark. There's a beautiful conversation between Tim Treloar's Russell and Daniel that leads to a horrific murder scene and from that point on it plays out like the horror movie Them with a life or death struggle. I genuinely was uncertain if our regulars would get out of this, even though I knew Greg couldn't be killed. The idea that people might take advantage of the collapse of society and the absence of rules to play with people and kill them really struck a chord with me. I really appreciated Ken Bentley's use of sound in the direction, and how he trusted the audience to keep up with the action without having to explain what is going on in awkward dialogue. It means you are there in this situation with Greg and Daniel, and the threat is all around you. Bernard Holley's voice is unforgettable, and he will get a bigger role in the next story. I can't remember a Big Finish that put me through the wringer more than this in quite some time. 

Savages by Matt Fitton brings this set to a close and is probably the biggest endorsement of the 'not suitable for children' tag that this range gets on the Big Finish website. Before I say the few things that let this down I want to say this is a strong conclusion to the set, once again featuring set pieces that set me on edge, brilliant performances and some character conclusions (Daniel finally makes a choice that crosses a line and Molly's attempted suicide is understandable, inevitable and very dramatic) that will need dealing with in the future. What made the murderers so scary in the last story was that they seemed to be enjoying themselves and the fact that there was nobody to stop them. Fitton (probably wisely) gives George Ridley a motive for why he has turned to cannibalism and because it was an act of desperation that has become a need makes him much less frightening. I can't say I felt empathy for the man (he's played a little broadly like a villain too) but his backstory, and giving him a murderer pal who does all the dirty work before he gets the pots boiling takes the edge of the violent chaos of the promise of these monstrous characters. I got strong Countrycide vibes from Torchwood, and this plays out in as vicious and unpleasant a manner. You actually hear characters eating human flesh so prepare yourselves for that. Also, the ending where both the killer and the butcher are killed means the series gets to duck away from the riveting question of what to do with these people in a society with no rules. We could have had our audio equivalent of Law and Order. 

I might have more complaints than the previous set but the standard is still very high. Big Finish has caught something very dramatic and vivid with this series. I'm in awe of the convincing performances and sound design. It makes me weep that I have head back to silly old Doctor Who at some point. This is real audio drama: 8/10 

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Survivors - Series 01

Result: A plausibly real and graphic series depicting the take down of the human race by a virus that ravages the world and murders a huge chunk of the population. That absolutely should resonate with the bulk of the population of this planet. Of course this first series was pre-pandemic, which makes it chillingly aware of where things are going and just how disturbing things could have ended up. Terry Nation often had his finger on the pulse. There is an air of disquiet throughout this releases that automatically elevates it above the majority of Big Finish's other ranges, a sense that this could actually happen. That the desperation of the human race to behave in appalling ways if the basic structure of society and law and order fell apart is chillingly accurate. The tension is palpable. Especially in first episode, Revelation by Matt Fitton, which is essentially a remake of the original pilot of TV series but introduces us to a whole new set of regulars (and brilliantly, not ALL the regulars, which means people come and go in these pockets of survivors, just as would happen in real life) and people still have a sense of hope that this illness will sweep through the population and life can be resumed once it has done its work. We know where this is heading and that life will never be the same again and so much of the tension is waiting for the other characters to catch up. There's a swift pace to this episodes, the deaths of the characters friends and family comes fairly rapidly and whilst it is contained to England there is still a real sense of spread to the setting. There is definitely a sense of don't get too close to anybody because if the sickness doesn't get them, the human beings exploiting it will. Chase Masterson and Terry Molloy make the strongest impression here, trapped in an airport with the sick and trying to figure out the scale of the situation. 

Exodus by Jonathan Morris ups the ante considerably in turns of character drama and doesn't have the purpose of introducing the concept of the series and can just show people reacting to the situation they have found themselves in. I thought it was the strongest of the four, and the one that truly revealed the depths of horror and emotion of the scenario that goes above and beyond the norm of BF's Doctor Who releases. Jackie Burchall is memorably introduced caring for her family (who we never hear talk) and I was just waiting for the moment when the episode told us that her husband and children are already dead and there was a frightening inevitability to that expectation. Louise Jameson's raw and devastated reaction to hearing the words said aloud is something that you will never forget. She's the strongest of an incredible cast that has bought into the reality of this horror completely. The twist later that she killed them herself to spare them from the plague and committed suicide never expecting to wake up is bleak in a way that Terry Nation excelled at. It feels like a very real reaction to a horrible situation, but is shocking operatic drama at the same time. I had goose bumps. Two characters that you think might be regulars are wiped out here too, as a community that has risen up out of the nightmare and is prepared to go to any lengths to ensure that their way of life isn't threatened. Having our heroes find salvation only to have it snatched away as they realise that a new kind of terrifying martial law a hold of this community with a chilling figure at its core, James Gillison, who will go to any lengths to keep control and things working his way. As two characters that we thought were regulars are shot in the back and one barely gets away with her life you realise that nobody is safe anymore. This is the most overtly scary instalment. I genuinely feared for the characters lives. 

Gillison gets real focus in Judges by Andrew Smith, a drama that brings characters from the TV series into the fold. He's astonishingly played by Adrian Lukis, who gives him a sense of moral righteousness and true belief that he is right to behave in the way that he is. I absolutely believe that this kind of egomaniac would seize control if this scenario played out, that somebody would wind a community around their finger and murder anybody that threatened to even doubt it let alone act out against it. The communities in England are exchanging food and Gillison suspects that the group they are trading with are trying to poison them and thus begins as tense sequence where he goes to trade with a plan to wipe them all out. The Survivors need to try and warn them and a plan is hatched to try and stop the raid. Just who reveals to Gillison what they are planning might surprise you. It shows that this show isn't going to take the easy route. The raid takes place and lots of people die and I realised this wasn't Doctor Who territory where things tend to end well. I thought this was the weakest of the four - it wasn't setting up the story, it didn't have any overtly interesting character work (although this does flesh out Gillison more) and it doesn't have the claustrophobia of the finale - but it is still a brilliant listen. Let that be an endorsement of how good the set is as a whole. This also where they successfully integrate the new audio characters with the TV ones and it feels like a perfectly natural fit. I'm pleased they left it this long to allow the original characters to bed in. 

Things come to a head in Esther by John Dorney, where the Survivors (both old and new) are trapped within Gillison's community and facing execution. Essentially this is an hour of this nightmare within a nightmare and it looks like nobody is going to get out alive. Gillison is willing to go without a fight and I really liked how the series refused to salvage the character, whilst it still gave him a motivation for why he was behaving so appallingly. Sometimes people have gone too far and they cannot be brought back to edge. 

There's something palpably exciting about a first series that gets things as right as this that means that that excitement can never quite be captured again and Survivors starts on such a strong and unforgettable series of stories I cannot see how they will top this for sheer drama in the future. Ken Bentley deserves huge kudos for his bravura direction of this piece. He has executed so many Doctor Who's at this point that he understands the medium completely but this is a cut above even his very best work elsewhere. There's a conviction to the sound design, a willingness to deliver this in as a real a fashion as possible with minimal (and well chosen) music and a willingness to cast outside of the box. Chase Masterson shows know signs of Vienna as Maddie Price, Louise Jameson couldn't be further from Leela as the tortured Jackie Burchall but the standout turn for me was Adrian Lukis, who injects Gillison with real steel and believability. That could have been a ranting villain role and he is chillingly real. 

Bravo to everybody concerned, this is brave in a way I haven't seen from Big Finish in years: 9/10 (8/10, 10/10, 7/10, 9/10 respectively)

Sunday 20 November 2022

Old Friends

Fond Farewell by David K. Barnes: I can remember when I first heard Ravagers and being quite appalled that Big Finish should introduce Christopher Eccleston to the world of original Doctor Who audio drama with such an uninvolving script. As a result I ducked out the range immediately and didn't return until almost a year later with this set. Had things began with something as weird and witty as Fond Farewell I would have been much more interested. This is a really tight bit of storytelling with a glorious premise; the deceased being able to attend their own wake and it milks that idea for every drop of humour and poignancy that it can. It's a murder mystery too boot and a has a lovely thread of character drama running through it too, just as you might expect from a story that is aping series one. I'm not sure about the 'old friends' premise because this is one of those acquaintances that the Doctor has met off screen (of the sort that was so prevalent in season 22) that we are visiting but it does give the set a hook to hang itself on I suppose. Helen Goldwyn is one of the safest pair of hands that Big Finish has directed stories these days and I do not mean that in a derogatory way at all. She has a lightness of touch that means her stories are bouncy and easy to listen to but she casts brilliantly too and so the words come alive in unexpected, memorable ways. I thought this rattled along at a hell of a pace and not even the prolonged flashback to explain the whodunnit reveal ruined the momentum. I can remember turning to Mark at the end of this and saying 'more please.' Best of all, Eccleston is every bit as a brilliant as he was during his TV run. Without a companion at his side he is funny, charismatic and impossible to ignore. A breath of fresh air for being short and very sweet: 8/10

The Way of the Burryman/The Forth Generation: I don't think Roy Gill is discussed nearly enough as a Doctor Who writer and he is quietly one of the more assured and creative people that Big Finish has on its staff. He's one of those writers that can dive into any series and get the tone and the feel of the range just right, and characterise the regulars brilliantly too. I especially loved his take on the tenth Doctor and Donna and thought the vinyl release of The Creeping Death was more than justified. This, however, is his best story yet, and perfectly illustrates why he isn't just your regular Doctor Who hack. It takes two of the most cliched ideas (the Doctor meeting the Brigadier and the return of the Cybermen) and conjures up a story that is ghoulish, emotionally stirring and beautifully characterised. Bringing in Warren Brown's character from the UNIT series is a lovely touch and giving him a meeting with the Doctor before his great adventure sets off (and a justification for it too) adds a lot of depth to the character. The Scottish setting that is seeped in myths and legends and atmosphere is a superbly evoked in both the writing and the direction, and Gill does something that is truly chilling with the Cybermen (leaning into the idea that people who have suffered so terribly would welcome the chance to be converted) that tapped into my fear. The first episode takes its time to get to know the characters (and it isn't a massive guest cast) and to establish the setting and ideas, but come the cliff-hanger we are in horror/tragedy territory with the Cybermen on the march in what would some of the most frightening scenes had this been on the telly. I'm not the biggest fan of the Cybermen at the best of times (all too often writers tap into the idea of them being scary robots rather than the walking dead) and Gill gets them just right. Real body horror and unsettlingly tragic. Eccleston is on fire here. He has mastered the humour in the role at this point but he was always going to be a wonderful dramatic actor in the part and he dances through relationship drama, exposition and reunions here with real aplomb. I listened to this story sitting outside in the sunshine but every time I shut my eyes I could see the shattered zombie Cybermen coming out of the fog. Kudos to Jon Culshaw who has really embraced the part of the Brigadier despite any fan resistance there might be and Gill taps into just how effective this pairing can be professionally as well as personally. There's no doubting they adore each other but they have a job to do and lives to save. There wasn't one part of this that I didn't think wasn't firing on all cylinders. This walks that delicate line between nostalgia and delivering something fresh and atmospheric: 9/10

Monday 14 November 2022

Vienna Series Three

Big Society by Ian Potter: Every season of Vienna seems to up the ante on the previous one and this is no different and as a result it seems to surprise me more and more by being one of the most agreeable spin offs that Big Finish has spun. A huge shout out to Chase Masterson from the off because she has taken hold of a character that was a little sketchy on the page (a glamorous space bitch assassin) and turned her into one of the most layered, and the most fun of Big Finish characters. She's dangerous and funny and has a heart of gold underneath it all and Masterson is pure charisma at this point. Samantha Beart is still playing her sidekick Jexie Reagen with a bizarre accent but the chemistry between the two actresses is so strong at this point that I barely noticed. I mention both of the leads because so much of this second set, and especially this first story are successful because of their really enjoyable interplay and some real effort has gone into making it feel as though they have been working together for some time at this point and that they make one hell of a team. Instead of murdering people for money, Jexie has turned Vienna to protecting people for money and in a wonderfully revealing moment at the end of Big Society, Vienna admits to her partner that sometimes performing a good deed is its own reward. It means she is far more likable than we have previously found, and given the extra dollop of humour in this set, so much funnier too. This is a furiously paced SF tale with some great ideas and creepy moments. Potter includes a chilling notion of algae and waste clone matter amalgamating into a sinister new lifeform and the Good Day drug that essentially powers all three stories this season is not only a wonderful notion in its own right but given some authenticity and considers the consequences of such a drug being available. With Scott Handcock in the driving seat the story sounds amazing and he brings all manner of impressive guest actors with him. I finished this one with a huge smile on my face and raring to go with the last two and you can't ask for much more than that from your opening salvo: 8/10

Big Society by Guy Adams: I'm perfectly convinced that this is one of the best scripts I have heard from Big Finish in quite a few years. This is absolutely bonkers, and brilliant. Not only is it a scathing attack on reality TV shows that put people through the wringer for the entertainment of others but it is also a hilarious action adventure feature some of the  weirdest characters and fights that you will ever experience. I was laughing my head off when Vienna and Jexie meet a sarky, bitchy escalator but by the end of the story entire buildings are coming to life and attacking other buildings with entire musical concertos compressed into a couple of seconds of devastating sound. That is the level of madness we are dealing with here. It would have been a horrible mess too if this was in the hands of a lesser director but Handcock has a delicate handle on how to bring this to life, with absolute seriousness, with superbly timed jokes hitting their mark throughout. By the end of the story where Vienna is cleverly using the logic of the competition against the villain and manipulates the villain into exposing just what an asshole he is, I was cheering. Throughout I was laughing at the smart jokes and biting commentary. And the soundscape on this one is just extraordinary. If Douglas Adams was to write a Big Finish script, it would be very like this one. Devastatingly cruel to corporate greed, hilariously characterising the strangest of people and putting the leads front and centre and allowing them to smart and silly and brilliant. If you are looking for a more realistic sort of audio then you are going to look elsewhere (but then I would question why you are listening to the adventures of a busty space assassin) but if you're here for a great time with some quirky set pieces, unforgettable dialogue and most of all a chance to truly laugh at some of the most absurd television that exists out there then you are in for a treat with this one. Confident as hell, and absolutely insanely enjoyable listening: 10/10 

Impossibly Glamorous by Steve Lyons: A step down from the previous adventure but that was so good that was perhaps inevitable, but this is still a very decent end to the set and climax to the overall narrative. Any story that features Sophie Aldred camping it up as a corporate monster that is exploiting the reverse engineered Good Day drug to make millions from a depressed population cannot be a bad listening experience, and I love how the set makes Vienna and Jexie heroes by exposing the monstrousness of holding back on marketing and producing something that could make such a positive impact on this society. It's doing what the second series did, making Vienna a force for good, but with far less labyrinthine plotting and engineered twists, and thus making it feel like a more fluidic piece of storytelling. Like Big Society there is an attack on big business and how it exploits people when it could help them, and I couldn't agree more with what it is saying. The first half of this story is a little confusing and perhaps a little too comedic for its own good. There was a ton of running about and a quick succession of gags that felt a little too farcical but the whole piece rouses in the second half as Vienna emerges from her deceit to claim the day. I can't say this enough but I had a lot of fun with this and the more I am exploring the spin off ranges of Big Finish, the more I am coming to the conclusion that that is where the most original and enjoyable material is to be found. Doctor Who comes with a wealth of nostalgia and clich├ęs but that is a finite pool of creativity. Brilliant writers like Guy Adams and James Goss are finding their voice elsewhere where they can be truly original. Vienna series three really surprised me at just how very good it is. Not because I wouldn't expect that from these writers but because I wouldn't expect to find this much talent in such a niche range. Bravo: 7/10

Friday 11 November 2022


Faustian by Robert Valentine: I'll be honest, I went into this with HUGE expectations. You cannot understand the level of devotion for the TV Movie that goes on in this house. Mark and I once acted out the entirety of the Movie in a hotel room, I got Daphne Ashbrook to do a cameo appearance and our long held ambition is to head to San Francisco (or Vancouver) and visit the locations of the film. So the idea that this set features Eric Roberts' unforgettably camp and outrageous Master has his main star is enticing from the off. Add in Vienna Salvatori, who we both adore from her own Big Finish spin off series (which I previously mentioned is far, far better than it has any right to be) and you have a level of flamboyance from the off that is hard to imagine. Basically imagine if Doctor Who was hijacked by Americans in the most entertaining way possible. I thought I was in for a fall. Surprisingly, this was a delight to listen to. The entire set and the individual stories. You're in very safe hands with Robert Valentine opening the set and as a story in its own right, this is probably the best of the set. The key word is suspense. We're all waiting for Eric Roberts to turn up and start chewing the scenery and Rob makes us wait an agonising amount of time before that happens but when he does finally emerge it is a fantastic takeover bid of the entire planet Earth. It's great. Before then, and this is what I think is the most impressive aspect of the series, this corner of Earth history is carved out in some detail and it is not a desirable place to be. The previous Dalek invasions have weakened governments and resources and the Corporations have taken over. It's a smart reading on the consequences of The Dalek Invasion of Earth & To the Death and proves a dramatic backdrop to the series. It means the Master doesn't need to take over the planet through brute force, but through business. His takeover bid is through a Company, rather than an Army. The script cleverly tells its story through one character, Lila Kreeg, and I was certain that at some point she was going to see the error of her ways and pull back from the experiments that could free the Master. Instead her Faustian pact with the Devil becomes a marriage of minds and promises much for the remaining two stories. This is a deliciously creepy opening gambit, really well paced and with a final ten minutes that we have all been waiting for. The icing on the cake is Eric Roberts himself. I don't want to damn him with faint praise by saying that he can't be arsed to give a performance...but there is a certain lazy indifference about how he plays every line. If this had been a role that demanded huge presence he might have been in a bit of trouble but the script and production has done so much to give him such an identity that when he shows up and starts murdering people and toppling business giants sounding like this is all a bit beneath him...well he couldn't sound more cool. This isn't a Master who is going to enjoy killing you, he's going to be a bit bored by it. Somehow that is effortlessly cool, and chilling: 9/10

Prey by Robert Whitelock: Enter Vienna. I've heard some complaints that people don't want these two spin offs colliding and would rather than something more original was done with the Master than prop up another range. That's fair but what works against that argument is the story itself, which uses both Vienna and the Master in such a fun way as they play a game of cat and mouse with each other. Vienna has been hired to kill the Master and how they are constantly outsmarting each other is a delight to listen to. The big mystery is who paid her to do it and that is satisfactorily paid off too. Taking the baton from the first episode, this story also continues to explore the Earth in this miserable dystopian future and we head into the Undercity where the people forage like rats and play their own festering game of politics. Huge kudos to Chase Masterson who owns the character of Vienna at this point and has really turned her into a fun and thoughtful character. Her scenes with the drone are the highlight of this story; funny and ultimately rather touching. She brings an energy and humour to the story, as does Eric Roberts and their scenes together really sizzle. I listened to this on a 90 minute train journey into London this week and I enjoyed it so much it felt like I was there in no time. The cliffhanging ending will leave you hungry for part three: 8/10

Vengeance by Matt Fitton: I've been burnt in the past by a Matt Fitton written finale but this turned out to be an extremely satisfying and enjoyable finale. It feels very Big Finish to bring the Master and the Daleks together and I expected little but enormous dollops of fanwank and nods to the past. What I got was a lot more substantial than that. There's Vienna, Lila, Drake and the Master all offering surprises and character reversals. It's a small cast of characters but they have all ben set up so well it affords a number of twists (I wasn't sure who could trust who halfway through this) that I didn't see coming. Masterson continues to shine and is often given the best lines and this really shows Vienna at her improvisional best having to negotiate a Dalek invasion and the Master's attempts to see her off. Then there is the delicious idea of the Daleks choosing to invade the Earth when the Master is currently in charge and the carnage that comes with him taking them down. Nicholas Briggs offers his best Dalek performance in years as the Dalek Litigator - a role I thought was absurdly uncharacteristic for the Daleks (why would they need a legal system when they just go around killing people) but actually turned out to be a fantastically devious and smart character who was a joy to listen to. And it suddenly hit me that the Movie starts with the Master on trial by the Daleks, which everybody lamented at the time, but Fitton turns into a strength here. The scenes where the Master confronts the Litigator are the best of the set and Roberts finally wakes up to explain why the Master wants to take over the entire universe. The Litigator's reaction is genuinely hilarious. I finished listening to this set and felt gorged on action, suspense, high campery and wit. The guest cast all impressed and surprised, and the setting really came alive. Chalk this up as ANOTHER Master series that Big Finish has aced: 8/10

The Eighth of March

Emancipation written by Lisa McMullin: Let me say first off all that I think this box set is a marvellous idea. To celebrate the women of Doctor Who in both fictional and a creative terms is a wonderful idea (although I still think a lack of Jacqueline Rayner and Lisa Bowerman in the writing and directing is a baffling omission) and the cover promises that is going to be a rousing set with the likes of Leela, River, Kate Stewart, Ace and Benny at the helm of these stories. Nurturing female talent is something that Big Finish has been criticised for in the past because the opening years of the company were very much a Boys club but fortunately the tide has turned and we are at a point now where with pretty much every set that the company brings out that there is a female voice in there somewhere. So far, so good. But you know when I have to start with a caveat like that that something has gone horribly wrong with the set itself. The Eighth of March, celebrating National Women's Day, is probably the least impressive release I have heard in some time and whilst there are some moments of fun to be had the overall experience is one I would not care to repeat. Emancipation has some energy and wit about it but this pairing of River Song and Leela is a little jarring. I'm fast coming to the conclusion that River brings the worst out in everybody. Posing as the Doctor (of course), she attends the Galactic Heritage Conference and prevents a Royal kidnapping with Leela at her side. They dance around each other, initially suspicious, but ultimately coming to see each others strengths in a dashabout timey wimey adventure that genuinely feels as though it has leapt from Steven Moffat's Doctor Who. Maybe that is why I wasn't so keen. There is a smugness and overconfidence to this. It behaves as though it is City of Death. Really it is more The Android Invasion. There are funny lines, and Kingston and Jameson acquit themselves well, but like so much of the River set it feels like bringing in classic elements of the show to get somebody to listen to River. Disposable fun: 6/10

The Big Blue Book by Lizzie Hopley: Or when everything that could go wrong with an audio adventure does go wrong. I'm not sure where to start with the bad. The one thing you should never do with your audio script is to give Sophie Aldred protracted scenes of dialogue talking to herself. I have found her to be a notoriously unreliable performer and this explains why. She's shouting her head off, awkward, unnaturalistic and has no idea of how to pace the dialogue so the audience feels as though they are solving the mystery with her. Why, when you have other characters (and better characters like Bernice), you would have your protagonist talking to herself for over ten minutes baffles me. Lisa Bowerman is conspicuous by her absence (was she originally supposed to be in this more?) and her time is eaten up by a pair of alien characters so annoying, so ill characterised and so badly performed that is difficult to see how such characters could come to be. Surely somebody would have told the actors to tone it down a bit? They screech and hiss their way through the terrible dialogue with baby voices in a really unpleasant way. Next up is the sound design and music, which are probably the worst I have heard in a while. The very least you can expect from Big Finish is a polished production but this feels like it has come out of the early days of the company with ugly, unpleasant music and sound effects so loud and discordant that I was constantly taken out of the story trying to figure out what was going on. At one point there is some very loud ticking - a clock or a bomb? Beats me. Nigel Fairs recently bombed a couple of the Vienna releases and is similarly ineffective here. Lastly, the script. Hopely is a proven talent elsewhere so goodness what went wrong here. The story confines itself to a library and a spaceship where Ace tries to figure out the mystery of what has happened to Bernice. The trouble is it is all done through a long series of questions, confrontations and exposition that never once sounds like words that people would actually say aloud. There's a good idea buried inside this story somewhere (people being turned into books) but it is thrown away because it is never explored imaginatively. Just lots of shouty scenes of people threatening each other. This was so bad that I was longing for it to be over. I cannot believe that anybody signed off this story for release. Let alone for a celebratory release like this. The rarest of things, an audio entirely without merit: 0/10  

Inside Every Warrior by Gemma Langford: Much better, but far from perfect. As a backdoor pilot for The Paternoster Gang I thought this was a really effective little piece. I've never been too enamoured with this set up - mostly because they are a bit of a one joke lash up and the joke was flogged to death over and over again on the TV series. Vastra and Jenny are a crime fighting couple with their comedy Sontaran stooge at their side. I thought they were most effective in The Crimson Horror where the show forgets for 20 minutes that it is Doctor Who at all and instead pretends it is a macabre horror series about this trio. Kudos to Langford then, who took this set up and dragged some emotion out of it. By the end of the story I felt that Vastra and Jenny were genuinely in love (rather than a political point, which is how the series often portrayed them) and just why they keep Strax around. On a character level, this really worked. The story, however, lacked any interest. Plenty of running around and kidnappings, an annoying turn from Nigel Fairs (not a strong set for him), and a lack of any serious engagement. At least there was the Victorian London setting that the sound designer could home in on to make this an atmospheric experience and the music, while distracting (it was really trying to push the jolly adventure tone) was a million times more enjoy able the previous story. It whetted my appetite for the Paternoster set, which I never foresaw: 5/10

Narcissus: The best of this set belongs to the UNIT team and given my allergic reaction to the only UNIT set that I have heard so far, that was unexpected. This script is everything that Extinction wasn't: focussed, engaging and well paced. It's lovely to hear Jackie McGee back for more fun and her part in the investigation of the dating agency revealed new colours to her character. I'm not sure how far into the UNIT series this is but Jemma Redgrave seems much more at home playing Kate Stewart on audio and Ingrid Oliver (always fantastic) gets a chance to play both Osgood and her Zygon double in some fascinating scenes about identity and how that can get skewered when there are two of you about. The plot rattles along with some nice surprises and whilst the resolution is nothing revelatory, the whole piece feels like a confident audio drama being created by a company that is a well oiled machine. Unlike the rest of this set. I'm pleased we ended on a strong note: 7/10