Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The Moons of Vulpnana written by Emma Reeves and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: The Doctor has returned Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus, to her native world: Vulpana. Not the savage Vulpana that Mags was taken from, but Vulpana in an earlier era. The Golden Millennium – when the Four Great Wolf Packs, each devoted to one of the planet’s four moons, oversaw the height of Vulpanan civilisation. A time when the noblest families of the Vulpanan aristocracy found themselves in need of new blood… A golden age that’s about to come to a violent end!

The Real McCoy: The Doctor has designed new and interesting technology to stop Mags from killing him. He once stopped six different alien incursions between breakfast and elevenses.

Werewolf in Space and Time: This should have been a chance for Mags to truly shine. It should have been the story that took the singularly unique factor of her character and really bring out into the (moon)light. Instead it the wolfy nature is dealt with so cack-handedly that she is a character that descends into ridiculous melodrama and horror movie clichés. If this is what we could have come to expect had Mags joined the team after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy then I’m glad it never happened. Poor Jessica Martin has no hopes with this script. It’s one that turns very quickly into a Doctor Who version of Twilight that sees somebody with an uncontrollable bestial nature having to stave off the attentions of lovesick puppies. I wish some restraint had been applied. There is a great story to be told about a companion who turns into a monster (remember when Izzy turned into Destrii in the comics?) but Reeves writes so obviously, with so much angst and so little emotion that I was shaking my head at the melodrama rather than involving myself in it. Mags is so suspicious of the Doctor’s motives that she considers him looking for her in the TARDIS as the equivalent of a hunt. She’s very sensitive about the wolf inside of her and threatens to rip his throat out for exposing that side of her. Mags doesn’t have a home because her people were driven from Vulpana years ago, refugees who were persecuted for being different. She had forgotten how beautiful the full moons are. Her people are intelligent and sophisticated, their sense highly evolved. She’s not shallow that she would leave the Doctor just because a fellow wolf has doffed his cap at her.

Standout Performance: I couldn’t tell if the actors were sabotaged by the script or simply giving terrible performances. Perhaps the latter accentuated the former. Either way I find it hard to remember a Big Finish story quite this poorly acted.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Is it fun being fought over like a piece of fresh meat?’
‘What’s your secret, bright sisters?’
‘They’ve released the prey!’ ‘You mean they’ve let them go?’ Oh Mags…
‘The Outlander may taste unusual but flesh is flesh!’
‘Not your precious moons again!’
‘Your fake moon killed hundreds of people!’
‘My Mooooon!’
'I die like a Vulpanan!'

Great Ideas: There was a thousand years of peace and harmony on Vulpana, for a millennium the Vulpanans were left alone to develop their civilisation. On Vulpana breeding is the only thing of importance. The Vulpanans get to examine their prey before they are released into the wilderness. In a laboratory, a Vulpanan is looking to find a permanent cure for their condition. There’s a fifth moon, a dark moon. It shields itself from the other planets and hides behind them.

Audio Landscape: Those howls. Christ, those howls.

Musical Cues: Listen to the isolated music track. It’s rather glorious. It gets completely lost in the horror of the production.

Isn’t it Odd: Both Sylvester McCoy and Jessica Martin overplaying their first scene together to point of pure ham was not an optimistic sign. I’m very confused about the consistency of these stories. In The Monsters of Gokroth, Mags was refused to let somebody extract the wolf side of her, admitting that it was a part of her identity and yet at the start of The Moons of Vulpana she’s really excited about the idea of being cured. Why would you introduce a character in one story and then skip ahead to what is clearly a fair while into their relationship and not explore these two getting to know each other better? The dialogue in the scene after the title music is pure awkward SF exposition. Martin and McCoy struggle to make this sound like a natural conversation. ‘What do you do when you’re too freaky for the freakshow?’ is not a line any actor should be handed. Listening to McCoy attempting to subdue a bunch of werewolves is the most embarrassing thing since Capaldi turned up on a tank with an electric guitar. The werewolf voices are somehow more irritating than all those monster voices in the previous story. There really should be a ban on these sorts of modulations, they are difficult to understand and hard on the ears. Hardly the sort of thing a company releasing audio adventures should be endorsing. Listen to the dialogue of the werewolf Queen trying to pimp out the shaggy boy folk of the pack to Mags and tell me that this is a well written script. Was anybody surprised that the prey that the Vulpanans hunt turned out to be people? It’s written as if it should be a shock but directed as though it’s an afterthought. Does Mags really think that the Doctor just dumped her like a piece of ‘space trash?’ Has she learnt nothing from their adventures together? Yes, we get it, there is something up with the moons of Vulpana. The bloody story is called The Moons of Vulpana. Why does the Doctor spend three whole episodes looking up at the orbs in the sky and going ‘oooh, there’s something not quite right there…’ Get to the point. The Doctor and Mags escape in the TARDIS in episode three and I was hoping they would head off into another adventure, never to think of Vulpana again. Wishful thinking. The mystery of who built the fifth moon…isn’t really a mystery. Even if it is presented as one. The last time a marriage was suggested at the end of part three of a werewolf story was Loups-Garoux. The comparison scarcely bares thinking about. Once the villains true identity is revealed, he’s clearly not the same character he was in episode one. From lovesick whippersnapper to mad scientist in the blink of an eye. He goes on and on in the last episode, saviour and condemner. It’s a psychological battle that could have been quite interesting if he wasn’t presented like your typical Doctor Who ranting villain.

Standout Scene: The end of episode one. Seriously, the end of episode one. Was that even directed? It sounds like McCoy was left at the mic whilst everyone went out for lunch and he provided the wolf howl himself. It’s beyond unacceptable for a company that has been producing audio drama this long and so prolifically to produce a scene as appalling as this.

Result: ‘So the mighty new lord of Vulpana is scared that girls might laugh at him!’ Atrociously written, this is a lead weight of poor quality and hopefully the lowest the main range will sink for a long while. You know you’re in for a tiresome experience when episode one – historically the most exciting and attention grabbing of the four – is this unconvincing and lacking in interest. Jessica Martin, who was so impressive in Gokroth, delivers an feeble performance, which sabotages any chance of positive character development, makes the scenes between her and McCoy flat (and he’s hardly at his best here either) and listening to her struggling with the horrific dialogue ‘Doctor, I don’t know much about off world etiquette but here on Vulpana we do not use such epithets!’) was akin to a form of Chinese water torture. It feels like a script that has been written by somebody who doesn’t understand how to form a sentence. There’s an odd, stilted quality to the structure of each line, a leaning on exposition, favouring angst and melodrama over more naturalistic conversation. How did anybody think the hormonal competition between two Vulpanan pups trying to win Mags would be intriguing listening? It’s agonisingly long too for such an eventless story, filled with endless painful dialogue scenes. I don’t believe this was written, script edited or directed. It was created out of an amalgam of other audio stories, spliced together from previous recordings. I jest, but I do have to question the talent of people who can produce and charge for this kind of material. Vulpana would not be on my list of tourist spots I’d most like to visit in the universe. Let’s prey that we don’t get a sequel. By making her homecoming so thoroughly tedious, any chance to Mags making a mark on audio has been squandered. How any story that bangs on for over two hours can feature so little of what we call ‘events’ is beyond me. The Doctor keeps visiting Mags, asking how she’s getting on and popping off to ponder over the moons. This happens over and over again. By the end I was screaming at the speaker ‘get to the bloody point!’ A very good friend of mine was listening to this story whilst driving and said he had to turn it off in fear of driving himself into a tree to end the torture. That feels like a fitting epitaph for The Moons of Vulpana. I’ve read reviews elsewhere (Blogtor Who, Who Review) and they are praising this story to the high heavens. Maybe I’m the one at fault but clearly my critical faculties are in a completely different place to theirs. Avoid: 1/10

Here's What Soldeed Thought...


Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Creeping Death written by Roy Gill and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: London, 1952, and a deadly smog envelops the capital. But something even more dangerous - and alien - is hiding within the mists. When the Doctor and Donna get lost in the fog, they find a motley group of Londoners trying to make their way home. Very soon, the stakes are raised, as death creeps along fume-choked streets, and not everyone will make it out alive...

Mockney Dude: The Doctor and Donna have been brilliantly characterised in this entire box set but it’s The Creeping Death that featured them together the most. Gill writes for both beautifully, treating them as equals and allowing them both to have their opposing views but work together very effectively. They respond to the material by giving highly charged, charismatic performances. The Doctor is dead excited to be showing Donna her history because there is always something new to be discovered. He loves a little cinema. ‘Isn’t the NHS marvellous?’ states the Doctor, pre-empting its existence. The Doctor manages to figure out the year by finding out what has come out on the cinema. If only he had an encyclopaedia of all film releases he would never have this problem again. The Doctor is like Tigger when he’s got an idea. I love how succinct the Doctor is when he confronts the aliens of the piece, he simply tells them this world isn’t right for them and they are going to have to let it go. Never let it be said that the tenth Doctor talks too much, sometimes he can be very to the point.

Tempestuous Temp: Like Planet of the Ood, Donna leaps from the TARDIS with huge expectations about where the Doctor has taken her only to be assaulted with inclement weather. She realises her Gramps and Nan are out there in 1952 and it most be early days for them. Why do so many people keep mistaking Donna for a bloke? She thinks she’s indestructible, but her adventures with the Doctor would test that. Donna says it how it is when it comes to the smog, it isn’t a frustration as the Doctor describes it, it’s a tragedy. At first I thought Donna celebrating gay rights in the 50s was a bit corny (I really need to question what that says about me) but I loved the moment when she shoots down the Doctor with the line ‘we do our best. Sometimes it’s a bit messy but we still try.’ That sums up humanity perfectly. All Donna asks is that Doctor does as much as is allowed. Not to break the rules, but to bend them slightly. She objects to being called the Doctor’s understudy, and of course there’s something on her back. She’s here to watch the Doctor’s back and she won’t let him forget it. I could listen to Donna’s stories about her legions of friends until the cows come home. She really does bring the series down to earth in a very amusing way.

Standout Performance: The unmistakable Helen Goldwyn being able to let loose on the fruitiest of characters, Alice Aiken. The story might have been a little too serious if it wasn’t for her prostrations and objections. You’ve got to love a theatre luvvie!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The weather around here is taking a turn for the worst.’
‘Humans burning up their planet I don’t know why I’m even surprised.’

Great Ideas: Somebody screaming in the poisonous fog…sounds like the pre-credits to a Doctor Who story to me. How terribly sweet to have a gay romance taking place in the 50s, where such things where not only frowned upon but prosecuted. The smog was a combination of weather, geography and sheer bad luck. A cyclone trapped the smoke and as the temperature dropped people started reaching for their coal, piling more onto their fire and making the situation ten times worse. The creatures have come to earth because they are drawn to pollution. The Industrial Revolution was like sending up a beacon to the Fumifugium. They watched, waited and encouraged more technology pumping smoke into the atmosphere because it is life to them.

Standout Scene: I admire a writer that can toss in a dinosaur at the climax, seemingly at a whim. This is Doctor Who after all, you can do ANYTHING. Donna’s comment about it being able to roar made m howl.

Result: ‘Go on I know that face. How’s the world going to end this time?’ This an atmospheric character tale, not quite as immediately arresting as the other two stories in the set but one that rather creeps up and envelopes you, like the fog. I really enjoyed how both the Doctor and Donna were given a surrogate companion in this story; it’s always great to see David Tennant’s Doctor being charming with a new friend and its proof again that Donna could more than hold up the series without her best pal around. The Great Smog that hit London in 1952 and killed 12,000 is a well-documented historical record that I’m surprised the TV show hasn’t exploited before (isn’t it awful when historical tragedies can be exploited for drama…but that’s the world we live in). David Bishop wrote a terrific little novel (Amorality Tale) set here and it pleases me no end to think that the Doctor and Donna could bump into the third Doctor and Sarah at any minute. It doesn’t go down The Fires of Pompeii route of having the Doctor and Donna on opposing sides of the tragedy, each with their own agenda, but instead shows that they have learnt from that experience together and work together to save as many people as possible without breaking the laws of Time. I thought that was a very mature approach because it could have been so easy to copy that very successful formula. It’s much harder to write two people working together than opposing one another and Roy Gill manages to make it very engaging. There’s a natural chemistry between all of the cast (I swear Tennant and Tate bring this out of people because it has been the case with all six of their stories so far) and given we only know them for an hour I was impressed with how well I knew these characters by the story’s close. A strong Roy Gill script, more evocative direction, great acting = another winner: 8/10

Saturday, 18 May 2019

One Mile Down written by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Donna and the Doctor take a holiday in the beautiful underwater city of Vallarasee. Things have changed since the Doctor last swam through. Vallarasee is now enclosed in an airdome, with Judoon patrolling historic sites. Now, instead of tourists wearing breathing-helmets, native Fins are forced to adapt. But leaks are trickling into the dome. The Judoon must be persuaded that disaster is imminent, or thousands will be trapped, as the waters rise...

Mockney Dude:
‘Oh I’m so sorry I’ll let them drown in their hotel rooms after settling their bills!’ Queuing is something he doesn’t generally have to do. The last time he came here he swam through the Temple of Light by himself and he was the first offworlder to do so in a thousand years. Donna marvellously tells him to get over himself. She’s always there to puncture his bubble. He doesn’t like robot announcements because he likes telling people what to do. He’s a traveller, not a tourist and so he refuses to take the guided tours. Being arrested is brilliant because it is the best way to meet the people in charge. Brilliantly he tells Donna to not let his arrest spoil her holiday (which is his way of saying continue to investigate).

Tempestuous Temp: Remember that glorious moment at the beginning of Turn Left that saw the Doctor and Donna drinking in the sights of an alien bazaar. To me that remains the highlight of their time together and one of the best examples of the Doctor and his companion revelling in the joy of travelling the universe and being together. That’s the feel that beams from this audio with Donna being shown another wondrous location and simply loving it. They will always meet in the little shop, of course.

Standout Performance: Nicholas Briggs as Clo. It astonishes me how he can still turn his voice to new characters and variations on a theme. We’re extremely lucky that Big Finish is headed by the man who brought many of these alien creatures voices to life. It gives the stories a feel of legitimacy. Clo is such a sweet character, beautifully brought to life by Briggs who convinces as a young Judoon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Robot Rights!’
‘The real Vallarasee, the underwater city, it’s coming back!’
‘Children living in helmets so that we can have a day out’ – I like the social commentary here, suggesting that a species natural habitat has been irrevocably changed to allow access to tourists.
‘Clo’s just arresting the city!’

Great Ideas:
‘Come to Vallarasee, the Great Lost City! Sunk in history, beneath the waves. Visit the coral cathedral, peruse the starfish allies, dine on the best seafood cuisine…’ I love underwater locations for the very simple reason that I love water. Swimming in it, messing about in boats, the lazy afternoons on the canals in Venice, the excitement of walking through the domes at the Sea Life Centre. One of the few times I merited Voyager with a strong mark for a non-event episode was during a thrilling underwater escapade. Doctor Who has the budget to pull this sort of thing of these days so it is a shame that it has to be restricted to audio (imagine the visuals if this episode had been broadcast) but it does allow for some highly atmospheric sound design. The ‘firs’ do all the planning on Vallarasee and the ‘fins’ do all the tricky stuff (manual labour). It would seem that things don’t change, even on underwater worlds. There always has to be a class divide. A giant underwater glass elevator takes you down into the city, an entire underwater landscape encased in an air bubble. Love can spring up in the most unexpected of places during the Russell T Davies era, an air breather and a water breather defying the odds and enjoying a relationship is something he would heartily approve of. And pointing out that there are ignorant people who disapprove ticks the homosexual reference.

Audio Landscape: The sequence of the dome cracking and the water leaking in is unforgettable. I didn’t need any explanation from the characters, Howard Carter had made the sequence perfectly clear through the sound alone.

Standout Scene: There’s a moment when the water pours in and Patricia is panicking as she tries to fight the tide. For a second I was gasping for air, such was the terror in the performance. I know her lover would find her eventually and that moment was a relief rather than a damp squib.

Result:
‘This is the Doctor. On behalf of the Judoon platoon on the lagoon…’ Jenny T Colgan has captured the heart of a really good Russell T Davies script in One Mile Down. Strong characterisation, social commentary, pop culture references, a vivid setting, an emotional core and some lovely ‘visuals’. Oh, and the Judoon, who need as much exposure as they can get. They got the formula right with the first box set (a down to Earth contemporary tale to kick things off and an exotic outer space adventure to follow) and it looks like they are mimicking that formula here to equally diverse effect. Sometimes when Big Finish puts out a story on an alien world with lots of modulated voices it can feel like an assault of weirdness and turn me right off but Colgan and Bentley avoid that by writing and casting some great characters that really sell the location. It often feels like the Doctor is trying to take down capitalism and this time he has to topple a particularly insidious tourist trap in order to save lives. His condemnation feels very right and gives David Tennant a chance to rail against something which brings out that magnificent blazing fury in him. Clo the junior Judoon is like a Disney character implanted into a Doctor Who story and he’s an utter delight. Even better is the sound design, which allows for some epic sequences of the water breaking in. I really felt that I was there trapped in a sinking ship. The climax of the story features a huge shift in the setting and reminded me of Gridlock in its triumphant mood. It’s a story featuring robots, Judoon, fish people, a city sinking under water, the Doctor and Donna. What are you waiting for? A pleasure to listen to: 9/10

Friday, 17 May 2019

No Place written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: It's ‘Haunted Makeovers!’ The home improvement show with a spooky twist. The Noble family are hoping to cast out a few spirits along with the old bathroom suite. Presenter Justin joins Donna, Wilf, Sylvia and the Doctor for the latest edition of his reality TV series. Of course, Justin knows that any supernatural phenomena can be faked. Ghosts can't possibly be real. Can they..?

Mockney Dude: Fascinating to hear the difference in David Tennant from one box set to another. I only listened to Death and the Queen a few days ago and lamented that certain fans might be turned off by the exuberant squeaky voiced Time Lord that springs from that story. No Place sees Tennant deliver a much more sombre affair, especially at the climax where he is explaining away the plot. I like both approaches but it’s fascinating to listen to the two stories in quick succession since it gives you an idea of his audio range. The Doctor and Donna having to pretend who need to be a couple who are looking for a haunted makeover is worth the price of the admission alone. Especially with all the booping on the nose they keep doing. Donna suggests that he is terrible with time.

Tempestuous Temp: Donna literally fell into the Doctor’s lap and they have been inseparable ever since. Donna might be taking the piss when she says that…but it’s kind of true. Justin states that in reality the world is very boring, which is exactly what Donna used to think until she met the Doctor. The Doctor calls her ‘snuggle bump.’ ‘Go on, do you thing where you’re disgusting and lick it!’ says Sylvia about the latest gross looking substance to emerge from a story. Donna says jokingly that the Doctor is the love of her life and then realises the truth of that statement. I love how she can swing from being so mocking to being deadly serious. Donna loves reality TV because she loves a bit of drama.

The Nobles: Sylvia as the disgruntled mother in law is horrifically plausible. It’s a role that she doesn’t have to put any effort into. The story doesn’t suggest that Wilf is a medium but just that he can get a feeling about places. It is probably because he is so sensitive to other peoples needs and feelings. I didn’t think that I could be made to love Wilf anymore but Cribbins transfers to audio and he’s even sweeter than he was on television. Wilf has felt a disquiet like this before when he was a soldier and he knew there was going to be a fight that day. Sylvia thinks the world can be put to right with a cup of tea. Well, she’s not wrong. Wilf has unerring faith in the Doctor and knows that he would never hurt anyone. Like me, Wilf can watch a good fire for hours. They banned Sylvia from the Post Office, although we never find out why. Maybe its best left for the imagination.

Standout Performance: I’ve enjoyed Joel Fry in several shows, especially his take on autism in Trollied. His character Leighton was one of the sweetest people you were likely to meet on television. It’s great, then, to see him playing somebody completely different here; a no-nonsense reality TV presenter with an obsession with decking and disproving the supernatural. Jacqueline King is so utterly charming in real life, that it is hard to believe she is the same person as icy matriarch Sylvia Noble. Mind if there was ever anyone I would want to organise people in a crisis, she’d be at the top of my list.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Doctor is like that. He’s dancing between us and the stars.’ Wilf’s love for the Doctor is one of the best things to come out of the entire show.
‘A piano bit me’ might be the best line in anything, Ever.

Great Ideas: It just goes to show there are lots of ways to tell a Doctor Who story (I had a friend who claimed it was simply the same story week in, week out). The last story I listened to was Primord, which took it’s time setting up its characters and location. No Place in comparison jumps right in with both feet (it is an hour shorter so it rather needs to) and introduces us to everybody via the reality TV presenter whilst the programme is running. The Caretaker who tried to burn the Community Centre down was little more than a kid. They’ve been doing this show for years but mostly its broken down heating systems and concealed drafts rather than genuine supernatural activity. What’s needed is an electrician, not an exorcist. What people call a haunting is often a shared delusion provoked by environmental factors and malicious gossip.

Audio Landscape: Audio is ripe for horror because so many of your senses are deprived. If all you can do is react to sound it is a great chance to let all that fall away and then suddenly sneak up on the listener with an aural attack. That’s something Carter remembers to great effect here.

Musical Cues: Howard Carter is still the finest musician to grave Big Finish’s door, even superseding Russell Stone these days given how long he has been providing music for and the touch of class that he adds to every production he is involved in. I still think he’s finest achievements took place on the Jago & Litefoot series. Here he gets to provide the jingles for the Haunted Makeover TV series and gets to scare the living daylights out of us as the show goes disastrously wrong.

Standout Scene: I guessed the twist about Justin early on but for once it’s all part of the fun. It didn’t detract from the overall experience at all.

Result: Cheap reality TV going horribly wrong is a great premise for a Doctor Who story and setting it during series four with the Nobles elevates it even more. It’s following the Ghostwatch pattern and the Inside Number 9 boys had a good stab at haunted reality TV gone wrong last Halloween (I still can’t believe they got Stephanie Cole to slit her own throat) but No Place has David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King as its secret weapons. A fascinating one off, told entirely from the point of view of the presenter with the Doctor, Donna, Wilf and Sylvia pretending to be one great big happily family as the community centre around them threatens to murder them all. I like the idea that the presenter is a cynic and the Doctor and co are the believers, it’s an unusual slant on this kind of TV show and just the thought of the Doctor and Donna pretending to be loved up makes me smile but when it’s played out I was laughing my head off. As I said for The Dread of Night recently it is hard to make an impact with horror Who these days because so much ground has been covered but Howard Carter has performed miracles with James Goss’ haunted house script. Chalk on the blackboard, wallpaper tearing, dripping, screams, crackly old recordings and an old piano are all used to great effect. This is hilarious, moving and scary in equal measures. It’s a very confident piece of work that was a joy to experience. Very like series four then: 9/10

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Primord written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Prisoners are escaping from incarceration all around the country and UNIT have been called in to aid in the search. But the Doctor is unwilling to agree to the Brigadier’s request for help as he and Jo have opted to take a holiday – they’re going to visit his old assistant Liz Shaw, now working in Cambridge University. But, unfortunately for Jo, the Doctor can’t relax for very long. Soon the Time Lord and his friends are facing an old enemy – creatures they’d long since thought they’d put to ground. The Primords have returned – and this time the danger may strike very close to home.

The Mighty Nose: ‘You might enjoy the prospect of gallivanting about across the countryside searching for absconded ne’er do wells but Jo and I have rather more salubrious plans…’ The Third Doctor is really rather easy to capture in script form; a dash of arrogance, the odd name drop, some bizarre domestic technobabble, a moral lecture and moments of eye-popping drama. Add in a drop of comedy and you’ve got it. The Doctor suggests that they are off the clock whilst they are in Cambridge…bless him for thinking that. The Doctor is delighted to be reacquainted with Liz. There always was a sense of them being equals rather than Doctor and companion. Much like Sarah and Rose in School Reunion, the Doctor is in a lot of trouble when Jo and Liz get together. He admits it was a pity to lose Liz back in the day but had that not happened then he would have never have met Jo, and he wouldn’t have wanted that. He thinks they are bot impressive, intelligent women in their own ways. They are both extremely important to him. I really enjoyed this dialogue, it never strayed into over celebration but stresses the relationships. Scenes with the Doctor and Liz doing experiments in a scientific base just feel right, don’t they? ‘Good grief use your brain man! If you have one!’ sounds 100% Pertwee to me. He’s so smart he could do experiments in the UNIT canteen and still get the desired results.

Dippy Agent: I’m not sure why but Katy Manning seems fit to open this story playing Jo with a baby voice not that far removed from the time when Mrs Slocombe was dolled up like a baby doll on Are You Being Served. I know Jo was occasionally a little childish but I think this is misremembering the role slightly and had I been Briggs I would have asked her to tone it down a little. Interestingly, it settles down after a while. It’s almost as if Manning was so excited to be playing the part again that she got carried away and then found her authentic Jo voice somewhere near the end of episode one. There’s no tension between Jo and Liz. Indeed, she grabs her in a huge hug as soon as she sees her. Sometimes when the Doctor gets started on technobabble it all sounds like gobbledegook. The Doctor suggests that Bessie couldn’t be in finer hands than with Jo. Is he insane? She’s been locked up enough times to know that somebody always comes to the rescue eventually. Manning has recovered herself entirely when she gets to stick up for the Brigadier and his actions surrounding the Silurians. When she realises that the Brigadier has the situation in hand she pops off to save the Doctor. That’s her job.

Doctor Shaw: Liz was originally supposed to be UNITs scientific advisor until the Doctor arrived. Imagine if she would have had to have dealt with the Autons, Silurians, Ambassadors and Primords on her own? She would have been fantastic. Daisy Ashford doesn’t sound entirely like her mother (nor should she) but I found the idea of her playing Liz a touching one at first and then before long I was simply enjoying her in the role. A note perfect impression? No. An accurate rendition of Liz Shaw? Yes. I miss Carrie John’s presence in the audios very much (remember The Last Post?) but having her daughters presence in these love letters to the era is a wonderful thing. Liz’s fiancé Michael has been turned into a Primord and she has managed to control his behaviour through temperature regulation. Things developed between them when they were studying the liquid. Michael was the one who named them Pimords. It wasn’t until Liz got infected and became a Primord that her priorities changed and she started working for those who wanted to study the liquid, instead of opposing their work.

The Brigadier: Let’s get one thing out of the way: nobody could replace Nicholas Courtney. I know that might seem an obvious thing to say but I have to get it out there that I adored his portrayal as the Brigadier and found him one of the biggest comforts throughout the entire run of classic Who. There was something about Courtney’s deadpan humour, absolute stiff upperlipedness and unerring loyalty and devotion to the Doctor that made him such a joyous constant in the show. A lot of his appeal comes down to Courtney’s twinkle (because some of the time he was written as a dimwit). Imagine the Brigadier without that sparkle, we’d have another Walter Skinner from The X-Files, a deadly serious head of operations with a chip on his shoulder. However, if they were ever going to recast the part then Jon Culshaw is one of only a few actors that I would give a pass to. His mimicry of Courtney is astonishing. At times I felt I was genuinely listening to him and there is something about that sardonic tone and no-nonsense attitude that takes you straight back to the 70s no questions asked. It’s a remarkable performance from Culshaw, bravura even. There’s a fantastic scene where the Brigadier condemns Sharp for threatening to inflict genocide on entire nations and he is silenced when the General reminds him of the Silurians. Moral outrage suits the Brigadier very nicely. There’s a moment in the last episode where the Brigadier faces up to Liz and it reminds of the wonderfully icy relationship they set up between them in Spearhead from Space. The Brigadier isn’t one for big goodbyes but when he thinks this might be his last stand he admits it has been nice working with the Doctor and that he is a splendid fellow.

Standout Performance: For a second I thought that Big Finish had acquired the services of Judi Dench. They’ve secured John Hurt and Derek Jacobi so it isn’t out of the range of possibility. Bethan Dixon Bate is not a name I know but it really does sound uncannily similar to Dench. And how much does Michael Troughton sound like his father?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Practically everybody knows a bit more about science than you, Jo.’
‘I never thought I’d save the world with frozen peas!’

Great Ideas: UNIT has done its job only too well because now all threats to Earth have been defeated they are now being seconded. Why would the military possibly be kidnapping criminals? The green slime from Stalman’s Inferno project has been found and stored. It is capable of turning any man into a savage murdering beast. I really enjoyed the cliff-hanger to episode one, it demonstrates exactly what I was saying in The Monsters of Gokroth. It looks for all the world like Liz has unleashed a Primord on the Doctor and that is because we are seeing (listening) to the story from his point of view. The story then switches to Liz’s point of view after the reprise and we can see that he was in no danger whatsoever. It’s a lovely subversion that completely shifts depending on whose narrative we’re following. After Stalhman’s project fell through there was a lot of worry about the liquid. Nobody was sure what it was. It reacted with heat but beyond that it was a blank page. Liz started to ponder that there might be an outbreak when they weren’t around to stop it. It’s one of the oldest substances on the earth and there was enough recovered to analyse and eventually they called upon Liz to try and study it. Sharp thinks that he can use the liquid as a form of viral warfare. Drop a cannister in another country and watch the mutation spread. The resulting Primords will either wipe out their fellow countrymen or infect them. It would decrease the population considerably for a successful attack.

Musical Cues: Briggs really knows how to capture the feel of an era through its music and he’s done a sterling job here. It’s half Dudley Simpson (dramatic scene changes) and half Malcolm Clarke (atmospheric tuneless piercings). If I shut my eyes, I could almost see the grainy location work.

Standout Scene: I was a little of suspicious of Liz from the start but the moment she played her hand was well timed. What could be worse than developing the liquid from the Inferno project into a weapon? Has Liz Shaw really gone over to the enemy? The end of episode is revelatory. Nobody could possibly have seen that coming.

Result: As a sequel to Inferno, re-introducing Liz Shaw and having her meet Jo Grant and the recasting of the Brigadier, Primord really could have felt like sheer wankery. Instead John Dorney has written a script with a very plausible scenario, taking probably the weakest element of the season seven climax (the monsters) and exploring them in a very frightening way. The additions to the range feel very positive; bringing Daisy Ashford and Jon Culshaw into the mix makes this feel like an authentic full cast drama (which, in really it is nothing of the sort with all the recastings) and we get a fair rendition of Liz and an excellent one of the Brigadier. There’s a terrific, adult feel to the story that really feels like it is a natural extension of Pertwee’s debut season. I especially enjoyed how it held back its twists and relaxed into the setup, building up the tension over time. Very like Inferno, then. The idea that an unfinished story element from a previous adventure could be used as the springboard for a sequel is not a new one but it is done particularly well here, especially when you realise what the Primord liquid is being used for. Trust somebody in the military to think of such a diabolical application for the supernatural substance. John Dorney is one of Big Finish’s most prolific of contributors and you might be forgiven for thinking that because his talent is spread over so many ranges and releases that it might start to dilute the strength of his stories. Not one bit of it. Like Jonathan Morris, he seems to have an endless stream creative storytelling inside him and even now, years after his introduction to Big Finish, he is still delivering memorable goods. His name is synonymous with quality. Primord isn’t a story that is trying too hard to show off but instead knuckle down and capture its era as authentically as possible. It reminds me of the best of the Terrance Dicks script edited period; intelligent, full of character and with some really dramatic ideas at its core. This story could happily have nestled in season 8. Or should that be season 7.5: 9/10

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The Monsters of Gokroth written by Matt Fitton and directed by Samuel Clements

What’s it about: The people of Gokroth live in fear of the monsters in the forest. Creatures with scales and fur, teeth and claws. But worse than these, perhaps, is the strange doctor who does unspeakable, unholy work in the high castle on the mountain… A doctor who is about to receive a visit from an off-worlder. Mags, formerly of the Psychic Circus. A native of the planet Vulpana… with a monstrous secret of her own.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor will provide his expertise for nothing more than a good cup of tea. When the next best thing is somebody offering their help for half their food supplies, it seems even more generous. Helping people is his vocation. After trying to set straight a stray Nazi scientist from another timeline, it feels very natural for the Doctor to hunt down a werewolf and help her to explore her bestial nature. Every now and then he gets an urge to revisit old business, which suggests he is at the tail end of this regeneration. ‘Ears and eyes open, mouths closed’ is good advice in any Doctor Who adventure. He’s a genius and he never passed any exams. He doesn’t even break a sweat at the thought of holding back an entire army of monsters on his own. When asked where Ace is he simply replies ‘somewhere else…for a while now.’ He’s getting old but he’s not too old for new adventures and travelling companions.

Werewolf in Space and Time: I’m going to start to sound like a cynical fan if I don’t turn my acrimony around regarding Big Finish’s desperate need to plug every continuity gap, explore every possibility not taken on television and generally cross every t with a Judoon spaceship and dot every i a Sontaran scout ship. They’re obsessed with playing fan service rather than delivering completely original content, which is a fair route to take when you are trying to get the fanbase of a show to part with their hard earned cash but when it comes at the exclusion of all truly original storytelling to the exclusivity of fanwankery I cannot help but make (admittedly token because who at Big Finish is listening to the protestation of one man) objection. Do I like the idea of a trilogy featuring ‘what if Kamelion had had a bigger role in the series?’ followed by ‘what if Mags had followed the Doctor?’ To be honest I hadn’t given either possibility much consideration but if I had the former would have excited me far more simply because there was so much untapped potential there. Mags was a brilliant one of character who worked a treat in the setting she was placed in (I don’t think anybody can forget her slavering transformation into a punk werewolf) but does she immediately spring to mind as companion material? Not really. Having said that I’m more than happy to be proven wrong…

The monsters are the reason that Mags came to Gokroth. Mags has been asked to place her trust in people too many times. She handed it to the Captain and look how well that ended for her. Lately she hears the wolf inside her all the time and sometimes she feels like a slave to her nature. To remove the wolf would be like losing part of her. When it comes down to it and she has to make a choice, she cannot extract her animal instincts. She had to leave the Psychic Circus because her changes were becoming more and more unpredictable and it was becoming too dangerous for the others and the audience. That would be one hell of a circus experience, seeing the audience torn into and murdered (just as long as it isn’t you). She thinks she is a freak on every planet but the Doctor insists she is simply unique. She feels that she cannot live around people because of her condition.

Standout Performance:
I question the logic in casting another actress that sounds alike to Jessica Martin because there were times when I found it hard to differentiate her from Victoria Yeates. It’s an mature turn by Martin all the same and she has a very natural attitude for audio (I would argue far more natural than Sophie Aldred, who I am pleased to say is for once being kept away from a McCoy trilogy…oh wait) and a pleasing dynamic with Sylvester McCoy. Martin’s natural deadpan delivery and investment in Mags is by far the most impressive thing about this tale.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You can control the wolf.’

Great Ideas: The cover has a very similar aesthetic to the few stabs at gothic horror that Farscape attempted. It’s rather gorgeous and is saturated with colour and interest. The whole trilogy has enticing covers. When she got posted to station Zeta she thought the research would be ground-breaking but all she found were egos willing to put ethics aside. She thought she would be curing disease but the station was all about genetic manipulation. They took humans who were dispossessed and used them, splicing them with alien DNA. Eventually she freed them, hundreds of creatures.

Isn’t it Odd: Some very typical horror elements in play; a town under siege by monsters, a curfew, a morally questionable scientist and her disfigured assistant, using wolfsbane to disguise scent, a circus entertainer with a menagerie of creatures, a hunt through the forest, flame wielding natives seeking out the monsters. However, there are few concessions made to the fact that this is set on an alien world. For all Matt Fitton’s weird SF names for characters and the setting, this could just be set in a medieval village. Sure use the clichés…but subvert them in some way. I question these cliff-hangers that feature horrible slavering monsters going ‘raaawwwwwrrrrrr!’ not only because they have been done to death by now (seriously, you could compile a top 100 list at this point) but because of the severe lack of imagination in doing so. We know the Doctor isn’t going to meet a sticky end in The Monsters of Gokroth and we’ve not come to care enough about the original characters come the first cliff-hanger so really it is just a lot of noise before the credits to create a pause in the action. John Dorney is the master at conjuring up decent cliff-hangers, he understands that moments that create a fork in the plot (revelations, subversions) are much more intellectually exciting than hearing an actor do his lungs in and the other actors cowering in fear. I skipped ahead to the next episode hoping that there would be something substantive to the cliff-hanger beyond false jeopardy…but there wasn’t and it’s dealt with in an instant. Mags was never going to kill the Doctor, otherwise this would be a very short trilogy. All the scenes of the slavering monsters grunting and groaning are a little hard on the ears, and probably the sort of nonsense any fan who hasn’t given Big Finish a go would imagine these audios sound like. My other half kept walking past the door, frowning. I try and convince him that I’m discussing substantive audio work. The sweet character work where Sylvester McCoy gets to reach out to Jessica Martin’s Mags brings out the best in him but the scenes of him screaming at her as a werewolf see him at his humiliating worst. Poor Andrew Fettes gets lumbered with the Condo (well, Igor) role of speaking like a tomfool with slurred speech. There’s some sympathy to be elicited from such a role but as written he’s just a lurching simpleton. Almost as bad as all the hysterics elsewhere as various actors have to snarl and gurn and scream their way through the story. After a while it just becomes as agonising as white noise. The twist at the end of episode three is actually quite a surprise but its delivered as though somebody is reciting what they need from the supermarket. One character screams ‘It’s ALIIIVVVVEEEE!’ Of course they do. ‘Look at what unites you rather than what sets you apart’ – does the Doctor really try and talk (shout) down the situation with that argument?

Result: It’s like somebody has watched The Brain of Morbius and taken out all the inventiveness. It’s as blatant and as cliché ridden as a Doctor Who gothic horror story could possibly be without any of the creativity that you would expect from a series that can take you anywhere in anytime. The first episode is the superior one because the atmosphere is fresh and the return of Mags is novel and I really liked how Sylvester McCoy was kept in the shadows for the most part to allow the story to breathe. The idea of Mags coming to a place packed with monsters to fit in is very sweet and I enjoyed the dilemma of her having the choice to extract her bestial side. It automatically gives her more depth than the companions of the recent seventh Doctor trilogies. I found it really difficult to listen to at times because of the assault of monstrous voices and effects. It had a disorienting effect on me, at once convincing me of the horrific nature of the creatures that populate the story but so unpleasant it refused to allow me to get any entertainment from it. As usual with these two-hour long stories there isn’t enough plot to fill up the running time and as such we fill the time with endless scenes of Mags transforming, the monsters on the attack and false jeopardy cliff-hanger. After listening to the tighter, one-hour stories in some of the recent box sets reviewed it is feels even more obvious that the four main range stories are often swollen beyond their ability to fulfil their premise. It’s no wonder that two two-part stories are starting to creep back into the range. The regulars are strong and the dialogue mostly works, but there are far too many scenes of creature attacks being explained (‘they’re going to fight and we’re caught in the middle!' is a cliff-hanger ending). Not needed when there is a soundscape that is doing all that work for you. How do you rank a story where the character work is enjoyable but the story itself is seriously lacking? Fitton’s scripts usually work in the other direction and I’m still hoping for another The Wrong Doctors from him, one that marries both seamlessly. This is pure gothic horror without much concession for the fact that it is sent in space. This story could just as easily be told on Earth with a few tweaks and swapping the monsters for circus freaks. The twist is actually pretty clever but it is such a monstrous experience to listen to by that point that I think it its effect was completely lost on me. I’m looking forward to more of Mags but that’s pretty much all I took from this: 5/10

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Dread of Night written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: When a grieving household offers the TARDIS travellers shelter from the weather, the Doctor, Chris and Roz find themselves exposed to even less hospitable conditions. A sinister presence stalks the house, plaguing its inhabitants… and only the truth can free them.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor categorically states that Chris and Roz can handle the people side of their investigations and he will take care of everything. If there was ever a sentence that could sum up the nature of the New Adventures as far as the Doctor is concerned then that is it. Chris and Roz expect the Doctor to vanish into the ether and to operate in the shadows. He might be juggling empires, timelines and realities but this is still the Doctor and he always has a Jammie dodger in his pocket for an emergency. You just know that in a locked house horror story that the impish seventh Doctor will turn up in a cupboard at some point to scare the life out of everybody. McCoy aces the moment where he has to ask the nurse a terrible question to get at the heart of the mystery. Sometimes he is simply terrifying in the role, scarier than the monsters he faces. Listen to the way he asks Anabelle to join them for tea. Creepy bastard. He admits that he doesn’t belong anywhere. ‘Show me your true self…’ The Doctor agrees to give his grief to the creature, because he has watched planets burn and whole races fall, the screams of a civilisation, the sobbing of a tiny child. He has so much grief to feed on.

Moody Copper: Roz suspects that they will run into trouble…what on Earth gave her that idea? I enjoyed the fact that Roz has been at this long enough (and her career as an adjudicator must have helped fuel this) that she can spot and comment on the clichés a mile away. Imagine Roz in a frilly dress? No, I can’t either but I would pay to see it., It’s a shame there weren’t separate covers for these releases just so that could be mocked up. It’s a story that allows Roz to be an investigator, something she proves to be very good at indeed. Aliens she can fight but an imaginary friend requires more imagination than Roz is willing to give. Despite knowing the conventions of a horror story, she still finds menace in her own shadows. I would have thought the Roz would have had a stronger stomach than she does the moment they discover the bodies of the staff.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Chris states that he doesn’t need prying eyes watching him change but he is a blond muscle hunk so what does he expect? Chris delicately tries to bring up the matter of Roz’s family and goes on to touchingly admit that Roz and the Doctor are his family now. She cuts him down before he gets too schmaltzy (which is 100% Roz) and says that the bond between them doesn’t need to be spelt out.

Standout Performance: ‘There’s nothing simple about grief. I know how it can grasp the human heart’ – if Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor was pitched at the level he delivers this line at for 80% of the time I would be declaring him the ultimate audio Doctor. Sometimes he gives a line reading so utterly perfect you have to wonder why it is so rare.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘He’s looking right at me.’

Great Ideas: You could build an entire story around the idea of conceptual co-ordinates. Take me somewhere happy/sad/intellectual/morally debatable, etc. A new century and era always brings about a certain apprehension, and here they are on the edge of the 20th Century. Strange, you would think it bring a sense of renewed optimism, that everything could be reinvented. But then these are based on the New Adventures after all, where cynicism is the order of the day. Sandy is Anabelle’s imaginary friend and she has come out to play. Isabelle Price is the not the new mistress of this household, she’s Annabel’s imaginary friend.

Audio Landscape: This is a creep fest and so all Joe Meniers tricks come out to play. For the most part he is very successful. I jumped out of my skin at least twice.

Isn’t it Odd: I suspected the nurse from the start but I suspect that is supposed to be the case. It’s a shame that all that carefully drawn atmosphere almost goes out the window once the culprit is revealed. The performance is a little too hysterical for my tastes. It’s the only weak spot in the story but it’s enough to drag it down from perfection.

Standout Scene: Chris and Roz confronting the creature for the first time. My hands were frozen above the keyboard, such was the intensity of the performances. And the first creature attack made me jump out of my skin.

Result:
‘For an imaginary friend…’ ‘It’s not that imaginary…or friendly!’ A crisp script, great performances and direction and a refreshing twist on a Doctor Who horror tale, The Dread of Night tops off a generally excellent box set. This reminded me a little of Night Terrors (imaginary creatures brought to life) and little of Night Thoughts (trapped in a creepy house in a domestic nightmare) but it has an atmosphere all of its own. I’ve seen the premise done before (The X-Files Scary Monsters for example) but this concentrates on a few characters, a claustrophobic location and sticks the Doctor, Chris and Roz in the mix. I’ve been genuinely impressed with their characterisation in the entire set. The first story highlighted the Doctor, the third Chris and now it’s Roz’s turn to take to the spotlight. I’ve been critical of Yasmin Bannermen’s performance but this was her most assured turn yet, thanks to some very strong material. I got a touch of the edgy space cop here that I haven’t before. Do these stories typify the New Adventures? Not really, despite some nice high concept ideas they are far too condensed and economically told to embrace the bloated, extreme nature of the books at their most experimental. But given I was never the biggest fan of those books in the first place that isn’t really a problem for me. I appreciate the merits of the NAs, and their influence on the new series (which I feel took their strengths and applied them to much tighter, less showy storytelling) but I found they strayed too far into graphic violence, emotional torture and convoluted plotting. The best of them are the best of Doctor Who but the worst of them…well. And the ratio of good/bad is probably 1/4. What this audio box set has proven is that New Adventures characters can be excised engagingly from the range and applied to economic story of the week audio adventures with a little more maturity and depth to them than your standard Big Finish output. I thought this set contained three extremely good tales and one disaster and that’s a much better average than your standard NA. I would be very happy to hear more. The Dread of Night polishes off the set on a high; it is genuinely creepy and after so many stabs at horror from this company that is no mean feat at all: 8/10