Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Stones of Venice by Paul Magrs and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The Doctor and Charley decide to take a well-deserved break from the monotony of being chased, shot at and generally suffering anti-social behaviour at the hands of others. And so they end up in Venice, well into Charley's future, as the great city prepares to sink beneath the water for the last time.. Which would be a momentous, if rather dispiriting, event to witness in itself. However, the machinations of a love-sick aristocrat, a proud art historian and a rabid High Priest of a really quite dodgy cult combine to make Venice's swansong a night to remember. And then there's the rebellion by the web-footed amphibious underclass, the mystery of a disappearing corpse and the truth behind a curse going back further than curses usually do. The Doctor and Charley are forced to wonder just what they have got themselves involved with this time.

Breathless Romantic: Now this is more like it! Considering this was the first story Paul McGann performed after the TV Movie he puts in a confident and assured performance where you never doubt for one second that he is the Doctor through and through. Paul Magrs’ fantastic dialogue helps but McGann plays the lines for all they are worth – if anything he is even more enthused and full of wonder than in Storm Warning and he snuggles into the romantic atmosphere beautifully. He bursts into the story running away from the military forces from a previous adventure feeling very happy that he has put an end to really vile regime – there is nothing he likes more! When they move onto Venice he enjoys trying to unsettle Charley with stories of the City’s impending death. He thinks watching Venice sink under the waves would be a glorious event to witness. There is a great image of the Doctor lying back on the gondola with his hands behind his head snoozing whilst Charley chats up the athletic punter! He finds he can’t name drop for toffee these days. This Doctor has not lost his appreciation of art and is appalled at the thought of the Duke’s art collection atrophying under the sea. Feels awful for taking Charley from one awful place to another. He finds cults too sullen for his tastes. Being knocked out, tied up in a cellar and blindfold are same old, same old for him. Secrets, danger and romance excite him. He often gets a whiff of something wrong and has to sort it out and might have something of an innocent view but he can live with that. Still nibbling at people’s pasts like he did in the TV Movie, this time Churchwell is his victim. He isn’t superstitious. Fanatics get on his nerves; they are too hysterical and love the sound of their own voices. The Doctor is described at being very good at causing a stir! I love the way he quite brazenly walks into the palace and demands the attention of the Duke without even introducing himself! His simple ‘of course’ when asked if the artworks are from outer space is hilarious. Just imagine the 8th Doctor, all long hair and flapping coat, punting down the Venetian canals as the facades crumble into the swelling waters around him. Bloody marvellous! He scoffs at the very idea that he would suggest that the story would have a moral! If the Doctor didn’t believe there was always a way to put things right he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, he wouldn’t eat breakfast, he would leave the TARDIS and he certainly wouldn’t have left home.

Edwardian Adventuress: Whereas the Doctor and Charley had virtually no characterisation at all in the last story here they are in the hands of Paul Magrs who transports them to a truly incredible location and lets them have some fun. Charley’s father wasn’t keen on her striking out on her own and would be appalled at the thought of the Doctor taking her under his wing. She thinks the TARDIS looks like something out of Jules Verne and should have gleaming white consoles and controls (never fear…you will see the sixth Doctor’s console one day!). Charley is appalled that the Doctor has taken her somewhere awful where everyone wants to die but soon changes her mind and is soon wrapped up in Venice’s seductive atmosphere. She is very sympathetic to the underdog – in this case the Gondoliers and is soon embroiled in their despicable scheme to convince the Duke Orcino that his Duchess has been re-incarnated – with Charley playing the role of the Duchess! She is held at knife point, drugged, forced into a fabulous frock and spilled into an aristocratic role. When he invited her on his travels the Doctor never mentioned anything about marauding amphibians and enforced marriages to noble lunatics! I adored the moment where she turned on the ranting Orcino and finally gave her a piece of her mind: ‘And who are you to inflict your misery and self indulgence on a whole city? Look around you – a whole city is dying because of a curse you brought upon its head! Your greed caused this Orcino, your greed and your disregard!’ Charley is shaping up very nicely indeed, still infectiously sweet but ballsy enough to strike out on her own for the majority of this story and more than a match for the Doctor. You have to love how she scoffs at the men at the end of the story and points out that the whole thing was about love.

Great Ideas: Magrs is an ideas man – that is his meat and tink so you can always expect something special when his name crops up in the schedules but imagine my delight when he decided to set a story in my absolute favourite place in the whole world – Venice! I had a truly wonderful week in Venice three years ago and have been desperate to return since. There is an atmosphere of beauty, magic and wonder, decay and disaster, curses and cults. It’s fabulous.

Venice is sinking, cursed by Orcino’s ex lover the Duchess who he gambled away in a reckless wager. She flung herself into the canal in her wedding dress and cursed Orcino to 100 years of life unaged by which time the City will fall. A cult sprung up that worshipped her body that they believed was hidden in their underground catacombs. The gondoliers are planning a revolution – waiting for the City to slide under the waters and they will reclaim it (what an imaginative visual – underwater Venice with the gondoliers gliding through the waves and buildings). The irony is that Estella never did kill herself – she has been living as Eleanor Lavish who Orcino treats in a filthy fashion and the ultimate irony is that for a laugh he puts her on the throne for a laugh as he goes in search of his beloved. Charley is dressed up in finery and asked to play Estella re-incarnated to distract the Duke and prevent him from trying to save Venice. The ending is glorious, the Duke and the Duchess are reunited in the flesh and she rejects him and he asks her to step into the flames so they can sacrifice herself and allow Venice to rise once again. The sun rises again and bathes Venice in its glow, a story of a City reborn.

Standout Performance: How wonderful to see Michael Sheard in Doctor Who again. His impressive turn as Duke Orcino is one of his best performances in the show; in turns desperately romantic, lethargic, ruthless, bloodthirsty and theatrical. He is an insane selfish man but is ultimately redeemed.

Sparkling Dialogue: The whole script is a delight on the ear and the words work to magic up a wealth of imagery.
‘There she is! There she is! Bright, bold, beautiful and bright blue and waiting for us!’ – the Doctor rejoices at the sight of the TARDIS.
‘Last time I watched the light spilling from palace windows onto the Grand Canal and all the stars looked as though they were trapped underwater bursting to get out.’
‘I’ll find myself some opulent ballroom and watch the chandeliers grown extravagant beards of lichen and weed and the monstrous fishes take up residence in the sepulchre boudoirs of ancient princesses.’
‘Let’s travel in style! Let’s raise a glass as we steam down the canal and before the world ends it turns complete upside down.’
‘And the clocks chime out for the death of Venice.’
‘Look the jewels they’ve come alive! They’re opening like eyes!’
‘Abandon you? No and I wouldn’t lose you in a game of cards either. Of course not, you’re my best friend.’

Audio Landscape: God bless Gary Russell for being so in tune with the script and bringing it to life with such verve and energy. The teaser is great as the Doctor and Charley run from gunfire and cries for them to stop. We jump to Venice with its lapping waters and church bells, echoey courtyards and birdsong. Revellers party in and out of the cloisters and party horns blare in the distance. Even small details like the gondolier feet being flippers slapping against the stone are just right. The catacombs are an atmosphere of dripping water, loose bricks and crumbling concrete and religious cults chanting evil chants. As the Doctor approaches the Duke’s palace the piano playing inside gets slowly louder and louder. Estella’s tomb is a stone scraping event. Clocks tick to suggest the end of Venice. Jewels tinkle and sparkle as they consume the City. Swords unsheathe and the gondoliers attack with a lot of splashing and screaming. The music, performances and writing are all at their height at the story’s conclusion as the Duke and Duchess step into the flames and save Venice, a devastatingly romantic moment for Big Finish.

Musical Cues: More plaudits as Russell Stone gives us the party of the decade with his riotous piano score. Seriously this is the best of some outstanding scores by Stone, the glorious piano pieces in episodes three and four as the party goes on around the drama really got me in the mood for a knees up. It feels as though there is an entire band playing – kudos for keeping things so uplifting. But he is no shirker when it comes to scoring the more emotional moments either. There is a lovely soothing piece as Orcino reminisces about Estella in episode one and the episode ends on a cliffhanging high with the music suggesting an air of mystery and wonder. A hypnotising piece lures us into Charley’s brainwashing sequence. There is a really exciting, foot tapping piece when Churchwell declares ‘We’ll all be dragged down into the deeeeeeeeepths!’ The music in the last episode is the best thought – an enchanting piece plays over the climatic sacrifice and the new dawn of Venice as greeted by a seductive and sunny score. Of all the ‘Music of…’ CDs Big Finish released, this was my favourite and most played. Stone’s loss was a huge blow to Big Finish.

Isn’t that Odd: That the story is hopelessly predictable but I don’t give a toss because I was so romanced by its atmosphere and imagery? It happens…

Result: Controversially this might be my all time favourite Big Finish. It’s not the most intelligently written or the most innovative, it doesn’t have a huge mission statement and it doesn’t once threaten to become an exciting story. The script is captivating all the same, full of delicious dialogue, magic, love and wonder and perfectly taking me back to one of the best weeks of my life spent in Venice. The Doctor and Charley are perfect for this story and have their own adventures, wrapping themselves up in the seductive atmosphere of the place and enjoying some of their best ever dialogue. This is a world of secret cults, lost love and revolutionaries hiding under the surface, a story where the conclusion sees lovers sacrificing themselves so they can be together and a City reborn. I could listen to this one over and over. How on Earth did Tom Baker say no? What a nutter: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Sword of Orion written and directed by Nick Briggs

What’s it about? The human race is locked in deadly combat with the 'Android Hordes' in the Orion System. Light years from the front line, the Doctor and Charley arrive to sample the dubious delights of a galactic backwater, little suspecting that the consequences of the Orion War might reach them there. But High Command's lust for victory knows no bounds. Trapped aboard a mysterious derelict star destroyer, the Doctor and Charley find themselves facing summary execution. But this is only the beginning of their troubles. The real danger has yet to awaken. Until, somewhere in the dark recesses of the Garazone System, the Cybermen receive the signal for reactivation...

Breathless Romantic: After making such a good impression in Storm Warning I took absolutely nothing away from his characterisation in this story. It was so vague and he was given so little chance to show off it could have been any Doctor in this story. Thank goodness this wasn’t the opening story or we would still be feeling the effects as Colin did with The Twin Dilemma. He is very much subdued in this story, aware of the darker side of humanity. There will come a time when the 8th Doctor will be this humourless for a couple of seasons of stories so lets just be glad this is only a minor aberration for the time being.

Edwardian Adventuress: Again she hardly registers which might a cause for celebration for some people but I found this quieter Charley far less interesting than the excitable one from the previous story. I did like the scene at the beginning where she was bartering with an alien and gives him a sock in the mouth for getting too cheeky. She is disgusted by the thought of interbreeding, a sign of the age that she comes from. Charley is quite resourceful and brave and tries to stop victims’ wounds from bleeding but you would think that she would be far more culture shocked than she is. She likes the fact that there is a woman in charge.

Great Ideas: One of the biggest problems with Sword of Orion is that its ideas are old. If I were to pitch this story to produce John Nathan-Turner – a derelict spaceship is discovered and a salvage crew board to discover it is a cyber conversion ship – he would probably lap it up. This is a traditional Doctor Who story in all the worst ways because it doesn’t try to be anything beyond that. The Garazone bazaar is a lovely idea, humanity in all its grim and grimy glory where smuggling is rife – an environment inside a structure floating between the stars. Shame we only spend ten minutes there. An abandoned derelict star destroyer is the perfect location for an Eric Saward massacre tale. I do like the idea of a factory ship sent out to find more troops for the Cyber cause, but it’s a shame that we don’t see much of that happening either. Beyond that the story pretty much plays out exactly as you would imagine, they board the ship, the Cybermen wake up, the guest cast are murdered and they leave. Nothing new to hear here.

Standout Performance: Bruce Montague who manages to salvage something from the thankless character of Grash. He is exactly the sort of gravelly voiced nutter you would expect to find in this sort of story but he manages to push the character to some extremes at times – especially during his conversion scene where he rants and screams until his last breath.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s certainly something about our Deeva.’
‘But that’s inhuman!’ ‘We learn from our creators.’

Audio Landscape: Now here at least I can lavish some praise on this story. Even if his scripting leaves something to be desired with this story Briggs knows how to make everything sound authentic. The opening scenes feature the Doctor’s distant voice, Ramsey’s anguished howls, space walking, suit intercoms, laser blasts and mechanical growls. The Garazone bazaar is brought to life with all manner of sounds but the thing that makes it unique is that catchy jingle that keeps playing. Dogs bark, horses neigh and alien voices gurgle. An antigravity pod shoots past and drops the Doctor and Charley to the floor (not an easy thing to realise on audio). You have some glorious huffing, puffing and hissing machinery taking the TARDIS away. Wind runs through the star destroyer suggesting desolate emptiness. Lights fuzz with electricity before extinguishing. The Cybermen breaking free of their hibernation sounds rather like an insect breaking from a chrysalis, a tearing of soft metal and hydraulic fluid.

Musical Cues: I have read reviews that state you should not let the overpowering music convince you that something important is happening which I thought was a bit harsh until I listened to the play and thought the music was one of the best things about it! There is a metallic heartbeat running through this story, a general battering of drums and piano to create some atmosphere. There is a very nice three note piece when they realise Deeva is an android. To be fair to Briggs the music very often got me more excited than the story.

Isn’t that Odd: That Nicholas Briggs chose this whimpering narrative of a story to be the template of his Cybermen series. Stick to the Daleks, man, they are your forte. Briggs is clearly a good writer (Patient Zero, Blue Forgotten Planet) but he needs to stop relying on old ideas that were popular ten years ago and focus on creating original stories of his own. Embrace the Darkness in the next season shows how he improves with each story.
As good as Bruce Montague was I cheered when Grash finally died because he was so unlikable – was that supposed to be the desired effect? With lines like, ‘I thought we could at least pin desertion of duty on that stuck up cow!’ its a wonder these character make any impact at all!
Jansen is so obviously either a Cyber-agent or an android that when she was revealed and has the audacity to say ‘Had you fooled, didn’t I?’ I laughed until my sides hurt.
The use of the Cybermen bothers me…it feels as though unless McGann faced at least one of the biggies in his first season he wasn’t really going to be accepted as the Doctor. One of my biggest gripes about the Cybermen is often that they were just used because…well why not (my favourite example is Kevin Clarke of Silver Nemesis infamy saying ‘Well it is the silver anniversary and they are silver!’).
I’m not sure that this story is anywhere near strong enough to justify remaking it under the Big Finish banner and the inclusion of the Cybermen once again feels gratuitous. The story says nothing about them, they are not developed in any way…they are just there to be menacing and gruesome which is a role that a handful of different and more interesting aliens could have done better. The Cyberleaders voice is quite good, it sounds authentically 80’s but the lieutenant sounds as camp as Christmas…which I guess is also bona fide (Attack of the Cybermen featured some of the gayest Cybermen ever).

Result: Anyone who has read the rest of this review must have come to the right conclusion by now…I absolutely loved this one! Just kidding! Easily the most painful story to endure to this point and probably for a long time to come, this would have made a particularly soulless four parter on the telly. It is all atmosphere and no intelligence, a terribly dull linear storyline that lacks incident, characters with any personality or real drama. This is my reaction two days after listening to the story…be thankful I didn’t write this up afterwards because my language would be a lot more colourful. What bothers me is that Big Finish and Nick Briggs can clearly do a lot better than this and recycling traditional turds like this story is unacceptable when the same production company and writer offered us The Mutant Phase just two stories earlier. It is a huge black mark on the 8th Doctor line as well which began so promisingly with Storm Warning but ground to a halt with this plodder. It feels like one step forwards and two steps backwards, they had better offer up something pretty damn special to make me forget about this one: 1/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Storm Warning written by Alan Barnes and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? October, 1930. His Majesty's Airship, the R1010, sets off on her maiden voyage to the farthest-flung reaches of the British Empire, carrying the brightest lights of the Imperial fleet. Carrying the hopes and dreams of a breathless nation. Not to mention a ruthless spy with a top-secret mission, a mysterious passenger who appears nowhere on the crew list, a would-be adventuress destined for the Singapore Hilton... and a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. There's a storm coming. There's something unspeakable, something with wings, crawling across the stern. Thousands of feet high in the blackening sky, the crew of the R101 brace themselves. When the storm breaks, their lives won't be all that's at stake...

Breathless Romantic: Verbose, optimistic and full of boundless energy, this is a superb re-introduction of the eighth Doctor which conveniently forgets all that amnesia nonsense from the TV Movie and ploughs straight ahead into a reasonably traditional adventure as though nothing had changed since Survival. It is odd how much he talks to himself but then if I had a voice as silky and gorgeous as Paul McGann I would talk to myself all the time as well! He is annoyed at the loss of the TARDIS but is practical enough to realise he will get it back no matter how bad it looks. Just to remind us this is our Doctor he name drops the Hyperion and Storm Mine Four. He immediately shows several differences from his predecessor by carelessly spilling out secrets of the future, he might harp on about the web of time later in this story but he blatantly disregards the rules of time travel here. It seems perfect to me that Paul McGann’s romantic Doctor should be the one Vortisaur hunting. He seems to get off on danger, luring the time beast in by slashing his arm and allowing it drink and armful of blood. Vortisaurs can smell the time vortex in his blood. He describes himself as a Doctor of most things and some more besides. A long haired stowaway! He successfully convinces Tamworth that he is a spy. He loves the thrill and the fear and the joy of stepping into the unknown. He enthuses about the Triskeli ship and enjoys learning about the castes of a new alien species. I loved it when he coaxed Frayling into letting out a defiant roar of anger. Punching is not really his sort of thing but when needs must he packs a smack that sends Rathbone flying. This is a superb opening story for the 8th Doctor giving him centre stage throughout and letting Paul McGann show incredible range, from his opening monologue through to his chemistry with India Fisher, his anger at Rathbone’s tinkering with history and his misgivings about saving Charley’s life. To say this new audio Doctor shows promise is an understatement.

Edwardian Adventuress: Well here’s a first - introducing a Doctor and a new companion in the same story, an unenviable task that Alan Barnes pulls of with incredible verve. What really works is how instantly perfect companion material Charley is without actually feeling as though she had been constructed for that purpose. Rather than meeting Charley at the Pollard household dreaming of escaping her dreary life and seeing the world, Charley has gotten an airman drunk, stolen his uniform and is posing as steward Merchford on the R-101. You are already going to love a character like that. I understand that some people find India Fisher’s eagerness and enthusiasm in the part a chore but I am not one of those people. Fisher injects a great deal of energy and emotion into the character and whilst she does over emphasise the thrill of travelling her reactions throughout the story often feel very real. Together with McGann they make quite a joyful combination. Her slipping accent is hilarious (‘Strike a light is that the time!’). Her first meeting with the Doctor is delightful, he is utterly eccentric and beguiling and you can see instantly why she is attracted to him and him to her. She doesn’t take any nonsense either, standing up to Rathbone and giving him a good hiding when he tries it on with her. Charley does not find the creature ugly like the others, she finds it beautiful and it makes her cry when it opens its eyes. It is like the wonder of the universe is opening before her and she can see her reflection of wonderment reflected in its eyes. She was on her way to the Singapore Hilton to meet a boy, one who laughed at her when she said she could make it there on her own. At the end of the story she invites herself aboard the TARDIS – with lots of giddy talking of mixing with Martians and dancing with Venetians.

Great Ideas: A stowaway adventuress who was supposed to die in the R-101 crash – surely that is one of the best companion specs ever. Vortisaurs picking over time ship debris in the vortex and following the TARDIS to the R-101 and attacking. It is a 5 dimensional predator and it leaves 5 dimensional wounds, if it bites your arm it will age it 30 years. The true purpose of the maiden voyage of the R-101 was to return the alien visitor home and steal an alien aircraft. Rathbone wants to take it back to the British Empire so they can rule the Earth forever. He steals the Triskellion which makes the Doctor realise why the ship has to crash land – if he successfully gets alien technology back to Earth in the 1920’s it will change the timeline in catastrophic ways. Rathbone is ultimately responsible for the crash by attacking the Doctor he causes damage to the gas bags. The ship descends for 30 seconds before raking across the French countryside and bursting into flames. The Doctor and Charley escape aloft Ramsey as the flames lick at the sky. Charley is now an anomaly, she was supposed to die and the Doctor ponders on whether he will have to put her back one day.

A subject of some controversy in this story is the third episode which are pretty much all exposition surrounding Barnes’ new alien race, the Triskeli. I did not object to this episode at all simply because I found the ideas quite refreshingly different and well presented. Their symbol is the Triskellion – the sign of the three and their race is divided into three castes. The Engineers are the rational thinkers, the brains behind the operation. The Uncreators are the dark heart of the Triskeli, the urge to destroy. The Lawgiver is the free will of the Triskeli. They used to be destructive individuals with all three of these elements combined but they divided themselves so they could control themselves. It is a benevolent autocracy; nobody can do anything unless the Lawgiver gives his permission. They walk without touching the ground and the decks of their vessel move around the people. The Lawgiver is dying and the engineers sent the Engineer Prime to Earth to find an earth man to be the new Lawgiver. The cliffhanger to episode 3 sees the Lawgiver shot dead by Rathbone and the monstrous and deformed Uncreators now have free will. Brilliantly it is not bullets that hold them back but a good roar. As they have never been threatened by a new species for so long they don’t know how to react to such aggression.

Standout Performance: Beyond the two regulars who do sterling work it is Gareth Thomas who shines here, shamelessly stealing any scene he is in as Tamworth, the upper class Brit with a flowery turn of phrase. He is ambitious, driven and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He sends the R-101 up to meet the Triskeli under no illusions that he will walk away with one of their magnificent aircraft. His character makes the most interesting journey as he soon realises that the Triskeli do not deserve to be dragged into human affairs and elects to stay behind as their new Lawgiver. It is a superb performance by Thomas and it is just a shame that his decision at the conclusion rather prevents any re-appearances.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why is it I’m reminded of Jonah in the belly of the whale? It’s like a giant ribcage stuffed with obscene pulsating organs as far as the eye can see!’
‘The R-101 airship took to its skies for her maiden voyage to India early in October 1930 and crashed in flames in France during a storm in the early hours of the next morning killing everyone aboard.’
‘A million planets circling a million suns Charley where the starlight makes colours the human eyes have never seen.’
‘Can you imagine the glory of descending from the clouds with a prize like this? Imagine what mastery of science behind a craft like this would mean to the world? To her security! No more wars. No more dissent.’
‘Keep it up Rathbone, you’re making history.’
‘You know nothing about time. Do you know about the web of time? Hmm? Do you know history can’t be changed? You take an alien energy weapon back to England now in 1930 and then what? You strip it down, you study its design and master ion beam emission in a few short years. By 1940 you have spitfires mounted with laser canons. Fight the Battle of Britain that way. The British Empire is supposed to be falling apart, her colonies gaining independence. With weapons like these nobody would dare oppose her. You’ve learnt nothing today.’

Audio Landscape: The opening is just lovely as we fly through the vortex with the TARDIS before moving inside to reveal the unearthly heartbeat hum of the McGann interior. The time ship crashes over and over again with the Vortisaurs circling and screaming. There is a fabulous popping and crackling radio broadcast that introduces us to the R-101 which merges seamlessly on board the craft itself sailing through strong winds. The TARDIS materialises in the windy hold and the Doctor steps in lots of puddles. Doors squeak in true 1930’s fashion. Lightning cracks and a Vortisaur smashes through a window letting in the storm with it. The Engineer Prime’s high pitched voice is creepy and sweet at the same time. The descending flying saucer is very dramatic. Army boots march across Triskeli space as Rathbone prepares to attack. The gas bags creaking is very ominous, the beginning of the end of the R-101.

Musical Cues: This is a truly filmic musical score for an epic adventure in the skies. The music captures the scale and the wonder of the story. I love the piece where they finally reach 5000ft – bold and dramatic with a military drumbeat. The story gets a second wind when the R-101 departs Triskeli space and the music reflects that, it is wonderfully upbeat and exciting.

Isn’t that Odd: I’m still not sure about that version of the theme tune. It still sounds like someone farting the Doctor Who theme to me. Rathbone’s accent is astonishing but I’m not certain in a good way.

Result: A sublime re-introduction of the 8th Doctor and a wholly welcome step in a brand new direction for Big Finish. It feels like everything has been thrown at this production to make it as memorable as possible and we have a strong script with some great set pieces, an astonishingly good musical score, sound effects that convince you that you are experiencing the story and some wonderfully memorable performances. Storm Warning sees Paul McGann and India Fisher grab the parts of the Doctor and Charley and milk them for all the energy they are worth and from this story alone it is clear that this is going to be a partnership well worth following. I found the much criticised third episode quite enjoyable but I have to concur that it is the weakest of the four but the final episode that sees the Doctor stand up for established history and yet break the rules so cavalierly is one of the strongest conclusions to any story so far. Full marks to Gareth Thomas for his unforgettable Lord Tamworth: 9/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/16-Doctor-Who-Storm-Warning

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Mutant Phase written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about? In the 22nd century, the Daleks have occupied planet Earth. By the 43rd century, only a handful of humans survive. Still further into the distant future, a Thal scientist must choose whether to betray his heritage, or see the universe destroyed. When the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves trapped in this deadly chain of events, they must decide who their real enemies are. What is certain, however, is that no matter where the Doctor turns… his arch enemies, the Daleks, will be waiting for him. What could possibly be worse than that? The Mutant Phase...

English Gentleman: Peter Davison has really hit his stride now and is delivering the sort of performances I wished we had seen on television outside of Frontios and Androzani. This is the darker, older no nonsense fifth Doctor he should have been the second he walked away from Castrovalva. There is no sense of a trouble youth here but a man burdened with the responsibility of his travels although very different from the seventh Doctor who practically revelled in that sort of responsibility. Here the fifth Doctor does not even want to talk with his companion about the dangers of time paradoxes and the web of time in case she spreads that knowledge once he has left her. Nyssa described as patronising at the beginning of the story but that is hardly the case. His reputation precedes him and he is known for being resourceful and cunning. When he realises they have landed in the time of the Dalek invasion he suddenly becomes Tegan and decides it is time to leave. His anger at the Daleks’ relentless slaughter of others is palpable here. One of the defining moments of the fifth Doctor takes place in this story where he realises the Daleks want him to go back in time and break the first law to change established history and wipe out a race of being even more deadly than the Daleks. To commit genocide and ensure the Dalek menace survives. Now that is some responsibility! He faces down the Emperor without breaking into a sweat. In a moment of utter devastation the Doctor watches Skaro be destroyed and feels such remorse for the Daleks even though he knows that he shouldn’t. If only he knew that he would be responsible for that act one day. The last episode sees him struggling to handle paradoxes and multiple timelines and his final defeat over time sees him as its true Lord. The way he shrugs off the inconsistencies pointed out by Nyssa is hilarious.

Child of Traken: Both the Doctor and Nyssa are re-imagined in this story into something far more interesting than we normally see. Here Nyssa is a quick to react scientist who handles the immense pressures of this story well. She is still a little prickly but she is not stupid enough to not accept help when it is needed. She packs quite a punch too, giving Albert a good smack when he tries to accost her. She cannot believe how bloodthirsty the Daleks are but soon learns to be very scared of them. In a truly excellent scene she questions why the Doctor can go back in time save the Daleks from extinction and yet he flatly refused to go back and rescue Adric. Sarah Sutton is spot on in this story giving an engaging and pacy performance. This is the Nyssa Peter Davison was talking about that he wanted to travel around solo with and looking ahead (Primeval, Spare Parts, Circular Time, the Stockbridge trilogy) she would only get better and better.

Great Ideas: Nick Briggs was full of really clever ideas in The Sirens of Time but wasn’t quite used to pulling them all together into a solid narrative but what we have here is a far superior script. The trouble is you need to listen to the whole story to fully appreciate the effort that has gone into the plotting and the first two episodes come across as a little superfluous and yet once you reach episode three the ideas blossom and you realise the first half was setting up some great moments in the second half. The story opens with a fulsome image, no planets left supporting life. Something has destroyed everything and suddenly the ship is interrupted by a swarm of 100 billion mutations bigger than a planet. Its swarm so immense in carries the ship away and practically destroys it. There is a Dalek infection called the mutant phase which sees the Dalek mutant mutate into a vicious larvae and burst free of its casing with no higher brain functions and slaughter everything in its path. They travel through space in their billions. The Daleks on Skaro are besieged by the very creatures they are turning into. Against the Daleks the people of the universe have a fighting chance but this creatures are without the ability to plan or plot or feel anything. They just kill as aggressively as possible. The Daleks want the Doctor to go back in time and stop the mutant phase from spreading. In a groundbreaking moment that threatens to change Dalek continuity for ever we witness the Emperor being submerged and slaughtered by the wasp mutants and Skaro utterly devastated. The Doctor and Nyssa materialise the TARDIS over the original TARDIS from the beginning of the story when they return to the same time period and watch themselves on the scanner doing what they did at the beginning of the story! Before they walk back into the TARDIS and meet themselves the HADS materialise the later TARDIS. As the story we suddenly realise that the Dalek Invasion of Earth almost caused their extinction – and all because of a wasp sting. The crops have been genetically modified to secrete a chemical which induce the wasps aggression and gets them in the killing mood to murder the caterpillars that are killing the crops. One Dalek is stung by a wasp which causes the mutant phase – a terrifying hybrid of a Dalek that has been bred to kill and a wasp that has been genetically modified to kill. Nyssa realises that the answer is the chemical GK50 – created by the government to kill the wasps that had become too aggressive and started attacking towns. Ganatus is revealed as being the Emperor himself as the Daleks never trusted a Thal scientist working towards their salvation. There is gloriously silly moment where the Emperor tries to explain the plot of Dalek Invasion of Earth and the mechanics of Doctor Who to a bunch of Daleks several centuries his junior!

Standout Performance: Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton do the best work in this story, a story that puts them right at the centre of the action throughout. The dramatic thrust of the story – the time paradox – gives them plenty to argue about and both actors acquit themselves beautifully.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘You better hope you are never surplus to requirements, Professor.’
‘Victory for the mutant creatures will mean the end of history!’
‘The Time Paradox?’ ‘Yes there are good and bad places to have them. This is a bad place. Just bad luck in the game of universal dice really. If we don’t do something everything could unravel.’ ‘Everything?’ ‘Everything. Almost too large a concept to have any meaning isn’t it? Can you imagine the chaos of every particle of matter accelerating to the point of destruction? And even destruction is too small a word. Terror. Agony. They don’t come even close.’
‘I am the Emperor of the Daleks! Destined to be ruler of the Universe!’
‘That doesn’t make sense.’ – a great Nyssa line at the end of the story.

Audio Landscape: The story opens to a scene of a spaceship caught in the swarm of 100 billion mutant creatures so its nice to see Nick Briggs hasn’t lost his flair for the ambitious! There is a protracted TARDIS materialisation that really sells the gorgeous sounds created by the BBC way back when and fully brought up to date by Big Finish. We have buzzing wasps (a small early detail but very important to the plot) , crickets and gunfire and grenades in the distance. There is an American Roboman with his dialogue ever so slightly enhanced to sound wrong. The Daleks suffering from the mutant phase sound truly disturbing with horrible squealing and gurgling – you feel the mutant oozing through the casing and finally exploding! The Chase Dalek time ship returns and gives me goosebumps. Some nice subtle echoed cave scenes. There are scenes of chaos on Skaro as the mutant creatures burst into the main control room match the drama of the climax of Evil of the Daleks. The time paradox repairing itself is an audio tour de force with some great sound FX, Davison and Sutton’s voice distorted and Dalek voices burbling in the background.

Musical Cues: The Dalek sting and piano heartbeat is back and now proves to be a nice foreboding piece, making us anticipate the Daleks arrival. Nick Briggs’ music has improved in leaps and bounds and much of this stories wall to wall music enhances the atmosphere tenfold. There is a synthy 80’s beat during some of the action sequences that sounds just like the music in Remembrance when the Doctor and Ace are Dalek hunting. Very nice.

Isn’t that Odd? Albert and Delores are a really odd pair. Whilst I love the idea of only having 25 survivors on planet Earth I would have thought to have realised that would have left you hysterical, on edge. Both of these characters act as though they have walked from the Eastenders set. However Briggs soon despatches them so as Dalek fodder they do keep us on our toes.
I’m not sure if the final solution to the story is quite as audacious as its build up but that is so often the case with these things.

Result: I used to hate The Mutant Phase and never got past episode two. Oh what a fool I am. This is an expertly crafted tale that takes its time giving you the answers you want and uses its early episodes to set up some great revelations in the latter ones. The very nature of the story – what makes the Daleks scared – is worth the admission price alone but if you can work your way through the low incident level of episodes one and two you are suddenly treated to some innovative and remarkable concepts. The Doctor and Nyssa discuss the intricacies of time travel, the Dalek Emperor is murdered, Skaro is destroyed and the Doctor goes back in time to save their metal hides. The script gives Davison and Sutton some great moments and as a result their give their best performances to date, especially Davison who has never seemed more commanding. The ending is a little abrupt but this is an exciting and complicated tale that will please the high concept fans who enjoy their Doctor Who loaded with clever ideas: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/15-Doctor-Who-The-Mutant-Phase

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Holy Terror written by Rob Shearman and directed by Nick Pegg

What’s it about? The TARDIS lands in a forbidding castle in a time of religious upheaval. The old god has been overthrown, and all heretics are to be slaughtered. Obviously it isn't the sort of thing which would happen there every day - just every few years or so. And when the Doctor and Frobisher are hailed as messengers from heaven, they quickly become vital to opposing factions in their struggle for power. But will they be merely the acolytes of the new order - or will they be made gods themselves? An evil destructive force is growing deep within the crypt. And the pair soon find out that they will be lucky to escape their new immortality with their lives.

Softer Six: The sixth Doctor’s renaissance continues apace with another story that sees him stepping out of his terrorising personality of the past and emerging as a powerful but gentle being with a vast tapestry of experience to call on and his own unique way of approaching his adventures. These audio adventures are constantly innovating, the last story saw a brief venture into the dark and complex world of the New Adventures and here Big Finish have a stab of joining in on the big, bold and colourful world of the comic strips. Before Big Finish came along some of the sixth Doctor’s finest adventures took place in DWM. There were some gloriously imaginative and macabre adventures, the sort of which you could never imagine the BBC conjouring up on a tiny budget. The sixth Doctor burst from the page in colour and was accompanied by a companion whose very conception is as brave and experimental as the series itself. Giving the sixth Doctor a shape shifting companion introduced a world of visual splendour and creativity – Frobisher was everything Kamelion could have been on the television (why not have him appear in every story with a different actor each time – how brilliant would that have been…imagine the arguments on the forum now – who was the best actor/actress to play Kamelion?) and he had a fantastic personality too!

The Doctor tires to make Frobisher understand that it doesn’t matter to whom the cruelty is directed it is the cruelty itself that is wrong. This was definitely a period where the TARDIS could have some spectacular temper tantrums and the Doctor whilst still remarkably fond of his home seems almost in awe of her ability to override his control and take herself where she wants to go. They are just travellers and rather brilliantly one of the crowd describes the Doctor as the servant of the big talking bird! He is a man of many colours and finds the ritualised culture they have been stranded in fascinating. He has a very relaxed, natural chemistry with Frobisher and there is a feeling that they have travelled together for a long time. They insult each other playfully in a way that only good friends would do. He declares proudly that sooner or later the enemy all want to meet him and is hilariously told that they didn’t even know who he was until he walked into the room! His reaction to Arnulf’s mutilation is one of pure horror. This is a darker and more graphic adventure to what the Doctor is used to and he admits he is terribly afraid as the tale unfolds. He is not comforted by Eugene’s confession that he will die first. One of the drags of his lifestyle is hanging around to be executed; he wished they would just get on with it. He has known millions of planets and people and goads the child into trying to find the identity of his father amongst them. It is really heart-warming when he is reunited with Frobisher. The climatic moment that sees the sixth begging Eugene not to commit suicide is simply one of the most powerful scenes in Doctor Who’s canon and Colin Baker’s finest moment thus far. It brought tears to my eyes.

Big Talking Bird: One of the crowd admits the big talking bird is a miracle! An angel from heaven, perhaps the Doctor and his companions could be perceived that way. He was a gumshoe detective, cool and charismatic with a smooth American accent. A monochromatic bird! As a private eye he has often had to morph into the clergy. He has forgotten his real name because nobody uses it. Frobisher likes pretty women and he tried marriage but it didn’t work out for him…he was the Ogron she fell in love with. Once Pepin has abdicated he realises that he has to be God as somebody has to look after this crazy bunch. He finds the position very draining. In half an hour he manages to introduce parliamentary democracy, religious toleration and the concept of equal rights. He is shot by real bullets and remains unharmed and saves Berengaria from death and suddenly wonders if he does have some kind of divine power. Both the Doctor and Frobisher leave this adventure haunted by the events they have experienced.

Great Ideas: The Holy Terror is a cornucopia of fantastically clever ideas; Rob Shearman lavishes his imagination and introduces stacks of funny, dark and powerful concepts.
• Does the TARDIS have philanthropic circuits? Is that why she always takes them to places where the local populace need help? She goes on strike in this story and shuts down all her power unless the Doctor exceeds to her demands. She lights up certain controls to show the Doctor what she wants and where she wants to go.
• Pepin the sixth fell asleep in the bath and drowned, not a very noble way for God to go.
• A heretic’s death is having one eye gouged out and the other remaining so you can see the flames rising to burn a heretic to death.
• There are recantation forms to be signed and filed so you can switch your allegiance from one God to the next! The first scene is provocative in that sense, the guards threatening you with execution into you agree to switch to the new God and then you are free to go!
• As God dies his wife is locked up and her handmaiden becomes Empress.
• ‘They’re only guards after all!’ – the ritual sacrifice – murdering two guards with real bullets and the shooting the new God with blanks to prove his divinity!
• Divine providence – God always dies on the last page of each new bible that is written and the scribe always picks the right sized book. Pepin only has a tiny pamphlet suggesting Eugene knows something about the life expectancy of the latest God.
• There was a terrible case of chicken pox once and Gods were popping up and dying quicker than you can say heretic!
• 1/10th of the population are executed for heresy when God dies because they were all guilty for worshipping a false God.
• The very idea of introducing change such a ritualised society is glorious. Free will spreads like wild fire and we watch as the characters within try and break free of their stereotypes.
• Religion is described as compromised empty rituals!
• Childeric is breeding a new Messiah, a 5 year old child who has been kept away from society to protect him from corruption, cynicism and complacency. So it can have a language all of its own Arnulf has had tongue removed so he cannot corrupt the child with our language.
• The child is a revenge on Eugene; he is a torture device. The castle is a prison holding Eugene and forcing him to relive the crime of murdering his son over and over again. From the outside it is no bigger than a blue police box.
• Pepin and Berengaria learning to love each other shows how these characters transcend their original function and her both slaughtered by the child covered in blood.
• The ending is horrific and powerful, Eugene convinces the child to murder him and he is killing himself for the awful crime of not loving his child and murdering him. A father is God to his son.

Standout Performance: This is a story that allows its actors to really get to grips with some oddball characters, to give them something beyond their regular style of acting and as a result it is full of memorable characters and performances.
Roberta Taylor is astonishingly good as Berengaria who is an indulgent, cruel and bored Empress. Her gorgeous gravelly voice is perfect for audio and she plays her part to the hilt. The scene where she berates Livila’s lousy torture methods is awesome: ‘I don’t want to live!’ As the wife of a dead God she has no purpose and the story sees her trying to discover if she can have a purpose beyond that role which starts to subvert before the child kills her and her son.
Helen Punt plays the bitchy and traitorous Livila and despite her good looks is clearly the most pathetic character in the whole play with lines like: ‘You could make me ugly! Batter me, bruise me.’ She is one twisted creation.
Peter Guinness plays up the evil and gruff voiced Childeric.
Stefan Atkinson brings a touch of the upper classes to his role as God and perfectly captures Pepin’s naïveté and friendliness: ‘Even when you both hit me you looked the other way!’
However Sam Kelly must take the plaudits. He is desperately sweet as the scribe Eugene: ‘I’m the man that writes the bible!’ It is one hell of a performances watching him get steadily more jumpy and aggressive as the story continues. When the Doctor pushes for information about his son Kelly really comes alive. He breaks your heart at the conclusion when he finally talks to his son and begs his forgiveness for the foolish act of a madman.

Sparkling Dialogue: Without quoting the entire play here are my all time favourites…
‘Hiding in crypts doesn’t make you look evil Childeric, just rather sulky and anti social!’
‘News of my notoriety shall reach even the furthest depths of hell where your black heart shall burn forever.’
‘Your father committed the ultimate blasphemy.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘He died. Gods aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing.’
‘I thought I felt a twinge of something divine for a moment but it was just indigestion.’
‘I would have thought that the pre requisite of the High Priest was to have a little faith!’
‘If you live or die I shall say it was foretold. People feel reassured that way.’
‘To death or life eternal!’
‘When I came here to torture my mother-in-law, when I came to gloat, with a small blunt knife I would cut her face, every day I would do it, hack another piece off! By the time I had her executed there was no face left! Just her eyes so she could see the moment of her death. And never once did she cry. Did you even bring a knife?’
‘The lying blasphemer speaks the truth your majesty!’
‘I had to give you your tongue back so I could find out what your dying words are.’
‘You call yourself a God? A God of one single building? You might as well call yourself a landlord!’
‘How long have you been a God? How long has it taken you to wreck our society?’ ‘Well I started this afternoon, actually.’
‘That child out there is your only God and his name is death.’
‘Daddy you were a God to me and I thought we would rule forever!’
‘They felt pain, they felt fear and more than that they had hopes and dreams and families. Yes it is terrible but that’s what comes of travelling in the TARDIS. All the people you meet, all the planets you see, you know they wont last forever and our next journey could be to a time where they have all been forgotten. Such little lives…that we can feel like Gods set apart from them all.’ ‘And that’s supposed to make me feel better?’ ‘No. No, not at all.’ ‘For a while back there I actually thought I could do something good. I actually felt I could save them all.’ ‘I know Frobisher. Believe me, I know.’

Audio Landscape: Some bravura direction from Nick Pegg makes sure that this very special script is treated to the best possible production. We’ve got squeaky doors in prison, echoey footsteps, vast sounding crowd scenes at the coronation, scribbling, flippers on stone, snoozing, tongueless whimpering, a smug TARDIS hum, blood oozing, crowbar hitting flesh, a chilling breeze running through the vault, the Childs hideous unnatural voice, a screaming child, a whirlwind, bloody and watery deaths, a static void…

Musical Cues: Alistair Lock once again scores the action and injects some real chills and emotion into the story. The opening music sets the scene of the foreboding dungeon beautifully. There is a lot dark piano music. An imperial trumpet blasts during the coronation. Frobisher’s tune is fun and fluty. The twinkling score when the child appears merely adds to his horror. The childlike nursery theme as he slaughters everybody is really uncomfortable.

Isn’t that Odd? For Big Finish to tip their hat towards the comic strip like this is marvellous and it is such a shame that so few people bought this title initially. Those proud, idiot fans who think that it is too far fetched for the Doctor to have a talking penguin for a companion. Thank Goodness word of mouth spread about how good this story was although in a way I think those initial detractors should remain in the dark – they don’t deserve a story this good. They enjoy a show about a regenerating time travelling being who leaps about history and the future in a box which is bigger on the inside than the outside. And they find a talking penguin absurd? Sheesh.

Standout Moment: The conclusion of this story is devastating. An ashamed, tortured father begging his son for forgiveness and killing himself for the crime of murdering his own son.

Result: This is how good Big Finish are when they are on form. Much like the prison that the story is set within this audio is not quite what it seems and anyone who goes in expecting a deliriously fun and flightly adventure with the Doctor and Frobisher will be shocked. This is a shockingly bleak and yet hilariously funny take on the nature of religion with a biting commentary on the nature of religious toleration. It is populated with some gruesome and twisted characters played outrageously by a terrific cast at the height of their powers. Colin Baker and Robert Jezek make as much of an impact on us as the Doctor and Frobisher do on this society. The script constantly surprises with witty lines, thoughtful moments and stacks of unusual twists and by the time you reach the last episode you are wrapped up in this dangerous and frightening world. Every time I listen to this story I come away with something new, the issues discussed are always going to be relevant and the imagination on display here by Rob Shearman means he simply has to be used again. Astonishingly good, Big Finish has really hit their stride now: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/14-Doctor-Who-The-Holy-Terror

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Shadow of the Scourge written by Paul Cornell and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is host to three very different events: a cross-stitch convention, an experiment in time travel and... the summoning of the scourge. The Doctor, Bernice and Ace find themselves dealing with a dead body that's come back to life, a mystical symbol that possesses its host, and a threat from another universe that's ready for every trick the Doctor's got up his sleeve.
This time, has the Doctor gone too far?

The Real McCoy: The second outstanding showcase for McCoy’s devilish seventh Doctor in a row! I have had my issues with the New Adventures characterisation of the regulars in the past but had they had handled the Time Lord this adeptly throughout I would have been extremely happy. The second he steps out of lift and announces ‘first floor, horror, tragedy and mysterious deaths’ I was captivated. In typical New Adventures style we get to experience the master manipulator and the emotional wreck and surprisingly rather than being out of his depth McCoy is bloody good. It makes me wonder about adapting some of those novels…

As well as all of his other talents he has a penchant for cross stitching – another fascinating facet of his seventh persona he discovered after he regenerated. He uses Benny’s name to book in as a hotel in Kent is one of the few places where the pseudonym John Smith might raise a few eyebrows. He was dreaming when he discovered the Scourge and he made the deal with them, offering unconditional surrender of planet Earth in the name of the Time Lords. He has saved the Earth now and then so now thinks finders keepers. His shadow stretches back and forth through time and he has different faces, some of them hidden. He relies on the fact that he is much cleverer than his foes. When the Doctor’s plan goes wrong the threat holds more weight simply because it is the NA Doctor that has been outwitted and McCoy’s agonising scream cuts right through you. Whilst exploring his mind Bernice comes across the Doctor’s other selves who manifest themselves in times of emergency – they turn their noses up at his choices. He enjoys saving everyone at the last minute. His meaningless little life is made up of lots of meaningless little moments. He fears that his friends don’t love him and that they fear him visiting because he always brings monsters in his wake. He almost gives up during the course of this story – he feels the darkness calling him and wonders if it is finally time to regenerate into his eighth self. He recognises his ego, needing his friends to love him and let him know he has done the right thing. An attention seeking child? The Doctor is forever testing his companions and forcing them away from him. He loves rolling hills and falling asleep half in the sun and half in the shade. What gives him the right to walk into situations and juggle with the fates of planets? Who gives him permission to stand up? His friends do. Some strong characterisation there.

Archaeological Adventurer: I found it hard to accept Bernice in the companion role for the first few minutes but she had such good chemistry with both the Doctor and Ace it didn’t last very long. She’s too strong a character to feel subordinate to the Doctor and she is quickly off having her own adventures. Her humour is prevalent – especially when she asks to be put in touch with her two turtles, Squidgy and Speckly. She is a sceptic but not professionally and she doesn’t believe anything happens after death. Bernice does a terrible impression of the seventh Doctor; a Scots accent is definitely not her forte! The Doctor is her best friend. She puts on a front that is never her true self and could never ask for help for all the pain she hides. Bernice loves a houseful of sleeping guests and whole days spent just talking and dozing. The scenes between Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman are unexpectedly powerful and it pains me to think this relationship was not exploited again – the Doctor and Benny have long been one of my favourite solo combos and it would have been very right on to have had a series of stories for them. There still could be…

Ace of Hearts: I hated the aggressive angst ridden Ace from the New Adventures and was extremely pleased when she was finally cut out of the series (which co-incided with the series suddenly leaping up in quality – odd that!) but I have to admit Aldred plays this Ace with far more aplomb than her usual, younger model. She is afforded a lot of humour here that she was denied in the books and comes of as a far more rounded character as a result, not just a masturbating gun. Nobody lets her play about with their science experiments. She pretends to be cross with the Doctor when the Scourge arrive to claim the Earth from him which is actually quite a clever bluff considering how often she was at logger heads with him in the books! Ace is scared like everyone else but covers it with anger. In a moment of true bravery and stupidity Ace has her eardrums punctured so she cannot hear the Scourge and they cannot control her. She admits that she is not happy busting heads together all the time and that she does want a real life. She faces her monsters all the time and it makes her a stronger person for it.

Great Ideas: The opening scenes are brilliantly scary and funny – the awful ‘Om’ communion which leads to a genuine manifestation of aliens. I loved it when the lift opened by the Doctor and friends to reveal the body of Old Will. The revelation that he is the Scourge leader is a great surprise. The Scourge know eight dimensions and if they are able to fully materialise they would be able to reach around walls, walk through time and reverse every decision – humanity would have no choice but to worship them as Gods. They are a disease, an index of human fear and desire and we have all felt their tendrils from time to time. The dimensional bio implant is the weapon the Scourge use to torture humans in their own universe – they stretch them across different possibilities and age their bodies over several centuries. Brian and Annie murdering Mary is horrible, feeding on her delusions and feasting on her pain and fear and everlasting death.

Standout Performance: Sylvester McCoy – what a performance! He gets to be playful, menacing and emotional and nails them all equally well. It’s a shame that many of his later performance should underwhelm because there was the potential for his Doctor to rival Colin Baker’s for the audio crown but it was rarely this commanding again.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This isn’t supposed to happen in Kent!’
‘What it comes down to is this, things have got well spooky so get your coat, we’re out of here!’
‘It’s one of the eternal mysteries of the universe. Why does tea made in a hotel bedroom taste worse than tea made under any other circumstances?’
‘As William Shakespeare once said to me…come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’
‘I think happiness with those we love means everything! I think these creatures are preying on the flaw of humans being stupid and not trusting their own strength. And it would all be okay if we could just get out hands on some tea and scones because those things are great!’

Audio Landscape: The Scourge voices are initially absolutely terrifying – especially Lennox Greaves snarling Demi Leader. I loved the atmosphere brewed up in the communion sequences – the constant chanting of ‘Om’ before they suddenly all hit a low key ‘Ommmmmmm’ – brr creepy! The oncoming Scourge is represented by an approaching growling storm of voices. The legs and head tearing from Annie’s back is shockingly visceral. The Doctor’s mind is actualised in as weird and hypnotic a fashion as I would have hoped for, lots of whispering voices singing, water lapping and dialogue running off into the distance. Benny falls into the Doctor’s mind with comical style (‘Sorry about the mess.’). You can hear the Scourge soldiers tendrils burrowing into the Doctor’s brain. Ace in the lift shaft sounds totally authentic, the Scourge pursuing sounds as though it is far below her.

Musical Cues: The music is quite discreet in this story whilst still being extremely creepy and effective. The first scene is made all the more terrifying because of Lock’s excellent score, especially the bell tolling as the Scourge finally manifests. There are several fun moments punctuated by a bouncy melody – Benny ripping the piss out of Rygel 4 and the Doctor talking his colleagues through his plan. After all the fireworks in the Doctor’s brain he talks Brian back from his Scourge personality and a touching high piano note plays over these moments.

Isn’t that Odd: After a couple of reasonable attempts that is one appalling cover. Some of the worst photo shopping this side of the photos Clive shows Ms Tyler in Rose.
After a while the Scourge growling out threats to run and hide gets thoroughly tedious.
Once Ace cannot hear we are treated to several unfunny gags where somebody says something and she repeats it straight afterwards. It isn’t funny the first time. A shame considering all the wit on display elsewhere.
Occasionally the story verges on the edge of corny but then Paul Cornell does have that urge to push the schmaltz in practically every story he has written. Where his love for the New Adventures and the seventh Doctor comes to the fore is in dialogue like, ‘He played chess against these monsters and they beat him!’ which would be a bad line under any circumstances but becomes cruingeworthy because the writer is trying to draw attention to the fact that this is an NA. Which should be obvious. The final indignity comes at the climax where all the characters are screaming ‘Get out of our heads!’ I just wanted to jump into the story and machine gun them all. I can never remember the New Adventures being this fluffy. It just screams of the writer telling the audience this is an important moment – despite how small – like that awful moment in Father’s Day when the Doctor talks to the bride and groom and finds out how they met. You tell the story and I will decide what is important.

Standout Moment: The scenes in the Doctor’s head are an audio triumph and the performances of McCoy and Bowerman capture a friendship between the Doctor and a companion that has rarely been bettered.

Result: I am not really a huge fan of the New Adventures despite enjoying a great many of them because I don’t really like all of the grey areas they pushed the series into and yet I found Shadow of the Scourge to be a superb representation of them on audio. All of the NA staples are there; the Doctor is a powerful God-like being who doubts his decisions, we take a little trip into his mind, his companions are sarcastic and hard nuts, the monsters transcend reality and there is a healthy dose of angst and emotion. Gary Russell handles all of this with a masterly grasp, coaxing some terrific performances from his guest cast and capitalising on the drama and humour of the script. Cornell writes with wit and beauty and gives us lots to think about and takes a strong look at the central character of the Doctor and his part in the series. McCoy doesn’t disappoint and it becomes one of the highlights of his Doctor’s adventures. The Scourge make for an interesting if overly nasty monster and their realisation is excellent. Despite a few moments of overdone syrup, this is a finely judged side step into the world of the New Adventures: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/13-Doctor-Who-The-Shadow-of-the-Scourge

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Fires of Vulcan written by Steve Lyons and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption wiped the Roman city of Pompeii from the face of the Earth. It also buried the Doctor's TARDIS... Arriving in Pompeii one day before the disaster, the Doctor and Mel find themselves separated from their ship and entangled in local politics. As time runs out, they fight to escape from the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. But how can they succeed when history itself is working against them?

The Real McCoy: Wow. Wow. Wow. Astonishing that this story should feature the season 24 team of the seventh Doctor and Mel and it is all the more impressive for it. With four episodes Steve Lyons has shown us a very different dynamic we could have seen between them and opened up a world of potential stories. Mel states that she has never seen the Doctor this contemplative before so this must be the start of him shaking off his clown ball persona and emerging into much darker territory. Sylvester McCoy is at his finest throughout, this the story you should make me listen to when I start ranting on that he is a poor actor, he seems to have bought into the script completely and he underplays the whole thing which really sells his melancholic Doctor. The Doctor is aware of the consequences of this story before they have even gotten involved and broodily wants to leave and cheat fate. He is a stranger to Pompeii; I wonder what he would think if he knew he was walking around in three incarnations hence about to cause the eruption of Mount Vesuvius! He is an excellent gambler and can tell when Murranus is cheating, offering Mel up as a wager when he has no currency to play with. After the first eruption he is appalled to find the TARDIS buried under rubble and declares, ‘This can’t be how it ends!’ He is elusive of Mel’s questions but eventually admits he is scared of knowing his on future and wonders if he retired to Earth and leaves the TARDIS trapped under the ash. The TARDIS hates farewells as much as he does. He thinks Mel is far more precious than money. Looking at the story objectively his knowledge of time travel works against him here, he gives up because he thinks he knows the future, he knows how time works. His name is graffiti on the walls of Pompeii as the man who bested Murranus and is tricked (drugged by Valeria) into the amphitheatre to fight him. This sort of action would be brilliant for an energetic performer like McCoy. Think of the little Time Lord standing up to the psychotic gladiator, declaring he will have to kill him cold blood as death rains around Pompeii. Has he ever seemed more apocalyptic and powerful?

Generous Ginge: Whatever plaudits go out for McCoy should be quadrupled for Bonnie Langford. Kudos to her for approaching Big Finish herself to appear in their audio dramas and what a difference it made to her reputation within fandom circles. Suddenly Mel is being written and performed as an adult, maintaining her positive attitude to life but sensible enough to turn down her enthusiasm when the situation is serious enough. She is culturally unaware of Roman traditions (although she understands a little Latin) and gets several shocks when confronted with slavery, sacrifices and prostitution. She has no money on her (why does he never think to give his companions cash?) and mistaken as a messenger from Isis and is also declared to be a shameless woman who doesn’t even have the decency to cover her head! The Doctor’s chambermaid? She likes nothing more than a bit of shopping to help her relax. She was beginning to think the Doctor didn’t need her anymore and is horrified when asked if she is the Doctor’s whore! Mel knows who UNIT are. Mel’s pragmatism really works in her favour here and sees her refuse to give up even after the Doctor has – what if UNIT were wrong, what if the TARDIS comes to Pompeii again (she is actually right on both counts!) – she will fight time until she knows all of the options have been exhausted. I love how she stands up to Eumachia when everybody else cowers away (‘You should no you don’t scare me like you do that girl.’) and she enjoys a relaxed friendship with Aglae that becomes very protective after the volcano erupts. She is a vegetarian (from Vegetaria!) and is as honest as they come which helps her out after she is accused of thieving and locked up. She tells the truth of Pompeii’s destruction to her suitor, Popidius Celsinus and convinces him to release Aglae from prison and escape the city. Given the cartoonish nature of season 24 it is so shocking to hear Bonnie Langford being given dramatic material of this nature and I’m sure I am not the only person (stand up Steve Lyons) who thought she would fall to pieces. Instead Bonnie rises to the occasion and gives one of the best companion performances we have ever seen, totally convincing and squeezing ever nuance and drop of drama from the script. Shame on me. More of Mel please.

Great Ideas: Capitalising on the drama of Pompeii’s destruction. So good Doctor Who did it twice. Whilst I will always adore Fires of Pompeii as a superb example of how blockbusting and dramatic the new series can be The Fires of Vulcan is clearly the better exploration of history and the ramifications of the eruption. Lyons has more time to set the scene, explore the culture and build up his characters before wiping them out. This is an extremely well researched piece with lots of little detail that you will take away from the story (the Gods, traditions, religion and social culture of Pompeii are all investigated here). It is a nice slant on the traditional historical adventure (very Steve Lyons) in that the Doctor and Mel believe they will be trapped in history no matter what they try to achieve. Knowing they won’t escape brings very different reactions in them – he gives up and she refuses. The Doctor is given a glimpse of the future and his potential death and he is haunted at the very idea that his travels will be coming to an end. Mel argues that it cannot be part of history if it hasn’t happened yet but the Doctor argues that time cannot abide a paradox.

Standout Performance: As much as I want to (finally!) shower praise on Sylvester McCoy (and wonder why he cannot always be this good) the award goes to Bonnie Langford for her dramatic and unforgettable turn as the much underrated Melanie Bush. The thing about Mel that I have always enjoyed is her jolliness in her adventures, after the pessimism of Tegan, the deviousness of Turlough and the whining of Peri it is so nice to have a companion who seems to enjoy travelling with the Doctor even if she expresses that enjoyment in operative terms! The Fires of Vulcan explores a much darker side of Mel, trapped in prison with the foreknowledge that the city will be destroyed within a couple of hours. Bonnie Langford underplays every scene and sells the drama of the situation with ease. Go and listen to her quiet shock at the end of episode three where the seagulls have left the sky, it’s haunting.

Sparkling Dialogue: Lyons gives his performers lots of juicy material to work with…
‘This is your history and no good can come of our meddling with it.’
‘It doesn’t seem fair.’ ‘Time never is, Mel.’
‘I’ve seen the future Mel. I know what will happen, what must happen. In the year 1980 the TARDIS will be discovered dug up out of the ash that will rain upon this city tomorrow. We can’t escape it Mel, no matter what we do. Time already knows. We’ve already lost. We won’t that TARDIS again, nobody will see it, not for almost 2000 years!’
‘The mighty Murranus was outfoxed by…a mightier dwarf!’
‘The truth! You don’t want to know the truth I promise you! You can’t lock me up…you can’t! Don’t you realise you’ll kill me! This time tomorrow we’re all going to be dead! Do you hear me? We’ve got to get out of Pompeii before it’s too late! Doctor!’
‘You think you’ll reclaim your honour this way but your honour will be worth nothing when you’re reduced to ashes!’ ‘Then die Doctor with a coward’s plea on your lips!’
‘How can I accept that Pompeii has seen its final dawn?’
‘The virtual river of boiling hot rock pouring down the mountain at the speed of 100 miles per hour. It will engulf the city killing everybody it touches. We can’t out run it, Valeria, we can’t hide from it. Thousands will die in Pompeii alone.’
‘It is a moment of history preserved like no other.’


Audio Landscape: Lets be honest when Big Finish get it right they get it really right and The Fires of Vulcan has a strong script and incredible performances doing half its work already but couple these elements with some astonishingly visual direction from Gary Russell and a powerhouse musical score from Alistair Lock and you have a Doctor Who story that holds up with the greats. A really strong atmosphere is brewed with some great sounds; seagulls, crickets, puddles, carts rolling, animals screaming in market scenes and crowded bar scenes. The grumbles from the mountain are given real gravitas, people panicking, buildings shaking and animals terrified. I loved the scenes in the baths with children splashing about. The goat to the slaughter sequence is uncomfortable as it screams for release and is eventually silenced. There is an almighty thunder clap at the beginning of episode 3 like a portent of doom which leads to impressive rain scenes, it runs down the buildings and strikes the earth with force. The amphitheatre is brought to life with real gusto, the seagulls swooping in and out of the action.

Musical Cues: The best score yet, Alistair Lock’s command of instruments gives the impression this historical adventure had an entire orchestra backing the action. A sense of mystery follows the Doctor and Mel as they leave the TARDIS which leads into a bombastic piece which opens the story out into the street of plenty. There is a glorious ‘Ice Warriors’ style female vocal that plays over the ‘messenger of the Gods’ sequences. The Doctor and Murranus’ conflict is dramatised by a fierce drumbeat and the pace of music steps up a notch as Valeria steps into their conflict and almost gets killed. In episode four a fantastic piece accompanies McCoy’s wonderful speech that brings home the awesome power of nature and time.

Standout Moment: The cliffhangers to episode 2 and 3 are both spectacular. The end of episode 2 is one of my favourite Doctor Who moments ever, Mel accused of being a thief and terrified of the being locked up during the upcoming disaster. The music is wonderful and Bonnie really sells the material. Episode 3 climaxes in alternating serene and violent moments. The water stops flowing and gulls leave the air…the eruption is coming and at the same time the Doctor is being charged at by Murranus…great drama.

Result: A Scotsman and a redhead visit Pompeii and argue over the morality of their foreknowledge of the future, sound familiar? This is something very special indeed. So many areas of this story could have been fudged (McCoy could have phoned in his performance, Bonnie Langford could have over enthused, the script could have been too maudlin, the atmosphere too grim) but every aspect of this production is spot on from the cast to the director and the musical score. I have always loved Historicals and Steve Lyons produces a powerhouse of drama here, a cast of memorable characters and a emotion drive that runs through the story and makes pressing stop to go to sleep (grrr) very hard indeed! It’s clever, involving and dramatic and it never cheats the audience of the spectacle of Pompeii whilst telling quite an intimate story within it. Possibly the best performance Sylvester McCoy has ever given as the Doctor, it is a triumph for the seventh Doctor and a real highlight amongst the fluff of season 24: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/