Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Companion Chronicles Series 1-3

Time for another wrap up and this time for a special spin off series…

Frostfire: 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

Fear of the Daleks: This story has a lot to answer for. I bought this story as an example of what the companion chronicles had to offer and was bored stupid and despite positive reviews of subsequent series I never bought another for years! Like the novels that were being written at the time for previous Doctors it seems that the second Doctor suffers the worst stories. The script is swamped with clichés and features extremely banal dialogue and as a result it feels like an embarrassing example of sixties naivety. Not one of the sixties stories has aged as badly as this post millennium written story, this is a horrible misstep for the first series of companion chronicles: 3/10

Blue Tooth: One of my all time favourite Cyberman stories because it managed to get me involved emotionally with the creatures. Blue Tooth features a superb script, which is grounded in realism and has many excellent dramatic beats throughout. Liz Shaw was always one of the best companions and Nigel Fairs captures her voice authentically and adds layers to this already fascinating character. The production is of a very high standard as well with a terrific musical score and a great atmosphere brewed. If the wrap up is a little too quick its still one hell of a thrill ride, the horror of the Cybermen told from the point of view of a companion being converted. More season seven goodness: 9/10

The Beautiful People: Irreverent and silly, what could have been a one joke wonder becomes a fun piece with a worthy message. Jonathan Morris brought this team to life adeptly in his debut novel Festival of Death and fairs just as authentically here. Romana is a wonderfully charismatic and bossy character, the Doctor blunders his way through the story making some beautiful observations and K.9 is having the most fun of all! I did find the first two parts a little slow and eventless but I thought the story improved greatly once the villainess chipped in with some really awesome lines. This is not an essential piece of audio storytelling but it is a witty piece of nonsense with more sparkling one liners than you could ask for: 7/10

Mother Russia: Why does history feel so dangerous in the first three seasons? Mother Russia is another gorgeous first Doctor companion chronicle and like the novels I get the feeling this is going to be the norm (there are some similarities between this story and Martin Day’s superlative Bunker Soldiers but they are both stealing from the atmosphere of season three). My favourite section is at the beginning as the travellers relaxing in Russia of the past and make friends, get jobs and chill out. The introduction of science fiction elements initially made me groan but Marc Platt uses this to study the reaction of Steven once he feels that his friends have given up on him. Peter Purves performs admirably and really hits the emotional moments just like he used to in season threes highlights. This series continues to deliver: 9/10

Helicon Prime: Terribly boring, one thing I have noticed about the companion chronicles is that they fall into two categories, exceptionally good or terribly dull. Helicon Prime presents some very boring manufactured dangers, a forgettable cliffhanger, a crawling pace and an unmemorable villain whose plan fails to excite. Its such a pity because Hines has not lost his touch as Jamie and he pulls off a touchingly authentic second Doctor. With such a bland script in place not even the production values feel very special and the whole piece is easily skipped. You’ll learn nothing about the characters nor be gripped by the plot:4/10

Old Soldiers: Torchwood before its time, we head to a UNIT base in Germany and discover what dangerous and frightening experiments they have been undertaking. The Brigadier is precisely the kind of character these stories should be channelled through since he is precisely the sort of man who would pour a drink and reminisce about old times. Season seven was a great time for the Doctor and the Brig’s relationship, pushing them through some very frightening experiences and making some hard choices and I love how this story deals with the aftermath of the Silurians. Nicholas Courtney’s delivery is a little too relaxed in places but the grittiness of the story still shines through. Old Soldiers has a dark, defeatist atmosphere, depressing and gripping in equal measure: 8/10

The Catalyst: My favourite of the series so far, just beating Frostfire because it held my interest so firmly throughout. I loved how the story played on the fascinating and uneasy relationship between the Doctor and Leela, tensely suggesting that the Doctor might have killed in anger after criticising Leela for doing so over and again. Its longer than usual but uses that extra time to drive home the drama of the piece, the racial cleansing of the Z’nai makes the Daleks look tolerable and the script takes a strong look at an issue that is very important today. A superb piece of drama, the script paces itself beautifully and builds up its revelations with consummate skill. Louise Jameson is one of the best actresses we have been fortunate to have as a companion and this gripping slice of theatre really shows you how good she is: 10/10

Here There Be Monsters: Far better than I was expecting, Here There Be Monsters is another winner for the Hartnell companion chronicles. What I loved was how the story wasn’t afraid to mimic the low budget, slower paced nature of the first season and once the crew meet up with Rostrum the rest of the story is practically one long dialogue scene. Andy Lane uses this to his advantage and throws in excellent concepts and uses the original crew to drive the drama of the piece. Lisa Bowerman directs this as a piece of unnerving theatre, allowing the imagination of the writer to provide spectacle and wonder. It’s a clever, quiet piece with lots to say about the original crew and a far better than usual performance from Carole Ann Ford: 8/10

The Great Space Elevator: An authentic season five story featuring floods of foam, one fantastic location, Victoria wondering into danger, arsing about in ventilator shafts and a disembodied entity! There is a lovely sense of innocence to this story that makes it charming rather than exciting but it is rather wonderful to enjoy a further run-around with the most childlike of regulars. Deborah Watling narrates the story very well, capturing both Victoria’s sense of wonder as she travels in the elevator and her fear as she is once again led into danger. The second Doctor shines in this quirky piece, miles more engaging than Helicon Prime: 7/10

The Doll of Death: Result: I do love a good jigsaw and The Doll of Death assembles the overall story with devilish panache. So far Marc Platt has written all of my favourite companion chronicles and this is no exception, a gloriously complicated plot and yet simple if you can get your head around the groovy central premise. There’s nothing I like more than a hole-ridden plot that cleverly plugs those holes in an imaginative fashion. The characterisation is a lot of fun as well, the Doctor almost crosses the line to escape the Earth, the Brigadier is as stuffy and wonderful as ever and Jo keeps them all together simply by being so cute! The Doll of Death wont score as high as Platt’s others simply because this wasn’t infused witch rich history but this is still another sparkling script brought to life with passion by Lisa Bowerman: 8/10

Empathy Games: Empathy Games is the first companion chronicle that I felt needed more time to tell its story. Unlike The Catalyst where Nigel Fairs managed to sink the characterisation into the narrative and perpetuate the plot this is an awkward balancing act of world building and developing Leela, which for the most part barely connect. Annoyingly the Doctor turns up at the end after being absent for practically the whole story and waves a magic wand and reminds us of the moral at the heart of the story. On the plus side Louise Jameson is superb as ever and the story is beautifully realised with some very effective set pieces. I love all of the insights into Leela’s character (and I especially enjoyed joining her on a hunt in the first person) but the story lacks the punch it needed to allow it to really take effect: 6/10

Home Truths: Extremely good, Home Truths takes Sara Kingdom and really gets inside her head. Simon Guerrier should be forced to pay my laundry bill after scaring the shit out of me for over and hour, his script gives director Lisa Bowerman everything she needs to create a really scary ghost story. It works as both the narration and the story are given equal weight and one is used to cleverly explain the other. Jean Marsh and Neil McGregor make the most of their roles and give the story and edge of danger and mystery. I am a huge fan of season three and The Daleks’ Masterplan and this is another valuable element of both, giving more credence to Sara’s status as a companion and tackling another genre (horror) in the already multifaceted season. A real winner, the cliffhanging ending left me eager for more: 9/10

The Darkening Eye: What with the Great Space Elevator, Empathy Games and now The Darkening Eye all being less than stellar efforts I am starting to wonder if the companion chronicles might have run out of steam in their third season. The script teeters on the edge of something interesting but never quite has the guts to explore its moribund theme through its characters, instead pushing on through some pretty lifeless set pieces. Sarah Sutton is an extremely underrated performer, she is by far my favourite regular of the Davison era and it disappoints me to see that although Stewart Sheargold has given her some development the tone of the piece is cold and dreary, precisely the sort of feelings people usually unfairly associate with Nyssa. Ken Bentley’s direction is nowhere near at its best here either with no dramatic moments beyond the cliffhanger and a general lack of atmosphere. Lacking clarity and cohesiveness, this is one memory Nyssa was better left forgetting: 4/10

The Transit of Venus: For fans of the Hartnell era of which I am a massive aficionado it doesn’t get much more authentic than this. Returning us to the dangers of the unknown and the remarkable characterisation of the regulars in the first season, Jac Rayner has written a powerful and involving script that gives Ian the rare chance to stand centre stage. There’s a pleasing amount of history thrown in and after listening I looked a little more into the voyages of Captain Cook and Joseph Bank’s debt to botany – I love it when Doctor Who piques my interest in times past enough to get me to read up about it. Nigel Fairs directs the story delicately, never letting the terrific atmosphere of the piece pull us away from the central relationship between the Doctor and Ian and the mystery surrounding Banks and the answers when they come prove satisfying and build the characters. A superb snapshot of the past written with care and performed beautifully, Transit of Venus restores my faith in this range and then some: 10/10

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: I remember once an episode of the Outer Limits featuring Nicole de Boer and Robert Patrick which featured two POWs in a prison cell who develop a relationship and the drama climaxing on a devastating twist wherein Patrick reveals the whereabouts of their fleet and De Boer turns out to be the enemy all along. It was positively gripping, beautifully performed, claustrophobic and great drama. What is this fool getting, I hear you ask? Well I expected something similar from The Prisoner’s Dilemma after reading the synopsis. It led me to believe that this would be a correspondingly stifling slice of character drama set inside one room and we would find out much about both characters in this range crossover. Audio seems ideally suited to this kind of two hander. Not a bit of it – instead I’m not even sure why writer Simon Guerrier bothered to bookend the story with the scenes between Ace and Zara in the cell because instead this story tells two equally unengaging stories revealing how they came to be in the cell in the first place. I know who Zara is now but I don’t think I understand her any more than I did before I started listening and I would hardly say she was a character who deserved this attention. Sophie Aldred proves quite a skilful narrator and this is set during her New Adventures period, which brings out the best in the actress but the story lacks tension and excitement. Its just sort of there. Perhaps they were better off keeping this series to four stories a season because the most inconsistent series of the companion chronicles strikes up another disappointment: 4/10

Resistance: Steve Lyons always likes to subvert your expectations; he wrote a gripping historical for the dizzyingly camp season 24 and here he whips up a stifling historical for the monster laden Troughton era. It makes the most refreshing change of pace and shows how this sort of Hartnellesque drama could have worked a treat had they continued. It a coming of age story for Polly and takes us through a whirlwind of emotions with her, from trying to figure just what it is that she is good at in their adventuring to the aching need to save her Uncle who died during the war. She has never been so prominent or as interesting before and Anneke Wills imbues the philosophical material with some real emotion. It’s a dark piece and brilliantly structured, the first episode setting up the dilemmas and twists of the second and deserves a relisten when the revelations come to light. A strong character drama: 8/10

The Magician’s Oath: Whilst the first Doctor stories have been consistently excellent, as far as I can see so have the third Doctor Companion Chronicles and The Magician’s Oath is no exception. Diamond Jack is a chilling creation and not just because he can suck the warmth from a picturesque scene, Michael Chance gives a superb performance imbuing Jack initially with much charm and then a quiet menace. He genuinely feels like a formidable force bringing the Earth to its knees. As a character study for Mike it really works because it poignantly reminds us of his betrayal of his friends, how he never really moved on with his life and how he never loved anyone quite like Jo Grant. It’s ironic that he should have started out so stereotypically dull as a military figure because he became one of the shows more jaded and realistic characters. Richard Franklin is a terrific dramatic narrator and he brings this story to life with some skill, aided by some precise direction. This was tense, melancholic and unexpectedly powerful, a real surprise: 9/10

The Mahogany Murderers: The Mahogany Murders is just about perfect. There is an evocative location (‘eating hot chestnuts out of wet 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

The Stealers from Saiph: Cheap characterisation, awkward dialogue and clichéd ideas make The Stealers of Saiph a deathly dull slice of audio drama. Its lovely to hear Mary Tamm reading the story but the material is beneath her, the barest bones of a story with little opportunity to add some sparkle. I waited the two episodes to see if the Professor would not turn out to be the Saiph because that was too obvious a path for the writer to take…but bugger me if he didn’t go down that route anyway! There is a massacre and most of the guest cast are murdered but since you had invested very little time in their and their obsessions and frivolities it is much of a muchness. I want Mary Tamm back for more because I think there is some real mileage in both the character and the actress but this is a hugely inadequate start. In all honesty I preferred the documentary at the end to the story itself (‘One take Tamm!’): 3/10

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