Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Absent Friends written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Earth. The late 20th century. Across the world, the mobile phone is gaining popularity as more and more people decide to join the digital age. But for the residents of a sleepy English town sitting in the shade of a new transmission mast, that ubiquity has a troubling cost. When the TARDIS veers off-course, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in the middle of a mystery. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt you. And sometimes the future does as well.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor is willing to give the TARDIS a complete overhaul but that means jettisoning his companions for a day. He goes straight for the more obvious examples of an alien presence such as strange lights in the sky and completely ignores the less fancy notion of troublesome telephone calls. The Doctor and Liv are so in sync with each other these days that I’m not entirely sure where one begins and the other ends. She’s not the most effervescent of companions for him but she does ground him a lot and the trust that they have in each other is palpable. Nothing he expect to be wrong is wrong today, which is very disconcerting. Liv is angry that the Doctor made her take the call from her dad, suggesting that he just doesn’t understand people and what they go through in his adventures. His response, that he will never understand if nobody explains it to him, is perfect. Isn’t it wonderful how the Doctor is so used to dealing with madmen with grand schemes that he automatically thinks that is going to be the case…and yet in this story things are genuinely as innocent as they seem.

Liv Chenka: Live getting the chance to speak to her dead father really shocked me because it was the point where the story makes it clear that this isn’t people who are pretending to be the dead loved ones but it is actually them. That was even more unnerving. The story doesn’t resort to screaming and shouting but one last, gentle moment between Liv and somebody she loved a great deal. It’s almost painful in its lack of melodrama. Liv was out working when her father died and she’s bitter because he was misdiagnosed. She could have done that properly and saved him. She could at least have been there with him when he died. It’s a huge regret in her life. She gets the chance to tell him that she loves him in a heart-breaking moment.

Helen Sinclair: The differences between Liv and Helen continue to stack up. Helen is delighted to be back in England but Liv states, quite bluntly, that it isn’t her world. I should have realised that something was going to be amiss when Helen disquietingly reacts to the fact that it is 35 years after her time. This isn’t the future, it’s her future. The people she knows will still be alive. The dangers of going to see her family and how they turned out 35 years after she left them are manifest. Imagine returning home after a trip in the TARDIS to discover that your very disappearance ruined the lives of those you left behind? Imagine this being the future when you discover all of this and you cannot go back and make amends because those events are now fixed in time? Poor Helen, what a devastating responsibility to have to face. When facing her brother in the future, Helen has to face up to the fact that she appeared to be guilty of her crime by the very fact that she ran away. Not a letter, not a phone call after she left…the feeling is that Helen was a criminal and she didn’t care one jot about her family or their reputation. After Helen left the family name was not exactly a desired commodity. Her brother asks the very awkward question that if she is Helen’s daughter then why hasn’t she looked up the rest of the family? To which there isn’t really an adequate answer.

Standout Performance: All three regulars are exceptional, but Nicola Walker gets her best ever moment when she screams at her father to get the medical attention he so badly needs. After she has hung up on him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The 21st Century is just around the corner…and everybody has to be ready’ – a nice, sly dig at Torchwood there.

Great Ideas: To sweeten the deal of putting in an ugly new telephone mast in town, everybody is being given a spanking new, state of the art mobile phone. But with that comes a price…the dead long buried and burnt alive are calling and haunting those who have been gifted. Such a simple, but chilling idea. It’s not that the episode tries to dazzle with its emotional content, it simply presents various well played characters with the disturbing situation of having to take a call from a deceased loved one. A mother from her son. A man from his gay lover. Liv from her father. It’s all so dexterously handled and it is all the more effective because of it. You never forget losing a loved one and the idea that somebody is using that loss as some kind of weapon is horrific. The New Adventure Nightshade had a similar unsettling effect, for the same reason. The assertion that self-interest outweighs conviction is an interesting one that could be debated for a long time. From my experience of people, this is a true statement. The dead are phoning from when they were alive, somehow it is all true. A clock, attached to the workings of the mast, that is allowing people from the past to interact with those from the present. The only hint of a connection to the larger arc, but an intriguing one.

Audio Landscape: Babble of conversation, clapping, cheering, birdsong, Big Ben, traffic.

Musical Cues: A subtle score, most unlike anything I have heard in a Big Finish for a while. You cannot stamp all over a gentle character tale like this with bombast and the gentle music that plays enhanced the emotions I was always feeling. It’s much more effective because of it.

Standout Scene: The moment the phone rings and Liv realises she has the chance to save her father. My heart was in my throat.

Result: Unnerving, emotional and effective, this is a perfect character tale that enhances Helen Sinclair and Liv Chenka exponentially. I have one major problem with Absent Friends and that it is that it has very little to do with the Doom Coalition arc that it takes place alongside. Since this is one of the best stories yet, that is a bit of a problem with the overarching narrative but it is not a problem for Absent Friends, which stands proud and alone. The first two thirds are almost overly simplistic in plot terms and we actually don’t learn an incredible amount more than is revealed in the pre-titles sequence. But it is packed to the gills with useful character development for Helen and re-affirmation at just how effective the Doctor/Liv partnership is. The last 20 minutes is where all the gold lies though, a triple whammy of emotional scenes for each of the regulars. Helen facing her brothers anger is the most obvious but still the rawest scene, Liv’s phone call comes right out of the blue and winded me and the Doctor facing up to his voice from the past is kept agonisingly secret until the very last second of the story. In the plot dense period of Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, character development can be pushed to the side-lines but Absent Friends makes up for that in spades and shows just how rounded these regulars are. More than that it is an audio that doesn’t use any cheap tricks to get you close to its characters and impresses due to its delicacy. Appropriately, Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan give their most effective performances to date too. Absent Friends wont present you with dazzling science fiction but it will creep inside you and make you feel. Who ever knew that a ringing phone could be so terrifying: 10/10

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Cortex Fire written by Ian Potter and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor brings Flip to the futuristic city of Festin, the best vantage point to witness a unique astronomical light show. In a city governed by the all-powerful network known as the Cortex, they’re soon identified as outsiders – nihilists, perhaps, responsible for a wave of terror that’s been sweeping the city… But the truth is different. The people of Festin are burning up. Spontaneously combusting. And no-one knows why.

Softer Six: The TARDIS is a ship of immense power, a delicacy and she has to be coaxed into normal space time by a pilot of enormous skill. The Doctor has bought Flip here to see a show. He’s still dazzling her with the wonders of the universe. The Doctor has seen this kind of light show before…but never through Flip’s eyes before. It’s nice to hear him admitting that this is a reason that he travels with a companion. Déjà vu is a strange feeling to have when you have vu’ed as much as the Doctor has. Where he comes from he is considered positively Plebeian. The Doctor is such a menace on the roads that he has to be restrained by his own air car, the air bags being used to hold and incapacitate him. Pertwee’s Doctor would have respected the road, Colin’s just tears from roadway to roadway maniacally. Sixie is never more effective than when he gets to unleash moral outrage and an extra dimensional force that has raised and is willing to destroy an entire civilisation as a bridge to get home is just the sort of abhorrent force he can rail against. I like that he tries to reason with them before bringing them down. This is a Doctor who will give you a chance before he bludgeons you with a pipe. He can’t punish the Urge by killing it, that would take the destruction of a whole world.

Flippin’ Heck: Another confident showing for Flip, with Greenwood effortlessly established in the role by now. She has the advantage of youth, so why does she complain so much about the physical aspects of their adventures. She’s not great with musicals either. Is she good at sweet talking aliens? She must be, she travels with the Doctor after all. She’s met people from other worlds before and she forgets what it must be like for other people meeting her. Flip is particularly adept during stressful moments, thinking quickly and acting even quicker. She frees the Doctor from incarceration in the least subtle way imaginable, but it’s very effective all the same. She’s making a habit of rescuing people these days. Flip doesn’t need grand operas and star destroying light shows, Punch and Judy and a bag of chips will do her. I like that she can bring the Doctor down to Earth like that. Flip questions her own impulsiveness, wondering if the Urge is something that is in everybody or whether it is just a local phenomenon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let’s just hope the Festin unconscious isn’t like your mum.’
‘This whole civilisation exists simply for you to annihilate it!’
‘Destruction is what you crave…and for that you deserve to live.’

Great Ideas: You almost have to admire the gall of audio Doctor Who adventures that stress impressive visuals as the centre of attraction on a planet when we will never get to see what they are talking about. However, there is nothing so limitless as the imagination and I can certainly conjure up a dazzling effect given the writers description of the light shows on this planet. The cars on Festin are levitated electromagnetically since Festin has an exceptionally strong electromagnetic field which the locals have exploited. The skies of Festin are a constantly shifting lattice of projected energy roadways. The magnetic field causes glorious light shows where charged particles enter the upper atmosphere, a lot like the Northern Lights. And it is this light show that the Doctor has bought Flip to see, a display that brings alive an unforgettable opera. Light days are a sub division of light years. The closest star exploded one and a half days ago but it can still be seen intact because the light from it exploding hasn’t arrived yet. As the Doctor and Flip sit in the arena, energy from it’s death will bombard the ionosphere and cause a spectacular light show with a suitable tragic edge, the perfect staging for an opera. Gay characters in a 1980s story is something that would have been absolutely forbidden but it’s nice to see that being addressed in the audios, especially when it is done as subtly as it is here. The Cortex is the city admin net, it assigns employment, plans airways paths, enforces law… Are the people being nudged along pre-determined tracks, just as the cars are being directed along airways? Why would the Cortex be building roadways in the atmosphere where the destructive light of a dying star could reach them? A whole society that has been kept deliberately on edge for some time. The Nihilists are the ones who simply cannot cope with it. Time Lord books reach into dimensions that normal books cannot. The people of Festin have turned something that once helped their people survive into something that now threatens their existence. The Urge is from another dimension, anchored in this space and wrapped in matter and serial time, woven into every creature that exists here. It’s only a slither of themselves. They wish to enter their own realm again and the organisation of Festin’s destruction is to help achieve that. The space programme’s function was to take rockets to Fetonus and destroy it. The whole planet, it’s roadways, it’s people, have been engineered to create a way home for the Urge. A planet sized neural network.

Audio Landscape: Air cars tearing through the sky, screaming, sirens, a raging explosion, car horns, running water, water and electricity mixing, causing sparks, a collapsing tower, police robot, heart monitor, cell door hissing open, rewinding a tape, madness on the roadways.

Musical Cues: Like Vortex Ice, the music has a refreshingly melodramatic 80s feel to it. This time it is like plastic wallpaper, not unpleasant to listen to but persistent during the action scenes and dragging the story to a sprint at times.

Standout Scene: Self-sacrifice runs deep in this culture, and a scene that features suicide of one character to try and control the urge to hurt others is very effective. I’m not sure this sort of thing would have ever passed the censors on television.

Result: Some impressive high concept world building, conjured up at real speed. The Doctor and Flip are dropped into a deadly situation that is already in full swing and are forced to keep up with the local developments. Cortex Fire covers a lot of ground and moves at an incredible rate, quite the opposite of your standard main range adventure. I might run the risk of contradicting myself and say that this needed the length of a full length four parter to justify and explore the ideas that are presented here but I was certainly engaged by the rate at which new ideas kept coming. Ian Potter lays out all the ingredients in the first episode (the destruction of a nearby star, the nihilists, the destructive capability of the people, the Cortex) but without the explanation of how each element segues together it feels heavy with concepts. The second episode strikingly weaves everything into an epic masterplan, even ideas that feel superfluous contributing to an impressively arresting scheme. Whilst there have been monsters from other dimensions before, the Urge is presented in an original way with a way of thinking that simply does not recognise humanoid life as anything other than disposable tools. The Doctor and Flip continue to shine together with more moments of the pair of them trying to see the universe through each other’s eyes. Pairing this story with Vortex Ice is effective in that regard, they’ve each been given an insight into the others way of thinking across the pair of tales. I would like to hear more from Ian Potter in this range, he clearly has a fertile imagination and Cortex Fire bursts with inventiveness: 8/10

Monday, 22 May 2017

Damaged Goods written by Russel T Davies and Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The year is 1987 and there’s a deadly new narcotic on the streets of London. As part of their investigations the Doctor and his companions Chris and Roz move into the Quadrant, a rundown housing estate. An ancient alien menace has been unleashed, a menace somehow linked to a local gang leader known as The Capper, a charmed young boy called Gabriel and his mother Winnie, the enigmatic Frei Foundation, and Eva Jericho, a woman driven to the brink of madness. As London descends into an apocalyptic nightmare, the Doctor must uncover the truth about the residents of the Quadrant and a desperate bargain made one dark Christmas Eve.

Master Manipulator: It says something about how relevant the Doctor was in his own series of novel adventures that it takes him ten minutes to turn up in this audio. The New Adventures were as interested as telling stories that featured the Doctor heavily or not and at times he could feel like a cameo in a Doctor Who range. However, as soon as the Doctor does appear in Damaged Goods (the audio), he is a major player and this the one adjustment that has been made that really stands out above the rest. He’s so much more likeable in this version, so much more dominant and Doctorish. In the original he walked about like a despairing ancient Time Lord, at a loss at how to handle the despair that filled his adventures these days. In the audio he feels much more in control, much more ready to engage with people and whilst melancholic in places, he feels like a keen observer of human behaviour and that he is there to help these people as much as he can. It’s a huge shift, and a very welcome one. As a result of his excellent characterisation, Sylvester McCoy gives a terrific performance, one of his very best as the Doctor. I would recommend this adventure just for a chance to hear McCoy’s Doctor at his powerful, dominating and yet heart-warming best. The image of the Doctor as a ghostly figure emerging from the shadows on a dark night being observed by a terrified child is a potent one. The Doctor has so many bad memories that if he started to cry he could flood the world. The Doctor was often making way for himself in advance in this period of his life and the lovely mention of a pools win for the family that lived in the flat that would allow him to do his work in the Quadrant made me smile. All these years and it still feels like he is starting from scratch every time. The Doctor admits he might not be at his best in a domestic setting like this (ultimately he is wrong) and that’s why he needs his companions to inveigle themselves into the lives of those on the Quadrant. My strongest objection to the novel was that the Doctor’s companions are treated more like his work associates than his friends…but here Morris smooths over that problem by allowing the Doctor a moment to explain why he needs his companions to head out and get close to people. Wherever he goes in the universe he has a habit of getting straight to the centre of power…and this place simply doesn’t have one. The Doctor embarrasses himself horribly when he says ‘wicked’ to a teenager, swearing that that was all the rage in 1987 (I nearly spat out my coffee at that one). His life used to be a lot simpler. Questions would be asked and he would be there with all the answers. Happy days, but dead and gone now. He misses the carefree life when he used to knock up gizmos from bits of this and that. The moment when the Doctor states that Mrs Tyler’s tragedy is an entirely human one and that he doesn’t have time for such things I saw a glimpse of that ruthless NA Doctor emerging. He condemns her, not outright but be refusing to comfort her. The Doctor is effectively useless when it comes to human understanding but is in his element when facing up to the N-Form. Bamboozling a piece of Gallifreyan war art, piece of cake. Comforting a grief-stricken woman, he wouldn’t have a clue. But at the climax he has to do both.

Ruthless Adjudicator: Yasmin Bannerman gives a perfectly fine performance…but she just isn’t Roz. The Roz I know is aggressive, unreasonable…a bit like Alfie Woodard from First Contact (that’s how I have always envisioned her). Bannerman plays the part earnestly, like a Doctor Who companion. I don’t get the impression she is a hardened Adjudicator. Frankly, she’s too nice.

Puppy Dog Eyes: In Travis Oliviers hands, Chris is much less the droopy eyed puppy that he could sometimes come across as in the books and is far more professional and able. He’s seen in this story mostly through the eyes of David Daniels, a gay guy who wants nothing more than to get inside his pants. God bless him for suggesting that maybe for once everything will be simple and they will have it sown up in a night. Simple? Doesn’t he know this is a New Adventure adaptation? David mistakes his misunderstanding over talk of their sexualities for Chris being innocent and new in town. I loved how Chris simply told David to ask him to snog him. That it is that simple. It sounds like he was going to too. 

Best Guest Cast: ‘The night I sold my child…’ It’s an astonishing cast of characters, whether you’re reading the book or listening to the audio. For the most part they are confined to one setting: the Quadrant and it is a literal interpretation of you don’t know what is going on behind closed doors. Well now we get to get up close and personal and find out exactly what and the truth is the truth of humanity: there is happiness, pain, loss, despair, sex, love and everything that comes in between. The story makes the observation that just because the people in the Quadrant don’t have much money it doesn’t make them bad people. There is sometimes a terrible injustice that befalls the lower classes on Council Estates. Davies would go on to prove his point with more alacrity when Rose Tyler leaps from an Estate to the TARDIS and prove such a delightful companion that the Doctor falls in love with her. I love the idea of the Doctor and his companions moving in to the Quadrant as a very dysfunctional family, simply there to help the inhabitants. In the novel it felt like they were there just to stop the N-Form and that the people they came across were just in their way. In the audio, it feels like they genuinely care and that they are there to make a difference to people’s lives. It really helps to sell the idea as a Doctor Who story. Populated within the Quadrant are Winnie Tyler (Davies does love that surname), a single mum who has struggled to put food on the table of her children and once made a terrible deal on a dark night to try and provide the best possible life for her two children (ahem). Gabriel, her son, goes through life looking very attractive to people because he is affected by a glamour, which allows those who perceive him to see something of themselves reflected back at them. 

Standout Performance: It is a story packed full of memorable performances, Denise Black stood out for me as the finest. She has performed in all sorts of Russell T. Davies series (most memorably in Queer as Folk) so this seem a very apt casting choice. The madness of Eva Jericho is a difficult part to play without going insanely over the top and Black resists, feigning a polite insistence that her horrific acts are reasonable. That’s much scarier. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Capper is dead…long live the Capper.’ 
‘The world’s more full of weeping than you could understand’ – that’s a line weighed down with so much heart-breaking subtext.
‘I’ve wasted my life sitting at that boys bedside unaware that a perfectly good replacement was on the rack.’
‘I’m not saving the world over the phone!’
‘What would any mother do? Any real mother!’

Great Ideas: Smile is an illicit substance that has found its way to Earth and whenever one of the inhabitants comes in contact with it death is never far behind. It kills people in a remarkably violent and inelegant manner. The Capper is a genuinely ghoulish and fearsome monster, quite unlike anything else that has featured in a Big Finish audio. A resurrected drug dealer, touched by sophisticated weapons technology and featuring the worst aspects of humanity and Time Lord society. He’s astonishingly powerful, but crude and violent with it. He’s quite simply terrifying and the performance and direction work in unison to make him so. Those people who are capable of casting a glamour are low level psychics. Why would the Capper being selling Smile at such a ridiculously low price? Unless he wanted the drug to spread as far and as wide as possible, so everybody has had a taste. Tribophysics (mentioned in Pyramids of Mars) is an ancient art dating back to the time of legend, a means of slipping between dimensions, which is very convenient when your home world is under attack. The time of legend might as well be named the time of war, and not just for Gallifrey. There were countless civilisations forging their way through the stars, all too many of them with a taste for conquest. The technology that has fallen to Earth might be a product of any one of those races and the Doctor thinks it is being carried in the Smile. The ideas have been altered ever so slightly but the emphasis is very much the same. This was one of the major strengths of the novel lines, the New Adventures (and by extension the 8DAs) in particular, they played about with huge, mind blowing notions and had the time to explore them in some depth. These books took the science fiction that Doctor Who could handle to another level. At their best, it was a level of sophistication that the series could only hope to aspire to and could rarely reach (simply because the shows purpose is to entertain). Steven and Gabriel are part of a telepathic gestalt, and one boy would always be stronger and their separation has made Steven even weaker, close to death. They need to keep the Tylers and the Jerichos apart because if the two boys come together now…boom! Torchwood being name checked took me completely by surprise and the Doctor’s comment (‘never heard of them’) is chucklesome. I question whether news reports would have been used to inform the listener about the widespread panic about the Capper bursting free if that wasn’t a regular feature in Davies’ Doctor Who to come. However, again, it feels right. I love the moment the newsreader succumbs to the drug, proving that he too was a user. Long ago the Time Lords were artists of war. They revelled in the beauty of dying suns and they built the N-Form, a sentient sculpture that kills without compunction. There’s a piece of N-Form in every gram of Smile and once it’s ingested it becomes a dimensional vent through which the N-Form can enter the physical world. A weapon from the past (the N-Form) being activated by a War from the future (a Time War that this Doctor knows nothing about). The climax of the story featuring Mrs Jericho as the dominant mind inside the N-Form, claiming the monster as her child, is perfectly gripping. The fact that every action she has taken is from a maternal instinct to have and protect a child makes her ultimate fate, how that instinct has twisted her into a monster, all the more heart-rending. Now she’s a mother to 11,000 children. A grotesque monster of a mother. Whether it was his suggestion or not, I bet Davies was thrilled with the new ending of David and Harry bringing up a pair of children. Again, given Davies’ other output on television, it is spot on.

Audio Landscape: Listening to the soundscape on this story. It’s like Big Finish know that they have gotten their hands on something truly special and have gone all out to make sure it is brought to life with as much care as possible. Crying in agony, the Tall Man’s muffled voice, a squeaky door, pouring tea, the Capper devouring its victims, a dog barking in the distance, traffic, siren, keys, a car pulling up, banging on a door and then kicking it in, smashing a window, firebombing a flat, explosives going off inside the fire, heart monitor, hospital atmosphere, Alfred choking and gagging, vomiting, destructive N-Form extraction, the ground tearing apart and the true terror of the N-Form emerging, making a cup of tea. 

Musical Cues: Howard Carter has long been my favourite Big Finish composer (although Russell Stone, Jamie Robertson and Fox & Yason also qualify with top marks) and this is one of the most impressive scores he has written. That means it is a very high standard indeed. The melancholic piano introduction gets me every time I listen to this. It screams subtly that this is going to be something quite distinct. The fresh, exciting title music gives me goose bumps, it’s one of the best versions of the original theme that Big Finish have produced (and they’ve had a fair number of stabs now). It’s a gorgeous melding of McCoy’s original and McGann’s to come, suggesting the placement of the new Adventures in between the two. I loved the apocalyptic score when the Capper tore free of its human prison and started attacking London. 

Isn’t It Odd: The subplot featuring Harry coming to terms with being gay and being assaulted and almost killed as he explores it is so watered down in the audio to be practically excised. It means the few scenes that are included from the novel feel out of place in the audio. They are typically well done for this production, but having one of his only scenes come after the theme music suggests Harry is going to be a major player in the story when that is absolutely not the case. It serves as an introduction to the Capper, I suppose.

Standout Scene: The twist that this story hangs on is rightly saved for the cliff-hanger. It’s a great cliff-hanger because it projects the story in a whole new direction that starts to make sense of Gabriel, of Eva Jericho and her son and why Winne Tyler is so protective of her children. One dark night she made a deal to protect her children, selling the sickest of them for a lump sum of money so she could look after the other two. It’s a stomach churning reveal and it comes with a bucket load of genuine emotion (regret, hatred, despair, hope). It grounds this story in real human misery in a way that Doctor Who very rarely touches. Eva Jericho couldn’t have children and had the money to buy the little boy. £30,000 was all it took. A business transaction. Who would have thought that that deal could go so wrong for the person buying the merchandise? The child was sick and has had nine painful years of treatments that has almost brought the Jericho’s to their knees. Eva Jericho in particular has been saturated in psychic misery, enough to induce madness and when she discovers that her sick boy is one of twins it sends her over the edge. The sequence of events where Eva Jericho poisons her husband’s dinner for keeping the truth from her and then turns up at Winnie Tyler’s house to exchange sons (or to return her damaged goods as the title is so horrifically revealed) are some of the most discomforting Big Finish have ever put out. The examination of madness, the implication of the sale of the child, the idea that a child can be returned so calmly as defective stock…it’s brutal human misery at its rawest. I was compelled and repulsed and I haven’t been made to feel that way on audio for a long, long time. A huge bravo to the performances in these scenes, which go above and beyond anything that I would expect in an audio drama. The small touch that Mrs Jericho is a racist and insisted on a white Anglo Saxon child, which is the cause of her calamity, adds further depth to her misfortune.

Result: An outstanding entry into the novels range and the Big Finish story of modern years that reminds me most of the main range at its densest when it producing works such as The Holy Terror, Jubilee and Davros. I had problems with the novel of this story because it was a truly ugly thing, one that focussed on the dark underbelly of domestic society in such a dark way that it made me feel uncomfortable that Doctor Who was tackling issues such as drugs, abortion and the disturbing psychological effects of loss in such an intimate and destabilising way. It was beautifully written, of course it was as it was written by Russell T Davies and the characters were painfully real in a way only he can write them but the story never felt quite like Doctor Who to me. It didn’t feature the Doctor, Chris and Roz…it featured a cold businessman and his two associates. What Jonathan Morris has done so adeptly is to take hold of that work of human cruelty and turned it into a much more accesible, slicker, pacier Doctor Who story. Whilst there is still the power of the original work and the stunning ideas, some of the more forceful characters scenes have been removed entirely or tamed to an extent so the story doesn’t feel like an emotional assault. As a result, Damaged Goods the audio is bursting with energy, creativity and humanity; scene after scene of memorable dialogue and fine performances and the whole piece culminates in an unforgettable climax. It’s a beautifully told Doctor Who story now and Morris deserves a lot of kudos for pulling that off. I’m not surprised it was nominated for an award, this is audio Who at its richest. All the ingredients are stacked up and slotted into place perfectly; unforgettable guest characters, sincere emotional interest, a fascinating science fiction concept fuelling the drama, a vivid Doctor, a plot that surprises and twists like a knife attack to the belly, genuinely frightening moments, stunning dialogue throughout and a climax that refuses to tidy things up after such a messy human ordeal has taken place. The director, sound designer and musician all deserve a great deal of credit for this story turning out as effectively as it does and the performances were all of a very high standard. I especially love the change that ties the N-Form into the Time War rather than just Ancient Gallifreyan history. Given this is written by Russell T Davies it feels right that this should be a prelude to the horrors to come to which he would thrust upon the series and deal with the aftermath. My favourite New Series writer and my favourite Big Finish writer in collaboration and what they pull off is a beautiful thing indeed: 10/10

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Vortex Ice written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of ‘exotic particles’, the Doctor and Flip arrive 700 feet underground, in a mine in Northern Mexico – only to run into a scientific expedition. Among their number, an exobiologist. They’re all on the hunt for alien life! Deep underground, the team finally uncovers a cave of vast crystals – like ice, despite the heat. And inside the crystal: something frozen. Something trapped in time. If only it were something simple, like a monster. But it’s far, far worse than that.

Softer Six: The Doctor and Flip are great fun together, concocting a silly cover story as to how they found themselves in the mine. If there is a Time Lord down the mine, there are quite a few candidates that he has no desire to meet up with. Proceeding with caution, then. Asking the future Flip whether the rest of the characters make it out alive or not is a violation of temporal law…but I’d probably be cheeky and just do it anyway. The temporal jiggery pokery that the Doctor has to explain in episode two is nothing to Colin Baker, he doesn’t even break a sweat. The Doctor leaping from the TARDIS and tempting the cyborg with tasty Artron energy is a lovely image. Ever the showman, he loves to make an entrance. The Doctor thinks his future self is the most rude, incorrigible, handsome and intelligent person he has ever met. It is the curse of the time traveller to know there are lives you cannot save and injustices that you cannot avert.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip continues to impress, asking lots of sensible questions about their location and the temperature. Jonathan Morris practically seems to acknowledge that they have finally figured out how to make this character work when he has the Doctor ask ‘you’re full of questions today, Flip.’ According to the Doctor, one of her most likeable qualities is her recklessness. Because she is so salt of the earth and friendly I can believe that Flip could get along with pretty much anybody. For me that is one of her best features. She develops friendships quickly with guest characters in her stories because they take a shine to her. Going back to her opening salvo of adventures I think that the majority of listeners would be appalled by a Flip meets Flip adventure, such was the reaction to her character. But now opinion seems to have mellowed considerably and it is an engaging idea to have her meet a future iteration of herself. To have your every characteristic mirrored back at you. Flip being told to let people die to maintain the timeline is a very powerful moment, because it is antithetical to her character to not at least try and help. Flip gets a valuable insight into the Doctor’s responsibility as a time traveller. For once it’s she who has the foresight and cannot do anything about it.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘I’ll explain later’ – we’re used to the Doctor saying this to chip his companions off so it is especially satisfying to have Flip toss the phrase at the Doctor in a similar way.
‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like when I come to the rescue.’
‘You did not set the TARDIS to vanish when you say hey presto!’ ‘No, it’s on a timer.’

Great Ideas: It’s fascinating to see a Main Range story being told in such an economic way (with regards to time) because Morris immediately cuts out all the flab of the first episode and has the Doctor and Flip meet the guest characters instantly (no overlong TARDIS scene here, unusual for this period of the series) and gives us a clear introduction of them. I have long complained that the Main Range stories are far too long and meander but Vortex Ice gets right to the point in a very engaging way. Much more like it. Trapped underground, you already have a claustrophobic environment. Over 100 miners were killed in an explosion in the mine years ago and their bodies were never found. Artron energy has been detected in the mine, energy that is only usually found in the brain of a Time Lord or a TARDIS. There’s oxygen and condensation to drink in the lower levels, so the trapped miners must have died of starvation. 100 years ago the miners dug up the remains of an alien spacecraft that had been under the ground for millions of years. A creature trapped in the crystal like a fly in amber. It is the pilot, half organic, half machine trapped in vortex ice, crystalline stasis. Within the ice the passage of time is brought to a standstill.

Audio Landscape: Falling masonry, creaking TARDIS door, sliding down ropes, cracking ice, a scream in the distance, lots of atmosphere down in the caves, the screech of a cyborg pilot, the secretion of vortex ice, freezing and cracking into place, time freezing around the Doctor and Flip.

Musical Cues: Listen to that 80s-synth slavered all over this story. It’s Vortex ice has gotten up on its hind legs from that decade and tottered along to the release schedules three decades later. It’s wonderfully authentic. There’s even a little snatch of the theme tune, Keff McCulloch style.

Standout Scene: It worked a treat in The Space Museum when the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki saw a portent of their future as museum exhibits…and it works just as well in Vortex Ice when the sixth Doctor and Flip come face to face with themselves trapped in the ice. Wearing the clothes they are wearing now, it is a shocking vision of what is to come. It was especially satisfying because I was sure it was going to wind up being the Master (especially when the Doctor sighed ‘not him!’). The last line made me laugh out loud.

Result: Trapped underground and with lots of nasty surprises awaiting them, Vortex Ice hands the sixth Doctor and Flip a punchy, engaging adventure. Some audios struggle to find one decent idea to hang their narrative on and Vortex Ice greedily has three and a mystery; the Doctor and Flip encased in the ice, the alien spaceship that was disturbed and Flip meeting a future iteration of herself…and the mystery of what happened to the miners to boot. Condensing a main range story down to two episodes has done them the world of good, slicing away all the narrative belly fat and paring the story right down the bone. It’s tightly plotted and there are surprises every few minutes or so. The guest characters didn’t exactly light my fire but there are simply there to service the plot and for the regulars to discuss the ideas with. A strong set up episode leads into a complicated but satisfying conclusion, giving Lisa Greenwood some really fun material to play with. Having the Doctors meet one another is old hat (and Sixie even got to meet himself in The Wrong Doctors to excellent comic effect) but companion squared is fresh and interesting. I’m surprised at how much effort Big Finish have put into making Flip work as a companion given it appeared she was written out very early on in her run, but I’m not disappointed because it is paying off in spades. She’s a lot fun and very likeable and Greenwood (who has always been very engaging) is finally getting the plaudits she deserves. You might need a couple of listens to this to get your head around the spaghetti junction plotting (I heard it twice) but it’s worth it because the resulting story is very entertaining. It’s my first footsteps into the main range since the last sixth Doctor trilogy and I’m pleased I did: 8/10

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Oxygen written by Jamie Matheson and directed by Charles Palmer


This story in a nutshell:
The Silence in the Library meets The Waters of Mars meets Deep Breath…but so much more than an amalgam of those adventures…

Team: The Doctor, Bill and Nardole are such a collection of oddballs when put together that at the beginning of the season I was wondering how that was going to pan out. Basically, the Doctor and Bill works, immediately in The Pilot so it was the addition of Nardole, who has been hanging around for a few years now (technically) on the side-lines. The Doctor and his companion have been enjoying adventures for the past five weeks and Nardole has been making little cameos in each story to remind the Doctor of his responsibilities but now it is his turn to join them in a story and their lives full time. Is that something that can be made to work? I’m pleased to say it is a categorical yes. Oxygen gels the three of them in a way I could have never foreseen and cements them as firm friends and potentially the greatest set of regulars in the Moffat eras. The solution was simple, apparently. Put them in mortal danger in a terrifying setting and watch them suffer but get closer as a result. Throughout you feel that bond between the Doctor and Bill as he agonises over what he has to put her through. Nardole’s humour and sarcasm is much needed in this setting, sometimes it is the only source of levity. At the end once they have been through the excruciating ordeal of thinking that one of their number has died, they come together for a cuddle. It should be twee but it feels triumphant. It feels like the show is celebrating their survival and the fact that it has three likeable, well defined characters spearheading the show once again. Bravo, is all I can say. 

Indefinable: ‘What if you’re wrong?’ ‘Well, we’ll be horribly murdered!’ I have to restate my love for the Doctor as the university lecturer, a role that Capaldi seems immensely comfortable playing. I love it when the Doctor’s academia is stressed and this is done in a way that grounds him on Earth and allows him to be utterly flippant within the role too (he’s supposed to be teaching about crop rotation and instead chatters on about the dangers of space). I’m loving this new approach in series 10, giving the Doctor a responsibility that ties him to the Earth. The Doctor so often freewheels about space and time and it does give the show a wonderfully anarchic and formula breaking premise but every once and a while (the early Jon Pertwee years, the Key to Time) it is good to give the Doctor a responsibility that focuses both the character and the show. It’s impossible to engage him the subject of staying on Earth when he wants to pop off somewhere though, he has all the answers. This is simply a wonderful episode for Capaldi’ Doctor whatever way you look at it. He’s witty and verbose in the first ten minutes, out thinking Nardole into a trip into space. He walks around the station like an animated corpse, horrified by the terminal action that has taken place. At times he’s the scariest thing there. And he’s dangerously intelligent in outthinking the suits and figuring out just what is going on, his brain working until it overheats and forces him to put his companion in terrible danger. And most importantly of all is his dealings with his companions; tender, smart, funny and concerned. Matheson is the ultimate Capaldi writer for me, he just flies off the page in his hands. Giving the Doctor a disability is simply the icing on the cake. Watching him calmly trying to cope with being blind and how it doesn’t affect his ability to heroically work his way out of the situation shows his strength of character. And says to the audience at large that a disability, whilst debilitating, should never hold you back. I can only think of one other time where the Doctor had to fight a capitalist system like this (the BBC novel Anachrophobia) and he walked away from that story in burningly intelligent form too. Although he is becoming something of a modern-day Kathryn Janeway, reaching for the self-destruct button when there is no other option. This is the antithesis of Smile though; the Doctor is given a logical reason for blowing up the station, he’s not just doing it because it feels like it’s the only option left to him. This time, the threat of pressing the button is enough to keep everyone alive. 

Funky Chick: Naturally Bill thinks like a modern-day girl and so when confronted with the idea of going to space she asks the Doctor if there are any reviews of hotspots (the space version of trip advisor). I thought that was very funny. It’d love to work my way through that review site. I’ve seen the ‘oh wow, I’m in space’ a few too many times on NuWho for it to be novel (Cribbins in The End of Time is still my favourite, his sense of wonder is wonderful) but it is still a trademark moment for any companion (it’s certainly more impressive than Adam Mitchell fainting). Bill isn’t being racist when she reacts badly to a blue alien, but I like the idea that she can be accused of being one. More references to Bill’s mother…she’s going to be in this series I tell you. 

Faithful Sidekick: The best use of Nardole since he was first conceived, bar none. For once he is actively engaged in the story and not just a cute presence on its outskirts. Even Mysterio, which did put him in danger seemed to have him along for the ride just for the fun of it. Matt Lucas seizes the chance to play something this dramatic in the series and the result is very surprising: Nardole is actually a character in his own right and not guest star of the week. What’s incredible is that we don’t learn that much about him still, it’s simply a matter of treating him seriously. Is he his sidekick or his jailor? Nardole says it is the Doctor who told him to insist that he stays on Earth but which incarnation did that? Or are we going to see the 12th Doctor tell him at the end of the year and set this whole thing up as a future version of Capaldi putting the season in place? That sounds like a very Moffat thing to do. The fact that I am asking questions about this means I am already more engaged than I have been with previous Moffat mysteries (the Impossible Girl in particular). I really love the fact that Nardole is knowledgeable about the universe and can chip in with useful suggestions and ideas. He’s not just quips and japes. I’ve been waiting for an ‘alien’ companion for some time, somebody like Romana who could talk to the Doctor on an equal level about the universe and what is contained within, I just never thought that person would be played by Matt Lucas. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Space is great, isn’t it?’
‘The universe shows its true face when it asks for help. We show ours by how we respond.’
‘If we want to keep breathing we have only one option. Buy the merchandise.’
‘Please remain calm while your nervous system is disabled.’
‘Like every worker, everywhere…we’re fighting the suits’ – possibly Capaldi’s best line in the series.
‘Our deaths will be expensive!’

The Good:
· I heard Matheson take questions in a convention once and aside from being a fascinating speaker with lots of interesting things to say about his episodes, he pointed out that when it comes to Doctor Who that the characters are often sacrificed to ensure the plot can breathe. He even indicated some scenes that should have taken place in Flatline that would have allowed you to see apparently one-dimensional bullies like Fenton in a whole new light. I’d say in The Girl Who Died he went the other way, he gave his characters plenty of limelight but at the expense of a very slight plot. In Oxygen he seems get the balance just right – there are an abundance of very affecting character moments (the opening scene is a terrific and this story cements the team of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole like never before) but I don’t think anybody can say they are short-changed on incident and excitement in the narrative.
· Whilst the opening kick at Star Trek is a lot of fun (deliberately referencing Star Trek isn’t something I expecting to see on Doctor Who outside of the grotesquely indulgent Deep Space Nine parody Bang Bang a Boom on audio) but it’s making a very deliberate point too about how space is dangerous. This is one of those Doctor Who episode that features a setting that is out to get you straight off the bat. Matheson takes that danger and cranks it up to eleven throughout the episode but the very idea of traipsing around a space station with no oxygen is tense enough without adding malfunctioning spacesuits and dead eyed zombies. Other notable examples of settings that are instantly buttock clenching are Planet of the Daleks, Planet of Evil and Genesis of the Daleks. The scenes shot on the exterior of the station are outstandingly lit and filmed that they feel as though they could have been actual footage that has been taken and superimposed into a Doctor Who episode. I can’t think of an episode in recent years that has instantly planted me in its location so vividly as this. As if the setting wasn’t scary enough, the Doctor then proceeds to spell out the process of oxygen starvation in space, preparing the audience for what the characters (especially poor Bill) will be experiencing late in the episode. To have had the course of oxygen deprivation spelt out beforehand means we’re suffering along with her because we know what she is going through.
· How far can a show like Doctor Who push teatime horror on a Saturday night? Actually quite far, as it has proven to controversial effect before. It’s not a show that often gets under my skin but I’m quite hardly when it comes to television but there are countless times over its long history where you could point and wince ‘too much for children.’ Oxygen definitely counts and is probably one of the most frightening episode since the show returned in 2005 (for the record I would say that Midnight and The Waters of Mars, both on a psychological level, are still moreso). The character that is savaged by zombies on the outside of the station, screaming for help in her spacesuit that cannot be heard as they advance and murder her, is just your starter for ten. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover a corpse that is standing up, simply because the spacesuit hasn’t figured to have him lie down. That’s an alarming visual, especially the dead, oxygen starved fish eyes glaring out of the suit. For me, psychological horror is always much more effective and Oxygen features plenty of that too, particularly when it comes to Bill. We really get inside her helmet and experience hell with her. Or outside her helmet should I say as the suit decides to take it off just as the room is about to depressurise. You’re witness to some of the most accomplished direction on Doctor Who in an age when Bill falls unconscious during this sequence. Palmer captures the disorientation, the claustrophobia and the passing of time as Bill falls in and out of consciousness. It’s remarkably well done. I thought that would be creepiest moment of the episode but boy was I wrong…when Bill is told a few hours later that she is going to have to be left at the mercy of slowly advancing zombies and become one of them. The Doctor walks away from her, leaves her to her fate. That simply isn’t done. And Bill is left alone, screaming for her dead mum and for all intents and purposes dies. That’s a phenomenally scary sequence.
· The concept of oxygen being a commodity is an intriguing one and something that I have been thinking about for many years. ‘One day we’ll be paying for our oxygen and sunlight’ is something I’ve been telling people during debates about capitalism and politics for years (let’s not even pretend that those are my primary topics of conversation…they are usually ‘in episode three of the Androids of Tara, did you notice that Tom Baker let one off when he’s offered the throne?’ and ‘I know the cream cake is 300 calories but factor in the walk it took the shop and back means that once I’ve eaten it I’m in calorie deficit.’ But I do have my moments…) and the idea that something that is fundamental to us staying alive being something that you pay for has always fascinated and frightened me. So, to have that notion explored in an episode of my favourite show delights me. And terrifies me. Unlicensed oxygen is expelled to protect business interests, which means the station is actively working against the TARDIS crew for financial motives. Brrr.

The Bad: I wasn’t that enamoured with the guest characters. But they service as victims and a chance for the Doctor to bounce his ideas off of. And they fulfil that function perfectly well.

Result: ‘Bill I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?’ Oxygen is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. If there was any doubt that the series could reach the heights of its NuWho heyday then this was the proof. Whilst it was extraordinary, I can’t include Heaven Sent because it was such an unusual experiment. Oxygen is honest to God, nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who, refined and pitched to perfection. I mentioned in my review of Smile that FCB doesn’t write my kind of Doctor Who (that isn’t to say there aren’t others who find his tensionless sermons perfection itself) and in contrast Jamie Matheson writes exactly my kind of Doctor Who: bold, original, clever, tense, beautifully paced, characterful, funny and satisfying. In the Capaldi era his is the benchmark that everybody else is working to, just as Moffat was the standout under the previous administration. What you have is a threat on the inside (the oxygen suits that are working against you) and the outside (the dead-eyed zombies attacking en masse) and two companions that are allowed to be absolutely terrified. It’s the tensest the show has been in many years, probably since the Moffat era began. And it’s a formula for success that the show traded in for many years in the classic series that I thought had been long forgotten. Add in an already terrifying environment and you have a Doctor Who episode that ticks every single box when it comes to putting the willies up you (oh get a room). This is the bonding exercise that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole needed too, a race to survive together and a feeling that they are a group of friends working together. Each of the regulars gets their best moment of the season to date involving blindness, oxygen starvation and the killer line ‘Look at me!’ Oxygen holds back from being indulgent or overly spectacular like so much of this era, it focuses on a tricky situation with a small group of characters and some dastardly clever ideas. When Moffat makes the joke that he has finally figured out how to show run Doctor Who just as he is leaving is not only very funny in its self-deprecation but also quite true. Charles Palmer directs with exactness, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of the setting with the precision of scalpel. The performances are first rate. The music underscores rather than overwhelming the action. And the final scene is a doozy. I think Oxygen is a modern day classic Doctor Who. I genuinely got short of breath watching this: 10/10

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dethras written by Adrian Poynton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In the control room of a World War 2 submarine something strange has started to happen. As the ship runs out of control, its crew begin to fall unconscious... Finding the submarine in the last place they'd have expected, the Doctor and Romana are confronted by a mystery. Once fully populated, there are now only three men on board. And there's now also a chimpanzee. What has happened to the rest of the crew? What are the strange noises they can hear outside the hull? And most importantly, who, or what, is Dethras?

Teeth and Curls: Since bypassing the Randomiser the universe has been the Doctor’s to explore again. It’s put him in a very good mood. In contrast Romana sounds like she is ready to top herself. She thinks that the device is still need to help them evade the Black Guardian but the Doctor, mischievous as ever, decides that they can alternative. One journey with the Randomiser for her, one without chosen by him. He can’t decided whether he loves it when Romana agrees with him or not because she’s quite fun when she’s bossy. Just when you think the situation is impossible, the universe always finds ways to make it even moreso (that’s a Douglas Adams script, surely). The Doctor thinks up a quite ingenious method of escaping the damaged submarine on the spot, it’s a great example of his improvisational genius. Listen to how he growls ‘where did you hide the submarines crew?’ I wouldn’t want to be the wrong side of this Doctor when he sounds that venomous. ‘For a genius you really are rather thick!’ ‘You’re arrogant as well as stupid!’ Dethras just goes to show how effective Tom Baker’s Doctor can be when he is handed a script that fails to allow Tom Baker to indulge in crazy antics because there are so many gaps in the narrative to fill. This story has two episodes worth of dramatic content and he has to stick to the script. The resulting characterisation of the Doctor is as stripped back and effective as we have seen in a while.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re like sardines in a can!’

Great Ideas: What appears to be an abandoned submarine – far more in keeping with the tombstone that is season eighteen than jolly Victorian London and glossy 1920s Hollywood. Whilst this isn’t the first attempt at capturing the thrill of a naval vessel in space (Enlightenment), the concept of a submarine that is floating amongst the stars is a novel one. And novelty is something I need in this range. The Stargazer’s halo, a vast spaceship junkyard in a ring around a long dead planet. That’s terribly evocative and mysterious. I could imagine a whole series of adventures taking place in a setting like that. Some real science is brought into play at last, discussion about the pressures that a submarine can tolerate. If they are in space then why aren’t they floating in Zero-G? Dethras is known as the Einstein of evolution, the greatest mind on that subject in the universe. He vanished without trace, running and hiding from a universe that was unsafe. He achieved his life’s work and unlocked hyper evolution. He created an army of super soldiers, people who could hyper evolved into the highest form of human being. He sold his science, it was the only way of getting living subjects to experiment on. Flague refuses to be a slave again and is on a pre-emptive mission to destroy everything in her path in order to achieve that. She calls it a dream of peace but it’s a pretty chilling version of peace. Dethras knew the power of what he discovered and that it couldn’t fall into anyone else’s hands. Warriors that could be dropped into any environment and evolve and adapt to survive and prosper. Imagine that technology in the wrong hands? That’s why he tried to destroy his own work. One night he destroyed his research. The very presence of the Doctor and Romana means that the characters around them are evolving into smarter creatures, including a new latent telepathic ability. An unstoppable storm, ready to destroy the universe, the work of an architect that is looking for universal peace, using a science that never should have been unleashed.

Audio Landscape: Dethras features a very clever audio device of its characters being able to experience the memories of others, one that is captured chillingly because we experience it along with them. The creatures breaking in and the Doctor shattering the hull is one of the most buttock clenching sequences this range has ever put out. There were moments when I felt a Twin Peaks vibe in episode two, unnerving synth music underscoring the revelations. The flashbacks in episode two are quite gripping, giving real drama to the exposition.

Musical Cues: A disquieting, mysterious score that matches the tone of the writing perfectly. Robertson is perfectly in sync with Poynton, shying away from his usual orchestral bombast and focussing on the tight location and intrigue instead.

Isn’t It Odd: Should we be concerned with a cliff-hanger that spells out who the villain is even though we know absolutely nothing about him yet? I rather like the writers who don’t bother to create a moment of false jeopardy (because those rarely work when focusing on characters that we know can’t die in audio stories because they are written out in television ones) but a pivot in the plot so it can head off in a new direction. However, we are in command of none of the basic facts that make that new direction an exciting one so this cliff-hanger simply left me thinking ‘Dethras who?’ It’s not such a problem, because you’re about to find out with his reveal but you have to wonder if the moment could have had more impact had it been before.

Standout Scene: There's a reason why the previous stories in this series have felt more like season seventeen than eighteen...because this is the point where they decide to head to Brighton in The Leisure Hive!

Result:
One of many refreshing things about Dethras is that it constantly throws surprises at you, not everything is spelt out from the word go. I like to be kept guessing. It’s also chock a block full of tasty ideas from the unusual location reveal to the unique nature of the metamorphosis of several characters. There is a tenseness and claustrophobia that feels exclusive in this range and the strong layers of science fiction means that a story in series six can finally live up to its claim to take place in season eighteen. If you know what I mean. I was pleased to see Romana take a large chunk of the action. Lately it has felt like she is not only a companion to the Doctor but a peripheral element to the stories taking place but the character was always a dominating factor in her stories, thanks to Lalla Ward’s commanding presence. Ward has generally just been a bit grumpy this season (probably due to the lack of interesting material for her character) and it is nice to see her (and Romana) engaging in a story worthy of her. Check out my Great Ideas section, which is three times as long as is the norm for this range, Poynton is really trying to include as many fresh concepts as possible and the direction by Nick Briggs is just a step up from its normal level of effectiveness as though he knows he is onto a winner with this tale. The story is content to be dramatic throughout with no idiosyncratic characters for the fourth Doctor to indulge in his trademark witticisms with, just misguided people for him to condemn. There’s no real villain here, which makes the characters more complex than usual, just characters who are ill-advised and like the Doctor improvising because they believe they are doing the right thing. Dethras isn’t trying to redefine Doctor Who as we know it, it wants to get on with telling an involving, well plotted story where the interest levels are high. It succeeds admirably. Proof that a story of this denseness can be told in the one hour format: 8/10

The Silent Scream written by James Goss and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: On the set of a busy Hollywood movie in the late 1920s, a damsel is in distress! As cameras roll, she opens her mouth to scream and... nothing comes out. Nothing at all. It's happened again. The Doctor, Romana and K9 have arrived in a terrified Tinseltown. A new film is being made and several stars of the silent screen are viewing it as a potential comeback... but it may prove a poisoned chalice. Actors are vanishing and strange creatures stalk the streets. Something evil is lurking behind the scenery. Can the Doctor stop it when he doesn't have a voice? It's time for his close-up.

Teeth and Curls: I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t an accurate representation of the post-Shada fourth Doctor. You can point out that he is up to his scene stealing tricks in State of Decay until you are blue in the face but the truth is that Baker spent most of his final year in a big sober huff. I’m not suggesting he didn’t do fine work in that year, he’s too good an actor to suggest that. I’m just saying this grinning, excitable loon would be completely out of place should this story turn up between, say, The Leisure Hive and Meglos. Whoever knew that the Doctor is a huge fan of Hollywood stars of the twenties? He was passing in the era and simply had to pop in on Loretta Waldorf, for a signature and a glass of soda water. There is some fun in suggesting that the Doctor works in special effects and K.9 is his greatest triumph. The Doctor is spied and laughed at, apparently an eccentric Hollywood fop looking for a job. He’s dressed a little too pretentiously to be a spy, but then maybe that is the idea. Tom Baker is an anarchic presence when he invades the realm of the quack from the future, becoming the dominant voice amongst voices.

Aristocratic Adventurer: There is a mild attempt to explain why people like going to the movies, to escape the humdrum nature of their lives. K.9 asks Romana if she ever feels the need to escape to which she naturally explains that her life is full of thrills and spills. She’s clearly not been paying attention to her audio stories these past two season particularly well, then.

Great Ideas: Like the New Series episodes that have to get to the point quickly in order to have some fun with their ideas, Goss jumps straight in at the deep end with people who depend on their voices in their careers being stolen.

Audio Landscape: Hollywood in the 1920s has lots of exciting reference material and immediately the soundscape is something a little different to the norm, capturing the plastic jollity of tinsel town. The chorus of disembodied voices with the tape spinning in the background is a novel soundscape and you can see why this might have been pitched as a different kind of audio experience. I wasn’t too impressed with the only cliff-hanger, the sound of overlapping voices can be chilling but I don’t think this really cut the mustard. It becomes an intolerable noise very quickly. The Face of Evil episode three cliffhanger (‘Who am I?’) is still the best example of this, and possibly the attack on the Doctor in Death to the Daleks (‘You do not exist!’).

Isn’t It Odd: I don’t know if anybody has been paying attention but the creators of these audios profess to be Doctor Who fans, and extremely intelligent and observant ones they are too. Season Eighteen this is not. The TARDIS only visited the Earth twice in Tom Baker’s final year and that was only as a stepping stone to more imaginative worlds (Argolis and Logopolis). Meglos aside, there was none of the frippery of The Beast of Kravenos and The Silent Scream, the tone was far more sombre and subdued, beckoning the entropy that was about consume the universe. So why are the makers of season six of the fourth Doctor adventures insisting on creating stories that harken back to the lighter, more irreverent style of seasons sixteen and seventeen? Is this the season eighteen they wished had taken place? If you were looking for an authentic version of Tommy B’s final year, all clinical science and morals, then you might wind up very disappointed indeed. Unconvincing American accents have been the bane of many a Big Finish production. Who could ever forget the godawful Buffy wanabee Becky-Lee in Minuet from Hell? Or the dreadful Southern drawls trampling all over Renaissance of the Daleks? It’s baffling because America must have an even bigger acting pool than the UK (there are rather a lot more of them) and yet Big Finish insists on British actors Americanifying their voices in an awkward way. Pamela Salem is a wonderful actress but she cannot sound entirely convincing as an American…because she isn’t. It’s as simple as that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Salem was employed simply because Tom Baker wanted to work with her. Once the ghosts have stolen her voice, it’s something of a blessed relief. The drawling faux accents are especially galling in the climax. The plot is so light that I sighed and it evaporated into nothing before me. I’m not sure if you can even call this a plot in the conventional sense. The premise is already in operation when we join the story, the Doctor chats with a few characters to discover the truth of that and does a little jig with the sonic screwdriver and magics away the problem. This isn’t deductive, the answers are just handed out without any real effort on the part of the characters. Dr Julius is such a dreary villain that the Doctor cannot even be bothered to sound particularly angry when he tells him he is despicable.

Standout Scene: It’s worth listening to to hear the Doctor give his audition piece, a mash up of Peter Piper and She Sells Sea Shells…at least Baker is having fun. The Doctor losing his voice is a novelty, imagine trying to script an entire audio without the fourth Doctor having the use of his voice. But it isn’t really stolen, it’s just a bit croaky.

Result: The best Tom Baker audios are those that are allowed the time and space to breathe and the story a chance to build up some atmosphere. The original Philip Hinchcliffe set and The Paradox Planet stand out for me as the most successful examples. There have been some one hour winners (Iceni, both Sontaran stories, Drax) but on the whole they seem to stick to a pretty familiar formula; introduce the threat quickly, introduce a couple of quirky characters, a little witty banter, some dashing about, a less than spectacular reveal and an ‘is that it?’ climax. If you’re looking to kill an hour amiably but without any sense of challenge then knock yourself out. If you want to pay for something with a little more meat on the bones, for something that makes you consider its ideas or long for its guest characters to return because they were so winning, I’d say skip to another range. The Silent Scream ticks over nicely enough, there is a pleasantly weird idea at the heart of it (although it has echoes of The Idiot’s Lantern but with voices being stolen rather than faces) and it paces out it’s episodes enjoyably enough with Tom Baker in particular in fine (if not season eighteen) form. Will I remember anything about it after listening? Hardly. Will I want to re-visit it in the future? Never. At least half of this range has been consigned to the ‘taking up storage space unnecessarily’ section of my hard drive and The Silent Scream has joined its bedfellows. I’m still too frightened to face the Briggs two-part finale at the climax of series five, something tells me from the savage previews and his past form that this also occupy the same part of my hard drive. The Companion Chronicles, Dorian Gray and Torchwood ranges all seem to be able to drive real drama, excellent character work and haunting concepts into their stories so I’m not sure what it is about the 4DAs that they seem to revert to this easy, popcorn style Doctor Who. I have no doubt that there will be a couple of winners this season, there always is. Even that is an inevitability, but they are diamonds in the inoffensive rough. An hour of trad Who, misplaced in the wrong season. A shame, I was expecting something more substantial from Goss. He touches upon the reason why people watch movies in the climax (when people have nothing, they need dreams) and it’s a shame that he didn’t take it much further and embrace and celebrate the flicks: 5/10