Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Project Twilight by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? In the renovated docklands of South East London, on the bank of the river Thames, the doors of the Dusk are open for business. Bets are called, cards are dealt and roulette wheels spun. As fortunes are won and lost, an inhuman killer stalks the local avenues and alleyways a killer with a taste for human flesh. Is there more to casino owner Reggie "The Gent" Mead or is he just a common gangster? What secrets are hidden in the bowels of the Dusk? And what connection does the apparently sleazy Bermondsey casino have to a long- buried government initiative known as Project: Twilight? The Doctor must form uneasy alliances where the line between friend and enemy is blurred, playing games of chance... But are the stakes too high?

Softer Six: Can Colin Baker do no wrong on audio? There is some striking characterisation of the Doctor in this story and what really surprises is how gentle he comes across in such violent circumstances. The last time we saw the sixth Doctor in a story this disturbing (Vengeance on Varos) he seemed perfectly suited to that environment, in places he was as violent and aggressive as the society he was fighting. But faced with murder, abuse and slavery here the Doctor is genuinely appalled by what he is seeing. Maybe it has something to do with the wonders Evelyn has done for him but he seems more protective of his companion than ever.

He has sat at the table of the great Kublai Khan and tasted the mouth watering pastries of the master bakers of Barastabon but nothing beats the Peking crispy duck from the Slow Boat in Saaarf East London. Nice to see the cuddly sixth Doctor enjoying his food! He sings the Zagreus nursery rhyme (anybody would think they were trying to prepare us for something!). He is a proficient medical Doctor and does shy away from the sight of blood. Mysterious deaths are exactly his sort of business. It is commented on that nobody that colourful goes through life unnoticed and Reggie manages to dig up that he used to be a UN lackey doing some work for military intelligence during the 70’s & 80’s (hah!). He is suspicious even when Amelia tells him the truth and he promises to help if there are no more deaths. He always likes to take someone at their word but warns that if they trick him they will regret it. Funny although the seventh Doctor would probably go to greater lengths if you hurt him it is still the sixth Doctor I would not like to cross! He thinks Reggie could have better role models than thugs and hoodlums. In one of his (very few) lighter moments he cheekily makes the observation that that private do not enter is ancient high Gallifreyan for come on in, Doctor. He feels stupid for not realising that he is dealing with vampires but really there aren’t that many clues at that point. Evelyn asks if all Time Lords are as arrogant as him but considering she has already been to Gallifrey she can answer that herself! He is deeply prejudiced about Vampires – they hunted down the Time Lords wherever they fled. He still feels the duty of a Time Lord to track them down and destroy them. He is genuinely hurt by Amelia’s betrayal but humbled by her severe reaction to his mocking. You have never heard him sound more appalled than when he sees the mess Reggie has made of Cassie’s face (‘What have you been doing you monster, how dare you!’). The Doctor takes a swing at Amelia when he realises just how far she has gone. He admits he made a fatal error of judgement and put Evelyn’s life in serious danger and asks for her forgiveness.

Learned Lecturer: Evelyn is really coming into her own here and proving her mettle although her sense of adventure is a bit on the shy side during this story. Eddie’s combustion leaves her genuinely shocked and queasy. The Doctor has made her an expert at snooping and poking around. There is a fabulous sequence where she uses her handbag to bludgeon Nathaniel when he is attacking the Doctor and even he admits he will never ask her to leave it behind again. The dynamic between her and the Doctor is stepped up a notch and they are even finishing each others sentences (‘Evelyn…’ ‘Be careful?’ ‘You’re learning.’). Her mothering skills are perfect at getting information out of people. Evelyn’s trouble is that she gets too involved with the people she meets, they aren’t just characters in a story playing out but living breathing people – her real strength (and weakness) is that she really cares. Her husband was something of a war story expert and loved code breaking and Evelyn has picked up some of his interest. She quietly mocks that Time Lords think that Gallifrey is the centre of the universe (it is). You have never seen Evelyn so muted when she witnesses Cassie’s abuse. I love how defiant she is in the face of Amelia and Reggie’s threats (they call her old and past her best to which she reacts she is as tough as old boots!). She faces up to death with bravery (‘Just get on with it!’). Fishing the Doctor out of the Thames has become something of a habit for her. Evelyn’s tears at the climax prove she is just as soppy as you would imagine…her fears for Cassie will come back and haunt her someday.

Great Ideas: The opening scenes see the Doctor and Evelyn discovering an alleyway full of disembodied cats and dogs. I love the opening set at the Forget – it signs to this being a nasty story. State of the art medical equipment and torture devices in a casino? The Forge was those in trouble with the law and experimenting on them. There are nanobots in Eddie’s immune system reprogramming it. Playing this little piggy with broken fingers is just horrible. Nimrod is a marvellously sinister creation who lurks in the shadows stalking vampires and murdering them. The scientists from the Forge were using DNA samples from vampires to test on people and create an ultimate weapon for King and Country. The scenes of Reggie beating Cassie are so deeply disturbing I could understand if people were put off at that point. Amelia wants to perfect the Twilight virus and introduce it to the population and create a new race of the Undead. Science is the modern method of vampirism – not on the seduction of a bite but injected into you by a hypodermic needle. The blood farm is another gross idea somewhat blunted by a similar scene in Bloodtide – human beings having their lives sucked dry. Nimrod is Dr William Abberton responsible for the vampires existence and attempting to correct his mistakes. He is part man, part machine, part vampire. Cassie abandoned her son…who turns out to be a very important character later in Big Finish’s run. The dawn over a bustling city – after all the fireworks it all comes down to a quiet scene between the Doctor and Amelia and the vial of the virus. Cassie is left in Norway at the story’s closure and Nimrod is going looking for her…

Standout Performance: To be fair this is an extremely impressive cast so singling out one person is difficult but Holly de Jong’s Amelia takes the award. She has that gloriously silky way of switching between innocent victim and vicious murderer, plying the character full of charm and anger. Rosie Cavaliero pumps up the drama with her terrifying transformation into a vampire and Rob Dixon gives Reggie a sadistic edge that makes him one of the nastiest thugs the Doctor has ever encountered.

Great Lines: ‘I’ll pop out and grab something later…’
‘Warm, just the way you like it.’
‘In my considerable experience homicidal maniacs don’t tend to knock.’
‘I’m just going to finish my drink. I don’t want it to start clotting…’
‘I’m here because a failing Empire started playing with powers they didn’t understand and got it wrong!’
‘What have I done?’ (says the sixth Doctor).
‘You’re inhuman!’ ‘Shut up! You don’t know the meaning of the word…’
‘Who am I going to shoot first, my saviour or my creator?’
‘The living dead feeding of the Undead.’
‘The next sunrise over this city will be dripping with blood.’
‘How do you think the Thames will look when it runs red with death?’ (I love these melodramatic villainous lines!)

Audio Landscape: Fire crackling, lightning rumbling and wind howling opens the story. There are lots of little touches that make this a very modern sounding story; police sirens, convincing street scenes, the gambling crowd in the Dusk, cats crying in alleys, Eddie’s horrific exploding death (!), pouring and drinking, phones ringing, creatures growling, traffic shooting past Cassie’s front door, her doorbell ringing, Reggie and Amelia’s telepathic talks (pounding heartbeats and their voices echoing like they are literally trapped in each others minds), Matthew’s fingers snapping (ugh!), the car going into the river, Nathaniel’s bloody death scene, gunshots, Reggie’s stress out smashing bottles with a baseball bat, Cassie’s shrill screams as she is transformed, her delirious and hypnotic mind rape by Amelia, the pained cries of the humans in the blood farm, Reggie’s vomit inducing watery death at Cassie’s hands, the lapping waters of the Thames, the explosion of the Dusk and some very dodgy ring tones. This a remarkably assured production.

Musical Cues: A flashy and modern score, perfectly underscoring the tension and horror of the story. There is an appropriate heartbeat motif and some memorable whipping sounds leading from scene to scene. Some dramatic choral stings. The music is menacing, pounding, building up a fantastic atmosphere. The music when Reggie beats Cassie makes a tense situation even more frightening – with some really dark piano stabs.

Standout Moment: Not a moment exactly but I love it when everything is suddenly out in the open, the Doctor realises the real danger they are in, Evelyn is captured and Cassie is undergoing her transformation. It’s heightened tension all the way and I was gagging for more!

Result: A shockingly nasty story that manages to feel both ultra modern and quite traditional. I was gripped throughout and very impressed by the small but electrifying cast. Holly de Jong and Rob Dixon made a brilliant pair of villains, whilst the story toys with the idea that they might be misunderstood victims the final episode reveals their real teeth and the ever wonderful pairing of Maggie Stables and Colin Baker provides moments of warmth and drama. Gary Russell holds the story together very well and the powerful music only serves heighten the tension. Scott and Wright are clearly a pair worth looking out for as they inject some real horror and science into the story that raises it above your archetypal vampire tale. Nimrod proves to be a fascinating and there are some intriguing strands to follow up on. A memorable story that drags the sixth Doctor kicking and screaming into the new millennium: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Dust Breeding by Mike Tucker and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? On nineteenth Century Earth artist Edvard Munch hears an infinite scream pass through nature. Centuries later his painting of that Scream hangs in a gallery on the barren dust world Duchamp 331. Why is there a colony of artists on a planet that is little more than a glorified garage? What is the event that the passengers of the huge, opulent pleasure cruiser 'Gallery' are hoping to see? And what is hidden in the crates that litter the cargo hold? The Doctor's diary indicates that the painting is about to be destroyed in 'mysterious circumstances', and when he and Ace arrive on Duchamp 331, those circumstances are well underway.

The Real McCoy: Inoffensive and pretty bland, just like Tucker’s treatment of the character in The Genocide Machine. Tucker’s seventh Doctor reminds me of the all purpose Doctor of the blandest Terrance Dicks Target novelisations, that any Doctor could step into the story without many tweaks. The idea that he has a play room is delightful though, an area of the TARDIS where he stores lost treasures of the universe! You see he waits until a gallery or a museum is going to be destroyed and nips in a few minutes before the catastrophe and steals the best pieces and keeps them in his little collection! He has a Mona Lisa and now he is after Munch’s The Scream. It is lovely to have the Doctor and Ace walk from the TARDIS and walk straight into somebody they know. Saves all that nonsense trying to convince people of who they are. The Doctor looks shady and moody on the cover, shame the story doesn’t reflect this. It is a struggle to keep the Doctor subdued but when he thinks he can defeat the Core he never anticipated it being as strong as it is. Unfortunately for what should be a thorough examination of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master degenerates into an action adventure and name calling. You will have to wait for Joe Lidster’s Master for that.

Ace of Hearts: I feel quite sorry for the character of Ace because she deserves so much better than this. Listening to this audio I get the impression that Mike Tucker and Sophie Aldred had no contact with the character when she was on television which we know was far from the case. Tucker himself has penned a number of books featuring Ace which have featured some strong characterisation (Matrix especially, which examines her Cheetah urges). Aldred is still trying to play Ace as a stroppy teenager despite the fact that she sounds about twice the age that she did on the telly and Tucker writes the character as a hysterical screamer with no balls to speak of. Lines like ‘The girl from Perivale hits the jackpot again!’ sound terribly unconvincing. Ace spends the first few minutes of episode two shrieking until my poor ear drums melted into pulp. This is supposed to a be a streetwise Londoner with some real attitude. Go and listen to the confrontation between Ace and Damien in episode 2, she comes across as panic stricken ands out of control and it doesn’t sit well with the character. I’m sorry but a lot of work needs to be done to redeem this overused and under written character and I don’t think it is coming any time soon.

Great Ideas: Where this story really scores is its glut of clever ideas all squeezed into four episodes and whilst I was unsure as to how so many unusual elements would come together I was quite impressed at how Tucker wielded the Master, the Krill and the Warp Core and managed to successfully fit them into a narrative. Bev Tarrant returns and whilst she is still hardly the most interesting character the Doctor has ever met she is miles better than she was in The Genocide Machine. Mr Seta is a fabulously creepy character in the first two episodes with his silky and menacing voice hidden behind a bejewelled mask. ‘The noise of Dalek madness’ – Guthrie tells the story of a crippled Dalek ship that landed for repairs but the dust dragged them down under the surface of the planet, buried them and you can still hear the screams on the wind – what a great story! The outhouse of Duchamp 331 is a collection hippies producing ‘dust-art’ which is described as ‘Campden Market gone mad.’ The colonisation of Duchamp 331 is of a damn planet that fought the colonists every step of the way told by Guthrie who is a nice character, a grizzly old colonist. The eggs in Mr Seta’s crates are Krill, an ancient and devastating biological weapon. The Scream is an alien trapped inside the painting – its creators stumbled across an impossible evil in the universe so they created something even worse to defeat it but once it had been unleashed the genie did not want to be jammed back into the bottle. It fled to Earth and hid in the mind of Edvard Munch whose mind snapped at the contact and he painted his madness in the form of The Scream, transferring the creature into the painting. Now that is one fantastic notion. The Master stole the painting and the creature toyed with him, the body he obtained on Traken was not strong enough to handle its energy and it shredded him, stole away the power given to him by the Traken source . He thinks the experience was magnificent and wants to trap the creature, slave it to the heart of his TARDIS so it answers to his will. Damien plans to release the creature into the dust of the planet, creating a living, sentient world. I loved the climax too with Guthrie finally having his revenge on the planet, igniting the Dalekanium and fuel and scattering the creature into the remains of the planet. There is just enough left now to give people a few bad dreams.

Standout Performance: Geoffrey Beevers gives a performance that is both camp and frightening and his soft toned Master definitely deserves a rematch. However this releases plaudits go to Caroline John who plays Madame Salvadori with such an unknowable, hilarious accent I was riveted every time she showed up. She is tough enough to go head to head with the Master and suggest that he would make a good filling for the vol-au-vents!

Sparkling Dialogue: Admittedly most of the dialogue in this story is functional at best and awkward at its worst but there were a few moments…
‘She really does have the most irritating voice’ says the Master of Salvadori or Geoffrey Beevers of his wife!
‘I think Duchamp 331 is throwing a tantrum!’

Audio Landscape: The sound design is okay but nothing special considering the last 20 odd releases, once again a story on another planet fails to ignite the same way a story based on Earth does! However the screaming sands of Duchamp 331 are oddly atmospheric, especially when Guthrie tells his tale of Daleks screaming under the dust. The Krill sound like a pack of salivating wolves. The destruction of Duchamp 331 takes the pleasure cruiser and the Krill with it in a moment of audio devastation.

Musical Cues: Russell Stone’s music is as evocative as ever and it pains me to think that we are slowly approaching where he left the company. His soft and ominous piano score for the Master is a triumph. Duchamp 331 is accompanied by a sweeping, gathering score and the end of episode one where the Doctor and Bev discover the sand in the corpses body is touched up by some soothing music.

Standout Moment: The cliffhanger to episode 2 is superb, probably the best yet. The astonishing reveal of the Master (which was expertly hidden behind the appearance of the Krill and the return of Bev – good job), the audio debut of the terrifying Krill and the rising music and anticipation contrive to create a moment of genuine frisson.

Isn’t that Odd:
Gary Russell chips in with another unconvincing appearance, this time as the panic struck victim right at the beginning of the story. They should have him appear once in every story as a running gag – a bit like ‘They killed Kenny!’ in South Park. Oh my God, they killed Gary!
Ace’s characterisation and Aldred’s performance as already discussed are both shockingly off kilter.
A hippy artist was never going to be the most convincing villain but Damien is written in such a lazy fashion and played so softly that I never sensed that he was threat of any kind. He would certainly give the campest Doctor Who villains a run for their money. (Oh great I have just had an image of a beauty peagent style competition with Benik, Lady Adastra, the Rani and Damien all camping it up for your votes!)

Result: Surprisingly enjoyable despite a number of handicaps including two regulars who are phoning in their performances and suffering languid characterisation. Mike Tucker’s script is not a work of art and much of dialogue is barely serviceable but the story itself is a winner, pitting the Doctor against three different adversaries that come together in a very satisfying fashion. The appearance of the Master is the best kept secret post Earthshock and that fantastic cliff-hanger catapults us into the last two episodes with renewed vigour. The last episode is little more than a run-around but with ideas such as a sentient painting and a living planet joining forces and being defeated by a battered old man like Guthrie is irresistible. Russell’s direction is off in a few spots, the first cliff-hanger is appallingly melodramatic and staged and certain performances could definitely be brought down a notch or two. This a patchy story which does not inspire confidence in the continuing adventures of the seventh Doctor but does make for an interesting diversion: 6/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Bloodtide written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The prehistoric Earth is dying. Thunderclouds roll across the skies, cloaking the land in darkness. The seas crash and boil as the rain turns to acid. The remnants of the Silurian race place themselves in suspended animation, deep below the surface. One day they will awaken and reclaim their world… The TARDIS has landed on the Galapagos Islands, a desolate outcrop of rocks shrouded in mist and fear. In the settlement of Baquerizo Moreno, there are rumours that prisoners have been mysteriously disappearing from the gaolhouse. A fisherman has been driven insane by something he saw in the caves. And the Doctor and Evelyn are not the only new arrivals; there is also a young natural philosopher by the name of Charles Darwin…

Softer Six: Imagine if we had a sixth Doctor like this on the telly box…he would still be the Doctor now! Colin Baker loved the part so much and this is an interpretation of the sixth Doctor that really appeals to the masses. He has two equally good sides, he is cuddly, mischievous, theatrical and more like your favourite uncle than you care to admit but he is also piercingly intelligent, thoughtful, sarcastic and vicious when he needs to be. It’s an intoxicating mix that works especially well on audio, Baker gaining legions of fans with his voice alone. He steps from the TARDIS quoting some pompous and overblown passage much like The Twin Dilemma but the difference is his companion does not fear him and near hysterical and he laughs at his on arrogance. Sometimes he can be infuriating and he knows it. It is gorgeous that he would take such lengths to allow Evelyn to meet a historical figure she is fascinated by and there are pangs of his next regeneration in how he has set up this meeting before the adventure began. His guise is…Dr Einstein! He loves to get to the heart of a mystery and rushes straight off to the jailhouse. He has a habit of turning up where he is least expected. A good hypnotist. He protects Greta from Lawson’s abuse he quietly mocks the Silurian’s playground statement of ‘We were here first!’ but does try and get them to diplomatically settle their differences with the humans. He is hard on Lawson when the cat is out of the bag but does give him the choice to be free of his masters as long as he can live with the consequences of his actions. When Darwin dismisses the religious view the Doctor refuses to confirm or deny his beliefs. He prompts history ‘when it’s important.’ The Doctor rather brilliantly comments that the human cannot stress that they are civilised when they treat their fellow man as inferior. Tulok wants to feast on the Doctor’s fine fleshy corpse, much to his chargin.

Learned Lecturer: Evelyn manages to be effortlessly cool without even trying by this point in her adventures. By simply getting on with the sixth Doctor we see him in a whole new light and she seems like his ideal equal. Maggie Stables has such a warm voice and she manages to instantly charm practically anybody she meets – it’s a voice like warm chocolate and coffee. Her rapport with the Doctor is like that of an old married couple but a couple who are madly in love. She has always admired and been fascinated by Charles Darwin. The thought of Evelyn on the Beagle is such an irresistible image I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what prompted Jonathan Morris to write the script. She tries to use the ‘prisoner is ill’ escape routine again. I loved her hypnotised performance in episode four – so hammy!

Great Ideas: The concept of the moon imminently crashing into the Earth causing the Silurians to go into hibernation and the human race banished to the Earth surface evolving into what we are today is still a fantastic idea. If Dr Who and the Silurians had not happened and there was a new series episode touting that idea now it would still be a stomping great story. Following that up with Charles Darwin discovering the Silurians during his exploration of the Galapagos Islands is inspired. What a way to discover natural selection! An evolutionary genius comes face to face with an evolutionary shock! The theory of evolution is said to have revolutionised and scandalised Victorian Britain. The Galapagos Islands are penal islands. There is a glorious image of lights under the misty sea, the Myrka’s terrifying eyes staring out. The very idea of bringing back such a reviled Doctor Who monster with such style is glorious and not being able to see him is even more of a bonus as he crashes through the waves and attacks the Beagle. The Silurians implant Greta with a device that attracts the Myrka and she sacrifices herself to save the Doctor. The missing prisoners are revealed in a moment of great horror to be hanging up like carcasses hanging in a butcher’s abattoir – the Silurians larder. The missing link is explained as Tulok gave his creatures resistance to disease and advanced breeding techniques. Tulok condemned his people to destruction by fixing the timing mechanism so only a few Silurians and their pet Myrka would wake up.

Standout Performance: Miles Richardson who very often doesn’t interact with the plot but has his only involving subplot as Darwin realises that there might be a reason for species modification beyond God’s will. Richardson takes on this challenging role and kept me interested in Darwin’s plight throughout.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Release the monstrosities onto the planets surface to join their creator! The vengeance of nature shall sweep them both away!’
‘What is that smell? It smells like a physics undergraduate!’
‘That is in fact a tortoise tortoise and that’s something else I’ve taught us!’
‘A sort of survival of the fittest?’ Darwin: ‘What an odd expression.’
‘There was no Eden! It is a myth!’
‘We are but animals. It is only through our arrogance that we put ourselves above them.’
‘In the skies above us are a million million suns each circles by their own worlds and on those worlds, wherever there is life there is the opportunity for life you will find it. That is the miracle, life endures, it thrives, it defeats every adversity, it creates order out of chaos. Above us is a universe full of wonder.’
‘You should see it as I see it. That’s history. All of human life, just a brief candle in the darkness.’

Audio Landscape: The Silurian voices are brilliantly creepy throughout. Gary Russell is faithful to the past, providing us with authentic recreations of both the Silurians and their pet Myrka. All of the scenes underground have a persistent dripping. The wild, untamed Earth is a horrifying prospect and brought to life with crashing waves and powerful lightning. Galapagos feels like a real location the crew have visited with birds screaming in the air, gentle lapping waves, hissing giant tortoises, moving foliage and a sea breeze. Darwin’s gunshot scatters a flock of birds. When Emilio’s mind is invaded by devils he is assaulted with the sounds of nature, squeaking, screaming, purring creatures. There is a nice crackling fire at dinner and much cutlery and plat scraping. The Doctor and Greta on the Silurian scanner is very atmospheric. The Silurian doors, third eye attack and flippers on stone are all awesome. The creaking decks of the Beagle see the crew sees them take on an attack from an angry Myrka. The Doctor sloshes through water in the Silurian base. Lawson’s horrid watery death under the Silurian plague is unforgettable! I love how the Silurian radar echo gets louder and faster as the Myrka gets nearer.

Musical Cues: Powerfully done and beautifully tipping its hat to the marmite musical score of Doctor Who and the Silurians, Alistair Lock goes to some lengths to make the kazoo music sound positively dramatic and moody! I loved the music at the end of episode one as the Silurian approached the Doctor and Greta, mysterious, foreboding and full of kazoo!

Isn’t that Odd: I found Greta to be a little but shrill in the first episode…I realise she is upset at the treatment of her brother but after that performance I would throw her down with him!

Result: A traditional Doctor Who tale told with some gumption and another stonkingly good story for the sixth Doctor. If I am completely honest I found the first half of the story far more involving than the second half because the first two episodes contained a glut of treats; the atmospheric setting, the re-introduction of one of the most interesting of the Doctor’s foes, Evelyn’s adorable scenes with Darwin, the glorious music…I was completely sucked into the story. Despite the fact that there are some dramatic turns in the last episode there is feeling that the story has run out of steam to the point where the writer rolls out the Silurian plague to keep things ticking over in a four parter! Still here is another glorious chance to see the unstoppable team of the sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe at work, compassionate, fiercely intelligent and full of warmth. Gary Russell deserves plaudits for bringing the story to life with such gusto and there is another great Alistair Lock score that is a tribute to Clarey Blyton’s in the original Silurian story: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Loups-Garoux by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Pegg

What’s it about? Germany, 1589: the townspeople of Cologne pronounce a sentence of death on a mass-murderer who has stalked the countryside in the guise of a ferocious wolf. Russia, 1812: retreating from Napoleon's invading forces, a merchant's daughter is rescued from bandits by a handsome partisan with a ravenous appetite. Brazil, 2080: The Doctor and Turlough arrive for the Rio de Janerio carnival. Is wealthy heiress Ileana de Santos all that she seems? What sinister ailment afflicts her invalid son, tended by the mysterious Dr Hayashi? And who exactly is Rosa, engaged on a secret quest to fulfil the destiny of her extinct tribe? Time is running out for Rosa, Ileana and the Doctor, as the fearsome shadow of an ancient werewolf moves ever closer...

An English Gentleman: Has Peter Davison ever been given material this good as the Doctor? Typical of Marc Platt he has given a lot of consideration not just to the Doctor’s characterisation but to the fifth Doctor’s characterisation and pours him into the role of a diplomat, a hero and a champion. Without Davison ever dropping his gentlemanly façade. What does the Doctor really want? What is he searching for? He was once told that he would know when he found it but he hasn’t yet. In a story that suggests a romantic angle for the Doctor he shies away from a raunchy samba with a beautiful woman during the Carnival. When the wolves smell his scent they all stop and are alarmed by it, the scent of ice breaking in a stream, the scent of stillness. He describes himself as a peripatetic Doctor (a nomad which I guess suits him more than any other word!). One of the themes of the story is to face your nature and the Doctor’s is to sense danger and help where he can. Time is his business. His relationship with Ileana is fascinating from the start, he is a calm voice amongst the snarling wolves and she seems drawn to him instantly. The Doctor manages to talk her out of transforming during one of the more dramatic moments. I loved the moment where he stated discussing money is very vulgar and his fee is non negotiable: the safe return of Turlough. That was an effortlessly cool moment for the fifth Doctor. Unlike the other ‘cut claws’ the werewolves have met the Doctor respects and understands them. He is a lot than he used to be but a lot older than he looks. His age is often a question he tries to avoid. In the story’s best moment the Doctor stands proud and declares that he will fight for the future of the wolves and is willing to become Ileana’s champion and husband – you might think the fifth Doctor was too wet to pull this off but Davison’s ‘I’m the Doctor!’ is one of the most commanding moments in his entire life. He describes himself as no more aggressive as Alice’s wolf and Tegan thinks he is about as accurate at time keeping! In a telling scene he reveals awkwardly to Turlough that women are not exactly his area and that sometimes he feels very old, it is one of those moments where you think the Doctor’s life is changing, that he might actually consider embracing a woman in his later years. If only he knew what was to come! He explores possibilities, looks for things he could never imagine and wants to know how things work and hopefully make them work a little better. Some call it meddling, others thank him for it, it depends what side they are on. Rose suggests she could be more than just a companion and for one heartbeat you wonder if the Doctor has finally found his soul mate. He admits he never wanted to stay at home. What thoughtful characterisation for the gentlest of Doctor’s.

Over the Shoulder: At the beginning of the story I was convinced we were in for another poor performance from Mark Strickson ala Phantasmagoria but some time during the first episode something clicked into place and the script afforded Turlough opportunities we can only wish we had seen on the telly box. He wants to get away from it all and loves the carnival and thinks this is where you see what humans really are. His reaction to the samba dancers seduction of the Doctor is hilarious – uncontrollable laughter. It was during this story that I realised just how unusual it is to have the Doctor and male companion these days – back in the day you had the first Doctor and Steven, the 2nd Doctor and Jamie, the 3rd Doctor and the Brigadier, the 4th Doctor and Harry and yet after Adric and Turlough the tradition just seemed to have dropped. Which is a shame because an all male crew here makes for a far more interesting story than had Tegan been stomping about in her clomping great heels. Turlough has the lean hungry look of a common jackal. He is taunted by werewolves and forced to confront his own shadow, his dark side and he runs rather than face it. I’ve always thought Turlough had something of an ego but when he starts boasting that he is special and that he has never had the respect he deserved you actually start to wonder if he doesn’t deserve a scare or two. His wits are his claws and he keeps them sharp. He describes himself as adopted British. Turlough gets some very nice scenes with Rosa out in the desert, they are romantic and sensual and the two characters are really trying to figure each other out as they get closer. He tells Rosa about the forests of Trion where the trees are 3 times as tall and the leaves are fleshy carapaces that you can walk across, all mauves and purples. Swarms of moths flock by with wings like cut sapphires. In a rare moment of honesty he admits to Rosa that he has a dark side that comes out and hurts others, he is not reliable and given the choices he will save himself over others. He prefers the dark where nobody can see him. The Doctor = his grandpa? He is worried that the Doctor’s romance with Ileana will leave him stranded. After Loups-Garoux I feel as if I know Turlough better than I did during a season and half worth of stories on the TV.

Great Ideas: With a Marc Platt you get a 110% script and his take on werewolves is as brutal and considerate as you would imagine. As far as I understand it this story was talked about in the initial Big Finish meetings and took this long to materialise but it was well worth the wait. Small touches in the setting make the story come alive in unusual and wonderful ways. He mentions things like smart bombs and remote cameras that help bring the story alive.
The Amazon was so intensively farmed that its eco system completely caved in. The forest and the plains dried up from lack of rain and the so called lung of the world turned into a monumental dust bowl. Thousands of birds and insects were decimated. There was nearly a war over it but governments were far more interested in farming the resources of the moon. Come on, that is a superb bit of location building.
Lycanthropy comes in all shapes and sizes. The werewolves call the humans cut-claws. The curse of the wolf is that they will never age as their loves ones do. Werewolves are adept at going unnoticed. There is a wonderful image of the grey wolf bounding after the train through the desert. Even better is the cloud of dust seen from above, the wolves running through the desert. Stubbe talks about herding the cut-claws and laying their cities to waste. We get a terrifying taste of that potential future when the Doctor and Turlough return to Rio to find the streets deserted, the party goers trapped in the public park and the wolves stalking the streets. Fabulous imagery. Similarly haunting is the fate of Hayashi, the Doctor who betrays everybody in the story and ends being hunted and slaughtered in the desert as the pack come after him. Ileana doesn’t know if she is a woman or wolf and does not know if the Doctor cares too much or not enough. Stubbe looking at the Earth from orbit is unexpectedly powerful, cut off from his native land he is suddenly powerless.
The story that Ileana tells Victor is gorgeous, a wolf called Spring driving Winter from the woods and taking shelter with an old woman.
Platt even gives the TARDIS a few moments of beauty, describing her as a blue ice box, that she runs on imagination and that she beams with moonshine.

Standout Performance: Nick Pegg deserves kudos for assembling such a strong cast to bring Loups-Garoux to life. The strongest of a fantastic cast is Eleanor Bron who embodies the role of Ileana in a way that we rarely see in these Big Finish productions. It feels as though she has given the script some real consideration and injects some real desperation and emotion into Ileana. When she commands the Doctor to be her champion and her husband I knew we were in the company of a very special character. The romance angle means she has far more of an effect on the Doctor’s life than these characters usually do.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Tomato sauce can hide a multitude of sins.’
‘How many fat moons since I pulled you from the snow?’
‘The future will find me when it’s hungry.’
‘However fast you run, I will run faster…’
‘You change lovers as a whore changes petticoats!’
‘I’m the Doctor! And I’m offering Ileana my protection. I’m stronger and more worthy than any puny human or wolf!’
‘I bring out the night in everything.’
‘The whole world is mine and I’ll eat all of it!’

Audio Landscape: Sterling work from Nick Pegg who is proving himself as the most accomplished Big Finish director. So much of this story comes to life with genuine chills and emotion, the post production work and music mix to make this a truly memorable experience. The opening itself is arresting; a trial scene with screams of hate and a vicious wolf growling at them. Rosa’s recording is interrupted by insects chittering grass and wolves howling in the background. All the scenes in and around the transit stations are superb with trains rushing in and out and the TARDIS landing with the translation circuits turning the language of the announcer to English. Paper free electric cards have aural greetings. The Doctor and Turlough are attacked by wild dogs that sound very hungry. Crashing drums and music surround the Doctor and Turlough in the Carnival. Stubbe stalks through the crowd in a truly terrifying moment with his hideous dribbling growl. Rosa’s train speeds through the desert. When Turlough and Rosa snuggle up howling winds and wolves surround them. The ranch burning in the wind is a vividly depicted. Anton is savaged by Stubbe in a gross out moment. Alarms and sirens and wolves screaming depict a deserted Rio. There is a great moment where the Doctor blows on K.9’s whistle and the wolves howl in the distance, their ghostly screams are very evocative.

Musical Cues: Another fantastic musical score from Alistair Lock. Lovely calming guitar plays over Rosa’s recordings to her grandpa. Drums and nature indicate the dancing forest. As Ileana tells Victor the story of Winter the music is astonishingly warm and wonderful, it feels like a very special moment between mother and son. The music stirs up an epic scene at the end of episode 3.

Isn’t that Odd: I know it can be explained by the fact that they had to move studios, Lock wasn’t used to the soundboard and there was a faulty microphone but there is some really awful distortions in episode two. The cliffhanger to the story features the Doctor sounding like he is a million miles away and Ileana sounding like she is growling inside your ear!

Standout Moment: The end of episode three sees plots revealed, challenges made, rivals slaughtered and the Doctor standing up of the rights of the wolves. It is a truly stirring piece of drama.

Result: Simply a gorgeous piece of writing that is brought to life with spectacular style by Nick Pegg. The delayed script of Loups-Garoux is a work of art with some complex characterisation, evocative scene setting and a moving story. The unusual pairing of the fifth Doctor and Turlough works wonderfully and like two bachelors travelling through time and space they both get two very different romances. The howls of wolves terrify throughout the story whether they are stalking through the desert, raiding the streets of Rio or rounding on the Doctor. It is rather magnificent how Platt fails to use any of the werewolf clichés and instead portrays them as an ancient and noble race trapped in a bestial form. It is another terrific performance by Peter Davison who makes a great pairing with Eleanor Bron and together you wonder for a few moments if the Doctor will finally settle down. It is hard to explain how powerful the story is without experiencing it but this is one of those Doctor Who stories that doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who story at all but a piece of drama that the Doctor happens to turn up in. Different in all the best ways: 9/10

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Minuet in Hell by Alan W Lear and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The twenty-first century has just begun, and Malebolgia is enjoying its status as the newest state in America. After his successful involvement with Scotland's devolution, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart has been invited over to Malebolgia to offer some of his experiences and expertise. There he encounters the charismatic Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, an evangelical statesman running for Governor who may not be quite as clean-cut and wholesome as he makes out. One of Dashwood's other roles in society is as patron of a new medical institute, concentrating on curing the ills of the human mind. One of the patients there interests the Brigadier - someone who claims he travels through space and time in something called a TARDIS. Charley, however, has more than a few problems of her own. Amnesiac, she is working as a hostess at the local chapter of the Hell Fire Club, populated by local dignitaries who have summoned forth the demon Marchosias. And the leader of the Club? None other than Dashwood, who seems determined to achieve congressional power by the most malevolent means at his disposal...

Breathless Romantic: McGann’s first season is an odd beast indeed and at only four stories long it is hard to really say whether he was very successful in the part. His second year of stories saw him working on an entire range of stories from historical thrillers to science fiction epics. This season feels short and blunted by the fact that the quality of the stories is something of a lottery and McGann and Fisher were finding their feet. To put Minuet in Hell at the end of that mini series was an even bigger mistake, just as the 8th Doctor starts to flourish in Venice suddenly he is a gibbering wreck who has lost his memory and is wrestling was claiming his identity with a fraud called Gideon Crane! It is not the most encouraging of signs! A shame because this story does have some very interesting ideas about the nature of the Doctor but I just feel it would have been better suited later in his run and with a tighter script. For example the whole idea that the Doctor has dreamt up the last 900 years of his existence as justification for his madness is extremely chilling, that notion is only touched upon for a moment but I thought it could have been exploited into an entire story (The Unbound story Deadline has a similar theme). A madman who imagines adventures in time and space battling aliens – it’s an idea too chilling to think about! Then we have the whole idea of the Doctor having to prove and argue that he is the Doctor, another interesting concept as McGann and Nick Briggs go head to head in a continuity battle to see who can answer the most questions right (and intriguingly one of the questions is next chronologically speaking in the Big Finish canon but three regenerations back in the Doctor’s timeline!). An accident in the TARDIS causing the Doctor to lose his symbiotic link with the TARDIS is frightening and then for him to link with the first person he meets on Earth causing shared memories and for a human to think he is the Doctor…that’s trippy! Briggs is initially quite annoying simply because he is so forceful in his opinion that he is the Doctor but he grew on me as the story continued and when he is finally free and behaving as a Doctor we would recognise, heroic and intelligent, he won me over. Another causal concept thrown out is the Doctor being split between entire leagues of people, another great idea that is wasted in five minutes. Having an entire room full of people waking up and claiming they are the Doctor works through its sheer weirdness! Wouldn’t it have been great to have had an entire story centred around this with different incarnations emerging in different people giving actors a chance to take on Troughton and Pertwee? Here is it’s lost amongst all the extraneous plotting.
What is really odd is that despite these mishandled clever ideas that really look at the nature of the Doctor is McGann makes no impression at all. Give him a script and ask him to be commanding or dashing and he delivers the goods. Lock him in a cell with no personality or charisma and he barely registers. A shame as that is the impression I walked away season one with!

Edwardian Adventuress: Oh Charley my darling, my darling! I don’t know what to make of Charley in this story – she is a fish out of water. Stuck without a memory or the Doctor, stuck in the wrong country and century and shoved into a skimpy costume and forced to play pretty little satin bottom! Its like the writer hasn’t a clue what to do with her and her characterisation is taken to an extreme (she uses the exclamations ‘Rather!’ and ‘Botheration!’). The Charley of this story has some spunk (she drones on about female emancipation and gives another left hook when a member of the Hellfire Club rips her clothes) but a lot of her scenes feel false and inserted just to give the character something to do whilst the Doctor regains his memory. I think the idea was to take away her memory so Charley can discover herself again and we can learn more about her but the transition is too easy…she’s amnesiac and then suddenly – pop! – she knows who she is again! She is described as the Queen of Hell and I know a few reviewers who might have found that very apt! About the only really interesting thing I took from this story was that Charley remembers the flames and destruction of the R-101 when she wasn’t actually aboard when it happened. Where is all this leading?

Great Ideas: There are quite a few discussed above actually! Cerebral surgery is mentioned, storing a person’s entire conscious. The story lists a number of hilarious murderers (you’ve got a guy who steals peoples pets and sets them alight, the gay axe man of Rhode Island and a woman who bludgeoned six officers with a prosthetic leg!). Becky-Lee’s weird psychic powers are straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but no where near as effective. Marchosias certainly livens things up, an impish demon dressed up like the devil with a really twisted sense of humour!
Standout Performance: Helen Goldwyn is easily the standout performer in this play. Goldwyn plays Becky-Lee Kowalcyck with such hideous ineptness I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be taking the piss out of Buffy or not! The accent was so annoying it was like a cheese grater working on my brain every time she opened her mouth and she stresses every other word to make sure we realise she is American and serious. She might have been a fun foil for Charley had somebody thought to tell Goldwyn that this was supposed to be a drama and not a Greek tragedy.
Sparkling Dialogue: Nadda.

Audio Landscape: Gary Russell tried to paper over the faults in the script with lots of moments of audio madness. Spooky chanting voices, crackling fire and a growling Devil speaking in tongues unfortunate only serve to annoy rather than create an atmosphere. Have you ever heard women scream and whoop as much as the pretty bottom satin girls? Groans and screams echo in the corridors of the Dashwood Institute. It might be a comment on the effectiveness of Minuet in Hell but I thought the best sound effect was of spitting fried eggs as Becky-Lee makes breakfast. Go figure!
Musical Cues: The music was wasted on the story but one off composer William Allen provides a snappy and modern score with excellent used of electric guitar to give certain scenes a real kick up the ass.

Isn’t that Odd: that this story should be so horrendously directed after Gary Russell’s masterful effort in The Stones of Venice? The opening sequence has lots of weirdly inexplicable stuff happening which sums up the story quite nicely really. Russell fails to create an American atmosphere when dealing with such hideous clichés and hideous accents. Pargeter and Pickering both come across as bland ciphers and insulting clichés. As mentioned Helen Goldwyn sports the nastiest American accent it has been my misfortune to listen to and I’m still mopping up blood from my ears!
The US politics was dull as dishwater and Dashwood makes for a spectacularly boring villain, interested in moving into the White House and dabbling in the black arts. Unfortunately the story fails to give him any personality beyond those two goals so he steps from being charming and amiable, the perfect politician and sleazy and aggressive, the idea Devil worshipper. His relationship with Pargeter was so poorly written and performed I didn’t even realise they were a couple until the last episode!
The Brigadier is wasted in a role that could have been taken up by anybody. This could have been an awesome meeting between the Brig and the Doctor but delaying their introduction until the end of the story and having Lethbridge Stewart on the sidelines throughout makes you wonder why they bothered.

Result: Not what I was expecting at all, Minuet in Hell was beset with problems from the outset and it is one of the few audios where it shows. The script is overlong and lacking in incident, it has some interesting ideas but it never exploits them, it introduces some spectacularly dull characters and its dialogue lacks any sparkle. The direction and performances are lacking too, the regulars are sidelined and uncharismatic and the guest artists fail to bring their characters to life. I found it a real struggle to get through this story because I didn’t care about what was going on or who was involved. I just wanted the 8th Doctor to get his memory back and have a jolly adventure with the Brigadier but I guess we are going to have to wait for another time for that. A flat end to McGann’s first season and it leaves me pessimistic for future appearances: 3/10

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