Friday, 29 January 2010

The Fearmonger written by Jonathan Blum and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: One would-be assassin in a mental ward. Another’s on the run. Their intended victim is stirring up the mobs. Terrorists are planning a strike of their own. A talk-radio host is loving every minute of it. A Whitehall insider whispers about a mysterious UN operative, with a hidden agenda. Everyone’s got someone they want to be afraid of. It’ll only take a little push for the situation to erupt – and something is doing the pushing. But you can trust the Doctor to put things right. Can’t you?

The Real McCoy: A far better debut than his appearance in The Sirens of Time. As a seventh Doctor detractor a story has to do something very right for me to be this impressed by his character. It capitalises on all of his strengths, his quiet menace and jettisons all the histrionics. The political backdrop allows the Doctor to thrive, weaving in and out of various peoples plots, not really caring about the affairs of state but using them to manipulate various people and bring the alien he is hunting into the open. He is elusive and sneaky, his first appearance is on Mick Thompson’s radio show making undermining comments in the background and baiting him into confronting him (‘You don’t like words like Evil’) so he can make his broadcast. There is a real feeling that the seventh Doctor is a force to be reckoned with; mention is made of his work with UN paymasters, department C19 running covert black ops projects since the 70’s. Interesting how outsiders view his work with UNIT, turning it into something far more menacing than it actually was. Described as a freelance consultant and describes himself as a silly old man with far too much time on his hands. At his age there is little left to fear except when Ace is gunned down. I adored the scene where he stands outside Harper’s house baiting Walter into throwing his petrol bomb at him (‘Missed me!’). The Doctor juggles on top of a car in the middle of a riot, it’s almost Troughtoneqsue. Perhaps the best example of how morally ambiguous this Doctor can be is when he finally confronts Harper about her nasty politics, never condemning her but walking away and leaving her to the mob she has created. It is a surprisingly callous yet satisfying moment. I’m not sure how many other Doctor’s would feel this natural in a story of guns and bombs and politics.

The Ace of Hearts: There has been an abundance of Ace stories now, on TV, comic strip, book and audio…she has conquered every medium. As the audios continue most of the television companions benefit from character development and extra adventures but Ace was already pretty well fleshed out by the time the audio adventures began. It pains me to say it but this is probably the best adventure she appears in, aside from her nice relationship with Hex there is nowhere for her to go. Her belief in the Doctor is absolute; her biggest fear is that he might have been taken over by the Fearmonger. Ace works well in this sort of near future gritty setting and has friends (Paul) that she can turn to, making her feel grounded. She admits that she is a calmer person now, because the Doctor believed in her and that had she not met him she would probably be joining the terrorists in fighting the racist Britannia Front. She talks Walter out of suicide and when things get a bit too fluffy, Ace trying the same ‘look me in the eye’ technique the Doctor used in The Happiness Patrol, she gets shot. She still has questions about whether the Doctor is still toying with her fears.

Great Ideas: The creature’s backstory is handled quickly and efficiently – it comes from a planet where the leaders wanted to stir up emotions so created creatures that would do just that – love, hate, fear, lust…keeping it in balance. Unfortunately the one responsible for fear ended up on Earth (as Ace says this would be a very different story if it had turned out to be the lust creature!).
Using Mick Thompson’s radio show to comment on events is another clever use of audio narrative – these scripts are constantly innovating to keep the stories alive on audio.
The twist that Britannia were funding the terrorists to fuel the right atmosphere of fear and sympathy for their party comes from no where and gives the story more layers.
Another great twist is where the Fearmonger has been hiding – not in Harper or Thompson, the people who are stirring up the hate but in Walter who was experiencing the most fear. Its leap into Ace and her confrontation with the Doctor makes a nice paranoia role reversal.

Standout Performance(s): Jacqueline Pearce, Servelan herself in a role that makes her a truly nasty piece of work and unusually sensitive at the same time. Sherilyn Harper is a political hothead with some strong opinions about immigration and keeping Britain pure. I loved it when she was on the air talking to Walter, viciously condemning him (‘All your guns and bombs and you don’t even have the guts to face me’) and when her true plots are revealed, stirring up the hate and violence she is left at mercy of the mob she has incited and pathetically begs the Doctor not to leave her (‘Now everyone thinks I’m responsible!’). Pearce gives a committed performance and has a perfectly throaty and mature voice to make such a complex character work.
Vince Henderson deserves kudos for making Mick Thompson a believable DJ – irritating and entertaining in equal measures!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Do you want a dangerous fugitive staying in your flat?’ ‘Well of course not!’ ‘Well then don’t upset him and he’ll be a nice fugitive staying in your flat!’
‘The Tandoori menace that’s driving decent fish and chip shops out of business!’
‘I refuse to be responsible for the fall of every sparrow.’
‘You made the Mob and now their coming after you.’

Audio Landscape: It seems to me that the more domestic the setting, the more realistic the sound design. This will not always be the case as there will be some terrifying and moody SF stories coming up but so far Phantasmagoria and The Fearmonger have had the best audio environments by far. The riots on the streets are particularly loud and effective; people screaming, sirens, horns blaring, traffic shooting past, bottles smashing. I really love how they transformed Harper’s voice at the end of episode one, the alien inflections slowly get stronger and stronger turning this thriller into something far more interesting. The first terrorist statement is fantastically scary, a horrible modulated voice and forceful, pulsing music. The assassination attempts are appropriately chaotic. The Fearmonger in Paul’s flat makes a great scene, a nervous, fizzing, crackling ball of energy.

Musical Cues: Dramatic, edgy and keeping the story fast paced, this is an excellent score that really sells the moments of danger.

Isn’t that Odd: Sophie Aldred is mostly good but occasionally she is a little too hysterical. She has several scenes where she has to chase Walter about that don’t come off as well as they should. I’m glad Ace is shot at the end of episode two as she almost falls into McCoy parody with her ‘look me in the eye’ speech.

Something I learnt from The Inside Story: Ironically Jon Blum almost had a nervous breakdown writing this story! His rewrites were a profoundly miserable experience that Russell made feel like an unnecessary crisis. Gary Russell, Stephen Cole and Nicholas Briggs all had misgivings about the initial scripts. It was almost considered unsalvageable.

Standout Moment: There is a really nice quiet moment between the Doctor and Ace in episode two (’40 years ago Harper wouldn’t have even been out of the ordinary. Things do change.’) – a really nice character moment which is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist attack. The change of tone is shocking and effortless.

Result: Welcome to the world of bombs, guns and politics join the Doctor and Ace for a New Adventures style thriller. Whatever problems the script might have had have only served to make it a tight piece of writing, the real joy of this story is how it keeps surprising you with its guts and its edgy storytelling. Sylvester McCoy gives one of his best ever Big Finish performances, suggesting layers to his character that we rarely see. From the arresting assassination opening, through several terrorist attacks to the disturbing riots of the last episode, the Fearmonger keeps you on your toes and never loses sight that although it is telling the story of an alien menace it has a very human point to make about tolerance and racism. Aside from the main plot the additional treats are manifold, the terrific dialogue, Alistair Lock’s filmic score, the astonishing Pearce/Roderick relationship, some lovely quiet moments between the Doctor and Ace, Paul Tanner being one of the more realistic turncoats… The Fearmonger was the first Big Finish story I listened to and it had me hooked. Aside from a few awkward moments this is an assured production and the best story so far: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Land of the Dead by Stephen Cole and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: landing in Alaska, the Doctor and Nyssa encounter a group of people in a most unusual house, cut off not only by the harsh climate but by their individual secrets and obsessions. Millionaire Shaun Brett is utilising chunks of the local area to construct a shrine to his dead father. But when deadly creatures start roaming outside, and a terrifying discovering is made inside the house, the Doctor realises that Brett has unleashed an unimaginably ancient force…

English Gentleman: This is a responsible take on the fifth Doctor, but its nothing particularly riveting either. Cole has made the effort to capture his language style, even grabbing snatches of his dialogue from the small screen and inserting them into the story. He’s chivalrous, utterly polite to his hosts, makes the tea and generally acts like the perfect gentleman. When asked he admits that he and Nyssa are just good friends. Unfortunately throughout this story he is saddled with the supremely irritating Tegan-clone Monica Lewis so rather than developing a fun relationship with her they spend most of the time discussing how she reacts to various events in the story. Odd.

Child of Traken: Far more assured is the treatment of Nyssa who returns to the series after 20 years as though she had never been away. Nyssa is such an oddity because she divides opinion so dramatically. There are those that think she is the most boring companion ever, an uncharismatic scientist who the series creators wasted considering the potential drama of losing her home and family. And others (like myself and even the Doctor himself, Peter Davison) who believe she was the most successful companion of the fifth Doctor’s era because she complimented him rather than butting heads with him all the time and because Sarah Sutton was nicely underplayed, sweet enough to want to protect and confident enough to believe in. This is a fine return for Nyssa as she is given lots to do (a huge complaint of her time on the show was how much time she spent sidetracked), she is practical and sympathetic. She talks about losing her father and her world, is a competent bioengineer and has difficulty carrying her planets traditions around with her. She struggles with the spiritual and the rational, the two very often fighting each other. This is all good development for her character. Tulung thinks of her as his guardian angel and Brett ties her up as a ‘guard dog’ – to scream if the creatures approach. Like so many companions before and after, she finds the TARDIS unreliable.

Great Ideas: I did like the illustration of Brett’s house on the CD sleeve and the idea of the sea room appealed to me a lot.

Standout Performance: For all the wrong reasons it is Lucy Campbell as Monica Lewis. What an irritating character this is, Tegan in all but name and she oddly spends most of the story telling everybody how she is petulant she is and how much she wants to vomit. Campbell’s performance is really unconvincing, I did not for a second believe she was experiencing these events and some of her dialogue delivery turned some pretty bad lines into really bad ones (below).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How is a fossilised skeleton moving about without flesh and blood to clothe it?’

Words That Should Never be Spoken: ‘The Doctor’s filling in the sea room door, he might as well fill you in as well.’
‘Are you trying to cajole me out of my petulant moaning with weak humour?’
‘Man of Destiny, you sound like such a pill-ac.’
‘God it actually looks like dynamite too – how wonderfully retro.’

Audio Landscape: My favourite sound effect in this story was very simple but effective…how the story moved from the car driving through the snow to a dialogue scene in the car. I got the real sense that I was outside and smoothly switched to inside the car. However when that is the aural highlight for me we have problems.

Musical Cues: Nicholas Briggs calls this score his least favourite and you can see why. Like most of the story it is unmemorable, not giving the events the drive they need. I could hum you snatches of the music from Phantasmagoria but I cannot remember a single note from Land of the Dead and I finished listening to it little over and hour ago.

Isn’t that Odd: The cover is appalling, but then most of the early Big Finish covers are.
Janet Fielding wanted nothing to do with Big Finish to start with; I get that, but don’t write in Tegan in all but name anyway! Ms Jovanka is probably my least favourite companion anyway so Monica who shares most of her characteristics, was just annoyance squared.
My biggest fear of listening to Doctor Who on audio was that it would be a lot people screaming into microphones as though we were listening to a soundtrack of a televised story with no concession made for the fact that we can’t see anything. Fortunately Big Finish rose to the challenge triumphantly and producing some striking audio drama that really works in the medium it is in. However the end of part one was exactly the sort thing I was scared of…lots of shouting about nothing especially interesting, an action movie on tape.
There are a number of huge information dumps in the story, not eased into the moving plot skilfully but rather dropped on your head like a lead weight. Episode two was the worst offender, setting up information about Brett and Tulung’s father.
The direction is at fault as much as the writing – the end of episode three sees the ocean burst forth and release lots of creatures but instead of being assaulted by a torrent of water it sounds like a pathetic little torrent!
I’m still none the wiser to what the creatures actually were, every time Cole tried to explain it and delved into mythological terms I dozed off!

Something I learnt from The Inside Story: Land of the Dead was written in 7 days to replace the delayed Fearmonger in the schedules. It shows. Steve Cole is capable of writing much better than this. Lucy Campbell was Stephen Cole’s then girlfriend.

Standout Moment: There was a nice Jurassic Park vibe about the dinosaur rampaging about.

Result: I can see what Cole was going for; a frosty, atmospheric character drama with monsters and he may have succeeded if this was a McGann and Lucie 50 minute episode but Land of the Dead is far too long and very poorly executed so it is perhaps the perfect representation of season 20! There doesn’t feel like there is an evolving plot or any meat to the story, there are just a lot of scenes that would probably look really cool on the telly with a big budget. The first episode is unspeakably boring, talky and uninvolving with dull characters saying dreary things and things only get worse. Brett goes from charming host to ranting villain with no motivation and Monica Lewis should have died a horrible death at the hands of the lacklustre monsters. When you have a cast this small you have to make sure and get the dynamics right but everything feels awkward. Davison tries his best with the material he is given, Sutton makes a positive return to the series but they are the only plus points in this stinker of an audio adventure. The worst crime is the missed opportunity; a snowy wasteland could make an atmospheric story…oddly Gary Russell would make a far better job of it in Winter for the Adept: 3/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Whispers of Terror written by Justin Richards and directed by Gary Russell

Softer Six: Or not so softer six perhaps! The opening scenes of Whispers of Terror feel extremely authentic to mid 80’s Who with the Doctor and Peri being quite rude to each other, unnecessarily so. I have long been a defender of the sixth Doctor so it pleases me to inform you that things do settle down very quickly as soon as he gets a good mystery to sink his teeth into but the regulars’ scenes bookending this adventure do suggest a return to the pre Trial relationship. The joy of the sixth Doctor is not only his passion for his adventures and the joys of the English language but how his weaknesses slip through the cracks every now again, suggesting a much deeper character than the initially shallow man he appears to be. His shock reaction to Peri’s death in Mindwarp is a great example, suddenly all the bluster has gone and he can barely talk. Whispers of Terror gives the Doctor loads to do, he is as verbose and playful as ever, shouting his head off suggesting people that do so only reveal the paucity of their argument and baiting Peri into raising her voice and proving his point! He thinks he has a better sense of direction than a homing pigeon, a claim made by Hartnell’s Doctor if I remember correctly. His scenes with Beth Purnell are terrific; he seems to enjoy baiting her and manages to sniff her out as the villain straight away. In a story of speeches and performances he is the most theatrical of all, especially at the end of episode two where he positively revels in revealing the latest plot development. He can be quite impatient and snappy, critical of other people’s moments of melodrama (!) and pushes his moral indignation to murder. A supporter of democracy. We’re not quite there yet making Colin Baker accessible to all audiences but the best is yet to come.

American Attitude: Oh Peri, Peri, Peri….do you know I can never deicide if Peri is an integral part of the show or a complete turd. I love Nicola Bryant and think she is extremely game, she rocked in her two stories with Davison and managed to be the best thing about The Twin Dilemma. Season 22 saw her turn into a hysterical hang along, not really contributed to the series and just there to get into scrapes and moan. It is such a waste of her character so it is nice to see that Big Finish have given her a new lease of life on audio. Peri is pretty quiet in this story; she has her initial longing to get back to the TARDIS (of course), reveals a curious eye for detail but still runs off blundering into trouble.

Great Ideas: Having a blind character is a stroke of genius and rather than taking the obvious route of having all the characters explain what is happening visually he uses Gantman to conceal the plot twist that Napton is really Crane.
A life form that has manipulated itself as a sound wave, that can escape through any medium that carries sound has so many possibilities. The only thing it can’t do is be absolutely quiet because it exists as sound (I love how this creature could have been any sound that was running through our ears…very creepy). Having the Doctor capture him by taping him onto a CD is inspired Purnell torture his by deleting parts of the disc and stretching others is just horrible. The creature plans to manifest a version of itself everywhere that the broadcast is received – millions of mad, homicidal waveforms.
Purnell’s death scene is a surprise ending, tricked into opening a sound file sent by (the apparently dead) Stenguard and ripping her car to pieces.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman who I simply adore as Bernice Summerfield makes a surprisingly uncharismatic villain which is quite refreshing in Doctor Who. She is a plain speaking, conniving, political Nazi. I love her casual ‘How dare you!’ when the Doctor starts accusing her of manipulating the speeches – she can’t even be bothered to sound genuinely hurt!

Ham Fisted: Rebecca Jenkins is a little too hysterical in places. Sometimes less is more.

Sparkling Dialogue: This is a Justin Richards script so I expected some gems…
‘Something grand and theatrical from the old school of acting no doubt, loud, bombastic, not my sort of thing really.’ – The sixth Doctor!
‘I think there’s more to this than meets the ear!’
‘Strange, I was there when Barclay searched you but some how he missed this knife. Those voices must have really screwed you up.’ This was a really creepy scene.
‘If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it!’
‘I hope it gets better than this.’
‘Democracy – an outdated, unworkable system that disperses power so thinly it hardly exists. A morally justifiable way of doing nothing. Procrastination made politic!’
‘We’ll drop by in a few years to hear how you’re getting on.’
‘Now I’ve heard everything.’ The TARDIS dematerialisation sound.

Audio landscape: Gary Russell’s first step into the directors chair is mostly magnificent, a challenging script by Justin Richards asking him to create an audio landscape that is literally an audio landscape with a sound creature, several murders, cars crashing and all sorts of audio jiggery pokery. The death of Fotherill lingers in the memory, creepy voices, manic laughter, screaming…it is an assault of disturbing sounds. The end of the first episode reminds me strongly of The Face of Evil (‘Tell me who I am!’) and is chaotic and surreal.

Musical Cues: This is an genuine 80’s score, intrusive, synthesised, bold and occasionally atmospheric. Even Nick Briggs hates some of it but apparently it was written in quite a rush. Big Finish are still taking their baby steps, soon they would abandon trying to imitate what has been and forge their own path.

Isn’t that Odd: That the middle of the CD booklet is a disgusting sickly yellow colour. Whose idea was that? The end of episode three is really badly directed – it feels like it should be an important moment but its plain with a minimum of sound effects.

Something I learnt from The Inside Story: Justin Richards read the first episode to test its length and it came out at 45 minutes long! When he asked Gary Russell if he could do another audio and what he was after, Russell replied ‘Something simpler!’

Standout Moment: Purnell causing her own political suicide was punch-the-air good. The Doctor secretly broadcasts her confession to murdering Crane.

Result: An interesting story written by a good storyteller who has put some real thought into how to construct a tale on audio. You have a Museum of Aural Antiquities, a sound creature, speeches holding the narrative together and a blind character disgusing plot twists. At times the story is a little too authentic to the time period it hails from as the music drones on and the Doctor and Peri bicker but the plot and direction are good enough to see you though. Colin Baker seems to relish being back in the driving seat but his best work is still to come and butts heads memorably with Lisa Bowerman here, a world away from their very different roles in Birthright. I like experimental stories and Whispers of Terror stylishly commits to telling a audio tale as forcefully and as intellectually as possible: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Friday, 22 January 2010

Phantasmagoria by Mark Gatiss and directed by Nicholas Briggs

English Gentleman: Peter Davison’s Doctor rarely impressed me on the television, often because of underwhelming scripts and productions but also because his Doctor more than any other lacks the gravity of the others. He often felt like he was swamped by the adventures (and numerous hysterical companions) around him. However I do feel there was something of an improvement during the end of his run, starting with his engaging banter with Will in The Awakening, his bossiness in Frontios, the assassination attempt of Davros, the companion he should have had (Peri) and finally his commanding turn in The Caves of Androzani. This adventure takes place during this period so it comes as no surprise that the Doctor is rather wonderful. He is still cricket obsessed, explaining the rules to Turlough and beautifully using Wisdens Almanac to defeat the villain. He strikes up an easy relationship with Samuel which begs the question why the Doctor never had an elderly companion (which Evelyn Smythe and Wilfred Mott would later on prove to be an invaluable idea). Turlough complains that he is elusive with answers but quite like the Doctor of this era he is quite free with the true of aliens and the TARDIS with the historical characters. I am very glad Big Finish has given an older Davison a chance to revisit his character and iron out the creases.

Looking over his shoulder: Turlough was actually one of the more interesting companions the Doctor travelled with (do not mistake interesting with good). He had a mysterious back story, he was introduced in an intriguing way (a trilogy of stories where he attempted to kill the Doctor), we learnt shocking things about his people (the Tractator attack) and he left with the truth about his character finally revealed, his family are political prisoners. Mark Strickson was mostly on the ball throughout the series too, offering a shifty character that you didn’t entirely trust (even if you’re not I-hate-everyone-and-their-dog-Tegan). The problem was that more often than not the stories did not really give Turlough anything to do. Which was a real shame but thems eighties Who for you. Turlough doesn’t entirely convincingly translate to audio, certainly not as well as Nyssa or Peri do later. In some scenes Strickson seems a little forced, like he doesn’t quite believe what he is doing (because he’s not actually doing it!). I certainly didn’t believe he was eating and talking during the café scenes! He’s a bit of a moaner, with a voracious appetite and quite petulant. I didn’t quite buy that he was a fan of Earth history because he claimed to hate the planet in Mawdryn Undead. He is appropriately cowardly, running away from the spirits in episode one but is afforded a moment of heroism in episode four (‘It wouldn’t be cricket, would it?’) after claiming he isn’t a hero. Turlough was my only real grumble with the story.

Great Ideas: Valentine stealing learned men, marking them with his cards and calling on his previous victims to transport them to his hellish ship so he can slave their minds to the computer and restore the systems. You have to love how Hannah rouses all the victims to murder Valentine once he has been tricked into being slaved to the computer…killing both of them.

Standout Performance(s): David Ryall has the perfect gruff villainous voice and creates a marvellously memorable villain in Sir Nicholas Valentine, a deranged, psychopathic and yet oddly charming killer.
Mark Gatiss deserves kudos for disguising his real voice so completely as the throaty and verbose Jasper, every one of Jasper’s scenes is a voyage around the English language! A quick mention for (another unrecognisable) David Walliams as his chipper and camp companion Quincy Flowers.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ll soon be able to let me britches out meself as a marquee for the coronation!’
‘Wounds! I can’t say I favour this coffee stuff meself, Flowers. Tastes like something that’s dropped from the wrong end of a cow!’
‘The sweats standing off him like diamonds on a cloth.’ What a great visual metaphor.
‘What hell mouth is this? The walls like wet liver!’ And again…
‘Valentine is calling in his debts.’

Audio Landscape: This story is a treat for the senses. If you shut your eyes the sound effects conjour up the world of London 1702 with effortless ease. You’ve got town criers, the clip-clop of horses, church bells, trees swaying in the breeze, children singing and playing and dogs barking to make the scenes outside come alive. Indoors there’s clocks ticking, fire crackling in a hearth, cutlery clacking and audience laughter in the theatre making things feel like you are really there. Nick Briggs seems much more comfortable directing the more realistic settings of this story (his Earthbound episode two of The Sirens of Time was the best too) and he creates a terrific atmosphere with some relatively simple but subtle effects. His alien voices are really good two, creepy and unearthly. Rather brilliantly the TARDIS scanner makes a number of rather pathetic sounds, which is very 80’s Who!

Musical Cues: This story introduces the wonderful musical stylings of Alistair Lock who will go on to provide some fantastic music for the opening Big Finish audios. This is a rousing historical score, full of melody and bounce. He underscores creepy moments like the séance and provides a playful atmosphere in scenes like Turlough and Jeake prowling around outside Valentine’s house.

Isn’t that Odd: That Turlough should be chosen to kick off the fifth Doctor’s adventures when he would only pop up every now and again…it does rather suggest that this would be a regular engagement with Davison and Strickson.
Also for storytelling purposes I can see that Valentine’s ship, which he has working on for years, just happens to be ready to lift off at the dénouement of the story, but it is an incredible co-incidence.

Standout Moment: The end of episode 3. I love the fact that they have produced these audios in the style of the old four part adventures from the television but it means they have to work extra hard to shock us at these climactic moments! The revelation that Hannah is Billy Lovemore and they are both aliases for an alien comes from nowhere and is still an effective surprise.

Result: A far more assured and confident production than The Sirens of Time with Nick Briggs grabbing hold of Mark Gatiss’ atmospheric and opportunistic script and bleeding it for every laugh and scare. This is traditional Doctor Who to the core and it revels in the fact, the Doctor is clever and amusing, the guest cast colourful and enjoyable and the villain is despicably hissable. There is nothing here that is especially fresh but the pieces are put together with such gusto and as an example of how agreeable and visual these audios can be it is still a fantastic adventure. Davison seems to enjoy the material, although Strickson feels a little forced. There is an extremely impressive guest cast, an abundance of witty lines and the whole thing moves along at a fair lick. Because I can’t keep listing standout performers I want to put a word in for Steve Wickham who puts in a very sweet performance as Samuel and would go on to play a character utterly different in The Fires of Vulcan. Phantasmagoria would probably flounder later on in the range where we expect things to be constantly innovative but as a positive first step in to producing adventures these Doctors could never have on the TV this story gets a huge thumbs up: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Sirens of Time written and directed by Nick Briggs

English Gentleman: This is the fifth Doctor I have always asked for (but rarely got). Davison is a revelation on audio, his instantly recognisable voice commanding and a little older sounding, but all to the benefit of his younger looking Doctor. You would think that surrounded by the bombastic sixth Doctor and manipulative little seventh Doctor he would be a bit lost but Davison holds his own beautifully. He is a first class gentleman, travelling with Tegan and Turlough but we don’t get to see them (hurrah, unencumbered with whining companions!), described as an educated young man and compassionate. He can think on his feet quickly too, making up lies to get back to the TARDIS. This is a very promising beginning for the fifth Doctor on audio.

Softer Six: As good as Davison is, Baker matches him beat for beat. This is the real renaissance of Big Finish, rehabilitating the sixth Doctor, a much hated incarnation of the Doctor. It has long been proposed by Baker fans (including myself) that it was the scripts and behind the scenes that spoiled what could have been a decent run for a fine actor and Big Finish has given us the proof. With Baker finally having some input into what makes his Doctor tick he makes him an amiable, polite, charming sort of fellow, travelling alone, softly spoken and a real treat to share an adventure with. He is observant, surprisingly modest for the most part, tangles with the authorities with glee and with a gift for poetry. A genuine pleasure to listen this sixth Doctor.

The Real McCoy: The most disappointing transition to audio is the seventh Doctor who relied on his brooding presence and piercing eyes to puncture a scene on television. I always felt that McCoy was the weakest performer, with some inconsistent performances unbalancing some great scripts and he is certainly the least believable of the three here. He still has real trouble shouting convincingly (its really odd!) and doesn’t really have a chance to shine in his episode, overshadowed by the plot going on around him. Still there are a few compensations, he has a melancholic tone to his voice in his first few scenes, cooing to the TARDIS affectionately and he has a few funny moments when he is with the other two, especially when he uses the more rotund sixth Doctor to break his fall at one point. Described as the thinker.

Great ideas: The Temporan, the legendary time beast that folds its way through the oceans of time, serene, sublime. A prison planet holding a war criminal. The Sirens of Time feeding on divergences in the timeline. The story cleverly allows us to enjoy an episode with each Doctor stopping at a pivotal point and we learn in the last episode that he made the wrong choices and changed the timeline, feeding the Sirens the energy they extract from such deviations. They need others to cause destruction for them and Elanya/Helen/Ellie nudged at each Doctor in the right direction to do so. That’s some ambitious plotting.

Standout Performance: Sarah Mowat because she plays four different characters and manages to make enough differences to make each feel like a character in their own right. I can completely understand why Nick Briggs gave her her own series in Dalek Empire. Maggie Stables deserves the runner up prize for her unforgettable turn as Ruthley, chewing the scenery fabulously and being just weird enough to be slightly scary!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you do obey your orders Commander you’ll be signing the death warrants of the Time Lords.’
‘The Time Lords really do want me dead!’

Embarrassing Dialogue: ‘I’d trust you to drive me naked through a cheese grater.’

Musical Cues: There is a haunting musical cue, a ghostly vocal that plays once in each episode that sounds a little like the music from Enlightenment.

Audio Landscape: The spaceship crash landing made me duck! The echo effect is used a couple of times but it is very atmospheric.

Isn’t that Odd: That the Tom Baker music introduces each episode when he was the only person who did not take part!

Standout Moment: The Time Lords taking over the German officer and attempting to assassinate the fifth Doctor – nail biting stuff!

Result: As an opening story this is probably a little too ambitious, especially since Big Finish were still finding their legs. I’m certain had they tried this story around the time of Zagreus when both the company and Nick Briggs had had much more practice at this sort of thing it would have been more dramatic and much more of an impact. It’s a nice idea to have three separate episodes with individual stories and then tie them all together in the final episode but everything feels oddly disjointed, that fourth episode is a long time coming and ending each episode on a cliffhanger that we don’t get to see resolved is frustrating and hard to move onto the next story. Saying that the story boasts some lovely ideas, some crude but still atmospheric audio landscapes and a good pace that never flags. Baker and Davison are surprise highlights whilst McCoy sounds oddly amateurish in places. It doesn’t help that the individual stories aren’t that interesting; episode two stands out and gives me hope that Big Finish will attempt more grand Historicals in the future. The final episode is okay but muted considering it is about 3 Doctors saving Gallifrey from invading conquerors. There is enough here to promise better things for the future but Nick Briggs will write and direct far better stories in the future: 5/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @