Friday, 31 December 2010

Frostfire written by Marc Platt

What’s it about: Vicki has a tale to tell.
But where does it start and when does it end?

Ancient Carthage. 1164 BC.
Lady Cressida has a secret. She keeps it deep in the cisterns below the Temple of Astarte with only one flame for warmth. And it must never get out.

Regency London, 1814 AD.
The first Doctor, Steven and Vicki go to the fair and meet the fiery Dragon, the novelist Miss Austen and the deadliest weather you ever did see.

But which comes first?
The Future or the Past?
The Phoenix or the Egg?
The Fire or the Frost?
Or will Time freeze over forever?

Alien Orphan: What a fascinating place to start the companion chronicles. I really like Vicki and her departure is one of the least celebrated and yet best written in the series (because the episodes aren’t available to watch). It’s intriguing to here more about her life since she left the Doctor in ancient Troy and wonderful to find out that although there is nobody to talk to about her travels, she is happy. Maureen O’Brien obviously sounds older (and she is supposed to) but she is still effortlessly Vicki. She once tried to explain elevators to Troilus but he didn’t understand…that’s what you get for marrying a Greek Adonis! Travelling with the Doctor was so special Vicki is chronicling events to she doesn’t forget. She always liked Steven because he was like a big brother to her, one she could boss about. I love the idea of the three companions eating hot spicy gingerbread and going ice-skating! Imagine Vicki taking a turn about the room with Jane Austen! When she was travelling she had no desires to find a husband and finds ambition boring and has been having far too much fun to be worrying about that. She finds the men of this time too affecting and la-di-da, not at all heroic and not a patch of Troilus. She was Vicki long before she was Cressida. She has her own life, husband and children in Greece. She loved travelling with the Doctor and they certainly had their moments. History may be an amazing place to visit but it’s so primitive. They don’t think the same or understand. She has never felt so cut off. The Trojans all thought Vicki was possessed or cursed and wanted to leave her on a rock in the middle of the sea. One spark was left burning amongst her tears as a consequence of this story, the only person she can talk to in this wilderness. They are both alone with some body to talk to, to remember.

Hmm: It warms my heart to think I can start writing reviews for the first three Doctor’s in the companion chronicles! Obviously Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee aren’t here to bring this material to life but its glorious to have their assistants take on their personas and if it is going to be as well observed and performed as Frostfire we are in for a real treat. Marc Platt has captured the first Doctor to a tee and Maureen O’Brien performs him with appropriate gravity, impatience and magic. This genuinely feels like a missing first Doctor story which I would have thought was an impossibility to pull off. The Doctor mutters to himself in a half amused way when they first arrive anywhere.
He always was a bit of a know all and you don’t argue with him if you know what’s good for you! He once saw a dragon that could thaw out the Thames with one good sneeze. He is stubborn and critical when walking through the fair of curios but seems to be enjoying himself in that. The Doctor could be so gentle when he wanted to be. I love how easily he ingratiates himself with Jane Austen; he’s read all of her novels (despite the fact that at this point she has only written two!) and finds them elegant and witty (he’s right there). He’s not a bad formal dancer and certainly shows Steven up! Takes all the credit for other peoples observations as usual! He is cold and has no fire in his hearts. At the conclusion he walks into the cold and stares down his opponent head on. I would have loved to have been able to see that!

Aggressive Astronaut: He is hardly a seasoned traveller like Vicki. I loved the description of him towering to his full height when he tries to intimidate people (I can so see Peter Purves doing that in season three!). He is quite dishy, Vicki supposes and Jane Austen thinks he is enough to set all the hearts of London aflutter. Dashing in a brotherly way and quite a hit with the ladies because of his list of accomplishments. He cannot dance for toffee and gives Vicki a filthy look as if it is all her fault (I can really see that as well!). He’s pushy and needs to know that there will be a future for him to be born into.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Cinder to flame to egg.’

Great Ideas: The three travellers standing on the River Thames covered in ice! A frost fair. A giant egg, as big as a head with a light inside with tongues of green flame. When it cracks a cold wicked eye peeks out. A dragon wreathed in green flames coming to life. The very idea of the first Doctor meeting Jane Austen and staying with her in Convent Garden delightful! The cold is trying to suck the warmth out of everything, Frostfire climbing down chimneys, gathering heat and freezing over even time itself. Blue green flame flickers amongst the rooftops like an aurora. A thousand worlds have burnt themselves cold for the great bird to live. The furnace of the Royal Mint is the perfect hatching place of the egg. The Doctor offers to take it to a fiery new world next to a new sun. It shatters inside the furnace, inside a chick is screaming, a monstrous fledging. The creature burns Vicki’s tale, hoping that it was become aflame and the egg will live again. Vicki keeps the creature underground with only one flame for warmth. The TARDIS headed off down the Thames on an ice flow. I love the idea of this creature in a perpetual loop, because of Vicki’s time travelling existence she took a fragment of this creature back in time to ancient Greece where it would find enough heat to reach London where she will meet it again and start the cycle over and over.

Audio Landscape: This is a remarkably atmospheric production with lots of well-chosen sound effects complimenting the poetic dialogue and stylish descriptions.
There’s a dripping tap, squeaking doors, the blissful original console noises, fairground music at the frost air, crowds, screaming as the egg starts to break, a hackney carriage with the heavy sighs of the horses, clip-clopping of hooves, gossipy chatter, wind whistling through the house, a frozen man shattering into ice (ugh), the voice of the frost (chilling) and the screech of the egg.

Musical Cues: Most quite understated but very good because of it, as it doesn’t swamp the glorious narration. There’s some pleasant formal piano dance music and a drumbeat as the Frostfire attacks.

Result: What an awesome achievement. With Maureen O’Brien’s evocative narration and Marc Platt’s expressive script we are whisked back to the wondrous season three for an exciting adventure with Jane Austen and a fire-breathing dragon. The production values are very impressive and the story never loses impetus, climaxing with some really exciting moments. If that wasn’t enough we also get to catch up with Vicki in ancient Greece and close the story on a very clever twist that will see the story repeat over and over for the creature. A superb introductory story for this series: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Hive of Horror written by Paul Magrs and directed by Kate Thomas

This story in a nutshell: Its time for the final confrontation with the Queen of the swarm…

Teeth and Curls: Large as life and just as impossible, an aggravating cross between Sherlock Holmes and the Mad Hatter. He thinks he flourishes with wit and debonair style. He would be very disappointed if Mrs Wibbesey turned out to be the hornet Queen, it would be such a disappointing ending for him. Whereas Mike finds her disgusting the Doctor thinks the Queen is beautiful. He’s a madman or he veers close to the edge sometimes. The Doctor thinks there are much better ways than pointing guns about. He hopes he talks to everyone as people, alien or human. He is far too sweet natured and balanced to be controlled by the hornets. An intergalactic dilettante! Quite a cheery soul deep down. Sometimes the things he gets involved in are absolutely hair raising. It’s very sweet that the Doctor thinks Mike won’t betray him, his friend has had a few wobbles but he trusts him. The Queen pecks away at Mike’s defences by telling him that the Doctor used to take all the credit and deplores Mikes limitations, one day he will stop turning up and the human race will be left to face the monsters and he wont care. Just when you think you’ve seen the back of him he will turn up in a new body, younger, rubbing your nose in the fact that you have aged. When the hornets were in the TARDIS he was so scared. Mrs Wibbesey almost compliments him by insulting the surreal nature of his life! He comes and goes as he pleases, saying the right things. He considers his life long, fortunate and exciting. Being the Doctor is not all you think it might be. He improvises madly. Once again the old lush wants a snifter before dealing with the Queen! Tom Baker just loves say Wibbesey, doesn’t he?

Go back a read that paragraph again, this characterisation of the fourth Doctor is sublime.

Camp Captain: Its lovely that Mike Yates joins the action again and suddenly it makes perfect sense that he was chosen out of the plethora of companions to accompany the Doctor. Richard Franklin is given material above and beyond anything he was given on the telly and he is treated to some fine development. I hope he’s back for Demon Quest. A long time ago he used to find himself drawn into improbable adventures almost every week. Mrs Wibbesey describes him as a has been. Sweetly Lethbridge-Stewart gave him his hip flask the day he left the service. He’s spent many years trying to withstand brainwashing techniques, honing and training himself. Following his breakdown he studied under a number of Yogi and mystics. He’s no longer anybody’s knight in shining armour. He turns callous and flippant throughout the story and develops a mood of dark bravado. A new snappish, paranoid demeanour like in his dark days when he turned traitor against his friends. He’s a devil when his danders up. Mike was only trying to make the world a better place and yet UNIT cast him out and forgot about him. His mind has been shattered under recent exertions. He had no extraordinary knowledge or arcane powers; he had nothing to offer the Doctor except shooting things and being the butt of the joke. The Doctor tells him he was loyal. He remembers happy times at the UNIT Christmas parties. He shares a wonderful Christmas dinner with the Doctor and Mrs Wibbesey at the end of the story.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Pull yourself together Wibbesey!’
‘Sheeny tips curdled with venom…’
‘Quick tread on her!’
‘Aren’t you supposed to serve your queen and country?’

Great Ideas: The TARDISes dimensional stabiliser is creating the force shield around the cottage. The want to enslave all mankind and turn the world into a nightmarish place. A zebra is the one creature that the Doctor cannot always pacify containing the Queen of the swarm. Shrinking down to the size of a match head and walking through the black and white foliage of the zebras head! A mind made out of paper. The hornets chew it into a pulp then form fantastic cities of whirling tunnels and luminous chambers and cells, an engineering masterpiece, cities of papier-mache. Hornets as large as a bicycle peddling in the air! The throne room was a miracle, furnished in sputum, venom and pulp. Mrs Wibbesey teeters on the edge of being an impossible companion (I loved that observation). Negative thoughts are the bread and butter for their royal jelly. The hornets are susceptible to damaged souls, people who rage inside their heart. The Queen murmurs sweet dark nothings into the old soldiers ears. The hornets plan to take over the world and improve it, to use Mike’s government contacts to take over. Resorting to desperate measures the Doctor sets fire to the paper brain and the hornets attempt to fan the fire with their wings. The pupating young manufacture her majesty’s favourite grog. The Doctor exiles the Queen to the micro universe.

Audio Landscape: This is quite a bare production compared to the others in the range. I picked up a ticking grandfather clock and spitting fire and the usual hornet sound effects.

Musical Cues: A female vocalist echoes in the introduction to the Queen, a delectable specimen of vespidar.

Result: Subverting all of my expectations, the finale of the Hornets Nest series is quite a quiet piece which concentrates far more on character development than macabre ideas like the previous instalments. The Doctor and Mike shine unlike ever before, the former more unpredictable and eccentric than ever and the latter given some healthy development. I was a little disappointed at how easy the hornets were defeated after all of the build up which is a shame but given four hours of exceptional build up I think that was inevitable. The hornets are still terrifying and the sound effects really crawl under my skin and make me shiver. I can only hope that we see more of the fourth Doctor, Mike and Mrs Wibbesey because their interactions here are delightful and I am very pleased that there is another series written by the superlative Paul Magrs: 8/10

Sunday, 26 December 2010

A Sting in the Tale written by Paul Magrs and directed by Kate Thomas

This story in a nutshell: The hornets have finally invaded the TARDIS…

Teeth and Curls: Whilst the characterisation of the Doctor has been of a high standard throughout this mini series I think this is my favourite so far because it shows him at his most desperate a flawed. In a story that reveals why he has taken the hornet’s invasion as his own burden we realise that he is responsible for everything we have seen so far. The Doctor thinks of himself as an ethereal spirit of midwinter misrule when he is lost in the snowy forest. I loved his impromptu improvisation of Good King Wenceslas. He really is an old drunk these days, asking for a hot toddy when he is saved by the nuns. He doesn’t need a reason to go rambling anywhere and the cold rarely bothers him. The Doctor has been brought before some very important leaders and heads of state in his time and he has visited some magnificent supreme beings. Think of him as the Pied Piper except he uses aniseed balls to lure a hornet possessed wolfhound. I love it when the Doctor enthuses about the TARDIS and describing her as bright blue and beautiful in the inky night, her windows lit up a fierce ice white is beautiful. Once the wolf takes a chunk out of him he isn’t sure if he has been possessed by the hornets or is being killed by primitive wolf bite diseases. The TARDIS has been his refuge for centuries and they protect each other. Is his mind as labyrinth as his vehicle? He makes a huge mistake and as a result the creatures devour him from the inside. His powers might be seen as Godlike but he prefers to think of himself a watcher, a dabbler, nothing much to write home about. The Doctor has never felt so alone in the face of the enemy. His wounds with Gallifreyan efficiency. Antonio’s infection is revealed to be the Doctor’s fault. The web of time heals itself and bends the Doctor to its will and makes sure everything runs with deadly accuracy. Even the Doctor doesn’t want to know everything about himself.

Great Ideas: A woodland in the heart of winter with a nunnery in the centre of the tangled countryside – you can always tell when Magrs is writing as the locations are so evocative. The sisters are protecting the Mother Superior, which turns out to be a pig controlled by a malignant entity bound up by the will of thousands of hornets. A rarefied, musical humming emanates from within, the Queen herself. The rabid feral dogs are also possessed and make a desperate assault on the nunnery. The abbey becomes a slaughterhouse, the dogs cracking their heads against the wooden doors and forcing entry. The Queen is a flash of liquid gold at the heart of the swarm. All the hornets slip into one of the hounds and it follows the Doctor back to the TARDIS and tears through its infinite corridors. The TARDIS corridors loop round and about and twist into a vast cats cradle, a labyrinth. Treasures from a thousand worlds are secreted in the TARDIS. There’s an English country garden, a swamp, a laboratory, a garage, a sitting room, a tropical greenhouse, libraries, corridors, galleries, walkways, staircases and escalators, voices crying out and a galley kitchen that smells of crepes suzette. The hornets were blow to Earth by accident, creatures of twilight from the inky depths of space. The churning morass of insects surround the Doctor and slip into his mind. They are space vermin akin to a swarm of fleas hopping from one host to the next with nothing to offer the universe. There are so many creatures that see the rich pickings on Earth for their own selfish needs. We land on the Venetian lagoon where Antonio was infected and the events recalled from the last story are seen here from the Doctor’s point of view. The story ends with Mrs Wibbesey tempting the Doctor and Mike from the cellar into the path of the hornet controlled beasts filling Nest Cottage.

Audio Landscape: Wintry winds, growling dogs, a snorting Mother Superior, crackling embers, a swarm of hornets filling a room, the TARDIS doors shutting, laughter, a waterfall, clocks, inside the Doctor’s echoing mind, flowing waters, a clock chiming in Venice.

Musical Cues: Dramatic music enhances the tension during the siege of the Abbey. A trumpet sounds the TARDIS leaping into the time vortex. Haunting choral music surrounds the Doctor’s possession. There is a fabulous room full of chamber music.

Result: The Hornets Nest story is turning out to be as multifaceted as the fractured eyes of a hornet. Another rich brew of atmospheric locations, stylish ideas and rich language but with the added tension of having the TARDIS invaded by the hornets which takes the story to a whole new level. Never before has the ship felt like a magical box with infinite wonders within. This is where the story begins and the Doctor is so desperate to defeat the hornets he is willing to rewrite his own timeline to stop them. Poor Simon was desperate for me to look at possible cruise holidays for the summer but he could not drag me away from this gripping piece, proof that I am hooked on this sumptuous style of narration. Ending on a growling, snarling cliffhanger, I don’t want to listen to the last part because it will all be over: 10/10

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Circus of Doom written by Paul Magrs and directed by Kate Thomas

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor follows the hornets back in time and discovers the circus of doom…

Teeth and Curls: I’m not sure I understand what people mean when they say Tom Baker doesn’t sound like the Doctor during his tenure? Of course he doesn’t, he’s thirty years older! Just like Pertwee sounder older in The Paradise of Death, Peter Davison and Colin Baker sound older in Big Finish Productions. Allow me to apologise for these actors for the natural passing of time and for not being stuck in cryogenic freezing until they were needed for audio dramas so they can sound utterly authentic to the audience of these dramas. How many stories did we hear the Doctor narrate on television? What’s that? None? Precisely! It is Tom Baker for frick sakes! I don’t care if he sounds a little strained in places, this is still the cheekiest, most irreverent of Doctors and Baker has such a lively way of brining Paul Magrs’ romantic dialogue to life.

The Doctor describes the TARDIS landing with its usual cheery brouhaha! He is partial to aniseed balls and humbugs when jelly babies aren’t available and he is used to funny scenes and outlandish scenes. Can’t abide the waster of good gobstoppers (well who can?). When the Doctor was younger he always imagined running away with the circus but unfortunately they never visited his dull old planet. Part of no ones parade but his own, he rarely feels offended by anyone anymore. I love it when we hear about the Doctor doing very normal things and his meandering and perusing the high street is a situation where we could actually meet him! His instincts for sniffing out the hornets has been honed to fine art. I can just imagine the subversive fourth Doctor being taken in by the gaudy cheer of the circus and applauding with some gusto! Go and listen to his warnings to Francesca, growling and menacing theatrically. He is envious of other characters more detached stance to the bigger picture. Imagine the Doctor’s head jammed in the animated maw of a dead lion! The Doctor doesn’t feel obliged to answer any nosy women’s questions or to mollify them when they have complicated things beyond reason. His ‘If you come back you’re DEAD’ is gorgeous, showing how insensitive he can be at times. The hornets are blaming the Doctor for being active in this time zone, suggesting whatever they do he is the cause of it. Antonio the poisonous midget is in his garden at Nest Cottage, another macabre addition. His next story, set in deep mid winter, is the Doctor’s last.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Circus of Doom’ is a title made for Tom Baker to say (with extra emphasis on the doooom!)
‘There was a drone of insects in the hedgerows. The lazy contented purring of insects all around me.’
‘There was bloodlust in the air…’
‘This tiny vampire and its trillion strong hive…’
‘Heaven parcelled up in this strange box’ is a gorgeous way of describing the TARDIS.

Great Ideas: There is a show in the village of Blandford (hmm I wouldn’t want to live there!) that is sending everyone to sleep, a travelling show revelling in licentiousness and wickedness. Gypsy tents with a moderately sized big top a sideshow of monsters and vagabonds. Its 1832 and the hornets are swarming about hatching their plans. Blandford is alive with a whispery suppressed excitement. A clown funeral at midnight, monochrome clowns whose only splash of colour is there ruby red lips. Antonio the malevolent dwarf is the hornet’s latest host and oily black smoke pours from his ears and eyes, a noise smoke that buzzed and hummed. The hornets feed on imagination, febrile dreams, desires and stymied life forces, all your darkest frustrated thoughts and twisted envy’s, the tiniest thoughts of malice and siphons these feelings for their own evil purposes. Clowns of inhuman strength with hornets buzzing behind their glassy eyes. The king of the circus ring is animated by a hive of buzzing insects. Are the hornets training the humans to play their part? Satin dancing feet, we are introduced to Francesca and her dancing feet that turned up mummified in The Dead Shoes – the Doctor knows there is nothing he can do for her. Antonio the goblin boy, the troglodyte burnt the minds of everybody who ever taunted him when he was given the power of the hornets at the age of thirteen in Venice, a city as gaudy and as decadent as the circus itself. It was the magic of the TARDIS (and its chilling whiteness within) that convinced Antonio to devote his life to magic (he describes the ship as landing with a ‘elephantine’ roar). The Doctor is submerged by swarm of hornets and stung maliciously. The tight rope finale is nail biting, its easier if the ‘vehicle’ they chose for a host is a corpse so Francesca plummets to her death, having an appointment with destiny.

Audio Landscape: A shop bell jingles, a sweet jar smashes, cats roar, morning birds sing, symbols crash and the hornets continue to creep me out! I love the sound of the audience whooping and gasping and the sound of sizzling bacon makes me think of Sunday mornings with sarnies and coffee.

Musical Cues: The music in these stories is getting better and better, go listen to the jolly jingle as the Doctor lands in Blandford. As we experience a visit to the circus we are treated to a orchestral score of freakish playtime.

Isn’t it Odd: This is not a criticism in the slightest, quite the opposite actually but I cannot listen to the Hornets Nest stories quite as easily as I can Big Finish productions. Whilst I think Big Finish have produced some startling drama they are made like soundtracks to stories that are missing from the archives. With this series I want to be seduced by the language, I want to really focus on the delicious description and sink into Magrs’ twisted and beautiful vision of Doctor Who. It has taken me longer to listen to this series than say the Jago & Litefoot series but that is only because I want the experience to last. I am timing this so I can listen to the last instalment on Christmas Day, my own little Christmas treat. Since the plotting and description is as fruity and rich as Christmas pudding, it won’t feel out of place.

Result: I love how the Hornets Nest series is telling consecutive stories and setting up the tales we have already heard, there is a fascinating jigsaw being assembled. The circus is an ideal location for Magrs to lose himself in, every bit as eclectic, perplexing and ingenious as one of his works. The Doctor’s narration continues to beguile and Tom Baker’s magnificent voice eases you into the story and is as pleasurable as a neck massage whilst your ears are being nibbled! Reviewing this series is a shame because it feels wrong to break down what should be luxurious swim through the English language and I think I will listen to it again before long to let the sumptuous flood of descriptions carry me along. Doctor Who as a delicious portmanteau: 9/10

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Dead Shoes written by Paul Magrs and directed by Kate Thomas

This story in a nutshell: Shrunk to the size of a thimble the Doctor is menaced through a Victorian dollhouse by those pesky hornets…

Teeth and Curls: As Mike comments only the Doctor would fill his house full of homicidal dead animals. He loves being by the seaside in out the way spots and last visited Cromer in the 1930’s, taking long strolls on the rock strewn beach and demolishing fish suppers, filling his lungs with clean salty air. An autograph hunter? The Doctor thinks it doesn’t do to get tangled up in police enquiries. He brilliantly uses his scarf to lasso Miss Stott from committing suicide under the influence and jumping into the violent sea. His scarf would never let him down; it’s gone to enormous lengths in the past to save his neck (love it!). Go listen to the scene where the Doctor stresses that the whole universe is made up of dancing atoms, he sounds truly alien and magnificent. This is where the Doctor came across Mrs Wibbesey his housekeeper but he does have to hypnotise her every now and again (sounds like an average relationship). He declares that he hasn’t been growing geraniums since he and Mike last met! His TARDIS is like a bloodhound when it gets a scent and he’s very persistent when his danders up.

Camp Captain: Aside from getting the Doctor all worked up about trips down memory lane he is really only present in one or two scenes where the Doctor is recounting his story. I hope this isn’t the case throughout the series; I look forward to getting to know Yates a bit better.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Possessed Reverend Small! By a malign will not her own. Something that wants its shoes back!’ Reading this line it is fun but nothing very special but Tom Baker relishes the dialogue and projects it with such gusto it becomes something very special indeed.
‘The wild gulls crashed and stirred against the stiff wind’ – more superb atmospherics from Magrs.
‘The Hornets and I are forming a foxtrot through time! A temporal tango! I am waltzing with the storm!’

Great Ideas: Miss Stott’s very strange adventure at the seaside beg
an when she was stung by a hornet. Mrs Wibbesey turns out to be a curator of Cromer curiosities! I thought they were just being cheap and using the same actresses to play several parts! I don’t know if I like the idea of handling a Denobian slime dollar. Mrs Stott attempts a surreal snatch and grab, sealing a pair of mummified feet wearing ballet shoes. Once wearing these shoes Ernestina gives the performance of a lifetime, her feet whirring and blurring like a hummingbirds wings and her feet leaving the floor for ten impossible minutes. These shoes are dancing to someone else’s tune. The shoes used to belong to Francesca, a dancer on the high wire from 100 years ago. Every curator for the last century has known the sting of the hornet and kept the Queen of the Hive safe in Francesca’s remains. They are coming after Ernestina and want her to be the new hostess for the hornets. The Doctor has a horrifying vertiginous sensation as he is shrunk and placed inside a Victorian dollhouse inside a glass case (what a wonderful idea!). It is a mad house with a silent tableau of dolls sitting to dinner and slowly coming to life. Hideous empty faces come to life and chase the Doctor and Ernestina around the dollhouse. There is a scene that would scare my Simon stupid; he is terrified of the glassy eyed stars of china dolls and this one with its benign mindless grin and black vacant eyes and teeming with insects! The swarm comes leaking from the baby’s dead eyes like black smoke, almost leisurely with their movements, playing with them. The hornets have learnt how to manipulate time itself with their songs, their unique and powerful harmonies. Once you have been bitten you are always under their control. They can dance old shoes to their death. How gross is the thought of the scratching of their legs in your mind. The shoes dancing on their own is a fabulous visual – especially the one jiggling in the Doctor’s pocket!

Audio Landscape: The seaside is such an evocative location all you need is the sound of screaming seagulls and waves lapping at the shoreline and you are there with the Doctor. The menagerie are still screaming and padding about in Nest Cottage. I love how well the series has built up the horror of the hornets so the second you hear one buzzing in your ears your heckles go up! There is applause after Ernestina’s concert and mutterings in the audience. There’s lots of banging and attempts to break into the attic. I screamed when I heard the old sonic screwdriver buzz!

Musical Cues: The music was much more apparent in this story than the first one, it is gloriously grand and toe tappingly good! The organ seaside music conjures up so many images for me. The really exciting stuff comes when the Doctor is chased around the creepiest dolls house ever!

Result: Another very strong entry in the Hornets Nest series, The Dead Shoes mixes matinee music and waltzing possession to disturbing effect. If you thought things were creepy in The Stuff of Nightmares wait until you get trapped inside the dollshouse of death! Paul Magrs conjures up the evocative seaside atmosphere and being a boy who lives by the sea I could imagine myself down that front, smelling the sea breeze, tucking into salt’n’vinegar chips and crunching my way across the pebbles. If the conclusion feels a little sudden the running storyline remains intriguing and the middle sections of this audio really are skin crawlingly good. More please: 8/10

Friday, 10 December 2010

Hornets Nest 1: The Stuff of Nightmares written by Paul Magrs and directed by Kate Thomas

What’s it about: Responding to an advert apparently worded for him alone, Captain Mike Yates (retired) is reunited with a ghost from the past. But why has the Doctor, that mysterious traveller in Time and Space, sent for his former UNIT acquaintance? Trapped by a horde of vicious creatures in an apparently innocuous English country cottage, the two old friends are on the brink of an enormous adventure. As the Doctor relates his recent escapades, it becomes clear to Mike that they – and the Earth at large – are facing an enemy of unimaginable power and horrific intent.

Teeth & Curls: Am I the only person who wasn’t that thrilled about Tom Baker returning to audio? Whilst I am a huge fan of the 4th Doctor I have been more than satisfied with the 4 Doctors we have been enjoying on audio without feeling the need to branch out. It’s probably why it has taken me so long to get around to Hornets Nest despite the fact that Paul Magrs is one of my favourite Doctor Who authors. Now prepare for this moment because it wont come along very often…I was wrong. Tom Baker is a master storyteller and listening to the first Hornets Nest adventure has reminded me why I fell in love with his interpretation of the character so thoroughly. He has an effortless way with dialogue and it drips from his tongue like honey. Frankly if listening this wonderful actor regale us with tales is what we can come to expect from the next four stories sign me up!

The Doctor always helps himself to drinks and has a warm, welcoming voice. He is living in a house hidden away in deepest Sussex. It is rather annoying the way he keeps changing and it’s not like him to stick around in one place. He reminisces with Mike and tells him tall tales of giant rats and skulls from the dawn of time. The Doctor has a habit of flying off in petulant moods. He used to rail against UNIY for dragging him into the affairs of human being and looking into mysteries under sufferance but lately he has felt a pang of nostalgia for those times. Not averse to marching up to the man in charge and announcing his presence. The only way of getting yourself ‘inside’ is to get yourself captured. He likes to find a better way, a more peaceful way. He was always fond of Dodos and kept one for a while! ‘You’re crackers!’ ‘Marvellous, isn’t it?’ He thinks he improvises brilliantly. I love how he is such an old lush (‘Don’t you keep a stock of liquor?’). There’s no use in panicking…where does that get you? The Doctor has been known to get on terribly well with insect creatures with one of two exceptions like the Wirrn and Zarbi. He occasionally speaks for mankind. I loved his admission that he can never do fear because he can’t take it completely seriously!

Camp Captain: What an odd choice to choose Captain Yates as a companion for the fourth Doctor? What an unexpected delight since we start to see depths that were denies on the television! Richard Franklin never really convinced for me during the Pertwee years as a butch military office and love interest for Katy Manning’s Jo but he proves to be fine actor in this story and an excellent narrator for the first part of the story.
That’s two big surprises with both of the regulars, colour me impressed. It makes me wonder if this entire series will be the Doctor regaling stories to Mike or if they will actually get adventures of their own?

The ad in the paper reads: Retired army Captain required for light household duties and far side companionship. Must tolerate mild eccentricity and strong scientific advice. Knowledge of giant maggots, super intelligent spiders and prehistoric monsters a positive boon! Mike admits this advertisement was tailor for him and his curiosity is piqued. His past feels as though it is catching up with him. Being with the Doctor makes Mike feel young again. He is dragged once again into the Doctor’s nightmares. Hilariously Mike bats at creatures with a pair of ballet slippers!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How do you feel about running away with me and seeing all the marvels of the universe?’ ‘Go boil your head!’ ‘Marvellous woman!’ I get the feeling the relationship between the Doctor and Mrs Wibbesey is going to be delightful!
The Doctor suffers ‘a terrible pot of tea and a damp garibaldi’ and it makes my toes curl just to think of Tom Baker saying a delicious line like that.
‘Factories pumped strange pink and purple clouds into the glittering sky’ The language is effortlessly evocative.
‘I was under attack from the cast of a crazed Wind in the Willows!’

Great Ideas: Stuffed animals are hunting in the night, being dead doesn’t deter these beasts. A cabinet minister has been killed with the hoof print of a goat on his head! Several influential figures from Whitehall have been flattened by an elephant. Somebody is using these beats for their own purposes. Is this a bestial attack on mankind for this insult of their deaths? Back street menageries – somebody is stealing the cast off stuffed creatures. Mr Noggin the taxidermist is carrying them off into the belly of his lorry. Making monsters, reanimating them and filling them with hate and turning them back into the human world from a workshop of filthy creation. The Doctor stabs a badger in the chest urging the flames to catch hold. When he opens the creature up he discovers origami brains with insects huddled inside, feebly twitching antennae as they scramble about the papery walkways of their home. An insect hive housed in the brain of the Doctor’s attacker. The hornets can take control of human minds as easily as the beasts and can change their size at will. They love creatures with flesh to burrow into, with warmth inside (eww that is horrible). Mr Noggin was just working under some petty revenge on human beings for treating animals so badly. All of the animals contain a splinter, a shard of the hive mind. They want the Doctor’s mind at the centre of the swarm. He has put a force shield around Nest Cottage and is keeping the creatures, the hornets docile inside. The Doctor has been fighting the swarm again and again through time. The beasts are just the vessels of their enemy, what they really want is to possess the Doctor’s mind.

Audio Landscape: The sound effects are used far more sparingly than in Big Finish Productions but then that doesn’t seem such a bad thing because we are really drawn into the narrative and when we do hear a roar of a scream it really has effect. A ticking clock that strikes 13 times, a buzzing hornet, wolfhound barking, a psychotic weasel, flapping owl wings, whistling kettle, background noises in the museum, the sound FX for the hornets are terrifying, Percy’s creepy insect voice, the humming swarm, terrifying feral sounds as the house stirs at night, vampire bats screeching.

Musical Cues: The music during the Doctor’s frantic fight throughout the house is tense and exciting. Like the sound effects the music isn’t intrusive, it compliments the story where it is needed.

Result: Can you imagine anything more wonderful than tucking up under the duvet and letting tom Baker regale with a story written by Paul Magrs? Magrs descriptions make this a sensual, atmospheric listen; his use of language paints worlds more enchantingly than any number of sound effects. The story introduces some gorgeous imagery with the hornets and their paper hives inside the skulls of dead animals and from the set up it appears this will be an anthology of separate stories told by the Doctor to Mike Yates. You are put at ease by Tom Baker and Richard Franklin’s charming narration and sudden moments of violence have real effect. This is a subtly different sort of adventure on audio than we get from Big Finish but pleasingly so, The Stuff of Nightmares was as delightful as cuddling up with my hubbie and clutching a freshly brewed coffee: 9/10

The Similarity Engine written by Andy Lane and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: When Jago takes a tumble on an unseasonably icy road, he ends up in hospital. But this is no ordinary medical establishment, and the patients are suffering from no ordinary illnesses. At last, the fiendish scheme of Dr Tulp is drawing to its cataclysmic climax. The Similarity Engine is operational. And a new, improved model of mahogany murderers have been unleashed...

Theatrical Fellow: Poor old Jago has fallen on hard times and (I shouldn’t laugh but it is desperately funny) leaves his house practicing his pitch to the owners of the Royal theatre. We haven’t quite found out what happened to the Palace but apparently it is quite a tale! A demonic deflagration if he is to be believed…perhaps this could be a flashback story told ala The Mahogany Murderers narration? To confound his problems he slips on Tulp’s slippery residue and forms a contusion on his coccyx! He has never been so insulted than when it is suggested he has fleas! His reaction when he realises that Litefoot has burnt a mahogany simulacrum of him is really funny and he is trapped inside its charred remains. Oh Jago! His suggestion that he illuminate the theatres of London with uranium to make a profit!

Posh Professor: This is the first story where I would say that Litefoot gets a more interesting chunk of the action. He likes a pie and a pint for his luncheon (nomnom!). He’s not a fully-fledged investigator, more of an interested amateur and he doesn’t usually diagnose ailments. Litefoot’s memory is getting feeble, a sign of age. For a second he is concerned why his friend wants to kill him but he soon realises that it is the work of Dr Tulp. I loved his sinister threats, quietly and menacingly telling Tulp if he hurts a single hair on Jago’s head he will hunt him down and shoot him like a dog. At the story’s climax he doesn’t want Jago involved in the next case, which is similar to that of the Bloodless Soldier. Is he trying to protect his feelings?

Jago and Litefoot charge forward and take on the squiddy Dr Tulp – the audacious adventurers have survived their first year and are coming back for more!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I have seen wars in which the stars themselves seem to be falling from the sky.’
‘Provider of power and light if they obey me! Bringer of death and destruction if they do not!’

Great Ideas: Something is eating the faces of people from the inside in a hospital that rivals the horrors of Bedlam. A strange black ore has been unloaded from ships on the Thames. Tulp has been putting a lot of effort into his latest simulacrum and has fashioned a Jago from mahogany to put Litefoot out of the way now his plans are advancing. He can now transfer minds effortlessly into his puppets but more dangerously he can project his own spirit forward in time into the minds of people who live there. He has seen blueprints for future technology but has to fashion them out of the materials of the 19th century. The Similarity Engine is a computer, retro machinery of future technology. Tulp plans to replace the entire government with simulacrum plus leading industrialists and millionaires, anyone who can push his plans forward. The ore he is mining is uranium and he wants to corner the market and hold the world to ransom, obey me or he will unleash a weapon that can reduce a city to dust. During his astral projections to the future he came back with something that was waiting in the void and latched onto his mind. These unnamed creatures want to use the uranium for their own purposes, to turn the Earth into a radioactive wasteland like their home world. Tulp is completely subsumed by the creature. At the end of the story a body is discovered drained of blood and Litefoot insists Jago mustn’t be involved. This is a case for Litefoot and Sanders!

Audio Landscape: Squeaky hospital bed, rattling cart, Jago catching fire and throwing water over the hissing flames, fizzing electricity, cogs and whirs, ticking giggling automatons, tearing gloves off, gunky hands, Tulp’s dramatic metamorphosis with wet tentacles and horrific screams, smashing the machinery and a gunshot that sees the end of Tulp.

Musical Cues: The music is awesome when mahogany Jago attacks Litefoot.

Result: What a shame that the last story of the run should be the weakest as it polishes off this extraordinary box set with a sigh rather than a final hurrah. Its not badly written by any means but it lacks the bubbling humour and drama of the other releases and it feels like everything is being told in exposition rather than us actually experiencing any of the events. Jago seems most unlike his usual magniloquent self but this does give Litefoot a chance to steal the limelight for a change. Tulp transpires to be far less interesting than we were led to believe and his scheme to take over the minds of people and change the fate of the world was all dealt with in The Spirit Trap. On the plus side the production values are as strong as ever and the dialogue sparkles. An unclimatic end to a splendid series: 6/10

Buy the season one boxset from Big Finish here:

The Spirit Trap written by Jonathan Morris and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: Ellie Higson believes that spiritualist Mrs Vanguard can hear the voices of the dead, but Henry Gordon Jago thinks it’s all superstition and theatrical trickery. But if Vanguard is a harmless fake, then why have some of those who have attended her sceances disappeared so mysteriously? Jago and Litefoot investigate... And find themselves facing a deadly foe from the afterlife.

Theatrical Fellow: He is sceptical of the claims of clairvoyants. As a man of the theatre he knows all about the tricks of the average séance. Jago scoffs at Litefoot’s quoting of Shakespeare commenting ‘don’t forget that fellow wrote about fairies!’ His cowardly instincts emerge during the séance and instead of touché Litefoot’s fingers he clutches his hand! He is such a hilarious rogue, falling asleep and snoring loudly during the communion with the spirits (‘I felt dashed relaxed all of a sudden!’). Jago plays along to a point, agreeing with Mrs Vanguard’s aspersions about his ‘Aunt Maude’ but soon uncovers all the elementary stagecraft. Because he is so opinionated and tunnel visioned in this story you just know he is going to come a cropper and be proved wrong. He cruelly tests Ellie but asking after her dead brother. He is considered well connected in London and a suitable subject to bring more victims to the spirits. To be honest Jago expected something less gloomy of the afterlife when he finds himself as insubstantial as a puff of smoke! He’s all ‘strike me pink!’ this and ‘dash me optics!’ that. Jago not using alliteration is a sure sign that he is not himself. He considers his own figure robust and is happy to be resurrected, resuscitated and restored to life! Even Jago could hit somebody with a pistol from a short distance (even if it is only his own foot!). The landlord would not dare to lose Jago’s considerable custom.

Posh Professor: I love Litefoot’s almost paternal concern for Ellie and is more than willing to protect her feelings. What would he do without Jago? Considers his specialities suspicious cadavers and a decent chicken madras! Whilst he is not keen on Jago’s bullying methods he does think that he has done her a service in turning her away from mediums. All he requires for restorative refreshment is a cup of tea and a warm bed (umm, nice). Litefoot is more than aware of the horrors, the ways of the world. He proves himself to be a thorough and intelligent investigator throughout. ‘He’s not my Henry Gordon Jago’ is a lovely admission of affection. He is secretly a child at heart and always wanted to discover a secret passage.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman gets the chance to give Ellie some depth, underplaying her grief and her relief at being put in touch with her brother. I love how close she is becoming to both Jago and Litefoot, now on first name terms and Litefoot sweetly offering to be at her service after her ordeals rather than the other way round.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A doppelganger!’ ‘What’s that a sausage?’
‘It might not be infernal here but it might as well be informal!’
‘With Victoria to lead us we will be victorious!’
‘Mr Jago is liable to explode!’
‘Welcome to the 19th Century…’

Great Ideas: Ellie visits medium Mrs Vanguard who claims to be able to distinguish the voices of the dead and has a message from her dead brother Jim. I really like how the séance scenes are played, you can see how Ellie is being manipulated but there is just enough doubt there that this could be true. As Jago points out all you have to do is tell them what they want to know and they’ll forget all you got wrong. When Mrs Vanguard reveals that Jim was killed by a gunshot wound following an altercation at Kings Cross Station they intrepid investigators wonder if there is more to this celestial advocate than meets the eye. Apparently the spirits can be playful, capricious and will only speak the truth if those present believe. Ellie quits her job at the Red Tavern to take up a position as Mrs Vanguard’s assistant. Why are those that visit Vanguard for a consultation spontaneously combusting? All the spirits require is an open mind – very clever, peoples consciousness’ are being extracted from their bodies and leaving them available for occupation and the spirits are being planted inside! They are trying to make contact with well connected people so that eventually Queen Empress Victoria will arrange a séance and be taken over. The subjects lose their sanity as the brain begins to overheat and eventually they burst into flames – the two plots dovetailing beautifully. These were regrettable fatalities from refining the technique. In reality these are not spirits but refugees trying to escape the dying world of the 49th century. They projected their consciousness’ through time and Mrs Vanguard heard their cries. They know that the Queen Empress will not be able to resist the chance to get back in touch with Albert and plan to take over her body and turn back the tides of history and create a new future. Jago manages to move the glass on the oujia board. Beryl speaks to her husband but she has no body to return to so touchingly Toby commits suicide so he can be with his wife, together with his loved one in the sleep of death. There must have been another medium feeding Vanguard information about Jim’s death. Rather delightfully Ellie is responsible for saving the life of Queen Victoria!

Audio Landscape: Whispering voices, a ticking clock, the voices of the dead, drunken revellers, morning birds, boots striking cobbles, banging noises during the séance, warm crackling fires, the terrifying screams of the spirits, Jago leaving his body (it literally sounds like his soul is being bottled), the hellish screams and bubbling madness of Jago’s mental prison, dogs barking in the distance, whale song (?), Ellie firing the gun and shattering the light, Toby burning to death like a wax candle and a hansom cab.

Musical Cues: There is some more punchy piano playing! There is some spooky and playful music as Litefoot investigates.

Standout Moment: Jago waking up in his mental nightmare and singing to himself to keep his spirits (haha!) up!

Result: Another science fiction delight dressed up as a supernatural chiller, this series has yet to produce one wrong move. Jonathan Morris’ script is rich with character and delicious dialogue and the story takes some delightfully unexpected twists which gives the initially simple story some real punch. What starts as a ghost story ends up having the most potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and goes to prove that this series can accommodate some intriguing dangers from the future. John Ainsworth’s direction is particularly strong, he has always excelled at the more atmospheric dramas and he has plenty of scope here to chill us to the bone. The Spirit Trap does not quite clinch full marks because it wasn’t quite as immaculate as the last tale but it still provided plenty of fantastic moments and a pleasingly eerie atmosphere: 9/10

Buy the season one boxset from Big Finish here:

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Bellova Devil written by Alan Barnes and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: A body is found on the Circle Line, wearing full dress uniform. It as identified as Reginald Colville – a man who was certified dead some six weeks ago! In an attempt to solve the mystery Jago and Litefoot become unwilling bodysnatchers... And thus begins a chain of events that will pit them against killer Bulgars and the mysterious machinations of the Far-Off Travellers Club...

Theatrical fellow: Its really easy to prefer Jago to Litefoot because he is such a lovable old rogue, putting his foot in things and behaving like a mischievous little boy! He walks a tightrope between being a parody of Victoriana and a genuinely thrilling character in his own right and Christopher Benjamin chews on his dialogue with gargantuan relish. Easily one of the best supporting characters in the Doctor Who’s long history and a fascinating rascal to get to know in more depth. The Bloodless Soldier climaxed on a more serious note for the theatrical impresario and Alan Barnes continues that thread of sincerity right the way through his excellent script. You genuinely feel for Jago once he is blindfolded and binded in cement and comes within an inch of death at the bottom of the Thames.

He turns up in the very devil of a disguise having been embarrassed in the pecuniary sense with cutthroat creditors after his blood (he owes a grand sum of 220 pounds!). Litefoot initially offers to pay his debts thinking he owes 5 quid but changes his mind when he discovers the truth! I love how he always leaps to the maddest of conclusions when Litefoot reveals that he wants to exhume Colville Jago assumes he would want to dig up the corpse himself or failing that employ a body snatcher! Litefoot admonishes him for constantly delving into the realms of ha’penny fiction. Curse the creator who carved Henry Gordon Jago from yellow rock! He’s such an indulgent old ham and pretends to be a pack of police officers (including one from the Punjab?) in the graveyard with some extraordinary accents. His two explanations for Colville’s return from the grave is that he is a vampire or he has been claimed by Satan! His belly is yellower than a match girl’s backside! When they visit the Bellova club Jago proclaims he has seen grander bawdy houses (from the outside, of course!). He admits that he can sure spin a yarn. Would it not be better to escape his creditors and his reputation as a tawdry trader of theatrical trash and commit suicide? He objects to this last description of his character – he is a Hannibal of the halls and archbishop of audience address! When he is going to be drowned in the Thames Jago begs for Litefoot’s survival, it is desperately sweet that he should think of his best friend in his dying moments. His creditors finally catch up with him and turn out to be the Manchester Mangler and in a cruel twist of fate he is shot dead and Jago is relieved of his debts.

Posh Professor: Litefoot is concerned for Ellie and doesn’t think she should be working so soon after Jim’s death. He is not used to entertaining bohemians and is on the horns of a moral dilemma. Considering his age he doesn’t think Laddie is a correct form of address even from a Scotsman!
The vein in Litefoot’s head throbs as Jago recounts his own investigations. He is not at all fond of his fellow pathologist Sacker although the fellow does save his life by hinting that he is going to drink cyanide to protect the clubs secrets. Litefoot’s dying theatrics rival even those of the great HGJ! He makes a rich brew of superstition once the danger has past; it is Litefoot that intelligently figures out exactly what has transpired throughout this tale.

Standout Performance: With each Jago & Litefoot I want to praise the regulars but in this fear of repeating myself I will point to Duncan Wisbey for his sinister Scotsman Sacker. A really creepy performance, a hope he returns.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I cannot help but notice, sir, that your beard is coming unstuck.’
‘That scoundrel Scots sod!’
‘Once a man has dipped his toe in murder there’s no turning back.’

Great Ideas: A corpse is found on the circle line in full dress uniform with a freshly bloodied scimitar of his belt. He was certified dead by Sacker six weeks back and must have leapt from his bed to commit bloody murder. As an alibi for murder, death is right up there! The Bulgars are not there to steal his corpse but bait him on his return to life again. If you have cut his body you will have made him angry and he will come for you first. There is an ‘orrible murder in Chelsea with a fella brutally beheaded in his bed (perfectly for a scimitar). Colville put the forest folk to death as an example and perhaps something came from the depths of the forest to finish him. The Bellova Club turns out to be a suicide club and their ‘travelling’ is to the undiscovered country, death. What a fantastic shock that is. Sacker is there, disgraced and wants to die along with his fellows, some bankrupt, others involved in sex scandals. The Bellova tree frog has a paralysing poison in its skin, which once prepared as a potion gives the impression of mortal death! The dead man is then dug up and disappears, takes on a new identity and lives off a healthy stipend. The whole set up is revealed as a fake, the fellow club members are actors and Dr Tulp (that nefarious swindler) is the founder. They convince those that wish to start a new life that they will be woken after their ‘pretend death’ but in reality they sign over their worldly possessions to Tulp and are poisoned with cyanide. What a devilish affair! The Manchester Mangler finally catches up with Jago but it shot dead because he has overheard the whole Bellova scam. Turns out that Colville never returned from the dead but used his fathers corpse as a stand in whilst he dished out his own private justice. Nice.

Audio Landscape: A love the moment Jago convinces Litefoot to have a drink saying it will all be better in the morning which slips into the next scene where they both wake up with banging hangovers! Night owls scream and horses puff in the graveyard and you can literally hear the mist swathing in the moonlit atmosphere (you can! Go and listen!). Litefoot’s study is filled with the tick of a clock and has a very squeaky door! Grumbling conversation permeates the lounge. Jago’s voice is muffled under the hood, loud footsteps as he is walked to his death and the lapping waves of the Thames await him. Colville’s mad echoing laughter is chilling. I love the sound effects of Jago being extradited from his cement trap. Rain heaves on to the streets of London.

Musical Cues: I love the hilarious horn blowing that accompanies Jago’s financial woes. The graveyard music is dazzling.

Standout Moment: When the real purpose of the club is discovered. Who ever saw that coming?

Result: Alan Barnes has written an extremely intelligent script which cleverly takes a supernatural premise of a man rising from the grave and then plots a story with cunning details that convinces the reader it is genuinely so before revealing how we have been hoodwinked with a magicians flourish. Much like The Mahogany Murderers the pair of intrepid investigations regale us with their individual but equally compelling tales, they approach storytelling from very different angles but together make a very fulsome tale. The direction is faultless, never shying away from the terrifying reality of the Club and its member’s deception and the production values continue to shine (especially the music which really gives these stories a style of their own). The Bellova Devil provides an hour of shocks and thrills and another exemplary piece of entertainment with our two chums: 10/10

Buy the season one boxset from Big Finish here:

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Bloodless Soldier written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: A group of soldiers return from overseas service – but they have brought a terrible evil back with them. As death strikes on the streets of London, Sergeant Quick calls upon the help of Professor Litefoot, while an old enemy lurks in the shadows. Jago and Litefoot are on the trail of the Bloodless Soldier – and tragedy will hit close to them...

Theatrical Fellow: As vertiginously verbose as ever, somehow Henry Gordon Jago is even more chatty and eloquent when he’s pissed (practice I guess!). He enjoys a gargantuan repast or in his own words ‘a felicitous feast of sumptuous sustenance!’). Simon loved Talons of Weng-Chiang and Jago in particular and he can quote various lines of his that he loves to get his tongue around and now he has a new barrage of lines, my favourite being: ‘Stab me vitals!’ and ‘Oh my sainted aunts and uncles!’ He admits he has fallen on hard times; having lost the Palace and his office in his new theatre is little more than a cubbyhole. Jago is in the process of re-establishing himself as one of the foremost impressionarios! If Jago is getting a round in it must be Christmas – Justin Richards seems to understand these characters as well as Robert Holmes and Andy Lane did. Jago was itching for a scrap and was disappointed when it doesn’t happen (yeah, right!). ‘Oh corks!’ he knew that if he ever did anything brave he would pay for it; he is a very proud coward. He thinks there is nothing like the British Army! Amazingly it’s Jago that pulls the trigger and murders Jim and breaks down after he realises what he has done. It is a watershed moment for the character, no longer comic relief but a real person making a hard decision. Jago wants to tell Ellie what he has done to her brother but Litefoot stops him. He feels empty and cold at the murder he has committed and ponders why the right thing often feels like the wrong thing.

Posh Professor: I like how the story builds up Litefoot as somebody with an impressive reputation for being eccentric and having saved many lives and it turns out the soldiers are talking about the mysterious Dr Tulp.
Litefoot admits he has a cold empty house but feels safe because he has Jago looking after him. He is not made of money but has enough to sweetly indulge Jago in his whims. Again he is the pragmatist and knows what needs to be done but unlike his impulsive behaviour burning down Tulp’s laboratory (which was a cold but detached act) he cannot pull the trigger and end Jim’s life (which is far more intimate). At the conclusion my opinion had changed of the pair, perhaps it isn’t Jago that needs Litefoot in his life but quite the reverse.

Standout Performance: It’s a pretty good cast overall but extra points of Lisa Bowerman who gets to extend Ellie’s range.

Great Ideas: The Captain completely draining a body of blood, infected and needing to be fed regularly with raw meat. He is insanely dangerous. One soldiers wants to sell the feral Captain to Jago and reboost his career in the theatres. Poor Ellie, she is offered cryptic clues from her brother about his disappearance and is threatened by Sonil. The creature consumes blood into its body and will always feed again; changing whomever it breaks the skin. Dr Tulp is a covert and unfathomable fellow and looks like he is going to be a dangerous villain for Jago & Litefoot. Ellie’s brother Jim is transformed into one of the creatures in the thrilling climax and shot dead by Jago. Her grief is agonising and you can imagine this coming back to haunt Jago in the future.

Audio Landscape: This is a perfectly incandescent production brought to life superbly by director Lisa Bowerman. The story opens on a dramatic set piece that sees soldiers blasting away at a slavering beast. The pub ambience is lovely and welcoming and there are quayside scenes with ships bells ringing, waves lapping and seagulls in the air. We get to hear the Captain sucking a corpse of blood up close and personal! There is rapturous applause in the theatre and giggling girls backstage. Cold, echoey footsteps menace in the mortuary. Clinking bottles and rushing up stairs. Ellie’s scream is eaten up by the whistle of a train and there is a clack clack of the tracks and puffing of steam. The atmosphere of Victorian London is conjured effortlessly by the writer and director, I’m sure it was a perfectly degrading place to live in but its an awesome place to set a series of adventures!

Musical Cues: The theme tune really works, its bombastic and pretty cute, which is probably how I would describe Jago & Litefoot! The jolly piano playing is back, getting my foot a’tapping! The score is understated and intimidating, bubbling with menace.

Standout Moment: Jago shooting Jim is astonishingly dramatic, the scene is played beautifully between Benjamin and Baxter with neither giving away how will have the guts to commit the murder.

Result: Already Jago, Litefoot and Ellie feel like characters I know intimately and that I have been listening to their adventures for many years, such is the brio and confidence with how this story is played. The Bloodless Soldier taps a vein of something warm and nostalgic whilst at the same time turning a corner and heading of into something fresh and new. This really does feel like the series we were denied on the television in the 70’s with a post millennium exciting approach to the storytelling. Tension bubbles to the surface throughout this tale leading to a conclusion that is unnerving and dramatic and leaving some interesting threads to be picked up at a later date. It’s a great universe to set stories in and these are fantastic characters to drive the comedy and drama. A great start: 9/10

Buy the season one boxset from Big Finish here:

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Mahogany Murders written by Andy Lane and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Professor George Litefoot: the eminent pathologist who advises the police in some of their grisliest cases. Henry Gordon Jago: the master of ceremonies at the Alhambra Theatre. These are two very different men from contrasting strata in society who became firm friends and collaborators after their adventure with the Doctor and Leela battling the evil Weng-Chiang. Some years later, Jago and Litefoot have defeated dangerous denizens of the daemonic darkness together. They have stood side by side against threats to the British Empire. But when a body is found on the banks of the River Thames and Litefoot's post mortum reveals that it is actually a highly detailed wooden mannequin, their most dangerous adventure begins. Dr Tulp has masterminded a deadly scheme, Jack Yeovil and his murderous gang plan to live forever, and only Jago and Litefoot can stop them...

Theatrical Fellow: Can you imagine anybody being better at telling a story than Henry Gordon Jago, theatrical impressionaro extraordinaire? Jago beautifully makes every scene count; he gets you so excited at the smallest of details so exciting. I love how he builds up scenes to a dramatic operatic crescendo only to be trumpeted by Litefoot! When it comes to London taverns he is something of a Dr Livingstone. Things have been a little tight of late and he only has one jacket to speak of which Litefoot has burned a ruddy great hole into! His propensity for verbosely challenged sentences has not bee toned down since the Weng-Chiang affair. He’s had to close his theatre to make repairs and is living in modest lodgings. He was as happy as a buttered halibut when he got Litefoot’s telegram asking for assistance. Jago is not a man to be reckoned with when it comes to physical altercations! He can’t see this ‘unsafe’ electricity catching on. He has worked with the most accomplished magicians including the nefarious Li’sen Chang. I love his description of being knocked unconscious, falling into a Stygian pit of darkness! He has never corpsed on stage and has no intention of starting in restaurants!

Posh Professor: Litefoot is a far more restrained storyteller but he manages to generate a much greater sense of menace. He knows many words in many languages and collects knowledge for its own ends. Jago is more of a comrade in arms and they have been known to eat together on the odd occasion. Litefoot worked in poor conditions in Afghanistan. Having never trod the boards he is terrible at putting on accents! He lectures in forensic pathology. Litefoot ensures that the story is told in the right order, Jago rushing off in excitement. You’ve got to love any man whose cane conceals a rapier blade! Yeovil offers Litefoot a young body again, one that would last forever. Old age has been creeping up on him; arthritis creeping into his bones and to feel young and strong again was very tempting. He admits he does have an open mind.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than being treated to a series of adventures featuring these sparkling characters? Stories of murder and mayhem on the foggy streets of Victorian London? Litefoot (adlibbing Jago) sums it up perfectly: ‘The intrepid investigators back in harness again! Investigating infernal incidents and cracking complex conundrums!’ Just wonderful.

Standout Performances: Do I really need to answer this one? One of my biggest regrets as far as Doctor Who is concerned was that Jago & Litefoot never had a chance at their own spin off series. Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin are simply made for each other and one minute into this story brings the joy of their pairing in Talons rushing back. Adding Lisa Bowerman to mix means you have some of the hottest names in Doctor Who involved in this companion chronicle.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It wasn’t a body at all. It was a wooden mannequin the exact size and shape of a man and with all the joints carefully carved and crafted so that they worked in the same way as a human skeleton.’
‘The sunset was like a crimson violet bloodstain spreading across the west end sky.’
‘You were right, you’re climatic moment was better.’
‘Dropped to the floor like marionettes whose strings have been cut.’

Great Ideas: Getting Jago & Litefoot back together! I love the idea of the pair of them telling each other the opposing ends of the same story with both of them chipping in comments on each others storytelling techniques! A body is wheeled into Litefoot’s mortuary in a wheelbarrow! What is all this about chained anteaters and aluminium violins? Jago discovers a warehouse full of electrical equipment and Litefoot has to defend himself in his mortuary as thugs turn on him to steal the mannequin. The magician’s dummy gets up from the slab and calmly walks out into the night. Jago discovers wooden ruffians and a simulacrum of Jack Yeovil – the worst criminal of the lot! Prisoners made from wood? Why would you want to go back to the life of a lowlife when you could exist in mahogany? Dr Tulp is a twisted genius releasing criminals from prison and implanting their souls into wooden dummies. Litefoot experiences the terrifying depravity of the London underground, families crammed together,

beating each other, drunk and abusive. Tulp threatens to send the criminals back to their old bodies – their dead bodies and as a demonstration one-thug wakes up in a coffin attempting to claw his way out. Yeovil plans to usurp Tulp and free all the prisoners in England and shove their vital energies into metal that can never be damaged or destroyed, first the Empire and then the world! Litefoot’s pyrotechnics means the criminals catch fire and he destroys the warehouse to cleanse the entire area of Tulp’s evil.

Audio Landscape: Lots of scratchy handwriting, a rowdy gang hangs out in Ellie’s pub, there is a jingle of coins, hansom cabs clip clopping on the cobbles, whistles blowing, fizzing electricity between electrodes, footsteps running…the sound effects compliment the story being told perfectly.

Musical Score: There’s a jolly tinkling of piano which captures the Victorian theatre feel and the rest of the score is gorgeous, very atmospheric.

Result: The Mahogany Murders is just about perfect. There is an evocative location (‘eating hot chestnuts out of waxed paper bags’) and two of the most accomplished storytellers (the excitable and verbose Jago and the silky voiced Professor Litefoot) making this a genuine pleasure to listen to. Andy Lane’s script is full of nourishing descriptions and beautiful language and whilst his story is pretty throwaway the atmosphere and nostalgia it generates demands that this becomes a series. A beautifully directed slice of magic: 10/10

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Human Resources written by Eddie Robson and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Lucie Miller's been headhunted to join the staff of Hulbert Logistics, a respectable blue-chip firm in Telford. Great prospects, competitive salary - you don't have to be mad to work here! But wasn't she made for better things, like travelling by TARDIS through time and space? The Doctor, meanwhile, has been fired - into a confrontation with the most terrifying of enemies...

Breathless Romantic: Topping a nourishing year for the eighth Doctor, Human Resources features his best characterisation yet. All of his new aggression and bubbling anger comes rushing to the surface and he confronts Time Lords, businessmen and Cybermen alike. Not only that but at this stage Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith are practically finishing off each others sentences, their chemistry is magical and that makes the possibility of their split even more tense. I really like this new ballsy eighth Doctor and it will be interesting to head back into the main range back to the Tiggerish version there after all of these developments.

The Doctor has been trying to bypass the isomorphic controls now Lucie has vanished since he cannot operate the ship without her. The Time Lords have not been very communicative of late. He hardly thinks a Time Ring is the most sophisticated way to travel, it’s a bit too bling for him. I love the Headhunter’s assertion that Lucie has hooked up with a Time Traveller, nobody important. The Doctor tries to bamboozle them with technobabble and finds it very unnerving when they know precisely what they are talking about. He tests Holbart and talks about staging a military coup on Gallifrey. He makes a severe error of judgement lowering the defences to let the insurgents in when he realises it is the Cybermen! I love the scene where the Cyberleader lists all of the times the Doctor has interfered in their plans (The Tenth Planet, The Invasion…). He’s too time consuming and is astonished that his ruse to offer the TARDIS always seems to work. He mocks their creed of ‘We will survive!’ with ‘What for?’ He’s bored of Time Lord petty politics and in fighting and hates having to deal with the fallout of their interference (not for much longer Doc, I promise). He gives the Cybermen a choice and when they refuse he murders them all. The moral of the story is don’t get him angry.

Luscious Lucie: This is her first day at Holbart Logistics and she’s been having to work her notice at her old job. She has an awful line in puns, ‘I’d rather be outsitting (than outstanding) it’s less tiring!’ Lucie loves being thrown in at the deep end. Given that she is starting her new job she’s starting to wonder if her life with the Doctor has all been one long Wizard of Oz moment. She is Sarcasmo, woman of sarcasm; her enemies are struck down by her barbs of steel! Auntie Pat got four grand from the council after an accident with a hedge trimmer! Recently her stride has gotten a lot wider. Is she disappointed when she realises she wasn’t that special after all, just a temp girl? Lucie hasn’t been employed to sabotage Holbart’s operation; she’s doing it for fun. The Headhunted offers to take her away from all of this and Lucie refuses, appalled and thus proves her worth. If it’s not something you can get from an Argos catalogue Lucie needs an explanation. Lucie discovers that she was supposed to be a dictator and the manipulation in her life by the Time Lords – humans can’t be trusted to make their own decisions so they are nudged this way and that and told it is for their own good. She is a made up person, appalled, and screams ‘don’t tell me how to react!’ As her life falls to pieces she holds the Doctor at gunpoint and runs off. She wants to get back at the people who have been messing with her; she wants to take on the Time Lords. Lucie will never have the Doctor telling her what to do. There’s no reason for Lucie to stay with the Doctor but now she chooses to and even the Doctor admits she has been good company.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Surely I’m the most arch enemy you have?’
Lucie as the Doctor’s PA: ‘I’ll take four letters and make a word out of them if you’re not careful!’
‘The CIA can kiss my…’
‘To create, to achieve. You don’t. You just oppress other to preserve yourself. What have you learnt for being the oppressed for a change? No humility, no empathy, nothing. I don’t say this lightly but you deserve to be oppressed.’
‘The humans will replace the Cybermen they’ve just destroyed.’
‘That’s the Time Ring? It looks like something from Topshop!’

Great Ideas: A Time Lord appears in the TARDIS and tells the Doctor that Lucie has been taken to a temporal black spot. Holbart’s operation is a gigantic war machine posing as a regular office. They are on an alien planet in the middle of a war. The Doctor discovers a dimensional corridor to Head Office. Holbart engineers a clients expansion plan which is fancy talk for staging an invasion, he lays down the groundwork and rids the new tenants of the indigenous population. Holbart brings in people from a non-military background and translates the operation into something they are used to doing and processed not to notice the less ordinary aspects. Lonsis is Holbart’s latest job, he has been working on this world for a year and it is almost complete, like a house halfway through cleaning out the dry rot. He prefers simple jobs, not working for opposing sides in a conflict although for the right price he prides himself on his flexibility! The insurgents on Lonsis turn out to be…Cybermen! It’s a brilliantly hidden twist because who on Earth would have suspected that? After the destruction of Mondas the Cybermen chose Lonsis because of its unimportance. They were depleted and needed to recharge. Holbart offers the Cybermen a passage to Earth to take on their enemies, for a price. The Shinners thought as soon as the Cybermen got their act together they would invade and so called in Holbart to get rid of them first! A quantum crystalliser splinters timelines over a small area and lets different possibilities play out until it gets one that it likes. Some outcomes are positive, others negative and then it fixes the favoured timeline and lets the others die off. If you ally yourself with the Cybermen why wouldn’t you want to be converted? The benefits are manifold! Time Lord technology in a mercenary’s battle machine, the CIA installed it to help wipe out the Cybermen. It’s important that the Time Lords don’t look bad. Lucie is to become a powerful political leader, establishing a right wing movement and sets the human race on a war footing. The Time Lords hid her away with the Doctor so the CIA couldn’t find her. It transpires this was a mistake and it was Karen that was the CIA’s pet project. Time Lord technology, guns you don’t even have to fire, you don’t get your hands dirty, whatever your enemies do, they lose. The Headhunter saves Karen since she has heard some interesting thing about her and she might have an opening for an assistant.

Audio Landscape: Having worked in a phone office for four years the authentic office noises, incoherent babble, phones ringing, a photocopier working brought it all back to me. Lucie’s ring tone is really annoying. Squeaky doors, blasters and a wibbly wobbly dimensional corridor. The Cyber voices are gorgeously retro; it’s the singsong fluctuation of The Tenth Planet Cybermen with the electronic warble of NuWho! The Cyberman on the phone make me die with laughter! Their marching is butch, metallic clanking and their blasters fiercely blaze away. The Crystalliser makes a hum that sounds eerily like the TARDIS from An Unearthly Child. The Cyber deaths are awesome, a screaming breakdown!

Musical Cues: The underlying piano score really ups the mystery and tension. As soon as the Cybermen show up the music is bombastic, dramatic and attention grabbing. I love the music as the action picks up; an electronic beat with punch the air stings.

Result: Just as the season opened with a longer, more dramatic tale featuring an old enemy so it closes in the same way. Human Resources, like Blood of the Daleks, takes a little while to get going but when it kicks into gear after the stunning revelation about the Cybermen the second episode is non stop thrills and excitement. I love the idea that these are older Cybermen fleeing from the events in The Tenth Planet and its in this story that you realise they are the ultimate victims of Doctor Who. The set up featuring a war machine posing as an office gives this story a unique identity of its own. Just when you are recovering from the revelations about the Cybermen shock information about Lucie and Karen provides a dramatic conclusion. At the head of all this both Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith give extremely confident performances and Lucie has already surpassed Charley as best companion for the eighth Doctor. An engaging thrill ride: 9/10

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Part One:
Part Two: