Wednesday, 18 July 2018

In the Garden of Death written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: In a prison camp like no other, the Most Dangerous Man in the Universe is held in isolation. The rest of the inmates have no memory of who they were or what they might have done. No memory even of their captors. Until the interrogations begin.

Physician, Heal Thyself: With no memories and no idea of who they really are, the Doctor and Bliss find themselves trapped on a garden planet and imprisoned. He wonders if he is the evillest man in the universe given he is the only one in a high security prison.

Bless Bliss: With each instalment I’m getting to like Bliss a little more whilst still acknowledging she is nowhere near approaching the companion greats. I think Thakrar has started to adjust to delivering her dialogue on audio (that you can be subtle and not everything has to be pitched at a melodramatic level) and the character is settling in to a rhythm. Here with her memory taken, Bliss is the most humane with have seen her. Vulnerable and caring, I hope she continues in that vein even with her memory back. She likes to solve things. Everything and everyone she looks at she starts deconstructing and analysing.

The Twelve:
The only character that is really different from their persona in the previous story, Julia McKenzie is less kindly old woman and far more assertive and condemning as the Twelve with memory loss. It’s still a far cry from the overdone villainy of the Eleven, thank goodness. A paranoid old lady or someone with exceptionally good instincts? The inhibitor is damaged and she struggles with the voices in her head. She doesn’t want anybody else to think she is mad.

Standout Performance: Victor McGuire’s voice is unmistakable. I was happily listening away and I kept getting images of Gary’s mate from Goodnight Sweetheart, a show I hadn’t thought about for years. It’s not a bad thing, having an unmistakable voice. He gives a good turn here in a likeable role. Why is McKenzie so much better at doing the ‘voices in the head’ acting than Mark Bonner?

Great Ideas:
Personal memory dampeners focused on an individual sense of self; that’s the explanation given for the memory loss. A quirk of technobabble, of course. There’s purely biological defences on this planet because the prisoners could turn the technology into weapons.

Audio Landscape: The transmat sound effect from The Five Doctors. I’m such a geek.

Isn’t it Odd: There are very few original ideas in this story, or even original takes on old ideas. Because theses stories are released in box sets rather than individually I think it is fair to come to expect some kind of narrative thread to run through the four stories but as far as I can tell this is three very separate, distinct stories with the Time War looming angrily in the background. I may have bemoaned in the Doom Coalition sets that the arc trod on the individual instalments but there was no denying that the penultimate episodes of each set left you gagging for more as the latest threat to the universe was unveiled. There’s none of that here. I wandered out of the third story going ‘what was the point of all that then?’

Standout Scene: Given the emphasis of this story is very much on the Twelve, especially in the last scene, perhaps this box set was mis labelled as ‘Doctor Who.’ The cover is abysmal.

Result: To lose your memory once because of a great Time War smacks of carelessness. To lose it twice for exactly the same reason smacks of plagiarism. I’m joking of course but given the eighth Doctor Adventures (the books) played about with the idea of the Doctor losing his memory because of a great conflict between the Time Lords and their enemy and flogged it to death (very successfully in my eyes) you would think this was something that the audios would avoid. Aha. The memory wipe mystery plays out amiably enough, but it’s the sort of thing that every show has had a stab at and unless it’s going to be played for all out comedy or all out drama it is just your regulars fumbling around in the dark until somebody switches the light on again. There’s no revelatory reason for the Doctor, Bliss or The Twelve to lose their memories. When they get them back it isn’t like a flood of unfortunate memories overwhelm them in a devastatingly emotional moment. And having their minds wiped isn’t part of some creative scheme. It just sort of happens and ten it’s rectified. An early scene suggests that this might be an impressive interrogatory story between a Dalek and the Doctor. I had visions of scenes like those between the Dalek and the Doctor from the series one episode Dalek or something reminiscent of Dalek Empire when Susan Mendez was under the spotlight. Unfortunately, In the Garden of Death ducks away from a good psychological battle to focus on its cliched amnesia plot. There is some good stuff in here too; the Twelve is given an interesting new spin as an amnesiac and struggling to control voices that she doesn’t understand, I really liked the idea of a prison planet with biological defences and Bliss gets her best airing yet, interesting that that should be when she has no knowledge of who she was. Perhaps a sign that she was a fundamentally flawed character and needs a bit of a reboot. McGann seems a little subdued, because he doesn’t really have much to hang his performance on. He’s an empty shell of a Doctor for no real reason and what can he do with that? Overall this isn’t the most enthralling of stories, but it’s still a cut above the worst of the last Time War boxset. It just smacks of time filler when it should have had a little more momentum given it leads into the finale: 6/10

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Hour of the Cybermen written by Andrew Smith and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Answering a call from UNIT, the Doctor arrives in London to find the streets deserted, apart from looters in possession of a valuable commodity - water. Britain is suffering an extreme and bizarre drought. The cause is suspected to be extra-terrestrial. The discovery of a signal being transmitted into space, and of a spacecraft whose crew are desiccated corpses, provides a possible answer. But the true enemy is an old foe of the Doctor’s. The Cybermen have been patient, setting their plans in place over a number of years. As the final stage is implemented, in the darkest hour, the Doctor must identify who among his allies he can trust. Not everyone wanted the Doctor called, even a month after the operation.

Softer Six: This is probably the sort of story we needed during season 22, a familiar sort of tale where the Doctor is called back by UNIT, welcomed and recognised. Whilst there was a shit ton of continuity in the Colin Baker, his was such a shockingly different and in your face Doctor it might have taken something as comfortingly familiar as this to help the audience to warm to him. Once again, I’m enjoying Sixie travelling on his ow. He’s the one incarnation that I would trust to have a monstrous enough ego to find it effortless to travel with himself. Should the Doctor be enhancing spectrometry software and progressing the Earth’s technology ahead of its time? Hypnotism isn’t a trait that the Doctor gets behind much these days (and if he did it would be the sonic screwdriver that did all the work) but it was always an endearing trait of the classic Doctors, as highlighted here. For once I had no clue how the Doctor was going to get the Earth out of this particular problem because the ransom that the Cybermen hold humanity to is airtight. Any attempt to intervene with their attempt to murder the people of England, then the peoples of the world will suffer the same fate. The Doctor refuses condemn a man for turning to the Cybermen to take away his pain, especially when he has been through such a trauma. It’s thoughtful characterisation of a Doctor who can occasionally be very heartless. Dealing with a heartbroken man who wants betray humanity gives the Doctor a chance to restate his faith in human emotions, but a more powerful and less florid way than he did in Earthshock (eating a well-prepared meal, indeed). It’s gorgeous when the Doctor and Cyberleader finally get to interact, it gives Sixie a chance to let rip with some cutting remarks and insults. He even gets a moment where he can be a right clever clogs as he turns the tables on the Cybermen.

Standout Performance: There was a genuine buzz about David Banks as the Cyberleader returning that I just couldn’t get my head around at the time it was announced. I thought, because the voice is treated surely an actor can play this part. Then while listening to this audio I was absolutely blown away at the amount of menace that Banks brings to the role and just how nice it is to have a Big Finish play where Nick Briggs isn’t having a monopoly on all the alien voices. Banks brings gravitas to the role, which really made this audio stand out from the other recent Cybermen attempts. And as ever the Cyber Lieutenant is a bit rubbish, like Bloodaxe to Irongron, he’s in complete awe of his superior.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘That gun is all flash and no bang I’m afraid.’
‘Removing emotion isn’t only a strength! It’s a kindness!’
‘They will relinquish all their fears when they become like us’ isn’t a great line in itself but coming from Banks it is a gripping promise.

Great Ideas: This isn’t a story that wants to keep you waiting to get involved. Like Invasion of the Dinosaurs (which the Doctor references), the Doctor arrives in a deserted London only to find UNIT troops rounding people up. It’s strange how the UNIT stories are being spread over the year rather than being told sequentially but it does give this new team a chance to establish themselves. In the 80s the Brigadier turned up in Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors and Battlefield and so if you think of this like that then the approach makes sense. Perhaps the idea is to make their appearances a treat rather than a chore. It also means that you can surprise people with developments, such as the death of Daniel’s family. Imagine England where water is a rare commodity and it is being sold on the black market to those who can afford it. A drought without any obvious cause and being targeted in one geographical location. Because of modern day techniques they are having bottled water shipped in but it’s not enough to meet demand. Britain is having a taste of third world thirst. Cerberus is UNITs new line of self defence against alien incursions. A network of alien satellites that orbit the Earth as an early warning system against the incursion of alien craft in Earth space. UNIT has its own astronauts now and use of American shuttles to deploy them to the satellites. This is a pretty exciting development for the organisation, one I would have loved to have seen in the eighties. A spaceship in orbit of the Earth filled with desiccated copses. It makes perfect sense to explore Cyber-conversion in a Colin Baker story, continuing the grisly work of Attack of the Cybermen. I always thought it was a crying shame that the classic series never capitalised on that in Silver Nemesis now the nastier aspects of conversion had been brought to light. The human body is 60% water and the Cybermen have a weapon that can evaporate every drop. They are exploiting a physical weakness this time around rather than an emotional one. The Varidians came to Earth to take revenge upon the Cybermen – they attacked their world and kidnapped tens of thousands of people! You have a character who has suffered a massive emotional shock and he finds the idea of the Cybermen taking away that grief a relief. Is that understandable or a betrayal? Plenty to think about. The trouble with having powerful satellites in orbit of the Earth is what if the alien life they are scanning for take control of them and use them for their own purposes? 200,000 Cybermen is enough to subdue the people of the Earth if they have the dehydration weapon. That will subdue, waiting for the Cybermen to mop up. Even 1% of the Earth’s population would be a significant boost to the Cybermen’s numbers, to spread their menace further out into the galaxy. One of the Cybermen’s most effective strengths is that they are patient. They will wait years for a plan to fall into place. When a slow protracted death by dehydration is the alternative, the Cybermen are banking on humanity taking the logic decision to walk into their conversion chambers.

Audio Landscape: The Cyber shuttle coming in to land at the end of episode one is beautifully done. It sounds genuinely epic.

Musical Cues: There’s a phenomenally foreboding score for the Cybermen this time around, that makes their arrival in the story a moment to remember. Steve Foxon is often imaginative in his use of music and this is no exception, I loved the heavy percussion and discordant stings during the Cybermen scenes. It really stressed that something quite inhuman was going on. Parts of this score feel as though they have leapt straight out of the mid-eighties whilst never feeling like a rip off. Bravo.

Standout Scene: There’s a fantastic moment in episode two where we are exposed to the sort of atrocities that the Cybermen commit when the Doctor isn’t around to stop them. Their abuse of Varidia and the mass conversion of their people is powerfully depicted. The cliff-hangers for episode two and three are something a bit special too. I don’t want to spoil any surprises. I don’t care if one nicks its moment from Resurrection of the Daleks because all the set up that has gone into making that moment stick is extraordinary. A great twist.

Result: ‘We rely upon the vulnerability of the human condition…’ An intriguing and riveting Cyberman story and one that plays out a little like The Flood from DWM (they’ve taken away the rain this time rather than infusing it with emotion) but with so many fun extra details it makes for a substantial and hugely enjoyable experience in its own right. I’m not the biggest fan of the metal meanies but even I have to admit that when they are presented well they are just about the most terrifying foe that the Doctor can face. The combined talents of several people ensure that this is a memorable spin for the walking cadavers from Mondas. Andrew Smith has written a terrific script that allows the Cybermen to prey on a weakness of humanity in an insidious way. I also loved how he exposed some of the Cyber atrocities that happen off screen away from the Doctor, it helps to give them an epic sense of threat. David Banks makes a startling return as the Cyberleader, all gravelly menace and aggressive threat. Steve Foxon ensures this is a truly immersive audio experience with some truly memorable sound effects and a terrifically robust score for the Cybermen. And the rest of the cast treat them with appropriate caution and fear that really sells the idea of their menace. A few examples aside (Spare Parts, The Harvest), I can’t think when I’ve enjoyed the Cybermen more on audio. Reunited with his old foes, Sixie is defiant, ruthless and smart. All his best qualities. Smith’s no-nonsense writing fits him like a glove. It’s not a story that is quick to reach its apex which allows for some fine suspense but when things finally blow we’re afforded some fantastic cliff-hangers and the discovery that I’ve come to care so much about the characters introduced in The Helliax Rift came as a complete surprise. Jamie Anderson is proving to be a real hotshot new director and how he assembles this piece really is avant garde. The plot is familiar, but the presentation is simply too gripping to miss out on. This isn’t a case of ‘just another return of the Cybermen’, they’ve made their reappearance into an event. I think Big Finish captures the best of the Cybermen in a way that eludes most of the TV series (although even they can have an off day like Sword of Orion and Last of the Cybermen) and they truly capitalise on the horrors of what these creatures represent. As classic Who as you can get, whilst still being brilliant listening: 8/10

Monday, 16 July 2018

Planet of the Ogrons written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Avoiding the Time War, the Doctor and Bliss are found by an old acquaintance: the latest incarnation of a criminal mastermind the Doctor knows of old. But unlike her predecessors, the Twelve has a handle on her previous selves’ unruly minds. There is a mystery to solve involving the Doctor’s TARDIS and its unusual occupant – and answers will be found on the Planet of the Ogrons.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Planet of the Ogrons puts the Doctor in the same situation as the third Doctor in The Curse of Peladon, meeting up with an old foe but in a apparently kinder new guise. McGann is much gentler a performer than Pertwee so he plays the suspicion less obviously, but there is an element of once bitten, twice shy to the Doctor here that I rather enjoyed exploring. Is somebody capable of this much change? It’s possible. Does the universe usually work in his favour that way? Not on your life. Half the fun of this story is to see if he is right or not. I like the idea that because of both the Time War and the paradox that fuelled the original story, the Doctor’s recollection of Day of the Daleks is hazy.

Bless Bliss: Bliss doesn’t expect judgemental behaviour from the Doctor. There’s a nice conversation between Bliss and Ogron Doctor (couldn’t they have thought up a better name for him than that?) about faith and we learn that she is an atheist. It’s the best scene for Bliss yet, not over stressed or melodramatic. Just two people learning about each other.

The Twelve: The Doctor declares The Twelve as one of the most dangerous villains in the universe but then he usually says that about all his long-term foes so I’m not sure it’s worth just nodding and smiling at him and perhaps taking them at face value. It looks like everybody is turning into women these days, a new take on regeneration promoted by the New Series and taken up by Big Finish. I’m not surprised, regeneration whilst still being a brilliant concept is also one that has been exhausted by various mediums and so I’m not surprised that a fresh spin on the idea is being capitalised on. And having an actress of the calibre of Julia McKenzie playing The Twelve is always going to be good news. I was never that keen on the Eleven as a character because I felt he devolved far too often into pantomime villainy and ranting and so to bring McKenzie as a complete contrast (but with all the weight of the history that the Doctor has with the previous incarnation of this character) gives the character an engaging new lease of life. I mean, who doesn’t love a kind old lady? What’s not to trust? She has a neural inhibitor, which means she has full control over her other selves who were getting far too unruly for their own good. They are locked away where they can’t do any harm. Eight was the exception to prove the rule, sweet and calm. Her previous selves might have been maniacs but they had plenty of skills and the Time Lords wanted to utilise those skills in their war effort. There’s not a prison, a cell or a surgical table that can hold her.

Standout Performance: How fun was McKenzie’s take on the various personalities of the Twelve? She’s such a skilled performer that she managed to give each personality a very distinct voice. You can distort his voice all you like, you simply cannot disguise Nicholas Briggs. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where somebody else should get to play with the Daleks and their offshoots. His voice is far too easily recognisable now after so much exposure in countless roles.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You called a Lord President of Gallifrey, Fred?’
‘You are an insult to the Dalek race!’
‘Base go boom!’

Great Ideas: The opening raises a lot of questions: what has happened to turn the Doctor into an Ogron? I thought it was only Star Trek that did that sort of thing, turning their regulars into species they aren’t native to. Regeneration can throw up some unexpected surprises, but the Doctor has never heard of a Time Lord shifting species during the change. Is it possible to protect troops from the effects of temporal fallout? Ogrons are a blunt weapon, hired muscle, what would the Daleks want to do with them? Because the Daleks are altering their timeline (and the Doctor’s) there are several versions of events that occurred in previous stories. That’s almost a default excuse now if continuity is handled erroneously. The Daleks are dangerous but they’re not suicidal. They weight up the details and the risks in changing the timelines and only nip and tuck if it is in their favour and the consequences aren’t too severe. The Hybrid is a manifest of other races lumped together and bundled into a Dalek casing. It goes against the Daleks creed of racial purity; they loathe him and fear him in equal measure. But he gets results. If only Steven Moffat could have had an endgame of this variety during his arc for series nine. This is precisely the sort of Hybrid that would have made for a great climactic showdown in Hell Bent. It’s a fascinatingly grisly concept. The creatures that the Ogrons feared were supposed to rock creatures. That didn’t quite translate on screen (more like a spongy orange duvet creature).

Audio Landscape: Lots if Dalek sound effects again to get the heart racing – alarms, the control room heartbeat, the sound of the doors opening from the original Dalek story, the Daleks cutting through a door.

Musical Cues: I really enjoyed the tribal music that kicked in when the Doctor and co hit the Planet of the Ogrons. The insane banging of drums is a new sound for the audios. Nicely done.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m really not sure about the cover redesign for these eighth Doctor Time War stories. I get that Big Finish might want to promote the actors involved with the production but there seems to be too much emphasis on photoshopping publicity stills of the cast against a CGI background that illustrates detail about the story. The result is a rather awkward fusion of the two. I don’t think covers for audios have been this awkward since the early days (remember Land of the Dead and Shadow of the Scourge).

Standout Scene: The death of a major character at the climax is tonally bizarre. Three regeneration scenes are referenced so it feels like a parody and like it is supposed to be played for laughs, but nobody told Rakhee Thakrar who is playing it very much for real. If it was supposed to be funny, I think the gags got lost in translation.

Result: Barry Letts once wrote a Blakes’ 7 audio play and in order to research how it could be achieve he was given several fan productions to listen to, which he said were so full of continuity and knowing references that a casual member of the audience wouldn’t have a clue what is going on. Admittedly his play wasn’t any good either, but that’s by the by. I think the same criticism could be levelled at Planet of the Ogrons, which is an enjoyable instalment for any long-term fan clued up on Dalek history, Day of the Daleks, Frontier in Space, Doom Coalition and various other stories but anybody who might dip their toes into Big Finish as a way of experiencing Doctor Who audio drama without that weight of knowledge would be completely lost. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely down to your own personal opinion. I liked it because it tied together lots of continuity in an engaging way and introduced some fresh ideas that worked extremely well (the Hybrid is a particularly fun, grisly idea). I might bemoan the fact that Big Finish relies on the shows continuity too much to drive sales but even I have to admit that they have done a great service to certain elements of the series that didn’t have a chance to explored in much more detail. The Ogrons are one such detail, and being so fond of them on television I was delighted to hear that they were pencilled in for an appearance. I never suspect we would get such an authentically melodramatic (and very classic Who) title and it does promise a deeper understanding of the race that has do far been underutilised. We get to explore their culture a little more and there is some effort to get inside the mind of these creatures, and to explore their own unique dialogue. The eighth Doctor can’t seem to get away from the Eleven (she goes by The Twelve now) and this is another element from the past which has been pleasingly innovated. McKenzie is a triumph in the role, in no way playing the part as a dotty old woman but as an incisive Time Lady that has come to straight jacket and silence her past selves. She has lovely chemistry with Paul McGann. Because of its very familiar elements this feels far more like classic Who than the Time War inspired post 2005 version and that might have contributed to my enjoyment factor somewhat. This is fanwank of the highest order, depending on your mileage for that sort of thing. This was innovating, so I’m on board: 7/10

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Eighth Doctor: Time War Vol. 2: The Lords of Terror written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: When the Doctor takes Bliss to her home colony, they discover that the Time War has got there first. Bliss finds her world altered beyond recognition, and the population working to serve new masters. No dissent is allowed. The Daleks are coming. The planet must be ready to fight them.

Physician, Heal Thyself: I think the Doctor is often reluctant to take his companions home because he is scared that they might leave him. That stretches right back to his first companions, Ian and Barbara. If the Doctor wants to know what has been going on on any particular planet he just asks the people who are running from guards. The Doctor condemns this society from the off, refusing to accept a civilisation that treats its people like slaves and that uses fear and brutality to keep them in line. The Doctor is often at his best when he gets to butt heads with his own people (Hartnell and the Monk, Troughton and the War Chief and all the others with the Master with a special mention for the sixth Doctor in Trial of a Time Lord) and McGann has the added fury of the Doctor’s reaction to the Time War to add fuel to his fire. He struggled gamely to generate interest in the first set despite his extreme efforts but when it is revealed what Carvil has done, I was fully on the Doctor’s side and way McGann spat the dialogue out left me with no illusions of the Doctor’s extreme hatred for this kind of twisted manipulation. It’s great stuff. The Doctor knows that if he doesn’t make a stand on this planet then it will become a blueprint for a Time lord Empire so terrible and utterly devoid of mercy.

Bless Bliss: Jonathan Morris is an extremely safe pair of hands when it comes to fleshing out companions since he has turned his hand to pretty much any and every companion in the shows entire run successfully. Bliss desperately needs some backstory and substance after her almost invisible presence in the first box set and Morris does the sensible thing of taking her back to her planet and seeing the impact of the Time War on her home. It’s a great shorthand to see where she has come from, what sort of family, who her friends are, etc before letting her loose in the universe with the Doctor. Of course, this is usually done in a companion’s introductory story but the first Time War box set was spending far too much time trying to be clever and mired in wartime clichés to focus on anything important like characterisation. Let’s call this a much-needed repair job. Her home city is Capitol city, Deralobia, and she has family waiting for her back there. He takes her home one month after they left. After discovering the footprint the Daleks have left on her world, Bliss won’t listen to the Doctor anymore, she’s determined to find her family. Her house completely demolished and she fears that her family is dead. The Doctor delivers a cold blow that her family might never have been born in this version of history, the Time War has a habit of swallowing up little details like that. Does that make her an orphan of the Time War? Bliss gets a wonderful moment where she gets to confront Carvil over the fate of her world. I’m not sure Thakrar sells the moment, but I appreciate it being there all the same. It’s precisely the sort of moment that Nyssa didn’t get in the eighties every time she came face to face with her father’s murderer. To have not included would have been quite the omission. If a time storm blows across the surface of her home world it will mean that nothing will ever live there again. Is she ready to face that? The ending where Bliss gets to confront the Doctor over what his people have done is powerful, but again I’m not entirely sure the acting is up to scratch.

Standout Performance: I don’t know what to make of Rakee Thakrar because she’s clearly an actress of some talent (many a well-respected actor has made their mark in a soap opera) and yet she plays the part of Bliss as though she is still treading the cracked paving of Albert Square. It’s such a naturalistic performance and I don’t mean that in a good way because it’s naturalistic in the way that she’s crossing dimensions and hopping planets but reacting to it in such blasé fashion you might think she’s nipping from the Queen Vic to the market. Maybe I just need to get used to the style. There’s something very new series about having a modern-day outlook on these adventures, and it’s something that has worked to Big Finish’s advantage with characters like Flip. However, Bliss is supposed to be from outer space in the far future so I’m not sure why she sounds quite so contemporary.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Indoctrination through crowd psychology. Somebody’s been reading Orwell.’
‘You think choosing the lesser evil excuses evil.’

Great Ideas: Bliss’ home world has been attacked by the Daleks; they attacked the cities, positioned the air and polluted the seas. It’s expedient for the population to believe that they are under constant threat and so the government make it so. In truth the Daleks attacked 20 years ago and haven’t been back since. Turning the people into a slave race through propaganda and you can get them to build you a huge rocket. Carvil came to Deralobia for the specific intention of turning it into a war machine. You have to feel sorry for a planet that has been duped into thinking it had a devastating attack by the Daleks 20 years ago…now having to suffer an attack by the Daleks! Because the Time Lords are symbiotically linked to their TARDISes, they will self-destruct if their operators are murdered. So those pesky Daleks better watch out if they feel like nipping a Time Lord with an exterminating blast.

Audio Landscape: The sound of gunfire terrifies when you realise that anybody is fair game. The sound designer makes no secret of the fact that these bullets will tear their victims apart. Hooray for the Cushing movie sound effects that play during the control room scenes.

Musical Cues: I still adore the War Doctor theme tune. I do a crazy little dance when the staccato drums start banging. Let’s hope the second season lives up to this twisted version of the regular Doctor Who theme tune.

Isn’t it Odd: Notice how a few Daleks dance about unobtrusively on the covers whilst the actors taking part in this story take centre stage. At this point in the various Time War releases the Daleks’ are no long any kind of draw, and their quiet inclusion on the cover feels like tokenism to their continued presence. Am I really complaining because the Daleks feature in a Time War release? No, I’m bemoaning the fact that Big Finish had flogged the Daleks to death BEFORE they started playing about with New Series continuity. Having characters chant ‘Death to the Daleks!’ in defiance of the oncoming taskforce is not only familiar, those exact words have already been chanting several times over and it was even the title of a previous releases. What else is there to say about these creatures that hasn’t already been said a million times over? ‘Given we are at war, certain moral compromises are an unfortunate necessity…’ – it’s unoriginal dialogue like that that hung around the neck of the first series. Even the Doctor states that it all sounds very rehearsed.

Standout Scene: There’s a glorious moment where we venture out onto the planets surface and it is revealed that there are other city domes, all building their own rockets. A fleet is in the making, one that has been constructed through fear attacks that never happened.

Result: ‘Then they would know that their protector was a puppet with a Time Lord pulling the strings…’ Trust Jonathan Morris to give the Time War a dash of emotion so the audience can actually feel something about the bibbly bobbly slimey blimey events that are taking place. It was something that was irritating me like a rotten tooth in the first box set – the lack of feeling for anything that was happening which made it feel like a bunch of hoary war clichés that was impossible to give a damn about. From the off Morris takes a strong character approach to the Time War, showing its impact on the Doctor’s new companion Bliss which has the twofold strength of handed her a personality for the first time and making this world one that I can connect with emotionally. It’s not just another casualty in the Time War, another number, it’s the world that gave the Doctor his latest friend and it has been raped and twisted by the Daleks. I love the idea that the problem (the Daleks attacking) and the solution (the revolution and their rocket) are already set up when the Doctor arrives. This feels like a dangerous world, a bit like Earth in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where people behave in abominable ways because they are scared of the Daleks. The approach is really intriguing, it shows the emotional reaction to an attack rather than focusing on the attack itself. The twist is a brilliant one, that nothing is quite what it seems from the point of view of the people and that the Time Lords have behaved abominably badly, which is usually the most interesting thing that any writer can do with them. What’s interesting is that there isn’t really an original idea in this story; the Time Lords are usually right bastards during this era, people have reacted badly to threat of the Daleks before and the Doctor has fought against the twisted schemes of his own people countless times. And yet to take such a psychological approach to the Time War it feels like we are ploughing fresh furrows because it gives the Doctor something meaty to rail against and a moral attitude backed up by fire. The resulting scenes where he vows to bring this torrid affair to an end feel fully justified and for a time I couldn’t tell where this story was going to end. That’s a really nice feeling. So is the fact that the Time Lord responsible for all this given a solid character motive for his actions. Is there dramatic mileage in the Time War? Before I listened to this story I would have said it was doubtful, so I’m very pleased to have been proven wrong. Thank goodness for Jonathan Morris. For once the Daleks attacking is a moment of delicious irony: 9/10

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Satan Pit written by Matt Jones and directed by James Hawes

This story in a nutshell: ‘The Pit is Open and I am free…’ 

Mockney Dude: What is the objection to the Doctor and Rose really liking each other? That does seem to be the big problem that people have with this combination of characters, that they are really rather fond of each other to the exclusion of all others. It does make them a little selfish and a little blind to the people around them and it does make them appear unbearable smug at times because they are so deliriously happy together. But that’s people in love. And I think that is the big issue. That the Doctor should never fall in love, and god forbid it is with a young girl from Earth. Well guess what, shit happens. Planets get destroyed, guilt gets heavy and then pretty chavs walk into lives and turn them upside down. You genuinely feel the connection between the Doctor and Rose in this episode probably more so than in any other story this season except the climax because the stakes are so high and the danger feels so real. There’s no real time for them to make moon eyes at each other because they are constantly on the run. And yet that connection is stressed because they are scared that they will never get to see each other again, perhaps never get the chance to say how they feel. When the story keeps them busy, Tennant and Piper can really shine together because they both get a great deal to do and their desperate need to get back to and protect one another really sells the feeling they have. The Doctor knows he’s getting old because his instincts are to retreat. You can see the positive approach that the tenth Doctor takes having a real impact as he smooths everybody’s brow after they have taken a psychological beating from the Beast. Leaving the Doctor out of the action was a sound idea because it forces him to have a multifaceted dialogue with a guest character and his scenes with Ida are beautifully written. He’s forced to think about his opinion rather than just react to situations (as he has a wont to do in the new series) and it presents a considerate, thoughtful man rather than the manic geek in space that we have seen up until now. Tennant’s best moments throughout his run would be more thoughtful, conversation scenes like this (his heart-breaking conversation with Joan at the end of The Family of Blood, the scene when he catches up with Jack in Utopia, most of Midnight, the gut wrenching moment when he tells Adelaide she is going to die in The Waters of Mars). These are the moments where Tennant is forced to prove his talent, which he has in spades. When the Doctor is asked outright what he believes in, what he has faith in all he can give are ambiguous answers. Perhaps he doesn’t know anymore. He comes frighteningly close to asking Ida to tell Rose he loves her. It’s a moment where I caught my breath. The scenes of the Doctor reasoning the history and the backstory of the Beast from the facts he has to hand really allow his intelligence to shine through. It reminds me of the scenes between the Creature and the fourth Doctor in Creature from the Pit. Except there are no blowing of protuberances this time. Which is odd, given this is the new series and a gag about blow jobs is just around the corner. When the Doctor has given up hope, along pops the TARDIS. Is that the her he was talking about that he believed in?

Chavvy Chick: I really like faltering the moment that Rose stresses for the Doctor to tell her that the Devil doesn’t really exist. When he’s silent, she asks again. Piper underplays the moment and you can see the fear in Rose’s eyes when he cannot take all the monsters away. Sometimes they real and you have to deal with them. Rose is brave enough to put her life in danger to protect other people nowadays. Her travels in the TARDIS have really changed her. When everybody else has given up, Rose is encouraging them to think their way out of this impossible situation. We haven’t seen this kind of writing for her character since the previous season. She’s a ruthlessly efficient organiser and gets everybody doing what they do best. I can see this Rose taking an important position on Pete’s world. Billie Piper does some of her best acting when she is desperate and struggling; when she was sent home in the TARDIS in The Parting of the Ways, struggling against the wall that separated her and the Doctor in Doomsday and here where she is forced onto the rocket and away from the Doctor for good. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I don’t want to die on my own.’
‘That’s why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong.’
‘The stuff of legend…’

The Good: Like a really good Terry Nation script, the previous episode piled peril on top of peril so the situation seemed calamitous and so if the threat to the base destabilising was handled with reasonable swiftness then there is still the problem of the homicidal Ood and the possessed Toby to keep the pace running furiously. It’s an absurdly busy and exciting opening to the episode, there are very few Doctor Who stories that kick start with this much forward momentum. That dirty, grungy base still impresses me after all these years. Unlike many Doctor Who locations this one really feels lived in. Who doesn’t have that mad little voice in your head saying jump over the edge of a cliff? It’s a wonderful expression of fulfilling the need to experience, to dare, to venture into the unknown. This really was a time when Doctor Who could make comments on wonderful moments of human existence like that. This is a story that dares to explore psychological horror in quite a profound way, the Beast terrifying his victims by preying on their worst psychological fears. I love how each taunt reveals a new shade about each character, effortlessly adding layers. The Doctor is the killer of his own kind, Zachary being terrified of Command, Mr Jefferson haunted by the eyes of his wife, Ida still running from daddy, Danny the little boy who lied, Toby the virgin and Rose the lost girl who will die in battle very soon. It capitalises on previous continuity, it offers glimpses into the future and it offers tantalising pockets of backstory for these characters that suggest a life outside of this story. It’s fantastic writing. How delightful to see the return of the old-fashioned ventilation shaft – no wonder so many classic fans have a fondness for this story! The Doctor descending into darkness is an exceptional visual, he is literally venturing into the unknown. In the midst of all this drama there are still small moments of levity – I love how everybody is admiring everybody’s arses as the crawl down the ventilation shaft – we’re definitely not in classic Who anymore! Cor Sarah Jane, lovely buns you’ve got there! Bugger off Harry! There’s a moment when the Ood turn the corner and its spaghetti shakes like a rabid dog’s jaws hunting its prey. They are such an original design. Self-sacrifice is tenapenny in action adventure…so why does Mr Jefferson’s sacrifice feel genuinely upsetting? I think it is because he has been presented as imperfect character with a shady past just trying to do his best. You’re rooting for him because he feels like a real person. That deft bit of editing where Toby reveals himself to be still be possessed to the Ood before screaming for help from his comrades is priceless. I love the idea of a prison which is in itself a trap. If the prisoner escapes, the gravity field collapses and the planet falls into the black hole and kills him. It makes sense of so much of the story to this point. Toby’s rage in the shuttle as the Beast possesses him for the last time is a genuinely unsettling moment of horror for children watching this show. It is and adult behaving in a horrifically unpredictable manner. I love the manic energy of the scene and how it never let’s up until Toby is out that window and flying in the dead of space.

The Bad: Maybe the CGI Devil lacks subtlety…but by God it looks fantastic. I just can’t imagine this snarling beast with Gabriel Woolf’s silky intelligence nestled inside.

The Shallow Bit:
Toby Zed might be a slightly blading geek…but I would.

Result: A terrific second part to a near flawless two-part serial, The Satan Pit has a few minor faults that hold it back from perfection (that still goes to Human Nature/The Family of Blood) but if I were to point at a story in the early days of Doctor that ticks all of my boxes, this would be very high on the list. It’s almost the perfect fusion of classic Who (base under siege, ventilation shafts, monsters, suspense and slower scenes that allow for some complex dialogue) and NuWho (a stylish production, pacy action, emotional drama, complex characterisation). Maybe it’s just me and I am completely biased but I cannot think of a large cast like this in the Moffat era where the characters feel this real. There is just something about the interaction between them, the chemistry, the information we are given and how they react to the situation that just sells them completely as a group of desperate people trying to get out of this situation alive. When these people lose their lives it really means something. It’s superbly cast, and that is just one aspect of a genuinely impressive production that feels like it has had more time than usual lavished upon it. Even Murray Gold’s score feels less like a collection of emotive themes and geared perfectly towards the atmosphere and the action. An overly hyped relationship by the audience at large and a overly criticised relationship amongst fandom, the Doctor and Rose get magnificent treatment here. They are separated for much of the story and work extremely well within their own storylines but there is always that longing feeling of worry for each other’s safety that permeates every scene. And given the dire situation they are in it is perfectly natural and believable. The moment they are reunited at the climax I was punching the air for them, such was the efforts they had to go through to find one another again. And with the lingering threat of Rose’s death it is a reunion with a bite. It’s some of the best characterisation they had all year and they are given excellent dialogue to speak. I wish Doctor Who could bring together all facets of a production (writing, direction, acting, music, editing, lightning) this synchronously more often than it does these days but for those of you who disparage the new series against the classic version might want to check out this story. It’s doing so many things well to please both sets of fans and that is a very hard task to pull off. Taken as a whole this is one of the strongest entries in the past ten seasons, a bedtime horror story told with intelligence and directed with style: 9/10

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Age of Sutekh written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The world has changed. And the evil Osiran Sutekh is returning. As blood sacrifices and worship boost the strength of the God of War, servicer robots walk the streets, killing those who have not converted. Leela is working with the homeless population of the city, while the Doctor co-operates with the police. A brutal battle is ready to begin. And if the Doctor and his friends fail, everyone in the galaxy will perish.

Teeth and Curls: Nothing to report. Which seems unbelievable given how full this section was in the last review. The physical fight between Leela and Sutekh is beyond lame.

Noble Savage: Leela’s assertion that the homeless are for once the fortunate of Drummond is a good one. The physical fight between Leela and Sutekh is beyond lame.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He does sound a bit needy.’
‘I am the Doctor and I bring my gift of life to all humanity!’
‘I am enjoying the view, horse face!’

Great Ideas: This is now the world of Sutekh and however decadent, however ornate, it is now a world of Death. The Osirins were able to use their minds to propel themselves through time and space. At his peak, Sutekh was able to wipe out entire civilisations just by thinking about it. Sutekh has used the combined minds of everyone who has used Renonet, millions of people all linked with his as the focus. The power of that is inconceivable. His aim is the death of all life in the universe because as an insecure child he sees it as a threat to his dominance.

Isn’t It Odd: I really like Sutekh as a villain, it’s not often that the Doctor comes up against something as powerful as a living God (unlike Star Trek where that sort of thing happens every second week). However, I’m not sure belittling the character as much as they do here really does his street cred any good at all. In Pyramids of Mars he was treated as something that was to be feared at all times, even by the Doctor, which made him scarier than even during the scenes in his tomb. But by comparing him to an insecure child and making crack jokes at his expense, he comes across as little more than a petulant child that is desperate for a bit of attention. When he starts banging on about the gaping joy of emptiness that he will leave behind I was starting to wonder about the paucity of a villain that wants to get rid of everything just because it might threaten him. The trick with this character is to distract the audience enough with scares so that a light is not shone too brightly on the chief protagonist and his hoary out dreams of ultimate destruction. The Age of Sutekh seems to go out of its way to do that and Sutekh seems like a hammy old bad guy, desperate to impress as a result. Showing him in a state of weakness so soon after building his New Osiris was a mistake. It was time at that point to see what the character can do, not show him struggling to maintain control. It’s very odd to have the mummies appear in an audio given that the key factor of their success was that they were silent bringers of death. Silent enemies are pretty hard to bring to life on audio and just having characters screaming ‘they’re like mummies, run!’ doesn’t quite have the same impact. Wouldn’t it have been better to focus more on the mind control aspect of Sutekh’s power rather than turning this into an action adventure standoff between the people of Drummond and the Mummies? Turning Sutekh into an audio villain means you need to be more creative than just describing mummy attacks and using sound effects of their destruction. Did Guy Adams learn nothing from the last of The Last of the Time Lords and The Lie of the Land? Having a climax of a story that features an entire population slaved to technology that results in their brainwashing and then using that technology to help said victims overthrow their masters just doesn’t work as a satisfying conclusion to a tale. It’s too obvious and a little twee. The climax relies on the stolen moments of happiness from people that we have never gotten the chance to know in any great depth. As such it was a little lost on me. If it had been the Doctor and Leela remembering happy memories of each other, that might have made this much more affecting. Grrr it's irritating that the debate that began in the previous story is brought up again here in the last scene only to brushed aside with a 'it's very hard to stay annoyed with you, Doctor, I'm hungry!' Is there no attempt to follow through on some kind of tension or fascinating moral debate in this range?

Standout Scene: Sutekh’s influence over people is revealed quite vividly when he forces a crowd of people to literally fall on their swords. What is this, Game of Thrones?

Result: As I said in my previous review…if you’re looking for a standoff between the Doctor and Sutekh then you might be disappointed. I’m not sure what the was of bringing back what many consider to be the ultimate villain in Doctor Who canon only to belittle and weaken him so considerably. It means he’s a far less effective bad guy here; meek, enfeebled and pretty much described as a child desperate for attention. Nothing like the terrifying God from Pyramids of Mars who left the Doctor screaming and writhing with fear. Even Gabriel Woolf’s performance seems chattier and less controlled. It depends what you prefer when Big Finish bring back old monsters and villains from the past (every other releaser then), for them to innovate them and do something fresh or to give you more of the same. The key is to innovate for the better, to reveal new shades to their villainy. I don’t think it should ever be denigrate a particular character. Leela talks about judging a man by the quality of his enemies and in Pyramids of Mars you could see the Doctor at the top of his game, in The Age of Sutekh he barely breaks a sweat. It’s much more the typical action fare that Big Finish plumps for too, a thin approach to storytelling rather than an intellectual one. I didn’t think this was going to turn into Leela convincing the homeless of Drummond to overthrow their dictator because that seems like the most simplistic approach the story could have taken. What happened to all that decent characterisation that was in the previous instalment? The Doctor and Leela could have been Doctor/companion combination in this. Any Doctor can wave a sonic screwdriver and be glib and any companion can rouse the underdog to attack. And the idea of using silent mummies as a monster on audio? Sheesh! The cliff-hanger gave me hope that this might turn into something quite unusual with the Doctor in the position of a God and being able to influence people. I thought it might tie in to the concept at the heart of Kill the Doctor! but that was never the case. Instead it features the Doctor and co dressing up as mummies and a technobabble fuelled ending. And once again Sutekh only gets to stretch his legs for a few minutes before being defeated! I’m sure it isn’t the case but this script feels as though it was made up as it went along and after setting up something momentous that the writer didn’t have a clue about how to deliver it. The result is a huge disappointment and another instance where you have to wonder if it might have been best to keep an old villain on the shelf rather than dusting them down and giving them another airing. The 4DA curse strikes again: 4/10 

Kill the Doctor! written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The TARDIS crew arrive on the planet Drummond, an Earth colony in the far future where everybody uses handheld computers from morning to night. Rania Chuma is the mastermind behind, the datastream network that tells you everything you need to know. Anyone who’s anyone uses But ever since Rania was young she’s heard a voice in her head. That voice is the key to’s success. And it’s a voice the Doctor might find familiar. Whilst Leela chases a thief, the Doctor looks into the planet’s datastream and something evil looks back. A subliminal command flashes through to Drummond’s entire population: ‘Kill the Doctor’. When the entire planet is against you, where can you possibly hide?

Teeth and Curls: Tom is great in this but remember in the first couple of season where he was completely let off the leash and left to play the Doctor pretty much as Tom Baker? There’s an element of that to Kill the Doctor! He’s completely off the wall in how he chooses to play some reactions, in a way that the Doctor never was even when Tom was playing the role. The Doctor likes junk shops, charity shops, tea shops and books shops but that is the only kind of shopping he really likes. I think we would get along splendidly on a shopping trip in that case. He hates people smiling at you when they don’t mean it. Leela knows that the day will never be boring with the Doctor around, no matter what he thinks of where they have visited. The Doctor uses his clothes to announce his personality to the world (the sixth Doctor even more so). He’s sent K.9 off to play in the TARDIS park, even though he isn’t sure if one actually exists but K.9 made no bones about searching for it. Cheeky beggar. He topples dictators, saves planets, basket weaves…it’s a busy life. His dress sense has been remarked upon across the universe…so he’s appalled when the device tells him it is 89% unsuitable. They’ve almost broken a record on Drummond; Leela vanishes within 2 minutes and he’s threatened with death within 10. Saving societies is not something he sets out to do (not at this stage anyway…come The Happiness Patrol), he just sort of falls into it and doesn’t want Leela telling people that he is like a one shop God that can sort out all of their problems. There are homeless people everywhere and he doesn’t like it but he can’t start revolutionaries everywhere because a society is financially top heavy. It’s all he would ever do! You can’t go around the universe changing everything you don’t like. Oh boy we better hope he doesn’t wind up meeting the seventh Doctor. That’s practically his raison d’etre. Watch as the Doctor causes wonton destruction and then admires his ability to throw a spanner in the works. Only Troughton was more of an anarchist, I would say (mind you Hartnell had his moments too).

Noble Savage: Style should be individual, says the Doctor and Leela certainly lives up to that. She wears what she likes (the sort of attire that would drive the Dads wild at 5.45pm on a Saturday) and is proud of it. Guy Adams allows Leela to reason so intelligently and sum up an entire civilisation when she meets a homeless person who is stealing food (‘a tribe is only as strong as its weakest member’). I love how she justifies theft (‘that man was too stupid to catch you’) and condemns a society that has forgotten how to care for everybody. Leela picks up her own stray, just as the Doctor does. Kendra is a innocent woman from the streets and her new companion. Leela even talks about the Doctor about joining them in the TARDIS. Leela thinks a hover bike is better than the TARDIS because at least you can point it in a direction and let it go.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It means they’re fashion victims’ ‘Fashion kills?’
‘Why do they all stare at the little machines in their hands?’ – one of my favourite lines in a Big Finish audio in ages. Yes, why do we?

Great Ideas: Gadgets can play havoc with species’ development. They distract people, they stop people from being social, they cause accidents and they mean that people stop trying in the real world because the virtual world of your device is so much more exciting. On this planet it is a digital helping hand that tells you what clothes you should be wearing, what movies you should be watching and who you should be voting for. It’s a digital brain to replace your own. If this is a thinly disguised attack on mobile phones and social media it isn’t exactly a subtle one, but it is one that is needed. It would only take someone truly irresponsible on a phone net or on the internet to do a lot of damage to a lot of people. I wonder if that would make us sit up from out phones and pay attention to what is going on around us. In a period of the show where people losing their minds to alien intelligences was rife, this is the ultimate expression. The evil intelligence at the heart of this society can manipulate the minds of everybody who has used one of the handheld computers to turn on the Doctor and try and kill him. It’s a really fun idea that would have been nice to have seen realised. Think of it like the Pink Panther movie where poor Inspector Closseau was besieged by assassins at every turn. This time they are just ordinary civilians but in some ways that is more frightening. Once Sutekh could crush whole worlds with the power of his mind alone, but now he needs technology to force people to do his will.

Audio Landscape: How lovely to have the TARDIS arrive on such a busy, bustling world. It feels fully realised from the moment the Doctor and Leela step outside the TARDIS. We can’t see it but the mention of futuristic Egyptian design, gold plating and shopping outlets plus the sound of hover cars really sets the imagination firing. Adams (and Robertson) really show how to create a vivid setting in practically no time at all, without over describing everything.

Musical Cues: Pachelbel’s Canon, one of my favourite pieces of music, plays at the beginning of one scene.

Standout Scene: Sutekh’s return is so anti-climactic I can only assume that that was a deliberate decision. Since Big Finish seems to rely on the advertisement of it’s big returning villains and monsters I am assuming that everybody knew that he was going to be in this before they bought it. Certainly, they made a big splash about the ‘return of Sutekh!’ in their news feed. And since Sutekh has (fairly) recently made a return in the Bernice Summerfield range it is hardly as big a coup as it might have been. Instead of building up to a big revelation that he already knows people have prior knowledge of, Guy Adams instead chooses to take another approach and make his return as quiet, but as intelligently done as possible/. I admire that. Oh, and he’s on the cover.

Result: If you’re going into Kill the Doctor! looking for a momentous reunion between the Doctor and Sutekh you might be bitterly disappointed. This is all appetite whetting for the second half of the story. What you get instead is something more cherishable than another awesome villain from the 70s turning up in a 4DA, a healthy character examination of both the Doctor and Leela. Adams has a deft grasp of both of them and as they explore this fascinating society we get to see both of their thought processes (he’s all frivolity, banter and one liners and she’s study, examination and condemnation) and it culminates in a beautiful scene where their ideologies put them on opposing sides of a moral argument. Why can’t the Doctor decide what is right or wrong and knock about the universe making changes for the better? Leela’s response to his answer to that question is both childish and perfectly understandable and I really like it when these two butt heads in this fashion. It brings out the best in both of them when they are on edge (the Doctor is suddenly ruthlessly intelligent and reasoned and Leela emotional and vulnerable). Colour me impressed. Drummond is one of those fully realised worlds that turns up on audio, a perfect synthesis of what the writer describes and the sound designer conjures up. I felt as though I was immersed in a real society; one with history, class levels, a sense of architecture and technology all of its own. It’s fascinating to see that Sutekh has gotten with the times, using technology to reach into the minds of his followers and directing them to murder. There is a touching sense of impotence about the God on this revisit that made him a little more complex; he’s still capable of terrible things but he’s reliant on a certain knowledge to get it done. With Nicholas Briggs to direct this moves along at a fair lick and with something as fun as an entire society attempting to kill the Doctor he gets to have a lot of fun with the mass zombie crowds. Even the cliffhanger isn’t the usual duff moment of jeopardy but the apotheosis of Sutekh’s plan, promising much for the next two episodes. I’d love it to live up this: 8/10