Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Omega written by Nev Fountain and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: A strange telepathic message prompts the Doctor to travel to the 'Sector of Forgotten Souls', a place where, thousands of years ago, Omega's ship vanished whilst detonating a star. He's not the only one journeying towards it. 'Jolly Chronolidays' prides itself on giving its tourists an experience of galactic history that is far better than mere time travel. Its motto is 'We don't go into history, we prefer to bring history to you'. When Omega's ship suddenly materialises in front of their shuttle, and one of their employees goes insane and tries to destroy his hands…suddenly it's not just a motto anymore. And Omega - and his madness - is closer than they think.

An English Gentlemen: Sometimes it is very interesting to read the authors comments in the CD booklet because it gives you a real insight into where they were focussing their energies when writing the story. This story leaves and breathes the fifth Doctor, it is possibly his best showing yet for Big Finish and its certainly Peter Davison’s strongest performance among many great showings. Fountain makes some interesting points about the fifth Doctor, that he charges around the universe being extremely nice to everybody and yet somehow leaves a trail of carnage in his wake. It happened in Creatures of Beauty. And Spare Parts. And the author takes this uncomfortable concept to its most radical conclusion. He makes the Doctor the murderer and the villain whilst he is still being a nice as pie. What a great idea. Can you imagine any other Doctor suiting this story so much as the fifth, having to come to terms with the fact that he has been the monsters eyes and ears and has been murdering people at his whim? Peter Davison plays a fine victim and I mean that in as polite a way as possible. His last televised story was so effective because he managed to portray the Doctor as a victim of circumstance desperately trying to cling onto to anything that would allow him to triumph. Similarly that moment in Ressurection of the Daleks where he confronts Davros with a gun, turning him into a victim of his own morality is just as gripping. Davison portrays the scenes at the end of part three where the faux Doctor has to confront what he has done and come to terms with the fact that he isn’t the Doctor with real pain and desperation. It is absolutely transfixing. It also makes sense of the fact that Fountain has characterised the Doctor quietly throughout, to give this twist some effect. I really liked it and found the Doctor’s sudden appearance at the end of part three one of the most accomplished cliff-hangers we have ever seen. As if to compensate part four sees the real Doctor enter the scene and displaying more personality than ever! And what makes this sort of role reversal especially satisfying is that once again we are informed that the Doctor has accidentally wiped out a whole species. For real. The treatment of the Doctor and the final, glorious twist about his reputation in the future and what the story has really been all about is the finest element to this story.

In a rather droll defence of wet’n’windy Wales the Doctor provides a strong defence for the Eye of Orion. He is pushing 900 and is an old hand at time travel now. How embarrassing that he is fooled by a clever copy of Omega’s ship. His ability with endless prattle is legendary. Comparing him wonderfully with his predecessor, Blackpool is too brash for his tastes. He only ever travels anywhere by accident, especially alternative universes! He is described as the Doctor with a strong emphasis on the definitive article. He worshipped Omega in the Academy and he always thought that learning everything about his hero would spoil the mystery. It is no co-incidence that he and Omega are very much alike, he’s had a few days where he has wanted to shove the Time Lords up a black hole too. He gave the suggestion that he could question things and rebel against the society he lives in. The Doctor was granted a similar punishment: exile. In a gloriously simple moment he reveals he doesn’t expect much from the universe as long as there is a cup of tea waiting for him. The Doctor has always considered talking to himself as the first sign of sanity. Due to a telepathic link with the fake him he knows exactly what is going on which makes a very pleasant change! Omega considers himself a fragile flower compared to the monstrosities the Doctor has committed. The CPA reveals that the Doctor is a great hero in the future of the Time Lords and his name is rallied during darkness. This was before the Doctor killed the lot of them apparently.

Academy Nickname: With no companions to speak of the Doctor gets to spar with a number of his most terrifying villains. I can understand the appeal of bringing back these characters and giving them some depth. The Master (a one dimensional baddie at the best of times) and Davros (who has a back story that is gagging to be told) were excellent choices…but Omega? When you hear that the Celestial Toymaker was considered for this story it makes you salivate to think what could have been. Omega was stellar (geddit?) in The Three Doctors, just about the most gripping thing about the story and portrayed with agonising power and sympathy. His turn in Arc of Infinity, Doctor Who’s cure for insomnia (try it out…it really works!), was such a disappointment. Reduced to technobabble and lacking in menace, it took the Ergon for me to wake up and pay attention. There is clearly some interesting work to be done with Omega but I’m not sure that a story that dilutes him into a schizophrenic angst ridden failure was the best option. Not only that but the most interesting part of his backstory, his genocidal guilt was borrowed from the Doctor and even worse the concluding scenes reveal that he is considered ‘a joke’ in the future. Poor guy. All the great work that is done with Doctor is at Omega’s expense. Was that the idea? Whilst he is certainly better than he was in Arc of Infinity, Ian Collier cannot match the eldritch performances of Molloy and Beevers in subsequent releases.

He was destined to be the first Lord of Time. Is he as philologists claim more than a villain than Rassilon? I loved the title of Ertikus’ book – Omega, the blackest star of all. After his last encounter with the Doctor he was left a formless entity in the ether. The first and greatest scientist of his people. He wants to go back home to his anti matter universe as he feels impotent and powerless as he stands. He can hear the world calling to him. He wants to know how he is perceived on Gallifrey and despite the Doctor’s claim that his revered he feels he is a bedtime story to scare children. His real name is Palix and he is the only student in Gallifrey’s history to earn the mark of Omega. He believes that scientists should not seize power through bloodshed, a noble man. Omega does not consider himself to be a warrior, a martyr, a tyrant or a hero. During the course of the first three episodes he has to convince the Doctor side of his mind to help him.

Great Ideas: I like the fake theatrical opening – it is just convincing enough to be real. The Sector of Forgotten Souls where Omega completed his final mission to detonate the Eye of Jurtis and give the Time Lords unlimited energy for time travel. His mission failed and his ship was caught in the event horizon of the black hole he created and was lost. Legend has it that he is caught between universes. Loved the idea of Jolly Chonolodays bringing history to you…far more entertaining than the real thing (which is dusty and dull because you can’t touch anything!). How funny is the electronic mugging machine – a drone that tells you how long you have been browsing and therefore logically you must want to buy the book! Intergalactic equity doesn’t like all the acting parts going to automatons. Ertikus is revealed to be a Time Lord who has studied Omega extensively, having to make his documentary over and over depending on how he is envisaged. The idea of Sentia and Omega getting married is ridiculous (who would want to get hitched to a centuries old spirit from another dimension?) but I rather like the idea of a marriage that symbolises a union between universes. Tarpov is murdered in a very uncivilised way, his hand is severed and he is stabbed through the heart. Still, he’s only an actor. Can the telepathic circuit from Ertikus’ TARDIS be used to ensnare Omega, a being of pure thought? When you realise that the Doctor and Omega have been two aspects of the same personality it means he has been talking to himself for three episodes! Still the idea of the Doctor having murdered characters is a truly audacious utilising the audio medium to conceal a great twist. TARDISes tend not to hang about if their owners have departed; most of them spend millennia grieving and hurl themselves into the vortex never to be seen again. Somewhere at the end of the universe there is an elephants graveyard of broken capsules. The Time Lords received a telepathic message from the Doctor to help defeat Omega but in reality this was Omega asking for help to defeat himself! The two personalities take it in turns to be dominant. We never learn what did happen on the Eurydice but Omega, unable to understand how a prolonged exile such as his could have been the punishment of a good took some of the Doctor’s memories and wove them into his own life. It is the Doctor who is responsible for murdering the Scintillans, albeit by accident. The final, triumphant twist is that the two dotty old ladies wandering about are part of the Celestial Preservation Agency; Glinda is a walking TARDIS and Maeve a Time Lady both sent to make sure that the pattern of history remains intact but the perception of history as well. They are basically there to protect the Doctor’s image – they can’t have him responsible for genocide and Omega’s madness, not when he is considered such a hero back home in the future.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Grains of truth are like grains of sand. Make anything out of them and the tide comes and washes them away.’
‘Your strangulation of my patient is impairing his recovery!’
‘I seem to have arrived a little too late.’

Audio Landscape: I’m not going to sugar coat my opinion as I think story is pretty badly directed. Its not just the inconsistent tone (which I will go into later) but the soundscapes are pretty unmemorable as well. In over two hours of running time I only wrote down five points that stood out to me at all. A shuttle shoots past at the beginning of the story and we head inside and hear the excited chatter of the tourists. The various robots are well voiced and distinctive. The whispering threats of the Scintillans made me pay attention. And Omega’s spaceship is nice and echoey. That’s it. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention enough or maybe the background effects just weren’t especially apparent but this is one story could have done with a bit of juicing up to make sure the production matched the clever ideas.

Musical Cues: Russell Stone, be still my heart, I could not find one note of memorable music in this story! It’s an unmemorable score that should have been bombastic but is far too girly for that. The script says laugh, the story says faint with shock and the music says fall asleep it's so calm and ethereal. The harmonious music worked for Stones of Venice because it suited the story's mood but similar mood music here fails dismally because it fights the material. Shocking.

Isn’t that Odd: For me this story has an extremely uneven tone and much like season 25’s The Happiness Patrol it wants to tell a bold and dramatic story but it is surrounded by garish and childish trappings. Did the story have to go for the comic angle quite as much as it did? Some of the ideas are amusing enough without the deluge of gags and theatrical performances to hammer the point home. The script is bubbly and frothy but the plot tries to be hard as nails, the two fight each other for supremacy and the direction swings pendulously between both uneasily. The story wants to juggle ideas as weighty as genocide, body snatching, murder and the perception of history but the giggly humour makes light of these potentially hard-hitting ideas. I still don’t know if this story is a comedy or drama and that’s not in the perverse and skin crawling way that Jubilee played its black comedy. Omega lacks subtlety, which is a shame because a lot of effort has gone into writing this story. The first two cliffhangers are practically identical and are so poor they only serve to make the third as strong as it is. Caroline Munro is wasted in the function of Omega’s bride, a thankless role of melodrama and hysterics. And whilst Peter Davison is trying his best to make it as powerful a moment as possible the revelation that the Doctor is Omega is no where near as psychologically scarring as it should be. Colin Baker made a far more chilling madman in Jubilee because the script gave him time to explore the messed up Time Lord. Having the Doctor and Omega arguing with each other should have been really scary, Psycho or Secret Window scary but instead it’s just another zippy ideas in a packed script. And I’ll say it one last time…is Omega really a strong enough villain to prop up this story?

Result: Its hard to know what to think of Omega because at verges between being brilliant, shocking on the one hand and highly imaginative and bland, expository and irritatingly theatrical on the other. The first three episodes are mostly useless; they plod along harmlessly enough with some sluggish direction but its episode four where all the meat is. For that half an hour you are treated to revelations, a conclusion bursting with ideas and some really fun moments. Peter Davison has rarely been better and it is a shame because he deserves a far more dramatic story to hang his performance on. His scenes with Ian Collier lack tension and chemistry though, which blunts the potentially terrifying idea of a duel personality inside Omega’s head. Fountain would jettison a lot of the pretension in his next script and really go for the comic jugular but it feels as though he is trying a little too hard here and the result is an patchy story with possibly Gary Russell’s weakest direction to date: 6/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/47-Doctor-Who-Omega

Friday, 27 August 2010

Project: Lazarus written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? "I'll survive Doctor. I always do." Unfinished business. A frightened girl is stalked in a land of eternal night. A hunter longs for recognition and power. A traveller in time returns to correct the mistakes of the past and faces a danger that could rob him of his future. Unless his future intervenes. And in the shadows stands Nimrod. Waiting... Welcome to the Forge.

Softer Six: Some very interesting things being done with the sixth Doctor in this story as the rehabilitation and exploration of his character continues. What I really enjoyed was how we got to see the opposing sides to his character in extremis, parts of Lazarus find the sixth Doctor at his most tender and gentle and later you have never heard him so angry. He’s genuinely frightening in parts. Colin Baker gets to shine in two roles, as the Doctor that we know and love but also as a genetic experiment that has gone wrong. To hear the usually arrogant and effervescent Doctor reduced to a viciously angry lab rat is unthinkable but the story pulls of this macabre concept with some aplomb. Big Finish seem to push and push with the material they offer Baker and he doesn’t even break a sweat and within these audio plays it is possible to make an argument that he was potentially the best actor to play the part. The Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn is left on a cliffhanging high in this story and you have to wonder if their friendship can survive this latest hardship.

Evelyn wonders if the Doctor keeps popping to the co-op whilst she sleeps to keep the TARDIS kitchen stocked! He amazes Evelyn, which is good because he stopped amazing himself ages ago. He takes his tea with four sugars (which explains a lot!) and relishes the first cup of the day. He steps from the TARDIS and embraces the extreme weather (very Twin Dilemma). Attempts on his friend’s lives he takes very personally. I like the fact that the writers make light of the biggest criticism of Project: Twilight, that the Doctor wasn’t too bright in not realising it was Vampires behind that story earlier than he did. Nimrod prefers the old coat, he thinks its more unique but then he does have an askew take on life! The Doctor is more than a little curious to find out what goes on in The Forge. Project Lazarus opens the very interesting question about the effect the Doctor has on the people he saves since he left Cassie to fend for herself whilst promising to work on the twilight virus but has been sidetracked by all manner of adventures with Evelyn since then leaving Cassie so desperate that she accepted Nimrod’s offer of employment. When Nimrod reveals how he plans to murder him several times over to discover the secret of regeneration he is honestly appalled at the concept and for once very frightened. Has the sixth Doctor ever sounded so angry as when Cassie is murdered? ‘Damn you, Nimrod! Damn you!’ Its one of those rare occasions when he breaks your heart, as he enters the TARDIS and explains to Evelyn that he can’t always save everyone and sometimes he doesn’t win. To see these two friends torn apart so violently is devastating.

The Real McCoy: Well, well, well…that was a surprise. After garbled, confused and almost redundant performances in the last three stories we finally have Sylvester McCoy returning to Doctor Who. There is such a quantum leap between this and nonsense like The Rapture you have to wonder if somebody has had a word at last…or at least got the scripts posted to him well in advance? He calmly underplays the drama and it is dripping with menace as a result and at several points he genuinely sent shivers up my spine. He is travelling on his own which makes such a difference, mournfully talking to himself and murdering a piano. Even if it has been a century or three he never forgets a face. He growls that he is not as forgiving as his last incarnation and you really believe him. Oddly enough when he is confronted with himself working at The Forge he has no memory of the events and wonders if one of them is from an aberrant timeline. He doesn’t even remember having such a casual disregard for humanity. The Doctor talks with some regret when he admits that Evelyn never really forgave him for what happened to Cassie (which segues beautifully into Thicker than Water where the seventh Doctor explains what happens to little Tommy and gets her forgiveness). He is ashamed at his former self for abandoning his principles. Before this story is over he has to watch himself die which must be the most discomforting experience!

Learned Lecturer: Poor Evelyn. Can you imagine another companion tortured in such an obscene fashion? And yet the only reason they are so cruel is because we have fallen in love with her character so completely it makes for great drama to see her in such distress. By the end of the second episode you are gasping for air with discomfort as our favourite lecturer is choking down her tears, confronted with her own mortality and losing another dear friend. There are very few moments in Doctor Who that are as painful as this (thank goodness – I wouldn’t be able to take it!) but it really does stand out as another fantastically real horror that Evelyn faces and another developing moment that makes her stand out as such a successful companion.

Their opening scenes suggest they have reached a domestic zenith, more like a married couple than ever before. He is blissfully aware that she is talking to him and showing off her new cardie and has brought him breakfast. Evelyn knows when he isn’t telling her something. Lightening the mood is what she does? Meeting up with Cassie again really excites her but she feels very let down when she sees what she has become. Cassie reveals that Evelyn has been keeping a secret from the Doctor ever since they first met, she had a mild heart attack that long before he walked into her life and the university were going to retire her. The Doctor showed up and offered her a chance to escape and to see something new and she’s never felt more alive than when she is with him. She is desperate for him not to find out because she believes it will end their travels together. Evelyn pushes the memories of Thomas Schofield back into Cassie’s mind, breaking through her conditioning. Her reaction to Cassie’s death is violent hysteria; she rejects the Doctor’s attempts to comfort her and storms off to her room in tears, leaving their relationship up in the air.

Great Ideas: I love the fact that the TARDIS is equipped with a function as melodramatic as the ability to go Vampire hunting…and a directive of Rassilon at that! The Doctor has finally made a breakthrough with the twilight virus and wants to be able to give Cassie her life back. Sometimes it is best to trust the TARDISes instincts. Cassie can smell death. The Huldran, a very old Norse folk legend about a young man alone in the wild scavenging and he hears a beautiful singing voice on the wind. An angel has come to save him, wrapped in shimmering silk asking to be unsheathed and he cannot resist. As he touches her naked skin he is paralysed and has the life sucked out of him. The singing is the creature’s natural tongue. Everywhere that Cassie went nimrod was there. She couldn’t hunt, feel or hide and every time she shut her eyes she saw his face. She tries slitting her wrists and hanging herself but nothing worked. Cassie is working for the Forge as an assassin (codename Artemis) and she takes pleasure in murdering the Professor. The Forge has everything from Axonite to Zanium and all that is missing is T for Time Lord. Nimrod wants to induce regeneration over and over until they have the information they need. Lazarus is a codename for the Doctor, for a being that can cheat death. All Nimrod needed Cassie for was as bait to lure the Doctor back to The Forge. Cassie helps them to escape but its slaughtered by Nimrod for her efforts. Nimrod reveals that she took a long time to clean up. When the seventh Doctor picks up the story he discovers the sixth Doctor working as the Forge’s scientific advisor. Earth is under attack by the Huldran who are looking for revenge for the murder of their kind and the theft of their technology. The disturbances the Doctor detected in the vortex are the Huldran portals opening. All those who cannot stand the sixth Doctor (surely not!) can bask in episode three’s cliffhanger where he is stabbed over and over again. This attack should have triggered regeneration but this Doctor is a clone of the original. In a sequence that appals the Doctor as much as the audience we discover Nimrod murdered the initial clones to see if they would regenerate, slitting throats with casual abandon. There are dozens of Doctor clones in captivity, all dying, for every successful clone there are ten mutated versions kept for tissue experimentation. Forge Beta is activated when the Dartmoor operation is destroyed.

We know that Russell T Davies is a fan of the audio adventures (Jubilee, Dalek Empire) and I think I can see some blatant lifting of ideas from this story! Torchwood is The Forge! Lets take a look at the evidence…The Forge is a hidden base whose mission it is to study and utilise alien technology that washes up on Earth and adapting it to serve mankind (The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts). You don’t leave the Forge; the Forge leaves you (this line was stolen almost in its entirety in the season two Torchwood episode Fragments). The Forge archives deadly life forms and keeps them contained but there is a Deadman’s switch in case they escape. And when the Forge is destroyed there is another one to take its place! The Doctor even states that Earth isn’t ready for this technology (‘The 21st Century is where it all starts. And you gotta be ready.’) Give Scott and Wright an on screen credit at least…but then perhaps a lot of this came from The Initiative from the fourth season of Buffy?

Sparkling dialogue: ‘Nobody escapes from The Forge! Artemis…you’re fired.’
‘You can’t always make everything better with a cup of cocoa and a slice of cake!’
‘The Forge has its very own pet Time Lord.’
‘You scar on the face of science! You abomination! You animal!’

Audio Landscape: Gareth Jenkins’ post production work on Lazarus is superb and part of the story’s incredible impact is down to the you-are-there feel of the sound effects. The opening scenes feature owls hooting, wind shushing through the trees and the birds fluttering away. Cassie is chased through the forest and captured and you can hear her hanging from a net that squeaks. Walking through the crackling forest scrub. There is a lovely crackling fire as the Professor tells his tale. A helicopter is heard approaching and landing, its blades cutting through the air. The Oracle has a gorgeous, sultry voice. The Doctor’s screams of pain are enough to stop your heart. The end of part two really comes alive with the best ever alarm klaxon and scenes of Cassie and Nimrod fighting to the death. Cassie’s death is very messy, very bloody. The TARDIS lands in a delicious rain lashed forest and the Doctor opens his brolley and we hear it hammering down on the fabric. The flashback to the Doctor-clone’s birth is gripping, his dying breaths as his heart gives up and the flash of a knife that cuts his throat and allows the blood to pour away. The plaintive cries of the experimental Doctors.

Musical Cues: Dark, brooding, perfectly in synch with the script. The Huldran get a lovely piece of myth music that gives their story far more credence than they deserve. The Doctor’s piano playing is rather good!

Isn’t that Odd: I can remember as Big Finish continued the length of the stories grew and grew until the narrative was stretched well beyond the natural length to entertain. Project: Lazarus is perhaps the one and only time I will ever reverse that criticism, this story tries to do far too many things in too short a running time. Worse, it rejects its more interesting elements in favour of some unappealing material. The first two episodes are rushed, Cassie’s re-introduction is skipped over far too briskly and her betrayal of the Doctor and Evelyn is barely touched upon before she is deprogrammed and murdered. Finding Cassie so easily (the TARDIS plonks down next to her) signposts that she is leading them into a trap. We get to experience Cassie’s story on the run, starving and terrified, via flashback when we should be experiencing it. Show, don’t tell. I could easily imagine the first two episodes stretching to four, an episode to handle Cassie’s reintroduction, one dealing with her reunion with the Doctor and then the two that we have. It would make the twists far more dramatic and less perfunctory. It feels as though the story is always in a hurry, such a shame when there is some top dramatic material to explore. The Huldran plot should have been tossed out, its largely filler and adds very little to the overall plot and distracts from the more interesting stuff going on around it. The last two episodes could be expanded as well, highlighting the clone storyline and developing it and giving the seventh Doctor far more to do. And what a thankless role Vidar Magnussen is given, there to offer some exposition and get slaughtered…Professor Harket is nothing but a plot function. And the most annoying thing of all is Nimrod himself, a really interesting twisted character who is re-introduced and given no development at all.

Standout Moment: Evelyn’s tears. Horrible.

Result: There are lots of fantastic ideas squeezed into a story that doesn’t have the breathing space to handle them all adequately. As such Project: Lazarus feels incomplete and would have worked much better as a duel four part release much like The Reaping/Gathering. However a lot of the individual elements of this story are very good, especially the gripping continuation of Evelyn’s hurt which began in Pirates. The Forge is a treasurable concept and it works far better here than it ever did as Torchwood because Scott and Wright really drive home the horrifying idea of the Doctor as a lab rat. Colin Baker impresses in two very different roles, throwing away his trademark arrogance in the last two episodes to explore anger like never before and Sylvester McCoy gives his best performance in an age, beautifully capturing the lonely wandering seventh Doctor. Certain dramatic moments really make this worth listening to but it feels like a watered down version of the even darker, more involving tale we should have had. An extra point because the ideas are so strong: 7/10

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

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Creatures of Beauty written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about? A planetary ecological disaster! An incurable, disfiguring, genetic disease... Aliens, in breach of galactic law! Nyssa, under arrest! The TARDIS, inoperable! The Doctor, facing interrogation! Another situation of dire peril is unfolding for the Doctor and his companion. However, what if it is not clear who is right and who is wrong? Who is ugly and who is beautiful? Where does the story begin, and where does it end? Sometimes, it is all a matter of perspective.

An English Gentleman: One of the cleverest things about this story is how it sets up its consequences before revealing its dilemmas. In doing so and having the audacity to have the Doctor not even realise his role in this story’s affairs it ironically says more about his character than if her had found out and we had explored his reaction. Creatures of Beauty holds the Doctor’s choice to leave Gallifrey and explore the universe up to the spotlight and dares to make the suggestion that it might not have been the best idea. I love that. After being brainwashed by the TV series which has the Doctor applauded (literally) for his heroic antics into thinking that the Doctor can only be a force for good here is a cautionary tale that threatens that cosy image. The Doctor, however accidental, causes the near genocide of an entire species; he leaves a planet of people scarred and mutilated and full of bitterness and hatred. Its such a shocking concept you have to applaud its boldness, to have the Doctor and Nyssa whisk of to their next adventure not cottoning on to their involvement and think ‘Oh those poor people…’ – it dares to turn them into the unwitting villains of the piece. This throws up all manner of questions. Has this sort of thing happened before? Has the Doctor made changes to a planet that would ultimately end in their annihilation? Did the Times Lords do the right thing in condemning him for his interference, however well intentioned? Would Katerina, Adric, Peri (hmm not sure about that one) ands a whole host of secondary characters still be alive if it wasn’t for his interference? And to have the fifth Doctor play this role is paramount because he has always been the most genial, the most approachable Doctor. To turn him into a killer on this scale is inconceivable.

Of course, I don’t think that way. But in a story that daringly plays on perceptions it is fascinating to think that the fictional characters within the stories we are told could justifiably think that way. We all know that ultimately the Doctor has always done what’s best, even if it has consequences. They could easily be perceived differently, if portrayed in the right light. Its really interesting stuff. The Doctor questions what is the right thing to do, that everything is a matter of perspective. He’s in a very philosophical mood. The Doctor is a really bad cover name and he admits the TARDIS is hardly of orthodox design. He has highly developed intelligence. He questions if he really did leave Gallifrey to make a difference. He doesn’t want to talk about his role in the universe or too study each place they visit too closely, like a painting studied too closely he is scared that all he will see is brush strokes and that it wont mean anything. He thinks they were swallowed up by the situation they fell into and they had no impact on events at all. He promised to overhaul the TARDIS some day. He cannot keep his curiosity under control, perhaps that, ultimately, is his greatest downfall?

Alien Orphan: Briggs has hit upon a formula that really makes Nyssa work here, put her in the worst situation imaginable! Seriously, by having sweet, gentle Nyssa exposed to such vicious interrogation, violence and horrific images we get to see her stand up to authority, ask the right questions and become a truly sympathetic character. It’s the same sort of development that Spare Parts was going for but that story didn’t really push hard enough, Nyssa’s reaction to her friends processing was shadowed by the gripping unfolding story of the genesis of the Cybermen. Creatures of Beauty strips away all of the trimmings and focuses tightly on the drama of the situation, Nyssa witnesses Veline stabbing herself to death. Nyssa is beaten before her interrogation. The interrogation scenes are stark and brutal and Sarah Sutton is extraordinarily good at playing frightened. Its terrifying stuff.

She doesn’t smoke (well, duh). Nyssa is considered mad because she claims she is from another planet. She is beautiful. Her horror struck admission that she couldn’t stop Veline from committing suicide is gripping. She says it was like she was trying to cut something out of herself. When they reach the TARDIS at the end of this adventure the Doctor is ready to hop into the next one and Nyssa is appalled, she wants to know if they made a difference. Oh boy did they.

Great Ideas: The story opens with Lady Forlean revealing that she has been trying to find a cure for the Dyestrian poisoning for years and has invested her families money into zero gravity treatment. The poisoning caused distorted skin tissue and abnormal bone structure. There are a number of brilliant character reversal in episode one, first between Nyssa and Brodlik which starts with him as a professional psychiatric and turns him into an unbalanced racist and secondly between Brodlik and Gilbrook which shifts from giving a report to an investigation. These two handers between the actors are paired down to the bone and more riveting because of it. The sky over Veln is green due to raw Dyestrian fallout. Gilbrook obtains a search warrant for Lady Forlean’s estate and discovers a sealed basement with experiments running. There wasn’t a planetary disaster; the Koteem chose to use Dyestrian and their primary source of energy, which polluted their planet. There was an accident with a transport ship holding Dyestrian waste toxins, which was supposed to be going to uninhabited areas. The ship exploded in high orbit above Veln and the atmosphere was terminally polluted. After the fallout hit the Veln atmosphere it meant the end of agriculture, the collapse of food production, global and economic meltdown, poverty and endemic crime and every nation on the planet labouring under paranoid government institution. The Koteem will be guilty of genocide in a few generations time but they are trying to prevent it. They aren’t offering a cure but they can burn away generations of disease and ugliness by giving the Veln their life essence. The Koteem are also dying of Dyestrian poisoning and tried to develop a survival suits, which failed. They offered reparations to the Veln but all were rejected. A Koteem extremist group contacted Lady Forlean and together they are trying to create a hybrid race. They will sacrifice themselves to make the Veln stronger. Two dying races combined to make a new one. What a fascinating idea. Sometimes the Veln reject the Koteem essence = Veline. It’s the birth of a new civilisation. We discover just as we leave the story that the TARDIS once landing in the Veln system just before the accident emitted a warp distortion field and caused the accident which kick started everything. By changing the structure of the story, taking a linear narrative and telling it in a scattered, crazy paving way it changes the emphasis on the story. Had we had the Doctor’s TARDIS near miss at the beginning of the story it would have completely ruined the ending. And by revealing the effect of their short hop in Veln space Briggs manages to hide the biggest twists at the beginning of part four invisibly. Clever bastard.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Should both races suffer because of the sins of their forefathers?’
‘Our civilisation isn’t dying, its already dead. All that’s left is a rotting corpse.’
‘As for making a difference? I don’t think we influenced anything at all.’
‘Like paint spilling across the table. He said it was almost beautiful.’

Audio Landscape: What has happened to Nick Briggs? Since he took a break from the main range to write and direct Dalek Empire his handling of Jubilee and Creatures of Beauty have been nothing short of masterful. His grip on direction has tightened considerably and he really does get some fantastic performances here and his experimentation with the narration is applaudable too. The opening really makes you sit up and pay attention, an ambulance, a heart monitor and some terrifying screaming make this a dramatic introduction. A snowplough chews through the snowy wastes and you can really hear the gears screaming, in desperate need of a good oiling! A cigarette is lit and puffed. Boots crunch very satisfactorily in the snow and the wind whips about with some force. Birds shriek in the night. The bioscan the Doctor and Nyssa are put through has an audibly nauseous effect on them. The Koteem’s voices are shrill and powerful. The guards crunch through the gravel in the driveway. Bullets are unleashed upon the snowplough. Listening to Gilbrook breaking Brodlik’s bones and beating the living hell out of him is extremely discomforting. The TARDIS beeps and screams, fizzles and explodes! Nyssa hears Veline screaming in the distance. Briggs’ mastery over the flashbacks in the last episode which come together to form the answers in the final part is flawless.

Musical Cues: Understandably Briggs opts to make the music as scarce as possible to really drive home the drama of this story. The silences can be very uncomfortable. Ironically the lack of music in some places really emphasises his superb sound effects.

Result: A forgotten masterpiece and a stunning experiment in fractured narration that results in grit your teeth suspense. It’s a piece which opens up some disturbing questions about the Doctor’s effect on the places he visits that wisely leaves you to come to your own conclusions. I love how the story’s climax is the end of part three and its beginning is at the start of part four, Briggs has clearly put a lot of thought into making this experiment work and manages to save a whoop-ass twist until the final few seconds which demands you give the story a second listen. David Daker gives the performance of a lifetime as Gilbrook; he is sinister, sadistic and yet rather wonderfully departs the story on a moment of pure poetry. Creatures of Beauty is not afraid to make its audience feel uncomfortable and in doing so it manages to be one of the most thought provoking stories yet. I cannot fault this story: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/44-Doctor-Who-Creatures-of-Beauty

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Doctor Who and the Pirates written with great imagination by Jacqueline Rayner and superbly directed by Barnaby Edwards, esq

What’s it about: All aboard, me hearties, for a rip-roaring tale of adventure on the high seas! There'll be rum for all and sea shanties galore as we travel back in time to join the valiant crew of the good ship Sea Eagle, braving perils, pirates and a peripatetic old sea-dog known only as the Doctor! Gasp as our Gallifreyan buccaneer crosses swords with the fearsome Red Jasper, scourge of the seven seas and possessor of at least one wooden leg! Thrill as Evil Evelyn the Pirate Queen sets sail in search of buried treasure, with only a foppish ship's captain and an innocent young cabin boy by her side! Marvel at the melodious mayhem which ensues as we sail the ocean blue! And wonder why Evelyn still hasn't realised that very few stories have happy endings...

Softer Six: These reviews are becoming a little predictable but seriously…how good is Colin Baker in this story? There was a moment in the all singing, rope swinging, cutlass dodging third episode where the sixth Doctor goes from being a great Doctor to being the best Doctor (it was around the hilarious ‘Please! Please! Give me one more chance before you cut me down like a dog!’). When Colin Baker gets a dodgy script (it hasn’t really happened yet but it will…) he manages to inject some life into the story but when he gets a blinder like Pirates he leaps to top of the quality ladder and does a little pirouette. It’s not just that the sixth Doctor and Evelyn are a constantly surprising and delightful combination (who shocked with their high drama in Jubilee and now turn their hand just as adeptly to comedy) but they clearly seem to adore each others company…almost as much as we adore being with them. I remember one very chilly winters evening when I went to see Colin Baker in Corpse! and I couldn’t miss the chance to say hi at the stage door and ask for his autograph on my Doctor Who and the Pirates CD. He took one look at it and declared that he had so much fun making this one. And it shows. This story is infectious to listen to and Colin Baker is a huge reason why. The Doctor doesn’t come finer than this, he’s charming, witty, verbose, delightfully funny and having a ball.

He can’t operate the TARDIS very well but every now and then he surprises you. Evelyn thins he has very bad taste in clothes but a very nice smile (that’s just the sort of thing your wife would say!). He gravitates to water like a hazel rod (its true! The Thames in The Marian Conspiracy, Project: Twilight and Jubilee and the Galapagos Islands in Bloodtide!). When Evelyn wants him to save everybody he says he is not operating a space/time lifeboat! The Doctor is a terrible namedropper so if he hasn’t heard of Red Jasper he must he very unimportant in the scheme of things. Amongst his claims to fame he advised Churchill on policy and is a close personal friend (Players), he spun the first jenny in the Industrial Revolution (Mark of the Rani) but he doesn’t like to talk about the Great Fire of London (The Visitation). He describes himself as a mysterious stranger with a keen sense of justice and horror at necessary slaughter. Don’t let him ever hear you call him stupid. Hilariously, Evelyn has Red Jasper call him lily livered, foul coated, spicy smelling scoundrel and yet when the Doctor takes over the narration Jasper describes him as a fine distinguished looking sailor wearing a stylish outfit! Colin Baker makes a surprisingly believable pirate (‘Yo ho ho!’). To get him out of a scrape he declares knows practically everything except everything regarding maps and treasure. He admits he has a pain threshold. He has been outlawed for roaming, exploring, gathering knowledge and fighting with his wits. He is the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer. He sums up his entire life in Gallifreyan Buccaneer with some passion. It’s quite rich that he doesn’t find homicide justifiable but maybe he’s got a short memory. ‘I don’t suppose it would help if I told you I was an orphan?’ he says at one sticky moment. Luckily he was taught tree climbing by Tarzan, King of the Jungle – what a fib! The scenes between the Doctor and Swan are hilarious (‘How big was this dragon?’ ‘Enormous! Well…so big’ and of course that delightful moment where the Doctor reveals the Rubies to him). He can usually navigate via the celestial bodies. He claims he is in excellent physical condition. He has the gift of time and he gave that to Evelyn to get back in time and stop Sally from making a mistake. He stresses that he did it for Evelyn; he must love her a great deal.

Learned Lecturer: Another superb showcase for Maggie Stables who really tears out your heart at the end of this story. One of my absolute favourite companions ever. It is a pleasure to listen to Baker and Stables together, they are an addictive combination.

Why are her students always on the top floor? Interestingly we discover that everybody thinks that Evelyn is on holiday. She’s visiting one of her old students Sally and she has brought chocolate cake (I never had lecturers like that). Evelyn has no idea how many of the Doctor’s stories are true or if he knows either. She was appalled when the first mate was shot dead because there was nobody there who seemed to care, nobody wanted to mourn him. She is abandoned on a ship that is on fire and stuck in a rum barrel! Evelyn wants to turn the cabin boy Jem into cabin boy Sally because it would be easier to tell the rest of the story. She proves to be resourceful in a crisis and manages to save both Jem and Swan and abandon the burning ship in a raft. Hilariously she sings ‘row row row your boat’ whilst marooned in the middle of the ocean with no food and water and the future stretched out before her. She genuinely thought it would all end happily. Evelyn believes stories should have a happy ending. She came to Sally to see that there can be a happily ever after. After hearing about the accident that killed Sally’s lover Evelyn thought she would need somebody and she doesn’t want her to bear all the guilt on her own. She becomes Evil Evelyn the Pirate Queen! Her cardie is a shade of red, which recollects the blood she’s shed. She’s a Pirate Queen strangely disguised in bombazine! She admits that singing is not exactly her forte. I love it when she shoots the gun and the shot goes awry and she declares ‘that was just a warning!’). It is horrifying to listen to Evelyn screaming hysterically as Jasper murders a sailor. She tries to stand up for Jem but is slapped away. Choking on her tears, attempting mouth to mouth on his dead body, Evelyn grieving Jem is horrible. Stables unleashes a frightening anger when she shows the sailors Jem’s dead body. She’s not sure if she can go on and wants to be taken home, not ready for another story yet. Sally has never seen Evelyn tired before, she is feeling her age. She makes the Doctor promise not to leave without her. She wanted Sally to get through this one night. If there is someone there in the morning it doesn’t seem so bad…she has effectively stopped Sally from committing suicide. Stunning characterisation.

Standout Performance: Aside from the regulars who prove themselves to be excellent storytellers, singers and romanticists my favourite performance comes from Nick Pegg as the uproarious coward Captain Emmanuel Swan! He should be really annoying but the script and performances are pitched perfectly and he had me rolling about with laughter. ‘A draaaaagon!’ All is forgiven for Bang Bang a Boom! Helen Goldwyn is initially quite unlikable (intentionally) and is a far more believable depressive than Caitriona from The Rapture. The performance is much more subtle and compelling. Her last line is gloriously uplifting. Plaudits to Bill Oddie who proves he still has what it takes to make a fine villain managing to walk a fine line between hilarious small mindedness and terrifying hysteria. He really scares in the last episode. I’ve missed out a few names but this is a peerless ensemble cast.

Great Ideas: The TARDIS landing in the hold of a ship full of gold and gems! How wonderful would that be to see? Fantasy and reality get confused in the clever tale of trick narration and as Evelyn’s story changes so does the story we are listening to. The ship is sinking, then it isn’t. The Doctor just happens to be carrying a sword to confront the pirates! She gets so carried away with her fight scene the Doctor is shot dead only to then be told the Doctor didn’t confront anybody…it was the first mate all along. It’s really smart stuff. First Red Jasper has two wooden legs…but when it is pointed out that he only had one and that is probably anachronistic he only has one…it’s a pirate thing, after all. Things get really smart when we have Evelyn doing impressions of the sailors, David Copperfield and Little Nell and the like…and then we head back into the story and the sailors are suddenly talking like Evelyn (‘Oh this is jolly difficult you know!). The best example of the shift in narrative sees the Doctor about to step out and confront the Pirates before pausing and saying ‘But I mustn’t leap out and challenge them.’ Jac Rayner is pointing out all the implausibility’s and narrative tricks up a writer’s sleeve. Its traditional to torch an enemy’s ship and Jasper does have a dastardly reputation to uphold. In episode the Doctor joins the action and they agree to share the narration – its now doubly unreliable but twice as fun! Ezekiel Jones was the scourge of the seas and One Eyed Trent was his first mate and near the Ruby Islands they came across the King’s ship, which they raided for all its treasure. The King revealed he had a spy on board the pirate ship who will tell the authorities of their raid…and he had his head lopped off for the privilege of that information. The treasure was hidden on the Ruby Islands and they sailed on to Jamaica. Jones killed all of his crew rather than let any of them betray him that just left One Eye and Jasper alive, who was hiding below decks. Jones was hung by the King’s men and One Eye stole the map and Jasper has been looking for him ever since, hoping to claim the treasure as his own. The story pre-empts Jem’s death which ups the tension, waiting for it to happen. Brilliantly, the Doctor decides to turn the story into a musical for some light relief. The medley that reveals Sally’s guilty secret is excellent, disguising such an important twist in one of the songs is inspired. She was driving too fast, the road was too icy and the car crashed and she now considers herself a killer. When Sally tells Evelyn that she wants to be left alone you know she is contemplating suicide. This is how you deal with adult issues, not skipping over them almost comically in Nekromenteia but dealing with the emotions no matter how heartbreaking they may be. Jasper goes from jolly Pirate to murderous thug in a second and the sailors are suddenly very shy to join in as the chorus. Self-aware extras in a unreliable narrative…love it. One Eyed Trent was Jem’s father and it is horrific to hear Jasper trying to bully the information out of him. Jem dies at Jasper’s hands because he didn’t know where the map was and Evelyn blames herself for that death because she couldn’t intervene. Evelyn brings Jem’s body up to the deck to prove what a monster Jasper is. The Doctor has given Jasper and he will be searching the Ruby Island a long time now he has been marooned by his crew.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Doubloons!’ ‘Bless you!’
‘You villain! Betrayed by me own stowaway!’
‘It can’t possibly get any worse! The dialogue is totally over the top as well as anachronistic. Is there a story at all?’
‘Mr Merryweather, stop dripping on the deck!’
‘Everyone likes cake’ ‘I prefer skewering out eyeballs!’
‘Stories don’t end in real life.’
‘Mutiny this is! Again! Mutiny squared!’
‘There’s a reason they’re blood red.’
‘And brightly shines the dawning day…’

All of the songs are full of memorable lines and delights but by far the most accomplished (and stuffed full of more continuity than a book co written by Craig Hinton, Gary Russell and David A. McIntee) is Colin Baker’s hilarious ‘I am the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer… (give this a watch too...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIdDXQ2h1Pc its great!)

I am the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer,
I’ve information on all things a Gallifreyan holds most dear,
I’ve linked into the Matrix through its exitonic circuitry,
I understand dimensional and relative chronometry.

I’m very well acquainted too with matters of the Capitol,
I’ll give you verse and chapter on Panopticonian protocol,
I’ve been into the Death Zone and I’ve played the Game of Rassilon–
(Rassilon? Assilon, Bassilon.. ah-ha!)

With pestilential monsters that I got a lot of hassle from!
With pestilential monsters that he got a lot of hassle from!
With pestilential monsters that he got a lot of hassle from!
With pestilential monsters that he got a lot of hassle-hassle from!

I understand each language and I speak every vernacular,
I’ll conjugate each verb obscure, decline each line irregular,
In short in every matter that a Gallifreyan holds most dear,
I am the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer.

In short in every matter that a Gallifreyan holds most dear,
he is the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer!
I’ve tackled shady Castellans with devious behaviour,
I’ve sparred with Time Lord chancellors like Thalia, Goth, or Flavia.

In fact on some occasions I’ve held office Presidentially,
Though maybe I won’t mention I was ousted out eventually.
I know just how it feels to be a wanted man and on the run,
But wouldn’t leave the carefree buccaneering life for anyone,
Though sometimes my adventures seem absurdly operatical,
(Operatical? Hatical, patical.. ah-ha!)

With ups and down and twists and turns and incidents piratical.
With ups and down and twists and turns and incidents piratical!
With ups and down and twists and turns and incidents piratical!
With ups and down and twists and turns and incidents pirati-ratical!

I’ve sailed the seven seas of Earth and all the oceans of the Moon,
My trusty true Type 40 is my Gallifreyan picaroon,
But is this really what the average Gallifreyan holds most dear?
I wonder what they think about this Gallifreyan Buccaneer.
But is this really what the average Gallifreyan holds most dear!
We wonder what they think about this Gallifreyan Buccaneer!

I’ve defeated evil robots such as Daleks, Quarks, and Cybermen,
I’ve overthrown dictators from Tobias Vaughn to Mavic Chen,
I’ve rescued helpless maidens from the devastating Viking hordes,
Vanquished Autons, Axons, Daemons, Krotons, Monoids, Vampires, Voords.

I’ve liberated planets and delivered them from total war,
Saved Earth, Manussa, Dulkis, Skonnos, Earth, Tigella, Earth once more,
In short I know I am the truest Rassilonian legate,
(Legate? Decate, Hecate.. Hecate? Mm, not sure if that’s canonical.. ah-ha! I have it!)

And so to Time Lords all I say remember me to Gallifrey!
A sentiment we all agree, remember him to Gallifrey!
A sentiment we all agree, remember him to Gallifrey!
A sentiment we all agree, remember him to Galli-Gallifrey!

I’m not content to just observe, I am a bold adventurer,
Though other Time Lords mock this Gallifreyan interventioner,
I know in every matter that a Time Lord really should hold dear,
I am the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer.
We know in every matter that a Time Lord really should hold dear,
He is the very model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer!

Audio Landscape: As accomplished as his work on the similarly excellent Chimes of Midnight and then some, Barnaby Edwards is proving himself to be the very best Big Finish director. Can he do more please? What? He wants to climb inside and play Daleks? The university campus is brought to life with some polite background chatter. Sailing ships have lovely creaking decks and water crashes in on the Doctor and he splish-splashes his way though onto the deck. Guns are fired and cutlasses clash as the pirates attack! You can hear Jasper’s twin peg legs on the deck! A clock ticks gently in Sally’s flat. You hear the sailors heaving the booty from the hold onto the pirate ship (you would swear this was going on around you if you shut your eyes). I love it when we hear a muffled Swan crying for help from inside Evelyn’s rum barrel. The Doctor clinks china and pours tea. The crackling flames consume the Sea Eagle and we hear a creaking, splitting wood. Evelyn slaps at the waves with her oar on her raft with the ocean rolling away around her. The Doctor and Merryweather’s sparring adventures on the Adventurer’s Fancy results in the first mate walking the plank and landed in the ocean with an almighty splash. A window is smashed and we can hear the Doctor paddling in the ocean. The Ruby Islands are all cooing birds and lapping waves. Swan climbs a tree and causes coconuts to fall to the ground. Sally opens the door to the morning birdsong. We also get the best cliff-hanger in an age when the Doctor threatens to sing…it is the most horrific thing Evelyn can imagine!

Musical Cues: Timothy Sutton is not a name I have heard before which is crying shame because this is story that is controlled by music, especially in the third episode, and Sutton pulls out all the stops to make this as memorable experience as possible. The wistful harmonica that plays throughout the story suggests a mournful atmosphere and the beauty of the high seas. I loved the jolly sailors jingle as they are recruited as pirates. The score is like that of a feature film as Jasper tells his tale of the King’s Treasure. The Caribbean themed tune as the Doctor describes the dripping fruits of the Ruby Islands is perfect. The seas shanty Doctor Who theme tune is the last surprise in a story full of gems. ‘I’m better’ is possibly my favourite Big moment yet; exciting, funny, full of energy and it really got my foot tapping. Helen Goldwyn’s singing voice is phenomenal; ‘I am alone’ is beautifully sombre.

Result: Strikingly experimental and yet still an absolute pleasure to listen to, Doctor Who and the Pirates has taken all the style and effort that has been missing from recent stories and injects them all into four episodes of bliss. Jac Rayner has written a superb script, easily her best for Big Finish, which manages to be a beautiful character study, a rip roaring adventure, a hilarious comedy, a blinding musical and a striking piece of drama whilst offering a treatise on narrative techniques at the same time. It should be utterly schizophrenic but the story shifts mood effortlessly from humour to horror. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables continue to shine in what has become one of the great Doctor/companion pairings and the guest cast instil the story with some priceless performances. The jokes are funny, the songs are wonderful and the direction is faultless. Why can’t every story be as good as this? Remarkable: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/43-Doctor-Who-and-The-Pirates

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Dark Flame written by Trevor Baxendale and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery

What’s it about: A thousand years ago, the evil Cult of the Dark Flame infiltrated every star system in the galaxy. In the history books the Cult is legendary, its despotic leader a terrible memory. But for some the Dark Flame still burns. For some, its horrifying power is the ultimate goal. All that is required is for the right people to be in the wrong place and time. An archaeologist and his robot are on the poisonous world of Sorus Alpha, where they will uncover a hideous relic. The Doctor and Ace are on their way to the deep space research centre Orbos, where Professor Bernice Summerfield is soon to start the countdown to universal Armageddon. Four acolytes of Evil. Three mad scientists. Two companions. One Doctor.

The Real McCoy: People are going to think that I am mad but I genuinely think the Doctor is beautifully characterised in this story. If there is one good thing you can say about Trevor Baxendale it is that he manages to capture whatever Doctor he is writing for with consummate ease. Because I am so used to his breathless, utterly delightful take on the eighth Doctor I wasn’t sure what to expect with the darker seventh incarnation. If you read the script of the Dark Flame the Doctor is a truly phenomenal force in this story, witty, heroic, crazy and very crafty. He even manages to achieve Godhood in the last episode, which is just a step away from what the writers of the New Adventures were trying to achieve. Unfortunately (and it is a big unfortunately) this is undoubtedly Sylvester McCoy’s worst Big Finish performance bar none. He squanders what could have been a truly great showing for his Doctor by gabbling his way through the script as though he never seen the thing before (which is a possibility but if so he doesn’t have the skill to read off the page naturally). His inflections are in all the wrong places (‘The Time Lords frown on that sort of thing’), half the time he sounds as though he has downed a bottle of whiskey before grabbing his microphone (‘Dorotheeeee’) and fails to stress the important moments (‘Let gooooo’). It should be beguiling and yet he constantly draws attention to the performance by rushing his lines, stumbling on the technobabble and sounding totally at sea. It’s just bizarre and a real shame. He settles down in episode four and does manage to get through the climax without anything too embarrassing happening but by then the damage has been done. His last line is a beaut, however.

Everybody knows about the Doctor. He has the curiosity of a cat. As far as the Doctor’s concerned the laws of time are just there for the breaking (or at least that is what Benny thinks of him!). He has a cavalier attitude for a Time Lord. The last time he visited Orbos was with Mel when the universe felt like a lot safer place and one that you weren’t embarrassed to show your friends. He spends most of his time now outwitting disasters before they have even happened. When he feels the time energy running over the crystal he describes it as ‘wine flowing through sand.’ He didn’t think he would have to come up with a cunning masterplan, he thought they were just picking up Benny. The Doctor’s age is compared to Krull’s and he is just an infant in comparison. He admits that his own technobabble – dimensionally transcendental and all that – does sound rather silly. Hilariously he describes the matter transmitter as feeling like being flushed up a toilet! ‘Hello Slyde, I haven’t missed you at all!’ he insults beautifully. He admits on the quiet to Ace that he has always got a plan. He tries to convince that he would be a terrifying force for evil and for a second you believe him (although he would have to be played by someone other than McCoy or you wouldn’t be able to take him seriously!). His mind connects to the Dark Flame for a few moments and he has unprecedented access to time. He has finally achieved Godhood and proves worthy of those powers, nipping and tucking the timeline and giving Remnex a clean death without actually preventing the death itself. He admits no one should have that sort of power. He loves his job.

Ace of Hearts: I’ve hardly made a secret of the fact that my least favourite aspect of the New Adventures is the infamously named New Ace. She was torn from the Doctor’s side just as Bernice came on the scene and spent a few years being a hardened space mercenary before returning as a tough as nail, bitchy, bullying soldier who shoots first and talks later. Okay that is an overly simplistic of how she was portrayed but with one in five writers giving her any depth I found her shallow characterisation and wilful petulance too much to bear. I am starting to wonder if we had had Sophie Aldred playing these steps in Ace’s life it might have sweetened the pill a little. There’s nothing that Ace does in this story that she didn’t do in the New Adventures that annoyed the hell out of me in the books and yet Aldred, giving her best performance since The Fearmonger adds some charm and intelligence to the character. She still insults and fights and overreacts, but Aldred softens the blow. Its miles less offensive than the screaming angst queen from The Rapture.

This is set during the time when Benny and Ace are getting on. For such a seasoned traveller you would have to wonder about the way she bumbles her way through their introductions (‘Isn’t that the bloke who was screaming in the TARDIS?). She proves herself to be technically competent. She has a hot temper and jumps at Slyde at the slightest provocation. Ace is not the girl she once was, she left the Doctor and fell in with the military and she’s now very good at killing Daleks. She is rather aptly described as a hooligan of a companion. The Doctor without Ace is like rhubarb without custard (he also mentions Batman without Robin and Holmes without Watson but the rhubarb one is the best). It has been a long time since she thought of herself as a girl. She prepares herself for unarmed combat with her best friend.

Archaeological Adventurer: Again it is really difficult to imagine Bernice as a companion of the Doctor considering her distinguished Big Finish career championing her own series for 11 impressive seasons. Lisa Bowerman is such a fantastic actress she can make anything worth listening to but the trouble with squeezing her in a story with McCoy and Aldred is that she steals the limelight effortlessly. Even if she can’t pronounce Ogrons. There are times in the story when I wonder if Baxendale was trying a bit too hard to make Benny sarcastic and she almost becomes a parody of herself (‘Let us go…you git’).

Trust Bernice to stir up trouble wherever she goes! She came to Marran Alpha toe meet with her friend Victor Farrison but he didn’t show so she ended up working in refuge dumping! She uses humour to hide how frightened she is. She meets Joseph for the first time and the Doctor repairs him at the stories climax insisting she doesn’t know when she is going to need him again. She is in the prime of her life, for a human.

(I love it when Big Finish do something quirky like this and take a step into the New Adventures. There are lot of people that consider the New Adventures to be the highlight of the Doctor’s travels, a time when the series truly exploded with possibilities and probed the Doctor in a myriad of fascinating ways. I’m always torn because I like a lot of what they did in the New Adventures, especially opening the Doctor Who universe into a world of original novels and creating a compelling number of backdrops and recurring characters but I do still wonder if they pushed things a little too far in places. I preferred the eighth Doctor books personally because they mixed the strength of the New Adventures (the mind blowing ideas, the adult characterisation) with the nostalgic feeling of the TV series. It was a best of both worlds scenario for me. Anyway, I digress. I just want to give Big Finish kudos for having another stab at the New Adventures and allowing the fans of that range a chance to hear real actors playing the characters they have always loved.)

Great (clichéd) Ideas: The TARDIS is skittish, almost nervous to go to Marran Alpha (not explained). Remnex sends a telepathic message to the Doctor to beware of the Dark Flame. Marran Alpha has a volcanic, poisonous atmosphere with the Orbos facility in orbit, conducting experiments in Black Light. The Doctor describes the planet as being in a very bad mood. They are trying to create a miniature artificial star. Remnex is murdered whilst clutching the crystal and his death scream is beamed back in time to the TARDIS. The Dark Flame is a death cult that worshipped an energy being from another universe. The Dark Flame itself is described as the burning heat of evil. Remnex’s corpse is reanimated and used to house the revered leader of the cult, a putrefying corpse taking over the universe? The bones of long dead men are spat from the Earth and reanimated with the strength of the undead. A negative energy being from a dark universe, one of those forced out of existence by the collapse of our universe. The skull can control a black light explosion. Vylas Krull made contact with a negative energy being and transferred from person to person until all the remains of Krull was his desiccated skull. They want to convert the artificial sun into a gateway to a dark universe and carry evil to every corner of time and space! The Black Light explosion will take place inside the time space continuum and turn love into hate, peace into war, creation into destruction and leave all civilisations in ashes. The Dark Flame is the last flame of a dying universe.

Audio Landscape: Pretty poor, all told. Nothing really grabbed me in this production or if there was a lot of effort going on in the background it was drowned out by the rather impressive musical score. I have no idea what the first scene was all about…it sounded like Benny screaming so I’m sure I missed something. I heard the hum of a spaceship, footsteps on rock and some very odd bone rattling for the skeleton people but that was about it.

Musical Cues: The second score by Andy Hardwick @ ERS and much better than the one for Bang Bang a Boom. There was no moment that stood out as being excellent but the score was pretty much all over the story and made it a more enjoyable experience.

Isn’t it Odd: This is the fifth under whelming seventh Doctor story in a row (if like me you weren’t enamoured with Dust Breeding, Colditz, The Rapture and Bang Bang a Boom) which seems odd when the other ranges are producing works as good as The Church and the Crown, Jubilee and Chimes of Midnight. What has gone wrong? I don’t blame McCoy entirely, he is capable of giving some very good performances (his angry performance in Colditz was great for example) but there are some definite quality issues that need to be addressed. Something is not quite clicking and I think the upcoming introduction of Philip Olivier as Hex will give the 7th Doctor stories a much-needed kick up the arse.

There are a plethora of problems with The Dark Flame, most of which come down to Traditional Trevor characterising the New Adventures team authentically but planting them in a story that is so stereotypically Doctor Who that Rebecca Levene would have taken one look at it and tossed it in the bin. You can pretty much sum up the entire story (sans technobabble) in the first ten minutes. Remnex will die (he has victim tattooed all over his ass), Slyde is the villain (Michael Praed plays him with a quiet menace thought even when he is supposed to be a normal scientist) and Lomas will betray the Doctor (because she is far too helpful for her own good). I guessed that the cult was still very much a alive, somebody would try and do something universally stupid and Ace will get grumpy about something. In the first ten minutes! As it turns out the one moment of genuine character drama, Bernice kicking the shit out Ace and saying she has had it coming for a long time, is all the bad guy putting those thoughts into her head. With its mixture of relics and cults this has a very similar feel to Nekromenteia…and its only marginally better. And of course McCoy, who plays his Doctor like an unintelligent bumbling fool with none of the dark menace bubbling under the surface that Troughton managed to pull off.

Result: Another disappointing McCoy story which is starting to become the norm with Big Finish. Trevor Baxendale is the hardest of all Doctor Who writers to pin down, he is always gearing for a traditional Doctor Who story but sometimes he can spin a yarn as effective and engaging as The Deadstone Memorial and Prisoner of the Daleks and other times his work lacks any subtlety or menace at all like Coldheart and The Dark Flame. Every twist is signposted and every character is shoehorned into a stereotype that plays out with grinding inevitability. The ideas aren’t half bad but they need a far more engaging plot than this to bring out their juices. Lisa Bowerman manages to salvage some dignity and oddly Sophie Aldred gives her best performance for years but they are let down by an agonisingly awful turn by Sylvester McCoy who is so out of synch with the script it’s a wonder he didn’t add his bits after all the other actors went home. I’m bored of being this harsh on 7th Doctor stories, can we have a good one soon please. An extra point because Joseph is just fab: 4/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/42-Doctor-Who-The-Dark-Flame

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Nekromenteia written by Austen Atkinson and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: In the depths of space a little known district harbours a terrible secret. Long known as a place of death, it claims thousands more lives as a great corporate space-fleet goes to war. As the fleet screams out in fear and pain, an irresistible voice calls out to three travellers and a macabre mind sets a deadly trap. The Doctor, Peri and Erimem face the terrors of Talderun and the wrath of a corporate empire as they struggle to understand the hideous secret of the domain of the dead ­ a district known in legend as Nekromanteia.

An English Gentleman: After the joyous interaction in Church and the Crown things have already started to get jaded between the Doctor, Peri and Erimem and the Doctor declares it might be a good thing that they have some time apart at the beginning of this story. Its nice to see that the Doctor has some less than salubrious contacts around the universe and Thesanius the dodgy Pakhar mechanic seems to be able to come by illegal components the TARDIS needs. Peri and Erimem admit that they adore him but you couldn’t tell by how they behave in this story! In one of the more gruesome cliffhangers the Doctor has his head lopped off! To Erimem’s people he would be considered a God. Why does Davison always seem to get stuck with lines like ‘There’s nothing I can do to prevent it!’ I hate to see the Doctor so defeatist. Overall this might be a return to the gritty days of season 21 but it does not uphold the biggest strength of that season, excellent characterisation of the fifth Doctor. Here he displays no wit, no intelligence, he just reacts to the stuff that is going on around him, screams about how bad things are getting and lets a cat save the day! It’s not a great use of Davison’s talents. Much like Arc of Infinity he spends the whole of episode three in a dreamlike state, this time watching a cricket match. Thrilling stuff.

American Attitude: Atkinson has exactly the same problem that Joe Lidster had with The Rapture, he is writing for Peri at the age we saw her on the telly. Which should be fine for continuity purposes but Nicola Bryant is twice as old as she was (but still looking hotter than hell!) and it sounds odd hearing somebody who has matured having to spout lines like a petulant child (there is more than a touch of Adric about her characterisation in this story). She is in a very difficult mood today, ribbing the Doctor even more than usual (she tells him his driving makes her dizzy). She considers a face pack a religious experience. She admits that she doesn’t normally strip nude on a first date and that she was born with trouble tattooed on her ass. There’s plenty of trouble in Baltimore if you go looking for it. Again this story is hardly the best use of Nicola Bryant as she spends much of episode two in a trance groaning with pleasure and gets lost amongst the myriad of subplots that happen for much of the rest of the story.

Dusky Babe: Erimem is such a strong character that you would have to do something very wrong indeed to mischaracterize her and admittedly a lot of the best moments of the story feature her but this is still a world away from the excellent treatment she had in Church and the Crown. My biggest problem was that she sounded a lot like Leela in places with lots of fractured, almost childish dialogue however Caroline Morris injects some real oomph into the story whenever she appears. Whilst exploring the Garrazone system she cannot believe she is no longer on Earth! She blames herself for Peri’s capture. She wants to find the Doctor’s body and honour the noble dead. It is very interesting to see Erimem and Peri’s very different views on temple desecration in the last episode – Erimem accepts that the witches need to punish Rom and bravely faces his death, having his tongue and heart ripped out. ‘He’s paid his penance. He’s free’ she says. At the close of the story Erimem attempts to offer herself up as a sacrifice saying that she was drawn to Nekromenteia for a reason (which is unexplained). She likes to think that Antranak sacrificed himself for her and not because he was possessed by an alien intelligence. The most troublesome moment in this story comes when Harlon attempts to rape Erimem, something I will go into more depth below, and he beats her when she resists him. It’s really ugly and perhaps remains the biggest misstep in any one story since we never get to see the consequences of such an atrocity. Erimem picks herself up and gets on with the adventure and it is never mentioned again. Very realistic.

Great Ideas: The idea of a gang of witches taking on a fleet of spaceships is just weird enough for me to want to see it (its like the dragons versus fighter jets so admirably captured on the Shadows of Avalon cover). There are lots of despicable acts committed by Marr in this story; he orders a college destroyed because one of the pupils is the son of somebody who has betrayed him, he promises his workers food and good health for the rest of their lives but forgets to tell them the rest of their lives will only be until the work is finished in a weeks time, he plays the witches and the bounty hunters off against each other and he destroys the relic. He’s just horrible. The TARDIS lands in a room full of corpses, has that ever been done before (Revenge of the Cybermen, technically?). The Doctor has his head chopped off and his consciousness is saved by Shara who has traded his body and history for a moment of eternal happiness. He sacrificed himself to the converter, which the witches have been guarding and has caused holy wars. After Marr destroys the Relic the converter threatens to destroy both the planet and then the solar system! Tallis murders Marr and makes Harlon, another loathsome character, the chairman. Antranak contains the spirit of Shara and saves the day. Meh.

Audio Landscape: Is this the first of the main Doctor Who range that John Ainsworth directed? The audio side of this story is rather good; I just wish he had been given a better script to play about with. When compared with stories like Bang Bang a Boom the number of audio scenery Ainsworth manages to conjour is impressive. The biggest annoyance has to be the horrendous witches cackling which is enough to digest your internal organs with enough exposure. Crowds scream surrounding an execution, the Garrazone bazaar jingle is back, a spaceship lands and Harlon clambers down a grate onto a windy planet with birds screaming in the sky. Shara is beautifully portrayed as a low horse whinny with fierce beating wings. The police pursue the Doctor through the bazaar and fire rounds at the slammed TARDIS door. The telepathic circuits of the TARDIS sound just like they did in Planet of the Daleks, nice continuity. Antranak purrs and hisses his way through the story. I really liked the objections of the board! Challis Prime is a mixture of mine workings and drills. There is an early morning crackling campfire. Peri is bathed in oils. The Doctor is present at a cricket match and we here the ball being hit and polite applause. The Doctor’s trance is a heady mixture of his previous selves, Rassilon and even the chimes of Big Ben!

Musical Cues: David Darlington provides quite a decent score here, it is a little repetitive but as least it tries to convince you of a pace that isn’t actually there.

Isn’t that Odd: It feels to me that Austen Atkinson wanted to write Caves of Androzani all over again…in fact its surprising that the Doctor doesn’t say ‘this all seems terribly familiar’ in his regeneration story. Harlon is Stotz, a runner and a nasty piece of work. The witches are the androids, protecting the one thing that is actually keeping the peace (Sharaz Jek). Marr is Trau Morgus, a double dealing back stabber who is playing off the witches and Harlon against each other. In episode four he heads off in his spaceship and joins the action where he is betrayed by Tallis (Krau Timmin) – just like Morgus in Androzani! And it features the fifth Doctor and Peri! Whereas Androzani was a superb script with real maturity and anger, Nekromenteia is a confused mess of hackneyed characterisation, ludicrous technobabble and far too many different threads. It copies the aesthetics of Androzani without any of its clever world building, stunning dialogue and shocking twists.

The rape scene. This might open a can of worms because I know there are some people who think that the Doctor Who universe can expanded to allow all kinds of storytelling and usually I would champion that line of thought, but rape? I don’t think that is appropriate under any circumstances. At times I thought the New Adventures touched on material too adult for the show and I have had some great arguments on the subject but I cannot imagine an argument for the rape of a Doctor Who companion that would convince, especially not when it is written as shallow and throwaway as this. Erimem is approached by Harlon and beats him off and the next we see of her she is dazed and beaten to a pulp. It’s uncomfortable and ugly and feels totally out of place in a story about cackling witches and double-dealing businessmen. It feels as unsuitable as Barbara’s attack in The Keys of Marinus, a dark moment in an otherwise childish farce. We never hear about Erimem’s rape again, she just puts it to the back of her mind and gets on with the story. I don’t think any woman, even a potential Pharaoh, could ignore such a violation with quite such ease. Don’t do it again, Big Finish.

Result: With Bang Bang a Boom just gone and The Dark Flame to come, Nekromenteia makes for the heart of a trilogy of terrible stories that makes you wonder if Big Finish are running out of steam. The first episode is too fractured, with your attention divided a million ways with lots going on but nothing to follow and the story quickly becomes a bunch of unpleasant people betraying each other. John Ainsworth’s decent direction is lost because the story is unbearably dull and treats the regulars like bit players and gives the guest cast far more time than any of them deserve. The witches are among the most irritating Doctor Who aliens ever. This feels like a love letter to Eric Saward’s gritty approach to Doctor Who without any of the charm. It’s all oddly distant, unlovable and uninvolving: 3/10

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/41-Doctor-Who-Nekromanteia

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Jubilee written by Robert Shearman and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Hurrah! The deadly Daleks are back! Yes, those loveable tinpot tyrants have another plan to invade our world. Maybe this time because they want to drill to the Earth's core. Or maybe because they just feel like it. And when those pesky pepperpots are in town, there is one thing you can be sure of. There will be non-stop high octane mayhem in store. And plenty of exterminations! But never fear. The Doctor is on hand to sort them out. Defender of the Earth, saviour of us all. With his beautiful assistant, Evelyn Smythe, by his side, he will fight once again to uphold the beliefs of the English Empire. All hail the glorious English Empire! Now that sounds like a jubilee worth celebrating, does it not?

Softer Six: Oh this is just gold. The characterisation of the Doctor and performance by Colin Baker is at its height in Jubilee and aside from Jacqueline Rayner I would say that Shearman writes the strongest material we have seen for the sixth Doctor. It is the one thing I don’t think that is better achieved in the New Series rip off of this production and again that is simply because Christopher Eccleston is so good at bringing the Doctor’s anger and lack of forgiveness to the fore but if it isn’t better it is at least equal to the characterisation seen here. Like holding up a plump and gorgeous jewel you get to see every facet of this fascinating incarnation from his genocidal hatred of the Daleks, his love for Evelyn and willingness to protect her at the cost of his own life and his outright horror at the torture the humans have been subjecting the Daleks too. We get to see him at his theatrical best (that awe inspiring speech he gives) and his weakest (having lost his mind alone in the Bloody Tower) and Baker gets to play some wickedly uncomfortable moments (the Doctor’s hysteria as the Dalek asks him for orders). It’s a scrumptious performance in a script that gives the Doctor loads of great things to do. Bravo.

He has a habit of putting his foot in it but he thinks he managed to stop himself before telling Evelyn that her entire life’s work is useless. He finds history dangerous and you can just tell he enjoys a good, serious academic discussion even if it means upsetting the person he is talking with. Despite this there is a real sense of warmth between these two characters unmatched in Big Finish, especially during the ‘just making the most of the clues given to me’ scene. He dashes of to rescue the screaming creature and pushes his way into the Tower without a thought for his own safety. Rochester takes one look at the Doctor and refuses to believe that this is the man to whom they owe their lives! His horror as the Dalek screams his name from the darkness is a side to him that we rarely see. ‘What have they done to you?’ he asks almost pitying as he sees the damage they have caused. However he demands that the Dalek is destroyed and claims it doesn’t need a weapon in order to be a threat. The Doctor can remember the war in 1903 – he knows he and Evelyn are somehow in both time zones at once. Doctor’s Column – they rebuilt Nelson’s in his image with battered Daleks where the Doctor once was. In 1903 after defeating the Daleks the Doctor was locked up in the Bloody Tower with Evelyn and they told him that if he didn’t stop trying to escape they would cut his legs off, which they did. He asks Evelyn if she has come to kill him, he has gone utterly mad with loneliness and thinks that if he shuts his eyes he can travel in time and space. The humans took away his legs, his freedom and his reason – the only thing the Dalek can take is his life. The Doctor laughs piteously as the Dalek begs him for orders and condemns the creature to a life without orders. It shoots him in sheer frustration. The Doctor refuses to be turned into a fascist totem! Throughout his lives he has fought against everything that Rochester represents! The Doctor turns on the English Empire and tells them they are as evil as the Daleks. He feels he knows the Daleks better than anyone, that he has had a history with them but even he feels he has misjudged the creature by the end of this tale.

Learned Lecturer: Maggie Stables’ Evelyn Smythe is no ordinary companion. I think we all know that by now. Stables, one time French teacher turned actress injects Evelyn with real heart and intelligence that ranks her amongst the very best of the Doctor’s travelling companions. However it is stories like Jubilee where she steps from that role (and definitely in her next three appearances too) and becomes a fully-fledged protagonist driving the drama of the story. Stables is lucky in a way, companions are not usually offered quality material like this and she runs with it giving her best performance (of some already great performances) yet.

Evelyn has had years of people telling her that history doesn’t matter and she is more than ready to fight her corner and defend her profession. She tells the Doctor straight that she doesn’t travel in the TARDIS as a sight seer but a serious academic wanting to see history in the making. When she was growing up Miriam wanted to be Evelyn, or at least the Evelyn from their mythology, the only important woman in history. In true Evelyn style she shares her disgust that the English Empire has taken the evil of the Daleks and merchandised it (ahem). The Doctor tells her that she doesn’t need any beauty sleep; make of that what you will! Cheekily she refuses to stay out of harms way for him and can’t just hang around doing nothing. With her Tudor history she should know the Tower like the back of her hand! The scenes between Evelyn and the Dalek are terrific; tense and nuanced. She is terrified of the creature even though it cannot hurt so even though it is weaponless she is still its prisoner. The Dalek tells her she is a soldier, she belongs to the Doctor and he leads her into battle. Stables portrays Evelyn’s fear during these scenes palpably but Evelyn still stands her ground very bravely. She feels sorry for the Dalek because it is suffering, she thinks what they are doing to it is as evil as anything the Daleks might have done to their prisoners. The Evelyn who ended up in 1903 died in the Tower with the Doctor and her bones rotted before him. In a moment of heartbreaking drama Evelyn confesses to the Doctor that he is the best thing that has ever happened to her. He has given an old woman a new lease of life and it really captures the joy that the Doctor can bring to your life without any of the Russell T Davies’ style hero worship (you know all that applauding and ‘I’m the Doctor from the planet Gallifrey here to save the day!’ nonsense). Evelyn’s violent, almost suicidal anger as she confronts the Dalek for killing Farrow is devastatingly dramatic and expertly played. She refuses to make the Dalek talk for the public but it does so to save her life. Evelyn pleads with the Doctor to stop hurting the Daleks and questions whether they can be redeemed. She thinks by labelling all of the Daleks, as evil the Doctor is as bad as Rochester. He is constantly told to kill Evelyn, the one order the Dalek cannot obey and it drives the creature hysterical. She steps forward and realises she has to be the one to disarm the creature and kill it. She does so but with some sorrow. When she tries to sleep she remember the other Evelyn, starving to death in the cell bringing home the Doctor’s terrifying theory that the timeline they have erased still exists.

Standout Performance: Everybody acquits themselves very well I couldn’t choose. Martin Jarvis really crawled under my skin in the way few Doctor Who tyrants can and Rosalind Ayres really plays up the stupidity and sexist aspects of her character. Kai Simmonds’ Lamb is the closest the story comes to caricature but his monotonous delivery is oddly effective. Steven Elder rocks as Farrow, injecting some real relish into the role. But the crowning achievements of this story, performance-wise, are our regulars.

Great Ideas: There are very few Doctor Who stories with the sort of content Jubilee enjoys and what’s more it takes the Daleks and examines them in every way you can imagine. The script is transcendental, bigger on the inside than the out and it is injected with so much diabolical invention it leaves a lot of the other audio writers in the shadows. The spoof movie trailer opens the story on a really funny note (‘Oh no! it is the Doc-tor! Scar-per! Scar-per!’) and makes that delicious observation that you get more Daleks getting killed in big explosions (hey that’s the climax to Journey’s End!). Not to mention starring Evelyn ‘hot lips’ Smythe (whistle appropriately). The Doctor states that history is a version of the past we have chosen to remember, taking the past and tidying it up, putting it into perspective, making it safe. Even after being tortured the Dalek prisoner is still an awesome sight. The TARDIS lands in two places at once and somehow made its way into a stained glass window in the Tower of London (beautifully depicted on the cover). What on Earth has happened to the timeline, the American Prime Minister is a weak fool who toady’s up to the British President who wants to keep the English race pure. It is illegal to contract your words. Farrow threatens to slice open the Dalek’s optic nerve and its mutanous skin grows over his hand and burns him, refusing to let him go. The Dalek is kept in a room rammed onto the side of the Tower. Apparently this close to the Jubilee everybody is climbing out of the woodwork pretending to be the Doctor! Even without its gun the Daleks first aim is to kill the Doctor, it is inimical to human life. The English People are a pretty bloodthirsty bunch and fifty years ago Rochester’s father exterminated the second Dalek prisoner. In 1903 the Doctor will defeat the Daleks and somehow bring this fascistic nightmare into being. Dalek Juice – by electrifying the magnetic floor the mutant starts to boil and a black liquid bubbles from its body! They don’t get much and it is months before the Dalek has recovered enough to boil it again. Dalekade and Dalek Squash are just regular lemonade and squash with a picture of a Dalek slapped on (oh Rob you are naughty!). There is a clever use of Dalek mythology by trying to convince everybody that the prisoner in the Bloody Tower is Davros. The Doctor again criticises history for belittling and distorting a great evil, he suggests the Nazi’s are now token villains in spy movies. Rochester has a trans solar disc on the roof of the Tower. The city of London is all rubble and ruins, his father wanted to build a city from scratch, a shining Empire but he lost interest and the city has been left decayed. Miriam is sleeping with Farrow who she thinks will be a much stronger leader than her husband (somebody who will hit her and break the skin!). Rochester thinks he is only playing the tyrant, trying to fool the Dalek that is bugging the Tower. He is using the excuse that he is play acting to commit terrible deeds. The Dalek itself is a fascinating character, unsure of why Daleks do what they do as he just obeys orders. It hasn’t received fresh orders in 100 years and it has failed its last orders, to conquer or die. The Doctor is revealed to be the prisoner in the Bloody Tower, his legs cut off to mildewed stumps. He tells Evelyn it was very irresponsible of them to save the humans from the Daleks as it forced them to make decisions for themselves rather than living under Dalek subjugation. The Doctor and the Daleks are the ultimate tools for propaganda and they treated appropriately, kept prisoner and tortured. The Dalek would rather die than help the humans with their (genocidal) bloodless revolution. The Doctor can’t hold back the Daleks; they are bleeding through from 1903 to 2003 and murdering their way through the Jubilee crowd. In a moment of top drama Farrow attempts to negotiate with the Dalek and get it to murder Lamb and it turns the tables on the coward and tells him to do it and gets Lamb to murder Farrow when he can’t go through with it. Miriam is sick of plotting and scheming, she wants to return to the role of the painted butterfly but cannot do this until she has a man by her side who will beat her with enough force and subdue her (that is really sick). It is so interesting to see a Dalek lack anything that makes it a Dalek so it is forced to think, to have a distinct personality. In another top grisly moment we are introduced to Rochester’s toy Daleks. He gets the powers around the world to send him their smallest dwarves and shoves them into Dalek shells and plays with them! As the American midget does not fit properly Rochester cuts off his hand and shoves him inside (‘All the evil I do is someone else’s fault!’). The Dalek is honest about its lack of a plan and that it might not be able to resist killing everybody at the Jubilee, including Evelyn. The Doctor makes a powerful speech about evil, the Daleks are genetically engineered, human beings have a choice so ‘what excuse do you have?’ The Doctor is pulling the two time zones together; he can’t hold back the Daleks anymore. The Dalek gives its first order and that is for the invading Daleks to not murder Evelyn. In a delicious back stabbing reversal of fate Miriam murders Rochester telling the Daleks that she is the ruler of the English Empire but they only wanted to know so they could kill the ruler! The Doctor throws a fascinating idea into the air: what will the Daleks do once they’ve killed everyone except the Daleks? They will have to turn on each other, find some excuse to continue killing until there is only one Dalek left, terrified and alone. The Dalek turns on its masters and cries ‘You should have given me better orders!’ Absolute conquest destroyed the humans, the Daleks can only survive if they fail, they cannot be the masters of the universe. The Dalek kills the Supreme Dalek and orders the rest of the invading force to survive and die. With the invasion foiled history returns to normal but the fascistic last 100 years will live on in the shadows and every now and then the monsters that we were will creep out and haunt us. Brrrr.

Phew! The inevitable comparison with Dalek from the first series of the revived show takes place here. I realise this is a hotly debated topic and I have to put my tenpenny’s worth in. Personally I find Dalek (the episode) to be a good but not great instalment of the new series and not a patch on its audio counterpart. Everything about the TV episode is sanitised for the younger audience watching (and even that had complaints!) and the episode drops away all of the invention and delicious black humour that makes this story so damn uncomfortable to listen to. Rochester is a million times more frightening than Van Staten because he is completely psychotic, hilarious and uncomfortably unpredictable. The way he attempts to explain away the most violent of acts is diabolical. The torture scenes in Jubilee are far more effective and nasty, both psychological and psychical. The characterisation of all the characters is full of bite unlike Dalek that uselessly displays ciphers like Adam and Diana Goddard; Rochester is a coward, Miriam enjoys being beaten and Farrow is a power mad but impotent and yet they all play very different roles publicly. And with terrifying lines like ‘Sometimes Miriam I think you are too stupid to be true’ and ‘I have people killed! I do not do it myself!’ bringing these people to life so vividly the TV episode doesn’t stand a chance. Shearman paints a chilling dystopian England bewitched by the murder instinct of the Daleks; in Dalek he shoves all the action underground in an American bunker. And ultimately I find the scenes between Evelyn and the Dalek much more powerful than those of Rose and the Dalek because it snips away all the sentimentality and goes straight for the jugular – Evelyn terrified throughout but brave, the creature respecting her and refusing to kill her. Far better than all that tendril touching the sun nonsense. I don’t want to be too harsh (too late) because as an action piece Dalek is superb, it has punchy direction, the Doctor is beautifully brought to life and the Dalek manages to take control of things with terrifying ease but I just feel it lacks the acid humour and bite that made this story so uncomfortable and gripping. Had that story snipped away its stolen moments from this I would have had far more respect for it but I always feel the TV version is somehow a shadow of what we should have had.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Take care the Daleks don’t bite!’
‘The thing is I do not like the Americans very much. You see you look the same as us and you have the same language as us but then you open your mouths and that awful accent pops out.’
‘If it was a scream! It might just have been laughing at me!’
‘When we swallow our Dalek juice, we swallow a bit of them. It is the drink of victors!’ ‘And who would have thought that victory could be so tasteless?’
‘Anything with a Dalek on sells millions!’
‘You humans are so fragile, your lives so brief, tiny splash of brilliant colour against the time stream and then gone forever.’
‘You’re still my dearest friend. Still the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The places you’ve taken me, the wonders you’ve shared. I know that whatever happened to me along the way, even death, it was worth it.’
‘History shows the same mistakes happening over and over again until somebody has the courage to do things differently.’
‘You kill me because I ask why you wont kill me? What’s the matter with you?’
‘Are you frightened of me Evelyn Smythe?’ ‘More than I can tell you!’
‘We must die so we can survive!’
‘The Daleks have gone but the evil that men do will echo on forever…’

Audio Landscape: By far the best story Nick Briggs has directed (and paired with Rob Shearman) to this point, he brings this chilling tale to life and never holds back the horror making it a truly stomach twisting experience. The Dalek movie trailer is inspired and the he uses the gorgeous Cushing Dalek control room warble. The TARDIS has the paddy of all paddy’s in episode one and it really does sound as if time is being stretched two ways. The magnetic field has a very menacing hum. Drilling into the Daleks’ shell is as horrible as you can imagine, it has all the psychological fear of the dentists drill. The Dalek mutant is a mess of sticky, sluicing gunge. When the Doctor and Rochester head up to the roof they are assailed by violent winds and screaming birds. The sudden scream of the Dalek is a sickening shock. The tans solar disc roars over London and explodes spectacularly. The Jubilee is heralded by the screaming crowds of the people, which turns into a Dalek massacre, guns blazing, screaming their mantra. The singing Daleks have to be heard to be believed. We experience Rochester chop of the midget’s hand and hear the poor sod bleeding to death in the casing. I love the powerful PA system, which booms the Doctor’s voice far into the crowds. The point of the humans being as evil is made perfectly as the very human scream of ‘Exterminate!’ melts into a metallic drawl. Time suddenly snaps back into focus and the Doctor and Evelyn are surrounded by tourists.

Musical Cues: The opening episode features some very dark and scary music accompanying scenes of spousal abuse and torture. There is a lovely fluting score as Evelyn discovers the TARDIS in the stained glass window. When Rochester orders Evelyn’s death it sounds remarkably similar to the music in Ressurection when the Doctor threatens to kill Davros. Deliberate? Briggsy has really got the hang of this directing and scoring lark now, perhaps thanks to his sterling work on Dalek Empire and this is his most accomplished score yet.

Isn’t it Odd: Miriam asking to marry the Dalek was the one moment I thought this story stepped over the mark into something truly ridiculous (although I was almost sold on Shearman’s priceless line about meeting the in laws!).

Standout Moment: Are you joking? For me it is probably the scene where Evelyn discovers Farrow’s body and confronts the Dalek, it is so murderously played I had goose bumps but the whole story is loaded with standout moments from torture to merchandising to invasion.

Result: Alarmingly inventive and brooding, I adore this story. Doctor Who rarely has the capacity to make me feel genuinely uncomfortable but Jubilee had me in a cold sweat throughout, compiling one horror and dramatic set piece after another. The humour is jet black and quite inspired making the terror all the twitchier. It is full of strong emotional beats, highly atmospheric and leaves you with lots to think about when it is over. Evelyn gets a really meaty role and Maggie Stables excels in a powerful, angry performance topped only by Colin Baker’s agonising take on the Doctor tortured for 100 years. This story is a (not so) subtle commentary on the horror of mankind and it drives its point home like a knife in the gut. Rob Shearman’s greatest gift to Doctor Who is his ability to make you think in brand new ways about staples of the series we thought have become mere clichés. This is beyond doubt the most interesting exploration of the Daleks we have seen. And the wittiest. And the scariest. John Scott Martin will never complain about getting into a Dalek casing again: 10/10

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