Thursday, 7 November 2019

Trek 365 Day Challenge...

Where the hell have you gone? I’ve been asked in comments, on social media and via my YouTube channel. Recently I had a bit of a brainsplosion with regards to Big Finish and the varying quality of what they have been releasing and questioning whether I have actually been enjoying trying to keep up with the hideous number of releases and reviewing them all in some depth. So I decided to take a break, and it happens to be one I have been enjoying quite a lot. At the same time I figured that I had been discussing Doctor Who in depth for over ten years and whilst it will always be my first love that perhaps I was getting a little immune to its charms at times and focussing too much on the negative rather than the positive. So I decided to take a break from Who as well. Or at least reviewing it. It’s astonishing how much enjoyment I have had simply enjoying some of these stories rather than examining them. I wonder when I stopped doing that.

However, I am a creature of habit and I love writing reviews. There are few things that give me more pleasure than to sit at the keyboard and let language flow from my fingertips when discussing something that I love. So I have spent an incredible amount of time lately prepping for a brand new feature that will be appearing on the blog shortly. I wanted to challenge myself to do something new and I wanted to give myself a chance to look at something old and something new…

Hence my 365-day Star Trek challenge is about to begin. Those that follow my FB page are probably aware that I have been watching Star Trek a fair amount lately thanks to the absurd photos I have been posting. Don’t get me wrong I come not to belittle Star Trek, but to celebrate it to the hilt.
After an absence of posting nothing for a few months, I will be posting a review a day for an entire year. The something old is going to be looking at TNG, DS9 and VOY episodes all over again, ten years after I last reviewed them. Of the episodes I have reviewed so far I have had some surprising results. Some I’m found far more enjoyable than on my initial rewatch and others have been found wanting this time around. The something new is that I am always going to be reviewing TOS, the final two and half seasons of TNG and ENT. The reviews I have written for those series have been truly enlightening for me. I’ve found far more to enjoy in Enterprise than I thought possible (which before starting this was nothing) and TOS proves to be extraordinary television in every way that word can be used.

I’m going to be looking at the characters, the plot, the production, the funny bits, the dramatic bits, the performances, the music…I’ll discuss the episodes in as much depth as my brain will allow and at the end (as ever) I will summarise whether this episode is worth watching again or not (a hint, pretty much all of them are for a variety of reasons). And I will be hopping between the series randomly to keep things interesting. 

I’m also going to be more present on social media throughout this year long challenge, I would love to be able to engage more with the audience reading, to hear what you think and to add some fun and quirky elements to the haphazard viewing experience.

I’m 30 reviews into this challenge already and I’m in two minds whether to kick start it now or to wait until the beginning of the new year but this is just an episode on my scribblings over the past few months…

…I hope you can come on the journey with me.

Monday, 19 August 2019

The Famished Lands written by Lisa McMullin and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Trying to make a difference far from the front lines, the Doctor and Bliss arrive in the Vale of Iptheus, where the Time War is starving populations out of existence. The inhabitants have taken matters into their own hands – but are now on course for something worse. Bliss discovers exactly how the robot Enablers are helping the people, while the Doctor uncovers a terrifying secret...

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor thinks he has found himself a personal war to fight when he witnesses the slaughter of a dozen starving people. I’m guessing that in a conflict where he is struggling to do any real good that he needs to find these personal victories wherever he can. There’s an incredibly bizarre conversation where the Doctor tries to convince an Ipthean that he is not a Dalek and they do not come from Gallifrey. It does stress the point that the details of the Time War are all muddled up on these worlds but in execution it is a very strange conversation (the dialogue is really awkward). The Doctor feels compelled to tell the people of the worlds affected by the Time War that this isn’t a war against them, and that they are only fighting the Daleks. I’m sorry, Doctor, but I think the Time Lords would shit all over the people of these worlds if it lead them to victory. He’s going to have to abandon this kind of woolly thinking if he is going to make an impact in this conflict. If he keeps seeing the best of his people, he’ll never get to the point where he feels compelled to wipe both sides out. He’s very quick to throw out absolutes.

Bless Bliss: What’s the worst thing that you can do when you land on a world with no food…turn up looking as if you have eaten a lot lately! She’s never been taken to dinner at gunpoint before but apparently it is the only way to dine out in the universe. Had Bliss turned into a hideous skeleton warrior then at least that would be memorable.

Standout Performance: Interesting ‘starving’ performance in there. Just sound like you have a bad sore throat and you are phoning up work to make your excuses for not coming in.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you see people starving you feed, don’t shoot.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘What did you do to the Doctor? You didn’t laser him! Was that a transmat?’

Great Ideas: A pretty world but not a self-sufficient one. It’s a world that relies on trade with other worlds for its food supplies and the Time War has cut off most of its supply routes. The skeleton army are the people that have eaten the synthetic food. A planet of raging skeleton warriors, to fight against the Time War.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m starting to wonder if Russell T Davies didn’t do me any favours by suggesting that the Time War was a conflict so awesome that it could not quantified, or described in any great accuracy. He offered up tantalising hints and whispers, terrifying imagery without ever going into any great detail and leaving the rest to our imagination. When Steven Moffat took the brave step of actually showing us what occurred it was pretty disappointing to realise that at its apex it was just a shoot ‘em up between the Time Lords and the Daleks. With an ongoing Time War series that is adding ever more detail to the conflict, it is becoming more normalised and less inventive. Boiling down the great conflict to a planet that are suffering because their trade routes are cut off might pass muster in an earthbound historical conflict but in the great unknowable Time War it seems to reduce it to something so utterly domestic and unremarkable. I think my expectations of the Time War were placed in an unreasonably high place and Big Finish are never quite going to reach it. Ultimately, in my heart, I feel like this is a War that belongs in the mind and not in actual stories. ‘What on Iptheus’ – it is a rookie mistake to have people talking like they would on Earth but change the name of the planet. Look at that cover art. It feels like they have given up trying to front these adventures with anything striking. I find the argument that it was an accident that they created an army of skeleton warriors through attempting to cure starvation on the planet a pretty shallow one. Why didn’t they stop the abuse on their people and go back to the drawing board? No, instead they gave the food to more people and used it to create a terrifying force that would protect their planet. As ever, it is not case of what people say but what they do. The Doctor literally cannot do right for doing wrong here. He shows these people a little glimpse of the Time War in a hope that they will understand how serious it is and as a result they decide to all become skeleton soldiers to try and fight back. And then a few lines of ‘perhaps the Time War won’t reach you here’ and they are convinced to go the other way. This is really simplistic writing. The entire existence of this story is justified in the very final scene, a bargain made between the Doctor and the Time Lords where they want something in return from him. Fair enough, but it could have been any favour that he was asking that was more exciting than 'please don't cut off the food from this planet.'

Standout Scene: It’s very odd having scenes of the Doctor and Bliss delighted at their dining experience on a planet where starvation is rife. I realise that the produce they are eating is a marvel and could solve all of this planet’s problems, but tonally it is extremely jarring. Talk about white privilege. We also swing from a conversation about the implications of the Time War to the Doctor screaming and dancing in a drug induced state. These scenes just do not sit next to each other harmoniously.

Result: ‘Is there an army of giant skeletons standing in front of us?’ I admire a story that gets to the point quickly and The Famished Lands certainly does that, offering up a fresh location and a conflict in less time that it would take to boil an egg. There’s an odd tone to this adventure that doesn’t quite marry up to the subject matter. It’s a story that wants to delve into the idea that worlds are suffering because of the Time War, where starving people are massacred and yet the tone is somewhat jovial, the dialogue jokey and the regulars are treating all of this as though it is a jolly outing. I appreciate that this is far more linear and approachable story than Fitton’s debut, mind, and Bliss feels much more comfortable playing second fiddle to the Doctor than she did being the focus. Are these Time War adventures supposed to be hard hitting dramas or is there room for lighter, slighter romps? On the strength of The Famished Lands I would argue against that approach I the future. I don’t understand the point of such a story; it doesn’t have anything particularly revelatory to say about the Time War, it isn’t a stepping stone in an arc, it’s not a character piece that reveals anything about the regulars. It feels like the quintessential ‘let’s churn them out’ Big Finish adventure, the great sausage factory of audio adventures. The only thing that this story does particularly well is weirding me out; scenes rub shoulders that swing from seriousness to high farce and I was left wondering whether the Time War was infecting the story, forcing to the tenor to shift so dramatically. Is this a comedy or a drama or a tragedy? Beats me, Chief: 4/10

Friday, 16 August 2019

Emissary of the Daleks written by Andrew Smith and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: On the planet Omnia, a young man leads the Doctor and Peri through the battle-scarred ruins of a city. Among the rubble he shows them proof that their invaders and new masters, thought to be invincible, can be defeated. The proof is the blasted, burnt-out remains of a Dalek. But this is a Dalek-occupied world like few others. For one thing, there are few Daleks to be seen. And for another, the Daleks have appointed an Omnian, Magister Carmen Rega, to govern the planet as their emissary. Why are the Daleks not present in force? And can the Doctor and Peri risk helping the Omnians, when the least show of resistance will be met with devastating reprisals from space?

Softer Six: How things have changed. I have recently watched an episode of The Twin Dilemma for a new YouTube project of mine and was aghast to recall just how toxic the sixth Doctor and Peri’s relationship was at the beginning. I have been so spoilt by their continued adventures with Big Finish that I have practically been tricked into believing that they were always made for each other. I forget that what I am listening to is the kind of rapport that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant would have liked to have developed over time if they had had the chance. He’s the surrogate stepfather, the teacher, the mentor. And she’s the intrepid young botanist, exploring the universe and basking in his wisdom. And I say this without any hint of irony whatsoever, there is little that gives me more pleasure than listening to these two adventuring together; their warm, occasionally spiky and always caring relationship growing all the while. It’s something that Andrew Smith taps into in the first scene of this story. The Doctor is hardly surprised to find that the Masters turn out to be the Daleks and immediately sets about taking the lid off a dead one to make sure that the creature inside has croaked it. When he is accused of being the fugitive, the Doctor he cries out in a sing-song voice ‘hel-lo!’ There’s that rebel in him, that kicked off with Troughton. It’s been a while since he was last on Skaro, and it wouldn’t be long before he wipes the planet out.

Busty Babe: Back home in Baltimore Peri would wander the church graveyards and read the inscriptions. I didn’t realise she had so much emo in her. Peri is appalled that the resistance seems to consist of people with entire books stored in their brains reciting those volumes for other people to learn from. I suppose that’s what Martha Jones did in last of the Time Lords. Tell stories and build a resistance and support for the Doctor. Poor Peri resists the Daleks during interrogation and almost kills herself in the process, screaming like a banshee as they torture her to extract information. Nicola Bryant could always let rip a scream but this is something quite different. When Peri says ‘goodbye for now, Doctor’ it is in a fashion that she thinks that she will never see him again.

Standout Performance: You’ve got a fabulous performance here from Nicholas Briggs as the Dalek Supreme. One of the most prissy, clipped, bitchy Daleks in recent history. It’s scenes with Saskia Reeves’ Rega are fuelled by pure hatred. It’s rare to hear a prolonged humanoid/Dalek bitch fight of this nature (essentially, it’s a power struggle between them) and it’s gloriously entertaining to listen to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s my first time ruling a Dalek occupied world, Doctor!’
‘You will want your revenge on me and you will have it.’

Great Ideas:
Reading and writing is forbidden on this world. Omnia’s previous history was irradiated after the war. The calendar began again at the Masters insistence: Day One, Year One. I loved the dialogue surrounding the names ‘Magister’ and ‘Masters’, it’s almost as if Andrew Smith is taking the piss out of the Doctor Who traditional of hiding its central monster/villain behind a grand title. It might be a bit grisly for me to say but I really enjoyed the sequence where the Daleks massacred all of the insurgents in a sequence that recalled Blakes’ 7’s The Way Back. Just as those scenes started to get a little wordy, the writer cut through it all with a shocking flurry of mass murder.

Audio Landscape:
Some of the direction in episode one lacks finesse, a surprise from John Ainsworth. You’ve got an overly melodramatic score, lots of running about with people shouting and a dearth od sound design to back up what is happening. It sounds like a fan made production in parts, not a professional one.

Musical Cues: It’s a very strange score because for the most part I found it suspenseful and mood-inducing…and yet there were bursts of insane melodrama during action sequences that quite took me out of the atmosphere the rest of the score was generating.

Isn’t it Odd: Daleks started as irradiated mutations and the nuclei radiation at the heart of Omnia attacks their cell structure very aggressively. That’s the reason why there as so few Daleks on this planet. They need radiation shielding to land here, hence the psychological attack on the planet. It’s a shame that there is a physical reason that the Daleks are taking this stance because I think it makes them so much more exciting to be playing mind games to keep people in check. For them to have done this just because they can’t land on the planet and subjugate in force blunts that Whitaker-esque approach to writing for them. When I think it is just a smart thing to do, saving resources and getting the same results. I actually think that it would have been more intense for Rega to have killed her own son rather than disobey the Daleks. But I suppose the story had to come to a conclusion at some point and her speech to her people, knowing that she will persecuted after they have finished dealing with the Daleks, has a ring of truth to it. Her sacrifice at the end is too easy an answer to what has been a complex character.

Standout Scene: The conversation between the Doctor and Rega is fantastic because he comes to it with all those centuries of hatred for the Daleks and those who work with them and Rega is able to fight back with the knowledge of what the planet went through and the atrocities she has managed to stop by collaborating. There are no easy answers. She cannot be entirely condemned or entirely praised. It’s a morally grey area that Doctor Who rarely steps into. I also really liked the end of episode three, which isn’t couched in melodrama. The Daleks simply live up to their promise of punishing the Omnions if they try to resist them in any way. Half of the population will be exterminated. Not an exclamation of intent, just a cold, hard fact.

Result: The concept at the heart of Emissary of the Daleks is a really classy one. If the Daleks threaten to exterminate a planet full of innocents unless they stay in check, what good can the Doctor possibly do if stirring up rebellion will lead to genocide? It’s bizarre to have such a sophisticated idea emerge from this story because I cannot imagine a more stripped back episode one of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Peri are already on the planet that their adventure will take place on, meet a citizen who spells out the entire situation on the planet and then stumble on the rebels almost immediately. All in time to realise that the ‘Masters’ on this planet are the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest of enemies. It’s complete lack of intricacy is remarkable, and enjoyable. I was waiting for some twist to reveal that this is all some simulation, or a test scenario for somebody who might want to join the Doctor and Peri on their adventures. It’s pure, unsophisticated Doctor Who. Even the first cliff-hanger is utterly guessable given what you would expect from a traditional Dalek story. It’s almost like Smith is trying lull you into a false sense of security because something much more interesting starts happening in the trenches of episode two. The Controller was by far the most thought-provoking character in Day of the Daleks and we have a terrific equivalent in this story; a woman who has been given an exalted position by the Daleks and rather enjoys the power enslaving her people at their whim. John Ainsworth direction is mostly excellent, and he lets the performances and the dialogue do a lot of the work but during moments of action I feel like he took his eye of the ball. I’m not sure there is enough incident to justify a two-hour release but it would also be the work of a better reviewer than me to point to any individual scene as written and say that it doesn’t work. I don’t think Emissary of the Daleks is a seamless Doctor Who adventure but it takes an unusual approach to a Dalek story in that it barely features them and focuses on the psychological ramifications of one of their invasions rather than just the death count. I was impressed by the tough dialogue with no easy answers. Much like Memories of a Tyrant, it has substance and that makes this trilogy a real tonic after the gothic naffness of the Mags trilogy. I just wish it had been slaved to a more succinct, punchier narrative: 6/10

Thursday, 15 August 2019

State of Bliss written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Bliss has lost her home, her family, and her friends – an orphan of the Time War. The Doctor attempts to find out where things went wrong. Across a multiverse of possibilities, Bliss discovers the many paths her life could have taken – but do they always lead to the Time War? And if Bliss can save her past, will she destroy her future – and the Doctor’s?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Where does Paul McGann fit into a story like this? As an interloper in each of the timelines in a different guise. Does that make sense? Not really. Listen to him in the last scene. He doesn't sound particularly motivated by any of this.

Bless Bliss: This seems like the perfect time to talk about Bliss because she hasn’t been an enormous success as a companion in my eyes and its worth trying to find out why, Why does somebody like Adric fall into fan consciousness as a failure and Sarah Jane as a success? Does accomplishment equate to a companion being well defined, developed, well-acted and likable? My initial problem with Bliss is that she was rather foisted upon the Doctor thanks to a quirk of the Time War, rather than meeting him naturally. In that first series of Time War adventures she was side-lined a lot in favour of more interesting guest characters and I couldn’t get a handle on who she really was and what her stake in the Time War was. The second box set dropped and we had a story where we visited Bliss’ home world, a genius notion that should have had me on side from that point on. Despite being written with more humour and less mediocrity, I still found myself drifting away from caring about the character but now I think the issue is that Rakhee Thakrar plays the part with all the gravitas of somebody that has evening meal at stake rather than the entire Time War. She’s so casual about everything, reacting to huge, universe changing events as though she is still walking the streets of Albert Square. Trust me, this isn’t me condemning actors for appearing in soap operas, there have been plenty of examples of actors who have left from soaps to Doctor Who with enormous success. When I compare the chemistry of Paul McGann and India Fisher and Sheridan Smith, his scenes with Thakrar are flat and insubstantial. It’s the oddest of things, chemistry. There is no exact science to it but I do think that once it has been tested out and unsuccessful (as this has in my book) then somebody making this needs to step back from the production and say ‘this isn’t working, let’s try something else.’ Now perhaps those in Big Finish towers think that Bliss and Thakrar are a roaring success (good for them) but then they are clearly looking at these things from a massively different critical standpoint to me. What do you think? Am I the crazy one? Has Bliss snuck into the upper echelons of your favourite companions? Or is she to you, like me, an unmemorable interloper who is giving this potentially fascinating range a black mark? Explain to me why I like Flip so much and Bliss so little, because the performances really aren’t that different.

Bliss has an aptitude for applied quantum mechanics. Has she? Or is that in one of the alternative universes? In many of the realities, Bliss is so distrustful.

Standout Performance: Anjili Mohindra is one of my favourite performers out of all the Doctor related spin offs. But her turn here as Calla just goes to show how well defined and characterised Rani was in the Sarah Jane Adventures. In comparison, she is shockingly unmemorable here.

Great Ideas: A quantum visualiser shows an infinity of different realities. Time is breaking down. The barriers between realities are falling. Something is happening across the universe. With Bliss, Deepa can tune into alternative universes. We are in the here and now but the visualiser can show the alternative routes that can be used to get here. Just the past, not the future. In each one, there is a person who looks like the Doctor. There are technology parasites emboldened by the Time War. They strip planets clean. Deepa isn’t just opening windows to other realities, she can tweak them too, even walk into them if things aren’t going well. She has a quantum anomaly that allows her to enter them and keep things on track. Deepa as all of her possible selves at once – that’s the most exciting idea at play here.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s hard to pick Thakrar out of the crowd in this story. Which is a sure sign that something unique is not standing out. Had this story featured Evelyn or Hex or Erimem, I would have had no problem at all. There’s a scene where it seems Bliss will be killed as the oxygen is bled out of the Rover…but it had none of the required tension because Thakrar sounds like she is laughing, not asphyxiating.

Standout Scene: There’s an implication that Deepa changed Bliss’ timeline so that she would end up with the Doctor. That literally makes her the Sam Jones of the audios. An undercooked companion who would have been nothing without interference to her timeline, who is supremely irritating because she has been placed in the Doctor’s path. Well, there’s a thing. It should be a heart-breaking discovery. Imagine if this had been Evelyn or Hex or Erimem (sorry I keep mentioning them) – this would be revelatory. With Bliss, it’s another reason why perhaps she is so ill-defined.

Result: ‘This place is built on sand. Sand shifting from one reality to another!’ Remember Turn Left? Of course, you remember Turn Left, it’s one of the most memorable episodes of new series to date and a regular top ten poller. Huge, high concept ideas, an emotional rollercoaster with the whole of reality at stake…and with Donna Noble at its heart. Brilliant, bold, silly, funny, self-critical, vulnerable Donna Noble. You can cut through complicated ideas because you’re following the path of a character we know and love. I feel that is what Matt Fitton was going for in State of Bliss. A complicated, big stakes story…but this time it is with Bliss as it’s emotional core. Unremarkable, ill defined, stress-free Bliss who seems to cut a path through the Time War by behaving as though she is navigating a supermarket. By centring the whole premise around Bliss I found myself really not giving a damn about much of it. This feels like it is trying to be The Wrong Doctors all over again and whilst you think a story featuring the sixth Doctor and Mel would be the nadir of what Big Finish can achieve, their characterisation enhanced that story tenfold. Bliss’ increased priority here has the reverse effect. State of Bliss flies from one alternative universe to another, one protracted and underwritten dialogue scene to another, with no clear narrative running through it. I think writing confusing stories and trying to pass it off as a fault of the Time War is about as slack as these stories could possibly be. Matt Fitton has written some very effective adventures elsewhere but between this and The Conscript he really doesn’t seem well suited to the Time War. Ken Bentley does his damndest to make the incidents count and you could say that there are a number of dramatic moments, but I was highly unengaged with the whole thing. Pretty much how I have been across all nine stories I have listened to, aside from the stories written by John Dorney and Jonathan Morris. These Time War sets have form in positioning the best stories of the set first. I’m hoping that the reverse is true of the third boxset: 4/10

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

More Happy Who!

Three more instalments of Happy Who. I opened out the Facebook group to suggestions of stories to tackle and I was given a list of difficult tales to try and find nice things to say about...

Planet of the Daleks:

The Twin Dilemma: