Friday, 15 January 2021

VOY – Child’s Play


Plot – Of all the plotlines to pick up and run with on Voyager, they went with the Borg children. I’m not here to discourage this show from flirting with serialisation again though and it is a terrific step in the right direction to see real consequences, both emotional and plot wise, on this show. I don’t care that that makes Voyager something a soap opera – here it is a sad day when they let go off their little broodling of Borg and almost lose Icheb to his parents – but the best of TNG, DS9 and Voyager has often been grounded in character like this.

The episode does a fantastic job of presenting us with the story of Icheb’s parents and how they lost him, characterising them in a realistic way, exploring his tentativeness about returning and dealing with Seven’s inevitable loss. It is so convincing it feels that halfway through the episode we might be able to close this one down at about the half an hour point. So, when the twist comes it feels like a real knife to the gut because we have been entirely hoodwinked by the previous half and hour of gentle and probing drama. It’s expertly done.

Character – After his introductory episode I wouldn’t have thought that Icheb would go on to be one of the standout characters of the season but this episode goes a long way towards achieving that. I love that instead of thinking like a child for his science project, he dares to create something that could potentially make Voyager a safer and more sophisticated craft on its journey through the Delta Quadrant.

Performance – Any episode that asks Jeri Ryan to look longingly just off camera and emote is in luck as she is genuinely one of the finest actresses the franchise ever had the fortune to dish up. Fortunately (because this is not always the case in series six and seven) it is paired with a dramatic and satisfying script this week and Seven gets to make one more step closer to humanity. Bringing the Borg children on board and having Seven look after them means that now she is in a maternal role, and this is the episode the shows those strings being cut and has her experience the loss of losing a child. Powerful stuff, but Ryan plays it with restraint for the most part which makes it more effective and then with some furious injustice towards the end of the episode. She’s quite magnificent. This is all rolled up engagingly in Seven’s backstory where she was separated from her parents through some quite questionable decisions on their part…which makes Seven even more unwilling to let go of Icheb and even more determined to get him back when it turns out that he has been utilised in a similarly thoughtless way by his parents. This is great character growth, and I don’t often say that on this show.

Mark Sheppard and Tracey Ellis are superbly cast as Icheb’s parents. If you’re going to try and do this sort of sleight of hand well then you need actors of some ability to pull off the emotional material before revealing who they really are. Manu Intiraymi gives a solid performance in this episode. Like Ryan in series four, he’s trying to show a character who has had all of his individuality stripped away but is trying to find his voice again. He does that by coming across a little robotically but that isn’t a criticism of his acting, I think it is a conscious choice. Certainly, in series seven he would start to explore more emotions.

Great Dialogue –
‘Bred to kill Borg?’

Production – Wowzas, despite the slightly dated CGI, Voyager manages to pull of the visual of a colony on the edge of extinction with an enormous hole gouged out of it by the Borg. What is so striking about it is that it isn’t a visual that is added for dramatic value like the teaser of The Best of Both Worlds Part I, it is just an establishing shot that tells the history of the colony dynamically whilst adding some real atmosphere to the story. I would expect nothing less of Mike Vejar, he was the king of adding striking visuals even when the script doesn’t demand them.

Best moment – I practically get a hard on when Janeway and Seven get serious with each other and I am in no way attracted to either of them. They are just so strong when they are in conflict and the argument over whether Icheb should remain with his parents or not is on one of their greatest moments.

I wish they hadn’t done that – The only moment that really jars is that the rather important plot point that Icheb was on a ship when he was assimilated comes after he has left to be with his parents. If it had come any sooner than the story could not have played out as it did because Seven would have had a reason to investigate that discrepancy.

A reason to watch this episode again – If they were going to kill off Icheb in a grisly fashion, then this was the episode to do it in. His eventual fate was entirely unjust, especially after the sort of ending he could have gotten here. Child’s Play is a superb episode of Voyager and precisely the sort of thing they needed to be doing in the sixth season when they were the lone voice of the franchise. A meaty story with a great twist, pulling together some well crafted character continuity (Seven) to inform some touching development (their mother/son relationship, which is really cemented at the end of this). Add in some marvellous direction and music and the sort of location work that only Star Trek with its impressive budget can pull off and you have a top dollar episode that is surrounded by some real mediocrity in the latter half of this season. If they were all like this and Muse, perhaps fans would have been crying out for more seasons. Jeri Ryan is particularly strong and I never fail to be impressed by how much emotion can be sifted from her restraint (she reminds me of Rene Auberjonois, but I would be hard pressed to tell you who was the better actor). Finally, Mark Sheppard turns up in Star Trek so he can put every single cult TV show on his resume (Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, etc). I love the fact that it looks like the kids are staying and Icheb is leaving, when the show takes precisely the opposite direction. The twist when it comes is a real surprise and the last act has some real fire about it. This really is a forgotten gem.

****/12 out of *****

Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Nimon Be Praised! Discuss The Colin Baker Doctor (TV & Big Finish)


The Nimon Be Praised! Discuss The Colin Baker Doctor (TV & Big Finish) 

Set sail to the mid 80s with Jack and Joe as they tackle the most controversial of Doctors. Was he an ambitious failure on television? Did Big Finish successfully salvage his reputation? And which Nimon picks Colin as his favourite Doctor? 

1hr9m - Chris Chapman’s Scorched Earth is discussed 

1hr14m - Paul Magrs & Steve Cole’s The Wormery is discussed 

1hr25m - Nev Fountain’s Peri & the Piscon Paradox is discussed 

1hr39m Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts’ The One Doctor is discussed 

Marvellous stories all!

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

TNG – Descent Part I

Plot – Borg with names, laser weapons and fighting hand to hand combat feels instantly wrong and uncomfortably like this species are being taken in the wrong direction. Whilst I applaud Ron Moore’s attempt to do something completely different with the species, in doing so he has forgotten everything that made them so effective in the first place. It reminds me of Steven Moffat’s efforts with the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. Every time he brings them back he tries to innovate them in some way and every time we see them again they become less scary and less effective than they once were. The Borg of Q Who? were terrifying, unknowable and relentless. They were truly a force to be reckoned with. Now they are just like people with standard weapons, individual personalities and a less than impressive fascistic leader. None of this is a shift in their favour.

The trouble with TNG at this point is that it running on empty a little bit. Voyager was having exactly the same problem at the end of its sixth season but at least it had some kind of continuing narrative with the Borg that was trying to weave into the fabric of the show. TNG has had six years now where the show has bounced from one story to the next and built up quite a picture of the Alpha Quadrant. The problem is it hasn’t tried to do anything particularly innovative narrative wise with those building blocks. So here we about to head into the last season of the show there is a suggestion that Lore is attempting to create a new race of Borg to bring down the Federation. It’s not exactly compellingly presented but it is a bold idea (albeit total fanwank) and if the show had grabbed hold of that as the premise of the final year and had an ongoing narrative in place dealing with this new threat we might have had a show with real focus. Instead it is another idea that is tossed up in the air and completely dismissed at the beginning of season seven. In comparison, DS9 is firing on all cylinders at the end of season six (the invasion of Cardassia, the death of Jadzia, the destruction of the wormhole) with an episode that has devastating consequences for the final year. I don’t understand why this show (which had the capacity) wasn’t making bolder creative decisions like that. The one positive here is Picard’s decisions regarding Hugh being questioned and criticised. It’s about time somebody took him to task about that.

A fleet of fifteen Starships to take on the Borg. Fifteen? I’m glad those shipyards are at full capacity before the Dominion War.

Character – The idea of Data experiencing negative emotions is a really interesting one, but something that would become a bit of a crux (and not a positive one) in the movies. However, at this point it is a fascinating exercise, especially when the consequence of his anger is to murder and attack. He’s technically one of the strongest lifeforms in Starfleet and so the thought that he might enjoy inflicting harm on people is quite a tense one. The suggestion that Data has been looking at extreme pornography to try and turn himself on is amusing, although I am pleased that we never got to watch those exploratory scenes. Brent Spiner really leaps on the opportunity to show real emotion after repressing them for the past six years. He’s typically excellent.

Picard’s anger about the Borg remains one of the best things about TNG, and shows that Roddenberry’s approach to characters in the future is a flawed one because he did not want ‘perfect’ humans to experience negative emotions like anger or hatred. And yet this is the best of Patrick Stewart’s performance as Picard; that fear of assimilation, his shame at committing murder and his newfound anger towards a species that used him as an instrument of war. It only comes up in one scene here (it is far more pronounced in I, Borg) but it is just as riveting.

Performance – Brent Spiner is superb in this. He has been given the chance to emote before on the show but never the chance to show such a range of powerful emotions. He proves to be quite sinister when that childlike fa├žade drops and he gets to play angry. This is his chance to cut loose and play human in a way that he never has done before. Season seven would see these opportunities come up time and again – and with a frequent misunderstanding of how the character works. Masks is an especially egregious example, and the movies would take it to an absolute extreme.

Great Dialogue – ‘Not the apple story again’ moans Stephen Hawking as he is forced to listen to Newton bang on about his achievements in science in a very witty opening that sees Data playing poker with some of the greatest scientific minds that the human race has ever conjured up. It does go to show just how frivolous the show has become at this point because there is little plot or character point to this frippery but that doesn’t really matter when the resulting scene is as enjoyable as this. ‘The Uncertainty Principle will not help you now, Stephen’ chides Einstein as he is about to clean Hawking out.

Production – When the Away Team beam down to the output and discover the crew manning the outpost dead I was surprised by the lack of tension, atmosphere and, well, blood that was on display. Alexander Singer (whose praises I sang recently for his direction of The Adversary) directs this with a casual abandon that surprises me. We’ve seen scenes like this play out countless times over TNG’s last six seasons and there have been times when it has been terrifying (think exploring the Borg Cube). Even the shock appearance of the Borg is wasted and lacks punch. It’s like opening a cupboard and finding a child standing there playing a game. The aesthetic of the entire episode is so spotless and bloodless. TNG needed to get a lot dirtier.

Worst moment – The cliffhanger. Once upon a time TNG dared to suggest that it would kill off the Captain at the hands of the First Officer and send a mighty fleet of Borg ships to sector 001 and invade the Earth. It was insidious and dramatic and unforgettable. Now, the show is pushing camp to a new level by having Brent Spiner play the super villain and command his own army of dreary robots. ‘The Sons of Soong have come together…and together we will destroy the Federation.’ He’s even made Data sound like a dreary super villain.

A reason to watch this episode again – You’ve got two plots in play in Descent and one is infinitely more interesting and less embarrassing than the other. Data’s newfound anger manages to create some tension and uncomfortable moments that befit a season finale and capitalises on the chemistry between the crew that is the best of this show. The return of Lore and his new collection of individual Borg drones is standard science fiction drivel of the sort that TNG would normally avoid (or at least portray to such a pretentious level that it would elevate the b movie ideas to something resembling drama) and it leaves the season on a particularly sour note that this is how we are heading into the final season. I have said before that TNG hit its zenith with the climax of season three and every subsequent finale is worse that the last after that. This is the one of the weakest of all because it does have some potential but the writer and director seem to squander any attempt to create tension, excitement or drama and instead this leaps from one functional plot point to another until the episode throws in a truly schlocky cliffhanger at the last minute. Descent is not TNG’s finest hour and it has taken the one truly terrifying element of this show (the Borg) and reduced them to a bit of a joke. There’s no momentum or pace to any of this, no real drama. It feels like TNG has lost its pulse.

** out of *****

Monday, 4 January 2021

Subterfuge written by Helen Goldwyn and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: London, 1945. Winston Churchill campaigns for re-election. His new strategic adviser assures him that Britain has a bright future under his continued leadership. It’s a vote he can’t possibly lose. But the Doctor knows that he must. The Monk is meddling, altering history for his own selfish ends. With spies and aliens in the mix, Winston realises victory may not be so simple. But at least he can trust his old friend... can’t he?

The Real McCoy: ‘It was all going so well until you showed up’ could be levelled at pretty much every Doctor. Maybe that’s what should be written on his gravestone. There’s a lovely little arc here that sees the Doctor being welcomed by Churchill at the beginning of the story and condemned by him at the end. He’s irresistibly drawn to Churchill throughout his lives. The Doctor knew immediately that the Monk was involved but waits, patiently, until they are alone until he deploys that low purr of his to threaten him away (the Monk isn’t impressed, he calls the Doctor theatrical). This story puts the Doctor in the interesting position of trying to protect somebody he considers a friend (Churchill) whilst objecting to his politics and actively trying to sabotage his career for the good of the nation (and history, and to defeat the Monk). I have been critical of Sylvester McCoy’s ‘in pain’ acting on audio for what feels like my entire life and so it pleases me to report that here, right as the Main Range is dwindling down, he has finally convinced me. The end of episode three is quite discomforting because McCoy’s screaming sounds utterly authentic. When the Doctor’s part in Churchill’s downfall is revealed he has to face the music. He tries to explain that what he did was for the greater good, but for Churchill it is the ultimate betrayal. It’s very nicely underplayed, and a very dramatic closing scene.

Churchill: A far more reasonable depiction of Churchill than we have seen in the past. I object to the cuddly Uncle persona that was wheeled out in Victory of the Daleks (one of many things to object about in that story). Goldwyn wants to write a man with integrity and ambition but doesn’t forget that he could also be sexist, racist and a thoroughly objectionable man in his own right. He’s written to be completely out of touch with the times and pushing against the sort of progressive thinking that the country needs to prosper in a post war environment. But he’s also written as a man who absolutely has faith in his beliefs, who has warmth towards his friends and genuinely wants to protect his country. I’m not sure if this is in line with either the television or previous Big Finish versions of the character, but it is the most responsible and acceptable I have come across yet.

The Monk: Saunders has been Churchill’s advisor since the start of the election campaign and he’s been quite the fresh perspective. He’s been fine tuning policies, emphasising nation concerns rather than international ones (I’m sure that would be right up Churchill’s street). He threatens to murder Churchill if the Doctor opens his trap and exposes him. He wants rid of the social reforms that the opposition are touting, much to the Doctor’s disgust. When the Monk says that the welfare state gets off to a good start (implying that long term it is not tenable) it is hard to argue with him at the point we are now with poor government backing. He sighs that there is always some kind of war going on on Earth. Sob stories don’t really do it for him. Goldwyn gives the Monk his own cliffhanger, which is only reserved for very special villains (the Master in The Daemons). When he asks what he wants he boils it down to money, power, respect and the satisfaction of a job well done. My own personal take on the Monk is that he was always considered a bit of a joke and looked down upon. He’s the ultimate awkward child that never fitted in. That’s why he tinkers with time; to prove that he can make a difference, to stick a finger up at Time Lord law and to show that he was worth paying attention to. He’s clever but he’s also socially backwards.

Standout Performance: Ah Ian McNiece. Unmistakable. Indomitable. Utterly reliable. I love the mix of McCoy at his most still and menacing and Hound at his most energetic and silly. You’ve got a Doctor who is trying to take all of this very seriously and a Monk who refuses to, whilst having a plan up his sleeve the whole time. It’s a marvellous contrast.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Those liberal principles will go horribly awry’ ‘It depends on your point of view.’
‘This namby pamby goodytwoshoes let’s make everyone equal nonsense doesn’t work. You know that. All beings are not created equal. Look at us – we’re Time Lords! We’ve got the right to make these decisions’ ‘A sense of entitlement is not a qualification’ ‘Societies work better in the long run with clear social strata’ ‘Rich and poor, strong and weak’ ‘Carrots and sticks’ ‘The needier people are, the more helpless and hopeless, the easier they are to control.’ This is a wonderful moment when the Monk and the Doctor battle over the right to mess with the natural order of things. He tries to explain to the Monk that interfering with the timeline always has consequences that you cannot foresee but he might as well be barking at a brick wall. The Monk has watched humanity make the same idiotic mistakes over and over again and abjectly, iditotically failing to evolve. You can see the problem, they’re both right. It’s unusual for a writer to try and get under the skin of the Monk like this and to justify his actions (without apologising for them) and Goldwyn manages that without halting the flow of the story. Get her in touch with Chibnall, will you.

Great Ideas: This story wastes no time in setting up the key players; Churchill, the Monk and the Doctor are all in orbit of each other before the pre-credits sequence has finished. A spaceship crashed three years before the Second World War (‘rubbish timing’ says the Monk) and they have been trying to repair it and escape ever since. Setting the story in the 1945 election is a triumphant move because it was such a shocking moment in history. The Conservative Party thought they were onto a winner on the back of the triumphant defeat of the Germans but in fact were handed a bludgeoning by the Labour Party, their first outright majority in Parliament. It was proof that you cannot coast on popularity alone. Subterfuge is set before the election, with a Time Lord on either side of Churchill trying to tip the result.

Isn’t it Odd: This is nothing to do with the story itself but given it seems that I have a little rant on every release I review these days I thought why make this one any different? It took me over an hour to try and choose which story to purchase and review next. Over an hour. It reminded me of how much of Big Finish’s immense back catalogue that I will probably never get around to and given that I am a crazed completist and started this blog to try and review everything that Big Finish brought out (trust me that was a lot easier 15 years ago) that doesn’t sit too well with me. Has Big Finish brought out too much, saturated the market and frightened off potential new listeners with their heft back catalogue of adventures? Unless you are extremely well off I would suggest that keeping up with everything is a scarcity that only a few bold people (with a lot of time on their hands) would attempt. Most, like me, are probably picking and choosing according to their taste. I wouldn’t miss a Colin; I’ll review all of the main range to its demise and most of the stuff produced by Scott Handcock I will check out at some point (his is the benchmark for quality as far as this output is concerned). There is too much, that is what I am saying in a roundabout way, and they are overloading genuinely fantastic writers with a heavy workload that stretches their talent thin at times. I’ve noticed fresh blood seeping into the peripheral ranges, and pleasingly a stronger female presence in the creative team and one thing I will say that is absolutely in Big Finish’s favour is that they have allowed writers, actors, and sound designers to continue working creatively in the 2020 pandemic. And I am certain their output has kept people entertained and occupied when they have been stuck at home. So less of a rant and more of a balanced opinion about Big Finish. They are the reason this blog exists, and they have given me more pleasure than practically any other avenue of Doctor Who. But they have also over saturated the audio market and the quality of the product has lessened as a result. Take of all this what you will. Where are you with Big Finish?

Standout Scene: It should be one of the big hitting scenes like the Doctor threatening the Monk when he suggests he will assassinate Churchill or Churchill’s reaction when he realises the Doctor has been working against him…but I’m going to go for something far less predictable. There’s a lovely narrative thread running through this about a spy trapped behind enemy lines, stealing art treasures, trying to get rich and giving the British a bloody nose whilst doing so. It’s quite subtly done compared to the fireworks elsewhere but there are some really pleasant scenes of the Doctor and Churchill smarting out this mystery together that are fantastically well written. These scenes of investigation can be very dry and dull but Goldwyn makes them charming, well-reasoned and very enjoyable to listen to. Sometimes it isn’t the powerhouse scenes you have to get right (because those big confrontations sometimes write themselves) but all the connecting material that can pale into insignificance in companion. Not so here.

Result: ‘In essence, everyone was double crossing everyone else!’ Helen Goldwyn is a writer and director that I always get excited about; somebody who writes with wit and warmth and economy and directs with energy, humour and pace. Whichever end of the production she is focussed on, you can pretty much rely that it is going to be worth a listen. Here she opts to remove the Doctor’s companions altogether and sets him up with Churchill and Meddling Monk, who is cheekily acting as a Conservative political advisor. See, already you’re already intrigued. The pacing of Subterfuge is excellent, and Goldwyn knows to introduce a twist in the tale at least once an episode. The Monk is trying to ensure Churchill wins the 1945 election and the Doctor is trying to make sure he loses, and it takes an ambiguous stand on which is a good or a bad thing (although we are supposed to back the Doctor so you could absolutely read this as anti-Churchill). This is the best performance that Sylvester McCoy has given since Muse of Fire and proves that if the material is up to scratch that he can still deliver the goods. I was starting to wonder. His chemistry with McNiece and Hound is excellent and he gets several beautifully written moments of antipathy with both of them. When the seventh Doctor is angry, be scared. The Big Finish Monk has always been more morally questionable than the one on TV (remember when he sold out the human race to the Daleks and had three of the Doctor’s friends murdered?) and whilst Hound veers on the wrong side of clownish at times, this is another antagonistic and nasty portrayal of the man. He’s unpredictable and unpleasant and shares some of Churchill’s more questionable ideas. Garden’s Monk tried to justify his actions, he wanted approval. Hound’s Monk is much more honest with himself. This reminded me a bit of The Mark of the Rani. No wait, hear me out. It’s three giants of Doctor Who, all pitted against one another, some terrific extended dialogue scenes and lots of double crossing. With a period backdrop to keep things visually (aurally) interesting and a science fiction subplot. I was only going to listen to half of this today and come back to but I was so compelled I listened through. It feels like the Main Range is starting to find its feet right at the point the plug was pulled. This really is excellent Doctor Who, and a timely reminder to a prickly old cynic like me of just how good Big Finish can be: 9/10

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Revolution of the Daleks written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Lee Haven Jones

Oh Brilliant: ‘I was in prison for being me…right at the point where I wasn’t sure what that meant’ The prison scenes, besides being full of fun cameos and being incredibly well shot, have a twofold character purpose. The time incarcerated gives Whittaker’s Doctor to come to terms with the huge revelations that were hurled at her in the previous episode. Perhaps she hasn’t even tried to escape – we see no evidence of that here – as she tackles with the huge issue of her identity. So, we can then skip into the next season with this 19 year ponder from the Doctor and it doesn’t feel as though she hasn’t given the idea a chance to sink in. Also, in character terms it means we get to see how the companions cope without the Doctor and revealing some do much better than others. It would take the work of someone with an ice-cold heart to not smile at the sequence where the Doctor and Jack break out of prison together. It feels like old times and Whittaker and Barrowman look great together (I looked over at my partner during this sequence and he was grinning from ear to ear). He face when he suggest that she doesn’t want to know how he smuggled the vortex manipulator into the prison is priceless. The look on the Doctor’s face when it is clear that Ryan wants to leave is telling. She can’t hold onto these people forever. They have their own lives to lead. Whilst locked away she keep thinking that if she isn’t who she thinks she is then who is she? Her nuclear option solution is suicide and I love that this Doctor is willing to think dangerously and outside the box. What we needed at this point (after an episode that told us that everything we know about the Doctor is basically a lie) is a demonstration that she is still the same person that she always was. The Doctor herself was unsure what that meant anymore but realises the second she hears the word Dalek exactly who she is. There's nothing more Doctorish than materialising the TARDIS in the skies above the Earth around a bunch of massacring Daleks and taunting them to kill her, whilst having a plan up her sleeve to be rid of them all. 

Captain Beefcake: Jack’s back and it is like he has never been away. Should there have been more ceremony and the story revolve entirely around him or is it better that he simply walks back into the series as if he owns the place? I prefer the latter because Jack has never been lacking in confidence and what this does so effectively is tie this iteration of the show seamlessly with the Russell T Davies era (almost as if the Moffat stuff had never happened). He can drop references to Rose and Gwen and his death, he can handle the Daleks, flirt with Graham, advise Yaz and joke with the Doctor. It’s a very enjoyable turn from a character that simply fits this version of the show like a glove. Barrowman might think he is God’s gift to Doctor Who in public but within the show he gives all the other actors their space to do their thing and understands he is there to provide energy, jokes and a little sexual tension.

The Fam: What’s surprising is that this episode is more about how Yaz wasn’t coping with the Doctor’s absence than it was about Ryan was. Given that this was his finale episode, it felt a little remiss to not show just how well he was adapting to life back on Earth rather than just having him tell us. However, the scenes of Yaz pouring over data in the other TARDIS vividly depicts her distressed state of mind at the thought of losing the Doctor, and Mandip Gill plays those scenes with an energetic frustration. We saw back in Can You Hear Me that her mental state can be very fragile and her sudden, sharp wrench away from the woman she clearly has plenty of feeling for, and the life of adventuring, activates her anxieties. It’s some of the most interesting scenes we have seen with the character so I hope this is going somewhere. She’s not ready to let go, she’s sleeping in the TARDIS. Is Yaz in love with the Doctor? It would certainly seem that way when her reaction to being separated from her for 10 months is to shove her violently away (that’s a great moment of tension) and then looking away in disbelief. The conversation between her and Jack feels very much like the one that Martha had with Jack in The Sound of Drums at times where we realised he loved the Doctor as much as she did. When Yaz is talking about having something and then having it taken away isn’t anything to do with the adventures, it’s about the Doctor. She explicitly says that. Interesting seeds laid for series 13.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This country can be your shop window for global sales.’
‘Can we stop there and pretend there’s no bad news.’
‘Daleks are not the pets of the Doctor.’

The Good: You’ve got hand Chibnall some credit; he’s got nuts. To parody Star Wars in the opening five seconds in such a silly way in the wake of Star Wars announcing a wealth of new spin off material and Doctor Who being scaled back in 2020 means that Chibnall is very confident in his vision of the show now.

The Specials in the past have always been unique episodes in their own right but Revolution of the Daleks, pleasingly, is a direct continuation of Resolution and picks up the pieces of that story left behind and runs with it. I loved Resolution, and this gives it even more worth. The melted down Dalek (one of the things I was a bit unsure about from the previous episode) looked really menacing in the half dark of the lorry, and the idea of using the Dalek shell and creating a hybrid drone to protect the country is a phenomenal one that beggars the question why it hasn’t been considered before. The Dalek emerging from the smoke to the mocking crowd and then subduing them suggests a much darker, more insidious kind of episode. Perhaps if this was Torchwood we could have done without the Dalek mutants altogether and had a tale of a corrupt businessman using these weaponised shells to secure power. Even better are the scenes outside Downing Street where the new security drones are rolled out publicly to ensure the security of the nation. This stuff is pure trailer fuel. Of course, the public starts taking selfies with the things. They are so absurd looking after all. The suspense here is waiting for the moment when the mutants (already revealed) are united with their mass-produced shells and the carnage begins. Talk about a PR nightmare. The introduction of the Death Squad Daleks with an impressive glide through the vortex and then swooping inside the saucer and around a squadron having a conflab is the best direction of the episode. It’s very cinematic in its intentions. The bridge scenes look awesome too; Dalek versus Dalek conflict should always be this epic. I particularly liked the shots from above where the shooting looked like a 2D video game.

I’m a sucker for a returning villain but not as much as I’m a sucker for a camp one and Robertson is turning out to be the ultimate villain of the Whittaker era. Some effort was made to tone him down in the early scenes of this episode to give the scenes where he acquires the Dalek and factory builds thousands more some gravitas but he returns to form throughout the episode and weasels his way through to the finale. It’s highly unusual for any character to rub shoulders with the Daleks like this and survive, which makes me think that Chibnall has a long game with this character. I wouldn’t have gotten rid of Harriet Walter as the new Prime Minister so quickly because the early scenes between her and Noth are quite wonderful and their relationship could have been something the show could have returned to. His reaction to the Dalek mutant is the one time where the audience can completely get on his side; he’s disgusted and thinks Leo is insane for cultivating it. Of course, his fear is that something will threaten his security Empire rather than for the protection of the human race but Noth’s performance here is still very good. He’s joyous when he struts onto the bridge and tries to make a deal with the Daleks. I was certain he was going to die at this point so imagine my surprise when he makes it out of this story alive and uses the whole exercise as a bump up the political platform.

The prison sequences ensure some fun cameos can ensue and my favourite came in the form of the gag about the Silence. That was a genuinely witty use of an old foe. Although the Angel appearance ahead of next season was useful too. And the Pting! I will never not love an appearance by these terrifying nightmares.

The Bad: Does this mean that Robertson has his people set up in roadside cafes up and down the country just in case alien artefacts are being transported? This episode is far less interested in the idea of possession by a Dalek mutant than Resolution was and so those scenes are only a fraction as effective. The direction lacks the same trippiness and it is the point where this episode starts treading a familiar path as far as the drones are concerned, turning this into you typical Dalek shootout. Chibnall has difficulty inserting his character scenes into action episodes seamlessly. The pacing is chopped up by these extended character moments. The scenes of the Daleks coming to life and killing people were directed in lots of tight shots that don’t reveal the scale of the horror. It feels like the director was having to shoot these scenes in cramped sets and couldn’t pull back because they edges would be visible. It’s an astonishingly poor last showing for Graham, who has been one of the biggest highlights of the last two seasons.

Standout Scene(s): The extended dialogue between the Doctor and Ryan in the TARDIS. It felt very like a scene between the Doctor and Victoria in Fury from the Deep where he knows that she is going to leave him and neither one them can quite say it. Now the Doctor is a woman and the companion is a man but the emotions are the same. Ryan is ready to move on and the Doctor doesn’t know how to feel about that but to thank him for being such a good friend. The performances are restrained and say so much more than the (admittedly excellent) dialogue. It is their best scene together by a country mile.

The whole sequence of the Daleks surrounding and pouring into the TARDIS in Earth’s sky. There was a time when we could only dream of action like this. Plus, Whittaker has never been more the Doctor. She’s so wonderfully caustic when revealing her plan to the captured and soon to be killed Daleks.

The hug got me at the end. Godammit.

Result: Revolution of the Daleks is everything I would expect from a New Year’s Special. There’s so much going on here and some things are handled with real dexterity and other things don’t quite come together but the overall piece is full of fun, energy, excitement and emotion. It’s a thrilling ride with some awesome set pieces and a chance to see this set of regulars have one last exciting adventure against the Daleks. It starts out as a political thriller using the Dalek blueprint in an intriguing way and those were some of the best scenes because the latter half becomes an 80s tale with Dalek civil war coming to Earth, albeit with an enormous budget to make the devastating look spectacular. Fortunately, Jodie Whittaker is waltzing through this story; confident, intelligent, commanding. The Doctor gets so many opportunities to strut her stuff in the latter half of this episode; confronting the villain of the piece, standing up to the Daleks, formulating a frankly insane and terrifying plan (she loves playing it dangerously – remember the Cyberium?) and then conniving a plan where she gets to spit bile at the racially geared Daleks and trick them in the process. Add in moments of introspection, and a devastated reaction to losing friends at the climax. She’s loving this part and she’s utterly compelling. Jack is back and as much fun as ever, not taking over as I feared he would but instead becoming a warm addition to this family. Chris Noth continues to play one of my favourite New Series villains; slimy, camp an occasionally bonkers. And the character moments for Ryan (in the TARDIS) and Yaz (with Jack) are some of the best scripted moments for this TARDIS team since they first joined the show. The pacing and direction are occasionally off kilter, but the overall effect is that of an overstuffed delight with lots of memorable scenes. Huge kudos for the moment the Daleks all fly into the TARDIS. The last ten minutes are my favourite with two companions choosing to leave the Doctor rather than being forced out through some dreadful science fiction hoops to be forced out of the TARDIS. This story might not have feature Graham and Ryan as you might have thought but their last scene together is just about perfect. Revolution of the Daleks isn’t though, but it kept me highly entertained throughout: 8/10

Monday, 28 December 2020

Genetics of the Daleks written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about:
There are 10,000 humans in stasis aboard Starship Future. Ten thousand humans expecting to wake up on a distant planet, their new home. But twenty years into their journey, Starship Future takes on board fuel – and something else. Something that’s been waiting, frozen in space, for a very long time. Something malevolent. Something with a plan. Unless the Doctor can help, it looks like the people of Starship Future have no future at all... 

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor is travelling on his own and talking to himself, as is his want when that is the case (The Face of Evil, The Deadly Assassin). If I was going to listen to any Doctor rabbiting on to himself, it’s going to be Tom Baker. Is he funny haha or funny peculiar? Either way, he’ll get his nose blown off with this overcast bunch. He’s not just the Doctor, he’s entirely the Doctor (to this he is greeted with ‘Good grief – he’s an idiot!’) and I can’t help but think that is Tom Baker talking and not the character he is playing. I’ve heard him espouse something similar at conventions. He’s acting like something of an imbecile for a chunk of this story but it completely puts the crew at ease and allows him to get on with his work. The Doctor knows that saying ‘it’s just one Dalek’ has been the famous last words of countless civilisations. A Doctor who is paralysed by a Dalek weapon is still a dangerous intelligence, but for a moment he sounds defeated. When the Dalek admits that this is not the only Doctor he has encountered (I believe the eighth Doctor met him before this), the fourth Doctor cheekily asks if he is his favourite. 

Standout Performance: In a recent discussion with my podcast partner, Jack Shanahan, he made an observation that if you are going to tell a fresh Dalek story then you have to have a new take on the Dalek voice to truly capture the audience. I think that’s a fantastic point because it worked in Dalek, The Stolen Earth (‘I fleeeeew into the time vortex!’), Victory of the Daleks (say what you will about the chubby Daleks, the voices were terrifying), Into the Dalek (it’s pathetic hum of a voice as it explores fresh ideas), and Resolution (the terrifying Dalek mutant that is clinging to Linn’s sanity). All of those voices are courtesy of Nicholas Briggs and the man deserves massive kudos in his ability to flex his vocal chords (with additional technological assistance) to portray a diverse array of Dalek characters. He’s at it again here; a foreboding, daringly gentle purr of a voice as the Dalek mutant promises Brooke all the secrets that Skaro has to offer whilst simultaneously manipulating him to his will. It works because it is almost seductive in parts, gruesomely so. 

Great Ideas: You know that this crew is in for a shock when one of their number starts taking the piss out of the Daleks. His murder was assured at this point. They want to unlock its casing and steal its technological and defensive secrets inside. Is it possible to scream YOU STUPID FOOLS at an audiobook whilst your partner is in the next room without seeming like a complete madman? What is it about this Doctor and his ability to turn up on vessels that are guarding cryogenic numbers in their thousands and facing a threat to their existence? The Dalek plans to take cells from his own body and inject them into the sleepers (essentially what Davros did to create his army in The Stolen Earth). Imagine 10,000 humans being genetically polluted and turning into Dalek mutants? 

Standout Dialogue: ‘The creatures that exist inside these cases don’t abandon them without good reason.’ ‘My Masters orders are that you be brought to him alive’ ‘They sound like excellent orders! I suggest you obey them.’ ‘Out of any good must come something evil.’ 

Audio Landscape: It is very popular in the new series for the Daleks to turn up en masse, and to have some whacko SF explanation as to how another legion of them came to be (the Emperor Dalek gave part of himself in one story, Davros in another, and goodness knows where that Parliament came from in Asylum of the Daleks…or where they went more to the point) but Genetics of the Daleks actually goes to the lengths of letting you hear the birth of a new Dalek race invade your ears. It’s really unpleasant, but it certainly drives him the idea that something truly horrific and against nature is happening. ‘They’ve all been transformed. Even the children.’ We heard about obscene things happening during the Time War. It might not be enjoyable listening, but it is authentic evidence. 

Isn’t it Odd: I need to let you in on a little secret that probably won’t enamour me to anybody reading this review but I have zero interest in the whole Time Lord Victorious Empire that is slowly being assembled. In fact, part of me feels downright cheesed off at the fact that we have a huge, multi-platform narrative being marketed to hell when we have an existing Doctor who is barely getting any attention at all. If you think this is a IHEARTJODIE rant then think again. I would feel the same if it was Capaldi still in the lead, or even Matt Smith. To bold facedly pretend that David Tennant is still the face of Doctor Who in such a dramatic way whilst merchandise for the 13th Doctor is few and far between shows a lack of faith in the BBC and their current product. It also buys into the worst excesses of the nostalgia spin off merchandise for the show; lots of Daleks, a popular Doctor, plugging continuity gaps that were left empty for a reason (they don’t really matter) that I think has plagued Big Finish and the BBC for some time now. Make a statement about Doctor Who by all means, just don’t do so by shining a torchlight on where it was over a decade ago whilst emptying the pockets of desperate fans who are eager for new content. Why the fuck are you reviewing this story then? I hear you ask. No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway. Not only is there a really rebellious part of my brain that is desperate to dip its toes into this universe just so I can say that I have…but this is a piece of work that is being put together by one of the greatest contributors to Doctor Who merchandise (James Goss), features some of the best writers and directors of Big Finish in the past 20 years (Jonathan Morris, Scott Handcock, Jamie Anderson) and honestly reading some of the blurbs of the individual stories makes me intrigued to see how they might handle those ideas. I’ve been sucked in regardless of my objection to the mindless sausage factory of nostalgia driven stories that the BBC (or Big Finish in particular) have been churning out for the last five years. I guess I am one of those idiots that will buy anything after all. The idea of a multi-platform story has legs and had never really been attempted on this scale before. Let’s see how we go. If it’s lots of Daleks screaming EXTERMINATE ad nauseum, I’m out. 

Standout Scene: ‘You will become a warrior without morality, without compassion, without mercy. The Destroyer of Worlds…’ The Dalek taunts the Doctor with future knowledge of his existence and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. This should be the most appalling fanwank, a Dalek telling the fourth Doctor that he will become a genocidal maniac called the Time Lord Victorious. Brilliantly, he laughs in the face of this information and refuses to believe a word of it. He thinks the Dalek is playing mind games. Frankly, it’s the only reasonable reaction to such an irrational notion. It’s a scene of magnetic energy, as good as the best scenes from Dalek, Into the Dalek and Resolution. 

Result: Jonathan Morris has been producing Doctor Who stories from his abundant imagination for 20 years now. I’m happy to report his work is as sharp and exhilarating as it was when he brought out the novel Festival of Death and quite took the readership of the Past Doctor Adventures by surprise in 2000. Given the prolific number of stories under his belt, that is nothing short of a miracle. He’s absolutely my favourite Big Finish writer and he’s showing no signs of fatigue. Genetics of the Daleks should have been another dreary Big Finish Dalek adventure (Generics of the Daleks is an obvious joke, but many adventures in recent years could be labelled with this title) but it takes some well-worn ideas (a smart Dalek turning greed into power, the Doctor with his finger on the button and the ability to make a dent in the driving force of the Daleks, cryogenic sleepers ripe for conversion into something horrific) and packages them in a enjoyable piece that is so economic in it’s storytelling and cast it feels urgent, important and bizarrely, original. At least in its presentation. He writes the cliches as though they are spanking new, and almost convinces you that they are. An impressive cast (including Pippa Haywood, Clive Mantle and Andrew James Spooner) bring the grungy space crew to life with some verve and Tom Baker flouts onto the scene as though he owns the place, which he does so magnificently. Not bad for a story where he has no real impact on the narrative, but much needed for the best scene of the story where he basically scoffs in the face of an idea as absurd as Time Lord Victorious. Good for you, Tom. I have no idea how this story impacts on the three Time Lord Victorious BF stories that came before this. It serves as a punchy, powerful story all on its lonesome and provides Tom Baker with a small but memorable corner of the Time War all of his own. Bollocks, this was so enjoyable I am going to have to check out some more: 8/10

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Lovecraft Invasion written by Robert Valentine and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it About: The Doctor, Constance and Flip join forces with 51st-century bounty hunter, Calypso Jonze, to hunt down the Somnifax: a weaponised mind-parasite capable of turning its host's nightmares into physical reality. Chasing it through the time vortex to Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, they arrive too late to stop it from latching onto a local author of weird fiction... Howard Phillips Lovecraft. With time running out before Lovecraft's monstrous pantheon breaks free and destroys the world, the Doctor must enter Lovecraft's mind to fight the psychic invader from within. Can he and Flip overcome the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos? And will Constance and Calypso survive babysitting the infamously xenophobic Old Gentleman of Providence himself? 

Softer Six: It strikes me we have reached such a wealth of stories featuring the Doctor and the TARDIS that if the story is not about a new companion initially coming aboard then the shock of entering the TARDIS for the first time is reduced down to about 2.5 seconds to ensure the story runs smoothly. Unlike the time when the show took an entire story to justify the madness of the concept, nowadays the Doctor ushers in somebody like Calypso Jones through the doors and just expects them to grasp it. Can you imagine which planet the Omnifrax has its greedy little creative sucking tentacles targeted on? Because the Doctor exhibits no surprise. As much as it pains the Doctor to say it, he intends to return the Somnifax to the orbital lab to perish in the explosion it escaped from. Doing good and generally having adventures is how his time with Flip and Constance is summed up. They most certain don’t invoice, saving the universe is their own reward. His reaction to Lovecraft is instant and bitter; he admits freely that he is a historical figure that he never wanted to meet. When asked if he is carrying a weapon the Doctor admits he only has his wits about him. There’s a wonderful moment where the Doctor tries to pronounce one of Lovecraft’s mad names and finds himself trying several times. We’ve all been there, Doc. Described as a cunning and resourceful trickster. The Doctor, like many people, fell in love with a body of work and then found out something disturbing about the person who created it. It makes revisiting that work a troubling experience. Childish he may be, but he’s no fool.

Constant Companion: In what must be an in-joke about Peri, Constance declares ten seconds into the story that all the corridors look the same. It might have been more interesting to explore this story from Constance’s point of view because she was dragged from a time of patriotism and a hatred for Johnny foreigner attempting to invade. Constance has terrible trouble dealing with a friend who doesn’t identify with a gender but she makes stride to drop the ‘Miss’ throughout the story.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip refuses to sit this one out, despite the Doctor’s suggestion. The Doctor and Flip have a firm conversation about Lovecraft’s racism and given they both lean to the left wing they are in complete agreement about the abhorrence of his views. How the Doctor brings in Flip and her cousin Darren at the climax made me howl with laughter. Anybody who was ensure about Flip as the sixth Doctor’s companion must surely have been won over by now? Gosh, they work well as a pair.

Standout Performance: Would it be possible for the Doctor to team up with a Bounty Hunter in the future because Robyn Holdaway gives a terrific performance as Calypso Jones, and falls in with the TARDIS crew with remarkable efficiency. Her chemistry with Miranda Raison (with whom she spends most of the story) is palpable.

Controversial Dialogue: ‘If someone does choose to read his work then they do so with the knowledge that it was written by a racist...’ This is a potentially dangerous route for Big Finish to go down because one of the writers in their back catalogue has been the central figure in a transphobia scandal. It’s something that has been explored in the past couple of years. Can the artist be separated from the art? Can you enjoy the story without ever claiming to support the storyteller? Should Harry Potter be boycotted? Are you a racist if you stick on and enjoy The Talons of Weng-Chiang? I have heard these ideas bandied about, and I have my own opinions, which I don’t care to share here not through any fear of scandal but because I don’t think there are any easy answers or broad solutions to these kinds of questions. Am I going to continue to enjoy the William Hartnell stories knowing that he was a dreadful old racist at times. I’m afraid I am. Am I getting married to a man from another country? Yes, I am. It’s sticky waters, it’s inflammatory enough to destroy friendships and breed hate amongst people and I fear (as much as I have suggested that Big Finish should be more controversial these days because they have played it safe for so long) Big Finish is better off not engaging with it. Especially if it means their own back catalogue should be boycotted as a result of the line of thinking they are encouraging. Imagine if the New Series takes on Tesla and Churchill had been this on the nose and condemning? Would those stories be better for pointing out how monstrous they could be?

Great Ideas: The Doctor is on the hunt for the Somnifax, a creature that latches onto a host and turns their darkest thoughts into a realty and turn it on the rest of the population. We better hope that it doesn’t encounter anybody with a truly warped mind… As sentient bio weapons go it is rather impressive, but monstrous. The Somnifax can weaponise reality but it is also bound by rules. By turning himself into Cthulhu he makes himself susceptible to the banishment ritual.

Isn’t it Odd: HP Lovecraft is described as a racist and all-round xenophobe and his prejudices informed his work. It’s a stunningly blunt dismissal of a man who I’m certain wasn’t somebody I would ever choose to know because of his appalling beliefs but in the wake of the BLM riots of 2020 a new, less agreeable take on the man has been injected into the story. It’s a very difficult line to navigate because in the wake of the horror that took place this year and the outcry of anger that followed, Big Finish could hardly be seen to be harbouring and celebrating somebody who was infamous for his racist views. On the other hand to tip the story so far into preaching against his xenophobia means that this is clearly a reaction of the times rather than a necessary addition to the story. It is perhaps the one and only time that Doctor Who can be said to have taken a woke lead as its driving force. I have no issue with the Doctor calling out a racist…but it does fly in the face of previous Big Finish stories where the very same Doctor has worked alongside Davros (the ultimate racist) and applauded murderers (Burke and Hare) and rubbed shoulders with a Nazi in the previous story. This is one of the few times where the Doctor is a mouthpiece for the company that is producing the story and I can understand if people have an objection to that. It also gives this story a fascinating talking point beyond the story itself, even if that is an inflammatory one.

Standout Scene: There’s a far more composed scene where the Doctor and Flip (both detractors of Lovecraft and his work) have to engage with Randolph Carter (believed to be Lovecraft’s fictional alter ego) who is asking about his creator’s work. Rather than go for the jugular, the Doctor gently points out the world around them is his fiction and that perhaps not a work of a kind man expressing his provocative views. That he is the wish fulfilment of a disappointed man. It’s a nuanced scene, and one that I personally believe was from the original script. Baker is much gentler, and less blunt than he was in the early scenes discussing Lovecraft.

The horror of the final episode and Lovecraft being menaced by his own creations. The divide between his fiction and his racism is thin and being plagued by the thing that he fears the most feels like poetic justice. It’s a far more creative condemnatory approach to the man than the unsharpened dialogue in the first episode. The sound design for these scenes of mystic ceremony are extraordinary.

I appreciated the fact that the Doctor whisked away his three companions before making his final speech to Lovecraft. ‘You could so easily have been better than you are’ is a powerful line, delivered perfectly. I would have made that the entire speech. Colin Baker is magnificent here, and it is nice to see some real bite back in his Doctor. ‘His work will live on, warts and all.’

Result: In between reviewing the last Big Finish story and this one, the final main range adventure has been announced and we head, somewhat mutedly, towards the end of the bedrock of Big Finish storytelling. I suppose the question on my lips is whether The Lovecraft Invasion makes a compelling enough case for the future of this range and full-length classic series original stories or whether this entirely justifies the decision of the producers to shift the classic Doctors over to box sets (where I am sure the cost of producing their stories can be annuitized far more economically) or not? I realise this is quite an expectation to place on a single story, but here we are. The Doctor walks inside the mind of HP Lovecraft sounds like a terrific concept for an audio, and indeed having Scott Handcock at the helm this is an entertaining mind fuck of a story. Before then you have to get past the revisions to this story that ensures we know that Lovecraft was an appalling racist and that Big Finish in no way endorses his beliefs, and from the Doctor’s mouth no less. Everybody seems to have an opinion about this and I have done my best to avoid mine simply because to do so would suggest there is an answer to the whole ‘can you separate the art from the artist?’ debate, which, despite what some people might tell you, I don’t think there is. It’s an uncomfortable, provocative subject and for once perhaps Big Finish shouldn’t have played it safe. The story of the Somnifax itself is engagingly told, and it’s ripe for exciting set pieces and features the most enjoyable set of regulars the main range has to offer these days, along with a fantastic addition of Calypso Jones. I do wonder if the story could have been condensed into a single hour, because it essentially plays the same kind of set piece over and over, but it’s aurally striking, and full of nightmarish imagery that will sneak into my mind when I go sleep tonight. Whatever his politics, he had a disturbing and fertile imagination, and that shines through. You’ll learn a lot about Lovecraft and his work but also be told how to feel about him too. That battle of education and instruction takes place in a really fun, and controversial story. Take of that what you will. The revisions have lessened the impact of this story, but the work of talented people still shines through. It is well paced, well acted and put together by the most accomplished director Big Finish has. Does it justify the decision to end the main range as it stands? Yes and no, with the emphasis on the no: 7/10