Monday, 30 May 2011

Jago & Litefoot Series Three

Dead Men’s Tales written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: A friend from the past returns to warn Jago and Litefoot of a threat to the future. Time breaks are appearing in Victorian London, but first Leela must help solve the mystery of the Wet Men – terrifying creatures that are rising from the River Thames…

Theatrical Fellow: It’s wonderful to be amongst these characters again, it feels like coming home to old friends. Jago…the cross dresser? The merest hint that he should shout somebody a drink and he is out there like a mouse in the face of a cat sharpening its claws! I think Henry Gordon Jago should stick to announcing the acts rather than getting in on them…his sailor impression is hilarious!

Posh Professor: Poor Litefoot is trapped in the role of trying to calm down Leela’s enthusiastic predilection for a good rumble! With the dazzling wordplay of Jago and the violent tendencies of Leela he more than has his hands full.

Noble Savage: Leela! Leela! Leela! Okay I have calmed down slightly from when I first listened to the tail end of last season but the idea of having Jago, Litefoot & Leela back together again is utterly irresistible and conjures up nostalgia for Talons of Weng Chiang even more than the series usually does. And what a lovely way for the Leela from the TV series and the Leela who has been so expanded by Big Finish to be reconciled. Dressed up like a lady, a strong contender for next month’s yard of ale and kicking the shit out of the local cutthroat…Leela is going to fit in just fine in Victorian London! She’s here with a mission and she’ll take on any ruffian and pull of many disguises to get it done.

Standout Performance: Whilst this series is already fronted by two punchy performances adding Louise Jameson to the mix raises the bar even higher. Doesn’t just the thought of these three together make you smile?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Cutthroat Pete, ay? More like runaway Ronnie!’
‘This one smells like Time and Time’s debts must be paid…’

Great Ideas: There are places where the curtain of time has worn thin and if they become too thin then everything will collapse. Eyes like pearls and dripping wet…the Wet Men are coming for you on the foggy streets of London town.

Audio Landscape: Crackling fire in Litefoot’s hearth, the blustering atmosphere of the Red Tavern full of clapping, singing, and rowdy music, the polite discussion of the theatre, the soggy feet of the Wet Men approaching, thunder rumbling, oars slapping along the dirty water of the Thames, cracks of lightning, the bubbling speech of the Wet Men, the rain falling outside the tavern.

Isn’t it Odd: One thing the Jago & Litefoot series has always been superb at brewing up is supernatural terrors but the Wet Men didn’t really work for me. I felt a strong feeling of Steven Cole’s BBC novel Feast of the Drowned about them and the atmospherics surrounding them weren’t as skin crawling as usual.

Notes: Not the fault of the writer but every time someone mentioned Mr Crusher I had visions of Wesley the swot from Star Trek The Next Generation setting up shop in Victorian London.

Result: A quiet opener for the series and probably my least favourite Justin Richards story yet featuring a simple mystery and a forgettable role for the most formidable combination in the annals of criminology! However this is still Jago & Litefoot we are talking about so there is a manifold of periphery elements that make this hugely fun to listen to. The new premise for the series is pleasingly reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel and suggests a stronger running arc throughout the series and the inclusion of Leela is every bit as entertaining as you could hope for. The first two series opened with a dramatic punch at the conclusion that had ramifications that spread through their respective season like wild fire and whilst Dead Men’s Tales lacks that there are some intriguing threads to be followed up all the same: 6/10


The Man at the End of the Garden written by Matthew Sweet and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Strange things are happening in the Naismith household. Eleanor Naismith has vanished, and her daughter Clara is found in odd circumstances… What is the link to Eleanor’s book, The Man At The End of the Garden?

Theatrical Fellow: When Jago is impressed with the alluring alliteration conjured by Ellie you know she must be improving herself by their presence! An emissary of Dame Thespis!

Posh Professor: Fancy doing an investigation by candlelight? How deliciously atmospheric! It’s wonderful to see Litefoot written with such vigour, not just a foil for Jago’s theatrical excesses but as a powerful mind in the art of deductive reasoning. Nothing escapes the Asmordian eye of Professor Litefoot! I thought it would be Jago who benefited most from Matthew Sweet’s colourful handling of dialogue and while he does have some delightful lines I was more impressed by Litefoot’s gifted intelligence shining through.

Noble Savage: Her tribe once worshipped the stars and they were fools for doing so. I love Leela attempting to be polite even when in the gravest of danger and she remains as honest as ever telling Clara it is good she is afraid because it will hone her senses. Fascinating to see Leela who is often written with the intelligence and reasoning of a bright child since from the point of view of a child, Sweet keeps finding new ways to look at characters you might think you know inside out.

Standout Performance: Hurrah for Eden Monteath who as cast as a child…and actually is a child! That might sound like the silliest statement you have ever clapped eyes on but previous Big Finish adventures have seen Beth Chalmers and Katy Manning having a stab at playing young characters and despite reasonable efforts they clearly aren’t the age they are trying to pull off! Monteath is one of those golden finds you come across every now and again, a child actor that genuinely impresses!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The bees buzzing lazily around the hollyhocks…’
‘Such strings of words all over every page, dense as you please!’
‘You are the Man at the End of the Garden?’
‘All of our troubles blowing away on the wind…’
‘Positively no need to wait for the reviews!’

Great Ideas: Hah – if only my mother adopted the one bite for a page approach I might have gotten through much more fruit as a kid! I locked room mystery, what they need is Jonathan Creek or even better George Litefoot! The newsreaders ghastly stories are extremely funny and macabre. I loved Clara’s childlike take on the details of the story – she makes observations only a child with their literal thinking could.

Audio Landscape: I was very impressed how the sound effects were almost invisible in the background before taking on a greater significance. Birds singing, the dancing compass, the clip clop of the horse and carts heading down the street, screams behind a door, night time insects humming in the undergrowth, an attack of a most unusual, deafening, destructive kind.

Musical Cues: Have I ever said how much I enjoy the theme tune for this series? This year it seems even punchier than usual!

Standout Scene: Questions that not everybody is what they seem to be leading to some clever, unexpected twists and a defeat of the latest menace that is memorably nasty.

Result: A Victorian fairytale with macabre undertones, this was much more my cup of Rosy Lee than the opening adventure and features some very well fleshed out guest characters as well as our regular cast. Matthew Sweet has always written deliciously effusive audio adventures and so he is perfectly suited to bring to life the voluminously verbose world of Jago & Litefoot. The story feels refreshingly original with some pleasing post modern and literate touches and the dialogue drips from the characters mouths like honey nectar. An intelligent story with some atmospheric Victorian references and delightful moments of Lewis Carroll storytelling, The Man at the End of the Garden sees Jago & Litefoot stepping up from supernatural adventures to something far more involving. Pushing the PJ Hammond feel of the series even further you will find touches of his Sapphire and Steel and Torchwood work suffused into this piece and keep an eye on the details of the story since they make the climax all the more rewarding and touching. The last scene will leave you hungry for more: 9/10


Swan Song written by John Dorney and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The New Regency Theatre is haunted and Jago, Litefoot and Leela witness the spirit of someone in a silver wheelchair floating over the stalls. This is the story of Alice - a young woman who had Swan Lake so cruelly taken from her…

Noble Savage: Leela has an extremely violent method of making a mouth in a door to climb through! She states what I’m sure a lot of foreign students must think when they are learning the English language (which naturally I find beautiful but it must be so complicated to a newcomer) - why do people not say things how they are rather than dressing them up in flowery language? The gaps in her knowledge are extraordinary and yet she uses language beyond the most outlandish lexicographers!

Standout Performance: In another tale that allows the guest cast to shine (it makes me realise just how much of the first two series was primarily focussed on the intrepid investigators) Abigail Hollick delivers a touching performance which is all the more impressive by holding back from the emotion of the situation. During Alice’s last scene at the conclusion I was wiping away tears. The writing touched a nerve and Hollick’s understated performance broke my heart.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A pantomime is a sensational spectacular of seasonal spirit! Men dressed as women! Girls dressed as boys! Magic, jokes and a baddie to hiss! Songs, stories and the odd but of sauce! Lots of laughs for all the family!’ ‘That is the most nonsensical thing you have ever said!’ ‘Exactly, that’s pantomime!’
‘Its behind you…’
‘Young Lizzie Johnson could certainly slap a thigh! Makes me feel quite faint just thinking about it…’
‘Love is pain.’
‘And now…every night…I dance.’

Great Ideas: When a theatre is between productions it is said to have gone dark. Something has been unleashed which is at such a distance from Jago & Litefoot that they will have take on a very unusual role indeed in order to save the day – a phantasmagoric performance! On the one hand scientists aren’t supposed to believe in ghosts and God but on the other hand it doesn’t mean you cannot be interested in the arts.

Musical Cues: Opening with dark grumblings of Swan Lake, this instalment has the best score of the season.

Standout Scene: An astonishing sequence that tells a haunting from two directions at once, this story features some very clever notions. The answer to what is possessing people is unprecedented and unusual and explores a love of one of our heroes in a unique manner. Once again we see a haunting from two distinct angles and a shared pain shows why two entities were drawn together.

Notes: We are reminded of a similar tale that mixes the stage and the macabre, Madame Deuteronomy’s Theatre de Fantasie from Jonny Morris’ superb Theatre of Dreams.

Result: John Dorney knows how to make an instant impression and before the theme tune you’ll hear a tragic character tale and an extremely clever reversal of the usual supernatural shenanigans that proves this is going to be a very different sort of story. He plots the story in such a way that vital events that take place can be revealed before they happen making for a tense and foreboding experience. The fabric of reality is weakening, pantomime is taking on sinister undertones and time is manipulating events in a big way. Jago & Litefoot has without a doubt picked up Sapphire and Steel’s preternatural atmosphere and shrewdness and it feels like the series is opening out in a very exciting fashion. Add in a tear jerking conclusion and another impressive cliffhanger and this series gets better and better: 9/10


Chronoclasm written by Andy Lane and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: When Litefoot’s home is invaded by giant metal spheres, it seems that the end of the world is nigh. The enemy has revealed itself, the end game is afoot - can two Henry Gordon Jago’s save the day?

Theatrical Fellow: Jago’s profits are at an all time record but not in the direction he was hoping for! His discussion of the organ grinder and the monkey made me howl, it is a distinctly HGJ way of looking at things! In a moment of crisis he throws himself on Leela and she is touched by his bravery. It makes up for his delight at the latest terrifying supernatural crisis since Jago sees the coins filling his pockets if he manages to book the fellow up! Most meteorological phenomena fill our Jago with dread and he’ll happily list his all time favourites. Can you imagine anything more meretriciously theatrical than Henry Gordon Jago doubled?

Posh Professor: He, Jago and Leela have come across some of the most appalling supernatural paraphernalia over the last year but this is the closest he has ever come to calling it a day. It is literally far too close to home. The poor old sod is causing mass destruction wherever he visits!

Noble Savage: Andy Lane places Leela at the centre of his tale and writes for her character extremely well. A hunter who makes noise will not last long in the forest. Her Tarzanesque war cry made me die with laughter! A hunter knows when there is something out of place, a broken twig, a splash of blood on a leaf and the sound of movement when there should be no noise. Her instincts are finely tuned and her time on Gallifrey has not been wasted – she can now detect time spillages with or without her device. She belongs in the jungle but time is her natural habitat.

Standout Performance: The most touching moment between Jago & Litefoot yet is magnificently brought to life by Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter and the words ‘I know, I do too…’ might just melt your heart.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve got a message but I aint got a shilling’ – I’ll have to try that one!
‘Perishing precipitation!’
‘That’s a fake pair of mutton chop whiskers or I’m a Chinaman!’
‘Does that make sense to you or am I just quoting Shakespeare to a bunch of baboons?’

Great Ideas: Hunting for time travelling artefacts and a sphere that seems to come from no time – this story has the feel of a season finale. What is more enduring than money or threats – curiosity! Just the name Time Eaters is enough to give me the willies but add in Time Bombs (and I don’t mean bombs with a timer) and you have some pretty weighty ideas being explored. The thought of centuries passing in a few seconds is blood curdling.

Audio Landscape: An explosive opening, accordion music, a weather report (?), creatures bursting from the sphere and Leela gets her most dramatic kill yet.

Musical Cues: A disconcerting score bubbles in the background as the revelations pour forth…

Standout Scene: Payne’s story juggles two surprises and features a bargain that will seem horrific to some but understandable to others. The cost is high but the rewards…

Result: Time spillage, mysterious objects, unearthly voices, messages from the future and a real sense of cataclysmic threat enveloping our heroes, Chronoclasm opens as many doors as it closes. It provides a dramatic conclusion for this series of Jago & Litefoot whilst putting in motion some disturbing pieces for the next series too. This season finale offers murder and the possibility of hell breaking out on Earth and throughout there is an unsettling feeling of transition, as though nothing will ever be quite the same again. Andy Lane writes his strongest script since The Mahogany Murderers with one disturbing juxtaposition after another leading to a thrilling climax. Don’t make a deal with the devil because it will come back and demand its payment: 10/10


Season Three of Jago & Litefoot deserves a massive round of applause for not trading on past successes but pushing the series off into some new directions. Only Dead Man’s Shoes feels like it could happily squeeze into the first two series and for me it was the weakest of the four. New writers to the range Matthew Sweet and John Dorney find some exciting new avenues for the series to explore and tell successfully experimental stories that both climax on an emotional high and mouth watering cliff-hangers. For the first time I found the climax of the season the highlight because it feels much more desperate than previous years and the running story arc has been laced into the series almost invisibly but delivers an incredible sense of satisfaction when everything comes together. You’ll want to listen to these stories more than once to pick up on all their nuances and its astonishing to think that two secondary characters from a one shot Doctor Who story should have so much mileage in them. Bravo!

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Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Cold Equations written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: In the remnant of a shattered satellite, far above the ruined planet Earth, Steven Taylor and Oliver Harper are dying. As time runs out, they face their pasts… and a secret long kept is revealed. The borrowed time is elapsing, and they realize they are facing an enemy that cannot be defeated. The cold, hard facts of science…

Hmm: An old man strutting about – sounds about right for the proud first Doctor showing off his lifestyle to Oliver! Peter Purves’ throaty voiced first Doctor is perfectly evocative of Hartnell’s internal performances which from interviews I have read Purves understood and admired. The moment the Doctor tells Steven he is proud of him I was holding back a tear; this beautiful partnership is brought up close and personal.

Aggressive Astronaut: Guerrier never forgets what was often skipped over in the TV series, that Steven was an astronaut in his former life and that he was trained to except certain hard facts about space travel. Comparing Steven and Oliver’s views on space travel can lead the latter seeming something of a caveman. Steven has always been something of a hothead (there were some dazzling rows between the Doctor and Steven in season three) and upon learning that all is not what it seems with Oliver his aggressive suspicions are brought to light. Steven’s sense of detachment is palpable, born to the Space Age but at its height rather than this tragic downfall. You’ll be grimacing at the torture Steven goes through in the second episode and his strength as he holds himself together.

Broker Harper: I found Oliver to be a wonderfully strong willed character in his debut adventure, The Perpetual Bond, and really appreciated Simon Guerrier’s willingness to push his upper class background almost to the point of making him unlikable. Rather cleverly Guerrier uses their life and death situation to bring us much closer to Oliver. It’s a fascinating third wheel in the TARDIS that now reeks of testosterone – astonishingly to think that this is the first time in over forty years that we have had an all male TARDIS. To Oliver who comes from a time when the human race hasn’t even stepped on the moon, the thought of venturing out into space is a jolly adventure and it’s impossible not to get swept up in his enthusiasm. Its very exciting to have a character with a big secret, it means there is an added dimension to their adventures as layers are peeled away until we learn the truth. Nice to see that he isn’t just a passenger, Oliver uses his expertise to save their bacon on more than one occasion.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘An awful machine stench…an abattoir of industry.’

Great Ideas: Guerrier has found a gripping framing device for his story. Having listened to the majority of the companion chronicles I often find that the framing devices really help to draw you into the first person narration and often they are told from a point in time after the chosen companion left the Doctor. The opening scene plants Steven and Oliver into a situation that gives them a chance to be honest with each other. Vomit is no fun in zero-g! Ugh! For a moment I thought we were in for a Blakes’ 7 Orbit moment with the Doctor, Steven and Oliver taking Avon’s place but the answer is even more frightening! An intergalactic Dark Age, this is a well thought through setting that sees technology being salvaged and used in ingenious ways. Shocking to think of the Earth as nothing more than an intergalactic junkyard. Cleverly Guerrier weaves in a spoiler to his third adventure featuring this trio and (or even better suggesting adventures a wealth of potential that we wont see).

Audio Landscape: Heavy breathing in space suits, birdsong, the TARDIS dematerialising (does anybody ever get bored of that fabulous noise), a wonderfully exotic, misty location – you’ll actually feel as if you are there, futuristic ticker tape, a crashing moment of drama, footsteps on gantries, a the cold wind of space welcoming our heroes, the Doctor screaming on the intercom, debris bashing into each other.

Musical Cues: The music matches the tone of the piece, disquietingly beautiful.

Standout Scene: The desperation as the story races towards the cliffhanger gave me goosebumps all over, science fails with catastrophic effects for our heroes and I couldn’t have been more gripped. Usually with the companion chronicles you feel a great sense of love and respect from the narrator for the Doctor, it’s become something of a cliché as each one reminds us of how much they enjoyed travelling with the Doctor. The Cold Equations finds a unique way of exposing the strength of friendship between the Doctor and Steven simply without any first person narration necessary. The story drives the point home touchingly in a sequence that sees the two men at an agonising distance from each other. Then Oliver’s secret is exposed and it turns out to be the most enchanting scene the companion chronicles have ever given us. Basically the second episode is one half an hour packed with standout moments.

Notes: Having two actors bring a story to life you have an engaging give and take structure to the script with one handling the narration and the other speaking dialogue. Add in sound effects and music and you’ll swear that you heard a full cast audio. Rather shamefully I kept the cover of The Perpetual Bond as my desktop image for a month because I fancied the arse of suited and booted Oliver Harper.

Result: A melancholic setting and fascinating TARDIS crew, The Cold Equations closes the fifth season of companion chronicles on a riveting high. Simon Guerrier manages to tap into the evocative nature of sixties Doctor Who whilst giving it a modern edge – he grabs hold of the black and white era and paints it in shades of grey. Fully justifying the all male team he writes a wistful first Doctor, a suspicious Steven and a naively excited Oliver who quickly learns that time travel isn’t a game. The title of the story is very appropriate as we plunge headlong into a situation that proves that science is cold and heartless, it has no respect for life and you have to make it work for you. Peter Purves and Tom Allen seize the chance to play something this dramatic and we are drawn to both characters as they fight an impossible situation and I have to give a massive round of applause to Richard Fox & Lauren Yason for their superb music. The scores on the companion chronicles are always good but the music here is extremely emotive and draws you into the story. Those who thought the Oliver trilogy wouldn’t reach the heights of the Sara Kingdom one, think again. You’ll never guess what Oliver’s secret is but I promise you this, it’ll blow you away: 10/10

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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Guilt written by Scott Alan Goddard and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: 'That is our world out there. A chemical soup for a sky above and a scarred, radioactive wasteland below. It is purgatory. But we must make it paradise!' The Kaled city is now ravaged, and life has become one of fear, protected by a vast transparent dome that covers what remains of the City. The Thals undertake a desperate mission to take Davros away from his laboratories, and the Supremo must send a crack squad over enemy lines to retrieve his chief scientist. Led by the young, enthusiastic and morally bankrupt Lieutenant Nyder, Davros is successfully rescued. But he has been changed by the experience, and where once he stood for knowledge, he now espouses the utter extermination of the Thal people. To this end, Davros will stop at nothing and will sacrifice anybody to see his legacy continue. Here's to the future…

Scarred Scientist: Scarred, not corrupted. Davros laughs off the suggestion that he is a Muto. I love how Davros can pull of a pathetic Beep the Meep style ‘please don’t shoot poor little harmless me’ when trapped under the rubble of the latest Thal terrorist explosion. Thanks to Thal espionage all the weapons that Davros has created for the war can be found in their armouries – to capture him for the sake of more munitions is pointless when the best hope he can offer them is their genetic future. A biological superiority that would see his race as the masters of the planet. The scene between Davros and Nyder sees a twisted friendship develop. He tells Nyder that he has gone above and beyond his duties to rescue him and that he is in his debt. Davros doesn’t need to drink but sometimes he likes to indulge anyway. It’s haunting to hear Davros say something as friendly as ‘pleasant dreams.’ By placing Nyder in charge of the security services and having a hold over him Davros finally gets his ultimate wish – the chance to continue his research the way he sees fit with no interference from the civilian population. He is an old man but something inside is telling him that his life is about to begin. The closest we have ever seen to Davros acting like a normal human being in this entire saga comes towards the end of this story as he coos and soothes the Dalek mutants like a loving mother.

Standout Performance: I was impressed to hear Peter Miles back playing Nyder, he’s a gifted actor and it is another gorgeous little touch that adds to this series’ authenticity. He’s such a fabulous toady and knows exactly what to say to slide into bed (metaphorically) with Davros.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It is purgatory but we must make it paradise!’
‘I am alive!’

Great Ideas: Imagine being told whilst you are on a mission that your family will be recompensed because of your death – literally knowing you have only seconds to live? Scientist Ral betrays Davros to the Thals because his science and morals disgust him. The Thals have spent years trying to get their hands on Davros and have lost a lot of people to that cause. I really felt for Nick Briggs’ character Barran who is Thal soldier infiltrating the Kaled lines…given what we have seen of this situation so far (and what we would go on to see in Genesis of the Daleks) it is simply the most terrifying thing imaginable to be under suspicion behind enemy lines. The Kaled gene pool is stagnant and on the verge of evaporating and asks for full control over Kaled offspring I was literally screaming at the council not to be so stupid! When Davros finally gets his way and people still resist the military are sent in to beat up the parents and steal the children. If they protest they will be promised a look at the nursery (what a term!) and murdered before they reach it.

Audio Landscape: Life support system, gas mask, the poisonous surface of Skaro, another ear tearing explosion, Thal intercom system, there is an awesome raid on the Thal camp to rescue Davros that is made perfectly clear what is happening without any explanation, the icky noises of the Dalek mutants,

Musical Cues: Steve Foxon’s music has been unusually discreet throughout this saga which is a nice touch for the sometimes deafeningly loud scores for the main range Big Finish audios. He knows when to pull right back and let the actors do their stuff and brilliantly ramps up the tension during the psychologically striking moments rather than the action set pieces. The thought of Davros’ regime of terror being kick started with such an uplifting fanfare is really chilling – the marching band suggests that the future will be bright when everybody will dead on the planet in the near future.

Standout Scene: Given what we know of his character in Genesis of the Daleks we know that Davros will not accept a refusal of any of his proposals but not even I thought he would go as far as to place micro explosives into the bloodstream of the Council members. He secreted them into their systems by engineering a special kind of anti radiation drug. Only Davros would use a toxic deterrent as a bargaining chip and feel proud of his achievement. Refuse his proposal to have unrestricted access to all of the children on Skaro or the entire council will suffer arterial aneurysms. He screams ‘exterminate!’ as he slaughters the lot of them. It’s a dangerously powerful moment when Davros finally seizes power.

Notes: Interesting to hear Davros say ‘Rels’, clearly it is a Skarosian measurement of time but I always thought it was unique to the Daleks. ‘A nearby cave is crawling with many failed experiments’ and Harry Sullivan has the honour of almost ending up as ones dinner.

Result: Whilst it doesn’t go down as my favourite spin off series (that would still go to Jago & Litefoot) I, Davros is regardless a remarkably strong and nuanced drama which brilliantly locks into place with Genesis of the Daleks. Because it has only one direction to go Guilt is not quite as strong as purity but Scott Alan Goddard’s script still manages some great surprises up its sleeve and an unnerving atmosphere as Davros’ perverse schemes finally come into fruition. Terry Molloy deserves a great deal of credit for guiding this series so effortlessly, his interpretation as Davros is the definitive one for me and he manages to capture all of the insanity and brilliance of the Doctor’s greatest villain. Kudos to Big Finish for pulling off this mini series with such skill, once again Gary Russell has assembled an awesome cast and the writers have all been pulling in the same direction. If it weren’t for the uninspiring second part I, Davros would be practically faultless in what it has set out to achieve. I’m off to watch Genesis of the Daleks now: 9/10

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Corruption written by Lance Parkin and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: 'Logically, the war ends with one form of life in utter control of the world. All other life forms gone. That is the goal that is the only true victory!'Now established within the Science Elite, Davros and his team are pushing the boundaries of Kaled experimentation further and further forward. Access to Thal DNA spearheads an entirely new field of research for Davros, and as he becomes more and more intrigued by genetic mutations, others around him begin to fear him, his drive and his obsessive need for power. Meanwhile he must learn to cope with betrayal and political manoeuvrings that will leave him changed forever.

Scarred Scientist: Davros once said he was no good with politics but this turned out to be a lie because he soon learnt that by playing one side against another in their nasty little war true power could be his. The Thal strategic computers have computed that Davros is the greatest threat to their race and send a squad of troops to have him executed. The highest praise a young woman can expect from Davros is that she has a good mind. Frighteningly when his mother dies before him he can only comfort her with the fact that her mutation is what they will all suffer eventually. There is a scientific detachment in his acceptance of her fate that sees an ever emerging opportunist who can place his feelings to one side and can revel in the science in every cruel deed. In a scene that echoes I, Claudius Davros experiences his life flashing before his eyes after he is struck by the Thal warhead – Calcula and Shan taunt him as he struggles to stay alive. His flesh will be stripped away by he never had any need for it. His mind will be as powerful as ever. Davros was offered the chance to commit suicide after he wakes up when nobody else has the guts to do it.

Standout Performance: Lance Parkin gives Terry Molloy some material that really allows him to own the role as the human Davros and the quiet way he talks his mother to her death and deliberately infects a pregnant woman are made all the more frightening thanks to Molloy’s gently purring voice. As Davros finally turns on Shan it is great to hear Molloy starting to adopt his Hitleresque robotic chanting.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We need women who can give birth to good strong Kaled babies!’
‘Politicians will prolong the war, scientists will end it!’
‘Evolution is a constant struggle. A war of a thousand millions years against the universe.’
‘Take your rightful place…’ says Calcula and Davros replies with ‘We will survive, we will grown stronger…’ – the Dalek creed is slowly being assembled.
‘We were there at the genesis of a species, Shan! How many people can say that?’

Great Ideas: Ugh gross! The Thal trooper is pulled towards the magnetic core of the planet with a concrete floor in the way turning her into a puddle of muck! Calcula as usual has absolutely no sense of realism. Here they are in the middle of godawful warfare and there is an assassination attempt on her son’s life and rather than fear another she is delighted that her son is the most important man on the planet! Dramacan Lake which made such an impression on Davros in Purity has been renamed the Lake of Mutations which Ian and Barbara would get to visit in the very first Dalek story. I love how this series is starting to slide into Doctor Who continuity so seamlessly. Any talk of scientific research that isn’t to do with the war effort is considered treason. Councillor Calcula is building up an impressive army that are loyal to her in the military youth – sounds awfully like a certain Fuhrer from the history books. She is slowly executing her fellow politicians that threaten to hamper her son’s work. To a politician the future means next week but to a scientist it means looking forward generations. Davros wants to engineer a lifeform to survive in whatever environment Skaro’s biosphere becomes even if it isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Real meat has become a scarcity in the Kaled City. A weapon that has the power of an electric bolt – what would eventually become a Dalek gun stick. Calcula is truly a sick individual; she wants to be able to show the children of the military youth and hour of warfare footage, of Thal’s being slaughtered, a day. Creatures that are devoted to survival, freed of the things that effect their rationality. Fascinating to see that Calcula’s death gives Davros the political advantage over the Supremo and he has the choice of either making the scientific elite an autonomous unit or Davros will turn her follows on him. New laboratories are to be built underground with no political interference in the scientific research.

Audio Landscape: Helicopters, opening bay doors, soldiers unloading, explosions, whistling wind, siren, a screeching rat, a fountain rushing, guns rattling with fire and people screaming as they die, crowd scenes of Kaleds cheering as the Thals are destroyed, destroying the communications equipment, skin melting, I might have been imagining it but there was a door chime that sounded identical the ones in Star Trek TNG, the mutated baby gurgling as it is born is terrifying, riots after the news of Calcula’s death leaks out, the Thal warhead that strikes Davros’ underground research centre.

Musical Cues: Subtle piano stings play underneath some very disturbing moments.

Standout Scene: When I first heard Davros’ new weapon fire and the Dalek firepower noise spat out goosebumps walked all down my back. Calcula gets a death scene that is truly worthy of her, one that sees her sacrifice herself to ensure that her (utterly brilliant) son’s work continues and that stabs the Supremo in the back as if she had killed him herself. I can’t say that I enjoyed the scene where Davros tricks a pregnant woman into having her baby injected with a poison that will mutate it in her womb but it was certainly a startlingly written moment of obscenity.

Notes: I think it’s wonderful that they were able to rope in Lance Parkin to write an instalment of this saga since he provided the definitive character study of the Skarosian psychopath. Even better he includes more scenes with Shan the Kaled scientist who made such an impression in the audio Davros and her appearance here adds weight to the previous story and depth to this one. The way he slips in a scene that was so vital in Davros is inspired, you would never be able to tell it wasn’t an original scene from this story.

It is fitting that this was Gary Russell’s final project before he left Big Finish because it exemplifies everything he brings as a producer. I, Davros plugs continuity effortlessly in a way that Russell loves doing but it also mixes politics and science fiction (which he proved adept at in the Gallifrey series) but it also features an arsenal of acting talent behind it of the sort that only Russell at his strongest could assemble. I am very pleased to see him go out on such a high.

Result: Extraordinarily good, Corruption drags this series kicking and screaming back on track and we march towards the terrifying inevitability that is the Daleks. This was precisely what I was after when I came into this series; fascinating insight into Doctor Who’s most vivid madman, a plot full of twists and turns, characters that bring the story alive with the strength of their convictions and subtle moments of continuity laced into the narrative. Lance Parkin has long been one of my favourite Doctor Who authors and he has once again excelled himself here. Corruption is packed full of memorable incidents, political manoeuvring, outstanding character drama and an ending that will leave you gagging for more. If you haven’t listened to the Doctor Who audio Davros it doesn’t really matter because this story is more than strong enough to support itself but combining the two stories together paints a fulsome and gripping picture of this stage of Davros’ life and add much depth to both stories. I cannot praise this highly enough and am thoroughly pissed that it is nearly 2 o’clock in the morning and my bed is calling because I really want to listen to the final instalment: 10/10

Purity written by James Parson & Andrew Stirling-Brown and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: 'We are Kaleds. We are more than a match for weak, tattered, crippled relics of the war.’ Now approaching his 30th year, Davros is trying to get out of the Kaled Military and into the Scientific Corps, determined to use his mind to create new ways to let the Kaled race survive the never-ending war with the Thals. But first, he must undertake a mission into Thal territory. A mission that will introduce him to technology and hardware he could only dream of. And it just might teach him a few life lessons to. But however dangerous the Thal City might be, that is nothing compared to the scarred relics that inhabit the Wastelands... Wastelands he and his team have to cross twice

Scarred Scientist: With no decent facilities or materials Davros is trying desperately to impress with his technical expertise but he is wasted on a government who wont even r cognise his work. Science and mathematics is his passion, his aim has always been to join the scientific corp but his way has always been blocked. He is neither interested in or willing to marry and as such his fathers money remains locked up in his will, even if his mother will have to live in (what she would consider to be) poverty. When he understands the principles behind the Thal rockets Davros’ mind reels with the possibilities, an intelligent and thinking mechanical brain able to make logical judgements. He considers it as nothing short of inspired genius. The he discovers a man that has mutated into a plant creature and he wants to take samples to satisfy his perverse curiosity. He sees the Varga’s as a potential weapon against the Thals. Davros murders Reston because he cannot understand his need to die. To Davros you should always strive to live, to spend every moment of your life dedicated to the genocide of the Thal people and anybody who can turn their back on that vision should have their wish and be killed. They would only hold them back. He accuses his mother of betraying him but is manipulating into thinking it might have been Yarvel. The one moment of real interest came when Davros wasn’t even present and his mother tells Yarvel who are they to stand in the way of his destiny? That’s a word Davros would abuse a lot in the future and it’s interesting to see where such a grandiose feeling of self importance might have come from. Davros refuses to waste his sister’s remains and plans on splicing together her genetic material with that of a Varga and a Thal to develop a weapon that could end the war. Wowza, you really do not want to be born into this family.

Standout Performance: Once again Carolyn Jones makes the greatest impression and it might indicate the strength of this instalment that she is only present for ten minutes of material. When Davros tells his sisters corpse that science will win them the war you can hear the beginnings of the Davros that we know and love starting to emerge and Molloy gently adds his familiar purring tones.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re a dangerous psychopath, Davros’ ‘No I am quite plainly a realist.’
‘I only hope that one day you find out what it is like to live like this…’

Great Ideas: Davros’ family are living in a deluded headspace with his sister preaching peace with the Thals and his mother trying to cling on to her luxurious lifestyle when the money is slowly running out. Is the purity of the Kaleds a myth perpetuated by the government to stir up hatred against the Thals – I seem to recall another super race with similar political xenophobia. Information that all the races on Skaro were integrated and diverse has been suppressed but archaeological detail still exists. One painting shows a Kaled and a Thal embracing. A new and groundbreaking design of ariel missiles are being built by the Thals.

Audio Landscape: Astonishing how something as simple as the door sound can conjure up Genesis of the Daleks so succinctly, a family swimming together, shells exploding, a machinery pumping production line, an explosion tearing through the Thal factory, gunshots, gurgling mutations.

Isn’t it Odd: The first half an hour of Purity lacks the strength of characterisation and plotting that was so strong in Innocence. The dialogue scenes are overlong and painfully quiet and they don’t reveal anything new about Davros that we didn’t already know in the first story. I know it isn’t the fault of either actor but I wasn’t convinced of the transition from Rory Jennings to Terry Molloy. Both are fine, convincing actors and ace the part but when you switch from a deep voiced child to a high-pitched adult something jars in the changeover. Do you know I haven’t heard a Gary Russell cameo for ages and what an unconvincing Thal soldier he makes! The Kaled automatic defences are really quiet I could barely make out what was going on.

Standout Scene: After an abundance of memorable moments in the Innocence, this episode was severely lacking anything particularly memorable. Actually that’s not quite true – the moment when Calcula lies to Yarvel and tells her that Davros is dead to force a confession from her lips was a highlight but it took over an hour to reach a moment that stood out. Calcula drowning her own daughter is an astonishingly frightening act.

Notes: ‘Remember the genocide against the Dals’ – I always thought that fandom skipped merrily over that continuity slip up in The Daleks but it turns out it was an age of warfare all of its own!

Result: What a shame that the second instalment of the I, Davros series lacks the powerful drama and experimental nature of Parsons & Stirling-Brown’s last effort, LIVE 34. I could imagine the gripping documentary feel of their debut script would have benefited this series immensely. Innocence was charged with an incredible sense of world building and electrifying character interaction, both of which Purity lacks when piling on the plot mechanics. The way the story assembles all the pieces of the Daleks is insultingly childish; Davros discovers an artifical intelligence, Davros discovers a mutated creature and Davros discovers a man consumed by hate…what would happen if he put all those things together? Interest starts to bubble up at the end so I am still looking forward to the next piece of the puzzle but this was a dramatic stumble after the top notch build up: 5/10

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Jonathan Morris Interview

Responsible for some of the most striking spin off material over the past ten years, Jonathan Morris is a name that I get very excited about when I see him listed in the schedules. His plots are creative, his dialogue memorable and witty and his characterisation never fails to impress. Jonny agreed to answer some questions but was faced with a mammoth number of questions and to my delight he has taken a great deal of time answering the questions in some depth. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jonny Morris on his Big Finish work...

How did you come to work for Big Finish?

As I recall, I’d sent in a Doctor Who book submission to BBC Books called The Beautiful Death – the book that was published as Festival Of Death – and Jac Rayner, who was the person who sifted through the unsolicited submissions, picked it out and recommended my name to Gary Russell. Who I think I already knew at the time, at least to say ‘hello’ to, but maybe not. Unfortunately my email doesn’t go back that far so I can’t even research it. But it was all down to Gary Russell basically taking a gamble on a writer with very little experience, the sort of thing he’d do again and again later on.

Your first script, Bloodtide, featured the Silurians. Was this your choice or a story element imposed on you? Do you think they work well as a monster?

My memory is that I was at the launch party for The Sirens Of Time – yes, I was there at the beginning – and it was there Gary told me he’d like a story with Sea Devils. This became, I think, Sea Devils and Silurians, and then eventually just Silurians – I have nothing against Sea Devils, I just think they speak too slowly for an audio adventure! I think the judge at the beginning might have even been a Sea Devil. Gary was very keen for the story to have Sea Devils in it!
Anyway, I’m pretty sure that was the whole brief – maybe he wanted it in history as well, I can’t remember – but I think Charles Darwin was my idea. The Myrka definitely was.

These were very early days for Big Finish and although I don’t think I was specifically told to write a traditional story, that’s what I felt the job entailed at the time, because the range was still getting established and with Colin Baker, it was very much a case of writing stories we’d like him to have done on television. I’d heard and very much admired Nick Pegg’s The Spectre Of Lanyon Moor and took a similar approach. Because with all these audios, in fact with everything I’ve ever written, I always write the sort of thing I would enjoy as a punter.

How did you feel writing for the sixth Doctor? Did you attend the studio recording or listen the overall piece once it had been released? What was your reaction listening to a Doctor Who script you had written brought to life?

There was definitely a brief to ‘soften’ the sixth Doctor, to make him more charming and to play down the abrasive, say-the-same-word-three-times-in-increasing-volume side of the character. To basically give Colin stuff to do that would play to his strengths and show what he could do. Which is why I wrote that scene in part 4 where the Doctor talks about the miracle of life. I’m pretty sure that’s the first part of the whole story I wrote.

The studio recording was incredibly exciting. I was there for the second day – so I missed Janie as Greta and Rob as the Myrka – and I probably didn’t speak to anyone because I was so nervous and awestruck by the whole occasion. My main memory is of Dan Hogarth delivering all his lines with his chest puffed out and his hands on his hips. Because they were those sort of hands-on-hips lines.

My reaction listening to it was like wallowing in a warm bath of self-congratulation. The end result was, I think, extremely good, and I was very proud. I still am. I think the dialogue is a bit waffly and formal compared to what I’d write now, but the structure of episode one in particular is very robust, with all sorts of little links, contrasts and ironies between scenes. And Alistair Lock’s sound design on it is really phenomenal, incredibly rich and detailed.

Flip Flop has an extremely unusual structure in that it is a story with two discs that can be told in either order. Where on Earth did you begin plotting their experimental story out? Was there any point where you thought…this isn’t going to work? How successful do you think it turned out as a story?

I’d say that Flip Flop is so experimental it doesn’t even have a plot as such. It’s more an exercise in storytelling patterns, in the mechanics of it. Because once I’d hit on the two-discs-in-either-order idea, that meant I had to use that to the fullest, with characters having doubles, parallel universes, time travel. I was determined I would do all these ideas first! As a script, it’s probably better read than listened to, as the end result is far too repetitive. In my defence, it’s repetitive for the sake of clarity, but I think by episode three (in either order) the listener has probably ‘got’ the story.

As I recall, there were numerous points where I thought it wasn’t going to work, because there are so many threads of cause-and-effect to keep an eye on, and all the time I’m thinking through the time-travel logic of it.

The end result? I really like the Slithergees and Professor Capra, and I like some of the moral ideas in there – of people being neither good nor evil, but products of history, and of people always thinking the grass would’ve been greener on the other side. I think that’s a very relevant idea, when you have people basing whole arguments around ‘what-if’s i.e. would the world have been a better or worse place if we hadn’t had the invasion of Iraq? And it’s about how we sometimes judge people in the past unfairly, condemning with the benefit of hindsight. I’m very proud of bits like the ‘terrorists’ being appalled by the actions of the police, and the police being appalled by the actions of the ‘terrorists’, when they are in fact the same people.

Aside from the repetition, the other parts of it I think I should have done better is that firstly the ‘moral’ of the story is a bit bleak; damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and it would have been even cleverer, I think, if both discs had had happy endings. And the story is lopsided; in one version of history you have the Slithergees, who are very entertaining, while on the other you don’t really have anything. Politically, with the Slithergees I was playing devil’s advocate; the intention was never to be anti-immigration, but against some of the excesses of a certain type of patronising political correctness. I enjoyed Dan’s performance but I think some lines which were written as throwaways got a bit laboured-over. And I was surprised by the Slithergees appearance on the CD sleeve; in my imagination, they were just giant slugs, whereas on the cover they look like caricatures of Jewish old men.

You have written 5 episodes for the eighth Doctor series now. Looking at the four seasons as a whole what do you think is the enduring appeal of the eighth Doctor’s relationship with Lucie Miller? Do you feel hampered or helped by the 50-minute structure of these stories?

Enduring appeal? Well, we’ll see if it endures! What I like about it is that they have a relationship where they really bounce off each other, where Sheridan and Paul are lifting each other’s performances, there’s more energy there, there’s a lot more humour, and I think with Lucie you have an extremely strong character, very down-to-Earth, very brassy, and very well-played, which I think provides a good contrast to Paul’s Doctor, who is very laid-back, cagey and subdued, and is from the world of frock coats and cravats. She comes in like a whirlwind and blows all the cobwebs away.

50-minute structure? Well, I like fast, short, to-the-point stories, and with Doctor Who, I think the listeners are so familiar with the various tropes that you can cut to the chase a lot more than they could in the old days of the TV series. I mean, Hothouse has pretty much all of plot beats of The Seeds Of Doom in about a third of the time. And you can pack a lot of plot into 50-minutes – Max Warp was originally plotted as a 4-part story – and if anything the reduced running times means stories are more small scale and more character-based. And shorter stories means more stories, more variety, which has to be a good thing. The only problem is that with audio it takes longer to establish settings and situations than it does on television, the mechanics of just getting in and out of scenes are slower, so you’re never going to be able to do as much in a 50-minute audio as in a 50-minute television story.

I really liked the one-episode-a-week thing Big Finish did a couple of years ago, and I thought it was a pity they didn’t continue it with the latest Paul McGann season. My only other regret with that season is that it would’ve been great to have publicised Diemos as a 2-part story, followed by another 2-part story which would have been entirely made-up, just so the cliff-hanger at the end of part 2 could come completely out of the blue – you think it’s the end of a 2-part story, when in fact you’re only half-way through a 4-part story! But I think if Big Finish had done that there’d be a lot of customers who were annoyed they weren’t getting what they’d paid for – and with good reason – and I think all the stuff Big Finish did with fake covers made the surprise ending work extremely well anyway.

Do you have a favourite/least favourite of those you have written for the range?

The Eighth Doctor ones? I love Max Warp, it makes me laugh even though I wrote it (or possibly because I wrote it, it’s going to be very much my sense of humour). And the Mary Shelley one had a great atmosphere to it. But I’d say my favourite is The Cannibalists, because the sound design on it, I think, creates a very vivid imaginary world, even though it’s pretty out-there. But I also love Deimos, I think, structurally and in terms of pace and so on, it’s probably my best piece of work. Which leaves Hothouse! Ha! Which I suppose if I had to choose a least favourite would be the least favourite just because I think it has the problem of having a monster which very much predicates the sort of story you can tell; you want to include all the things about a monster that people liked, but then you just end up with a monster doing what it did before. But actually I think that story is terrific as well. Don’t ask me to choose a least favourite, I’m the wrong person to ask.

Would you say that the four series has been the most arc driven yet and did you find weaving in all the various characters set up in earlier episodes perpetuated your Deimos/Resurrection of Mars? Do you feel that each season has been progressively stronger?

Well, with Hothouse there was an arc element, of the Doctor and Lucie Miller being quite distant, quite untrusting, at the beginning of the story and then proving themselves to each other by the end. But with Deimos the arc stuff is obviously much more overt. And whilst it can sometimes be a headache, it’s useful to be given a list of Things To Do when coming up with a story, particularly if they are character beats; i.e. during this story, Tamsin loses faith in the Doctor etc. And it helps for a story to feel important while you’re writing it, you have to feel excited by it for that to come across in the script. You want each story to feel special in some way, because with so many stories out there, you have to stand out in the crowd.

Do you find the first person narrative of the companion chronicles makes stories easier or harder to write?

Well, they’re shorter,so they’re hard work but for half the time. The first person narrative does kind of dictate the sort of stories you can tell; the scale is smaller, more intimate, and the story is more straightforward and more about characters and relationships than intricate, multiple plot threads. But the range has changed quite a lot since it started. When it began, when I wrote The Beautiful People, they were effectively monologues, quite close to talking books as they were short stories told in the first person, but as they’ve gone on they’ve essentially become mini-plays, two-handers, with all sorts of ingenious framing devices. My most recent one, Tales From The Vault, is essentially a two-hander.

Was it exciting to be given the opportunity to write for Doctors/companions that have not been able to have stories in the main range?

It is, though the excitement is more from the thrill of writing words for Lalla Ward to perform, or for Frazier Hines, or Deborah Watling, or Katy Manning. But I had huge amounts of fun writing a Troughton base-under-siege story, incorporating all the elements of that era’s formula, and I loved doing what was effectively a pure historical adventure about James II, to use the fact that Jamie is a Jacobite, and to put him at loggerheads with the Doctor (both played by Frazier Hines!). I’d love to do a Hartnell one, I love the eerie, magical quality of that era, the sense of innocence, of exploration.

Of the three stories released, which of the three companions that you have written for (Romana, Victoria and Jamie) was the most challenging?

The Beautiful People had to be written incredibly quickly, so that was a challenge in terms of discipline, and in terms of making up a story as I went along (well, I was working to a synopsis, but there wasn’t time to re-think it). The other two were sheer pleasure. I had to do a bit of research for the Jamie one, which entailed reading a couple of books, but it was an interesting period of history and one which seems to be largely overlooked nowadays so it was fresh territory. The challenge I suppose is in finding a good framing device; the Romana CC didn’t have one, and the Victoria one barely had one (originally it was going to be her leaving a recording for her grand-daughter, who would’ve been the other female character in the play.) I only think with the Jamie and Jo CC’s I actually started making use of that.

What can you tell us about your opening story of season six?

Tales From The Vault concerns Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato, two UNIT officers assigned to ‘clear up’ after alien invasions and who curate UNIT’s secret ‘Museum of Terrors’ where artefacts from these incidents are stored. Every artefact has a story attached, of how it came to be in UNIT’s possession, which leads the two characters into those four stories – one about Jo Grant, the third Doctor, and a red military jacket bought on the King’s Road, one about Jamie, Zoe, the second Doctor and East End gangsters, one about the fourth Doctor, Romana and a sinister painting, and one about the first Doctor, Steven and Dodo at the Battle of Spion Kop during the Boer War. So something for everyone, hopefully! All the stories are sinister, twist-in-the-tale stories, the idea being that the audio is like an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery or Orson Welle’s Tales From The Black Museum.

The series has been a runaway success, what do you think the appeal is?

I think the main appeal is firstly getting to hear these great actors again, getting to hear Peter Purves playing Steven or Frazer Hines playing Jamie or even – this is flabbergastingly awesome – William Russell as Ian Chesterton. It’s just great to hear these characters we love being brought back to life. And secondly I think the CC’s tell stories that couldn’t really be told elsewhere, except maybe in short stories. Like I said, they’re much more intimate, one-to-one experiences. And the narration allows the stories to be more vividly described, which is something you’re always trying to work around in straight plays; you want to create a mental image of the setting, but you don’t want to have the characters saying what they see.

What a delight it is to have Jago & Litefoot back for a series of supernatural adventures in Victorian London. Did you jump at the chance to write for this series?

It didn’t take me long to say yes. I’d heard Andy Lane’s The Mahogany Murderers, and loved that. Jago and Litefoot are such strong, funny, loveable characters and Christopher and Trevor have slipped back into the roles as though The Talons Of Weng-Chiang was only last week. Plus there’s that whole evocative mixture of Victorian fog-bound streets and Hansom cabs with steam-punk or supernatural elements. The format works beautifully.

Tell us something about your two scripts for the series. Is it nice to have a break from writing for Doctor Who and immerse yourself in a completely different range?

It’s not that different from Doctor Who, so I can hardly claim to be plunging recklessly outside my comfort zone, but the dynamics of the stories are different; each episode is essentially one long conversation between Jago & Litefoot taking place in different rooms! The first one, The Spirit Trap, was inspired by the jokey idea that at a seance the medium would be genuine and it was actually be the ghost that was making things up on the hoof. And with spiritualism you also had things like spontaneous human combustion, which was regarded as a genuine phenomenon back in the nineteenth century, which is why Dickens uses it for the death of Krook in Bleak House. The end result was maybe a little too traditional, though I love all the bits with Henry Gordon Jago floating about in what he presumes to be the afterlife. And it stars Janet Henfrey, from The Singing Detective!

The second one, The Theatre Of Dreams was a reaction against The Spirit Trap, wanting to push the weirdness. The brief given by Justin – the Jago & Litefoot stories all come with outlines from Justin Richards – was about a fortune teller being recruited to Jago’s theatre, and making people’s dreams come true, but I thought the danger would be that it would be too close to The Spirit Trap, so I made it about a travelling theatre. I think maybe I’d just seen The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. But the other driving idea behind it was to do a steam-punk Philip K Dick story, a story about altered states of reality. Virtual reality, Victorian-style. It took me a long time for me to work out how to structure the story, because I’m a stickler for about clarity and the risk about attempting something like this in a 50-minute audio is that it will end up completely incoherent. Essentially it’s divided into thirds; reality, good dream, and bad dream. The different dreams allowed me to explore the characters of Jago & Litefoot in a bit more depth, show their hopes and fears, what makes them tick.

Plus there’s a bit where Jago gives a speech about that feeling you get in a nightmare where you try to force yourself to wake up and can’t. I vividly remember having nightmares like that as a kid, where you’re banging on the ceiling of your consciousness trying to get out, and where sometimes your brain tricks you into thinking you’ve woken up when you haven’t, which I realise is a bit of a horror movie cliche but, well, sometimes the old scares are the best.

How did you come to write The Mists of Time?

As I recall, it was intended to be a ‘normal’ Companion Chronicle; the decision to make it a DWM freebie only happened after it was recorded. It was also under a different title at that point, ‘The Planet Of The Lost’. ‘The Mists Of Time’ is a much better title! At the time, Big Finish were working on the assumption than Katy Manning would only be in the country for a short time and this would be her only opportunity to do a Companion Chronicle, so it was one of those occasions where I had to come up with an idea and write it fairly quickly. There’s a very detailed article about this in ‘The Finished Product’ fanzine; rather than repeat myself and bore everybody, I’ll just point people in the direction of that article. I remember it being quite tough, coming up with a Jon Pertwee story which didn’t feature UNIT or the Master, and in the end I took inspiration from one of my favourite Jon Pertwee stories, ‘Death To The Daleks’, just in terms of there being this sinister, bleak alien planet with swirling mist and colonists living in prefab domes. Although I was more-or-less making it up as I went along, I think there’s a strong, original idea in there, with the time machine, and it kind of gets thrown away. I could have done more with that.

You’ve had the opportunity to delve into the life of the fifth Doctor on three occasions now all with different companions. Do you think Nyssa (who appears in all three) makes a good foil for this Doctor? Do you think that The Haunting of Thomas Brewster has had the best reception of all of your stories?

The reason I like writing for Nyssa, and the reason why Big Finish keep bringing her back, is all down to Sarah Sutton’s performance. I think she shines in the audios in a way she didn’t on television. Partly it’s because the material is giving her a chance to shine, whereas in some television stories all she’s given to do is point at bits of technology and say what they’re called! And the character has this sort of romantic, tragic quality about her, she’s an orphaned fairytale princess, but she’s got this inner strength. I think with Nyssa there’s a lot of complexity under the surface, whereas with Turlough, for instance, he’s quite complicated but it’s all quite high-up in the mix.

I was very pleased that Haunting went down so well. I got the impression that The Eternal Summer, Cobwebs and Resurrection of Mars were popular too, but it’s not a competition! I have to admit I’m not quite sure about the extent of the music in part 1 of Haunting, for which I blame myself because without the music, the episode would be extremely short. This was because it was written with lots of bits of dialogue on top of each other, so while the episode’s word-count was bang on, the end result was only about eighteen minutes long! But I really like everything else about it; John Pickard’s great, Leslie Ash is fabulous, and I’m just ridiculously proud of things like the Doctor landing the TARDIS inside the TARDIS in the past in order to sort things out.

What was it like delving into Stockbridge, such an important part of the Doctor Who comic history?

Actually, I’m not sure Stockbridge is such an important part. I mean, it’s in a couple of great Peter Davison stories, and then turns up again with Paul McGann, but for me what really excited me about the commission was the chance to write for Max Edison. Who was such a brilliant character in the original Stars Fell On Stockbridge comic strip; in a way, he’s the first in the line of ‘fan’ characters to appear in the show, people like Clive and Elton. And the first and only time, my casting suggestion actually happened! I had Mark Williams in mind when writing the lines, and he was just perfect.

The challenge with the story, though, was the brief, which was that the story had to be set in Stockbridge in the present day and not feature an alien invasion. Which rather rules out most Doctor Who stories! But in the end I had this idea that there’s this romantic idea of a village idyll, almost as an English vision of heaven – old maids cycling to school or whatever it was George Orwell said – and so I had the idea of the village being caught in a bubble of nostalgia, like an old sepia photograph, and write a story about being trapped in heaven, essentially. And how awful that would be; how an eternity spent in heaven would end up being an eternity in hell. Because, as an atheist, I find both concepts horrifying. So the subtext of it was a kind of critique of that very English, Sunday-school, village-green idea of religion. And I think I must have just got a Dennis Potter box set or something because I was deliberately trying to evoke the atmosphere of his play Blue Remembered Hills, and the Forest of Dean parts of The Singing Detective.

One of my strongest memories of writing it is that, as an experiment, and a reaction against whatever it was I’d written just before, I’d plotted the story less tightly than usual, to leave room for ‘character’ and ‘atmosphere’ and ‘spontaneity’. Because sometimes things can get so stringently worked-out in advance that by the time you get to the dialogue it all feels like old news. And some of the writers I admire most do just make up the stories as they go along, and I thought I’d give it a go. Which worked out okay, except that episode two ended up ridiculously underlength. Which had never happened to me before (though it happens to all writers occasionally, I must have been very tired). So I had to pad it out with spooky scenes, character moments, and stuff, just to get it up to twenty-five minutes, because there wasn’t enough plot going on. And I think I got away with it, because when it came out I read a review that said that the second episode in particular was one of the best things Big Finish had ever done! But never again. Padding stuff out is basically working against every bit of writing discipline I’ve ever learned, it feels almost physically painful.

The only bit of the story I’m not entirely happy about is the revelation of the villains being controlled by some sort of pagan god at the end. It had been my intention, at least in the synopsis, that the villain would just be the villains. But bearing in mind who the villains are, you can imagine that it might make some people nervous, so I had to add another element which, to be honest, I don’t think I really thought through well enough. But it’s not a big thing; it’s not what the story was about, it doesn’t take away from the point I was trying to make, it’s just that old problem of the Doctor Who format that eventually you have to find some way to finish the bloody thing...

Do you feel Cobwebs is quite similar in structure and tone to your earlier 4th Doctor novel Festival of Death?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Festival Of Death is a comedy, an elaborately-plotted farce, with the ghost of Douglas Adams sitting on my shoulder while I was writing it. Even though he wasn’t dead then. Cobwebs is a much more serious, bleak, claustrophobic, intimate story concentrating on the four regulars. With the ghost of Eric Saward sitting on my shoulder. What they do share, which I will admit under duress, is one aspect of the plot; the idea of a time-traveller discovering their own corpse. But the consequences of this, and the ‘solution’, are totally different. Festival Of Death doesn’t really take the situation seriously; Cobwebs absolutely does.

Can you tell us your opinion of how all three turned out?

I’m ridiculously proud of all of them. Cobwebs I think is probably the strongest, simplest, most dramatic narrative. What I really like about all of them is that they each have a very strong atmosphere, whether it’s the smoky Victorian slums, the pastoral nostalgia of a English village, or the claustrophobic, metallic, darkness of a scientific research base. It’s one of the ironies of writing audios; you’re writing trying to create an atmosphere, but the atmosphere is the one thing which isn’t determined by what’s written on the page, it’s all down to the performances, the music and the sound design.

Thomas Brewster was your creation. Was he originally only meant to appear in three stories or was there always the intention to bring him back some day.

These things are always in flux. I think the original intention was for Brewster to be an on-going companion, that was certainly the intention with his first story, which was why the plot was based around him, and why so much of it was narrated by him (like a precursor of the Companion Chronicles, now I come to think of it!). But then very rapidly, for reasons I can’t remember but which had nothing to do with the character or the actor, I was asked to write him out in a one-episode story. As he barely featured in The Boy That Time Forgot, I’m not sure he really got a fair crack of the whip, so it was great news when Alan emailed me to say they were going to bring him back for another trilogy, this time with the sixth Doctor and Evelyn.

Can you tell any of our readers who may not have heard his stories a little about him?

No. They should buy the CDs or downloads to find out! If people aren’t sure which ones to get, get the ones where his name’s in the title.

What can you tell us about your latest story, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster? Reuniting the sixth Doctor with Evelyn once more, featuring another appearance by the very popular DI Menzies and the return of Thomas Brewster, did you find it hard to include all of these elements?

Well, the return of the very popular DI Menzies was my idea. Other people think it was their idea, but it was my idea, and I cleverly manipulated them into thinking it was their idea. I did this by including the character of a female police officer in the synopsis so that David, Alan and Nick would read it and think, ‘Why not make this female police officer DI Menzies?’ Which was great, right up until the point where we realized that, according to the CD release numbers, the Evelyn adventures take place before the Charlie adventures, so the Doctor shouldn’t have met Menzies yet. But I came up with a way around that which I think – by pure coincidence – turns out to be very ingenious. And the whole story is all about repercussions, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, and Menzies knowing the Doctor but the Doctor not knowing Menzies tied in with that.

The intention was TCOTB to be a big, mad, bold season-opener type story, a story which kicks things off, hits the ground running, with a lot of comedy,
where the story doesn’t just make the four regulars central to the story, but where the story is all about those four characters. Three of whom are claiming to be the Doctor!

You have mentioned that Crimes had a second draft by Eddie Robson before you polished it off and you did a second draft of the last in the trilogy, Industrial Revolution. What was the purpose of this?

To make the stories better. And to make the characterisation stronger, and more consistent; Eddie making sure DI Menzies sounded like she did in all his other stories, me making sure Brewster sounded like he did in all his other stories. But mainly because sometimes it’s quicker and easier to simply re-write a story than it is to script-edit it (the approach taken by most of the script editors on the series!). Rather than giving the writer notes saying ‘Maybe you should do this’ you just write it for them! And so long as we both had the final draft on our own scripts, there’d never be the situation of a script having something in it that the credited author wasn’t happy with. I think the ratio on both stories was about the same, about 70:30. Eddie stuck a few jokes in mine – which inevitably are the jokes that are quoted in reviews – and I stuck a few jokes in his, and changed the way that Brewster was written out! It’s an interesting approach – it can be quite exhausting rewriting your own script, you get too close to it, and you start getting a bit bored of it – and it’s certainly an approach I’d be happy to repeat, with Eddie, or other writers.

Would you say these two stories were co-written by the pair of you or that your own distinctive authorial voices shine through?

Like I said, about 70:30, but in terms of the concepts and the plots, Crimes is all mine, Evolution is all Eddie’s. It never got to the point where we had to add or remove characters or stuff like that.

Evelyn mentioned in A Death in the Family ‘that poor boy Brewster…’ – can we expect to shed some tears before this trilogy is over?

Stay tuned.

What can we expect from you in the future, Jonathan?

Well, as I’m writing, I’m working on three or four Big Finish things which I’m sure will be announced in the fullness of time. A couple of things I worked on last year/early this year have also yet to be announced; they are both very marvellous things so you can imagine my impatience that nobody knows about them! But I think it’s probably safe to say you’ll have plenty more Jonathan Morris stuff to review. And I hope Big Finish continue to ask me to write things for them; I absolutely love it, I really do, and I believe that, slowly but surely, I’m getting better at it.

One thing that I wrote last year has recently been announced is a story called ‘The Guardians Of Prophecy’. It’s an adaptation of an unmade outline by Johnny Byrne, featuring the sixth Doctor, Peri, and the Melkur from ‘The Keeper Of Traken’. Except the Melkur in that story wasn’t actually a Melkur, so TGOP is the first story with ‘real’ Melkur in! My script was based on a very detailed 20-page outline/scene breakdown. My job in adapting it was firstly to form it into a four-part structure – based on the structures of Johnny’s other Doctor Who stories - and then to write the script, as though it had been written by Johnny back in the mid-80’s with Eric Saward as script editor! In doing so, I had to make a few small changes for audio – the outline has the villain giving orders to the Melkur, which implies that the Melkur are able to answer back. And having been at the recording, I can confirm that they sound magnificent, Graham Cole does a really good job. They should have had him do the voice back in ‘The Keeper Of Traken’! The end result is a very traditional, but very robust and fun, Doctor Who adventure. Writing it, and hearing it recorded, it wasn’t difficult to imagine it as a studio-bound four-parter made in the mid-80’s. It’s not a direct ‘sequel’ to ‘The Keeper Of Traken’; it’s set on a similar medieval-futuristic planet, with a similar political set-up, and the Melkur are in it, but apart from that, it’s treading new ground. Traken has been destroyed so you can’t do a direct sequel! The process was an absolute pleasure and, as a great admirer of all of Johnny’s Doctor Who scripts, something of an honour.

Another thing I can talk about briefly is that I script-edited another unmade story ‘The Foe From The Future’, by John Dorney. As I’ve never script-edited anything else before, it made quite a change for me to be the one giving notes. I tried to be constructive and complimentary and I don’t think my notes were longer than the actual script by more than a few thousand words. Irrespective of my involvement, John has done a fantastic job with adapting the outline and I think people will love it.

I’m also massively enjoying writing the comic strips in Doctor Who magazine. At the moment I’m about four or five issues ahead, with a story which I am extremely excited about. For all sorts of reasons which I’m sure I’ll write about at length at some point in the future this story was a particular headache, but the end result is more than worth it. I think, I hope, people will literally swear out loud when they see the cliff-hanger to part one. I should, while I’m talking about the comic strips, give lots of credit to Scott Gray, who is not so much an editor on the comic strip as a collaborator; so many of the great bits in the comic strips that I happily take credit for were all down to him. But as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, this has been a total joy for me, a childhood ambition fulfilled, and it’s an honour to be continuing the work of such legends as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, and all the other writers who have come and gone since. I’d go into more detail about the individual stories but you haven’t asked me about them! Maybe I should save all the grisly details for the commentary in the graphic novel?

On top of that – this is getting to be quite a pile – I’ve written a documentary for a forthcoming DVD about the third season of Doctor Who, and the John Wiles/Donald Tosh era, and I’ve just written a Doctor Who novel called Touched By An Angel, which I hope you will be interviewing me about in great detail when it comes out. I’m extremely proud of it, it was very much a labour of love, a chance to show what I can do, and after seven or eight years I was just delighted, so absolutely delighted, to have the opportunity to write a Doctor Who novel again. Joe Lidster says it’s the best thing I’ve written. I think it’s certainly a step up from my earlier Doctor Who novels.

Aside from that, I have to mention that I also recently wrote a Dark Shadows audio, The Blind Painter. The set-up is similar to the Doctor Who Companion Chronicles, one voice from the series – in this case, Charles Delaware Tate, played by Roger Davis – and one guest voice – in this case, Eloise Verinder, played by Nicola Bryant. For fans of Dark Shadows, the story fills in a little piece of backstory; for those new to the series, the audio requires absolutely no previous knowledge of Dark Shadows and will work as a spooky, character-based ghost story in its own right.

I have beside my desk a list of other things I plan to write, non-Doctor Who things, but at the moment I’m very fortunate in that I don’t have the time. Given the choice, I’d rather write things that get made, or that get published, than stuff that only ever gets read by two or three producers and never sees the light of day. Suffice it to say I have lots of things I still want to write; lots of Doctor Who stories, plus books, films, sitcoms, dramas... it’s beginning to look like a career.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Innocence written by Gary Hopkins and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: 'I find it fascinating that a living creature would subject itself to such dangerous experimentation. Knowing that it would die...' The Kaled and Thal races are at war. No one really remembers why, or when it started, but generations of people on both sides have lost so very much. Born into an influential family is Davros. Now aged sixteen, he is being pulled in various directions his father wants him to follow tradition and go into the military. His sister has joined the Military Youth and his scheming, devoted mother wants him to pursue a life of science. But no one seems terribly interested in what Davros himself wants. So he must begin to assert himself, begin to take control over his own life, begin to work towards his destiny.

Scarred Scientist: Daleks holding a trial – how low they have sunk without him. Wow, I never thought that any series would be brave enough to humanise Davros to this extent, to take us right back to his childhood and reveal his slow and inevitable descent into madness. This first episode suggests that had the events of his life been different, if he was brought up on a planet at war that he could have been an incredibly successful scientist and known for genuinely benevolent innovations to science. Is Davros a product of his society? A young Davros tells his sister that there is more to life than Kaleds and Thals, life is life whatever shape it takes and he is fascinated by its various forms. He’s fascinated by evolution and natural selection. We get to meet Davros’ mother and sister, the former affording her son the most expensive education that money can buy and the latter jealous of her younger brothers favouritism. You can see precisely how Davros ended up as a scientist working for the military, his father is a war veteran and his mother is a scientist and they are both trying to pull him in their chosen career directions. How creepy is it when Davros first hears that Magrantine experiments on living organisms, you can almost hear the hunger in his voice, the fascination that will grow until he is deliberately mutating humanoids one day to encase in his Dalek machines. Is he ready to make sacrifices for scientific truth? Davros throwing himself into his studies rather than grieving for his father shows a growing reliance on science over emotion. Chilling that Davros suggests that they place the near dead into the energy chamber and mutate them, to see how the radiation affects the Kaled metabolism. He finds anatomical surgery exciting and this way the sick of their world can help the cause and nothing is wasted. His sister calls him a cold, heartless disgusting monster when he asks for the body of the man she loved but was forced to watch be executed to be experimented on. Only his mother believed in him, everybody else feared him and they were right to do so.

Standout Performance: Carolyn Jones (out and out the best thing about Gary Hopkins’ The Last) and Richard Franklin make an instantly impressive pair as Lady Calcula and Colonel Nasgard, Davros’ estranged parents. Her throaty passion for science and his stalwart determination for warfare sees the birth of a patriotic scientist in Davros. Rory Jennings who made such an impression in The Idiot’s Lantern plays the young Davros with just the right mixture of youthful enthusiasm and growing detachment and alienation.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘War does terrible things to good people.’
‘Nothing dies of old age on Skaro.’
‘That isn’t a communicator…’
‘A scientist must keep his emotions and his work separate from each other. Most of the great discoveries throughout history were made through pain and suffering. Nothing matters more than the truth.’
‘Mutation. Evolution by another name.’
‘There’s work to be done…’
‘Even if there isn’t a spy it is necessary to invent one…’

Great Ideas: The Daleks need Davros again because their wars are being defeated. When he first created them they were a powerful force to be reckoned with but now they skulk in the shadows too terrified to venture out and conquer. The war between the Kaleds and the Thals has been going nowhere for hundreds of years, they have reached a deadlock and nobody has a clear advantage. Colonel Nasgard’s wish to be put down as a soldier rather than returning to his family infirmed is a good indication of the importance the people of Skaro place on image. Poor Yarvel is treated like a second-class citizen by her own mother, told that the extra classes she has arranged for Davros would be wasted on her. The moons are visible in the city through a chemical haze but the Elite are afforded a clear view of the sky. The poisons of the wasteland are coming closer, the lakes will soon be polluted, the skies poisoned with toxic gasses – the Elite live in a bubble of fresh air and clean water but they cannot keep the war away forever. In a painfully inevitable scene Nasgard is told by his sister (who is a nurse) that the poisons had already eaten at his body by the time that Davros was conceived. He was sterile and could not have been his father. Magrantine wanted revenge on Nasgard for murdering his son in combat so he set the explosive that killed him and planned upon getting close to Davros and murdering him too.

Audio Landscape: Love the Dalek heartbeat, the blasted wind on Skaro, the crowded chatter of politicians, birds singing, the bubbling waters of the lake, a explosion tearing through Nasgard’s home, the doors sound just like the ones from Genesis, siren, rubble falling, creaking buildings and dust falling, Magrantine as a mutated creature, explosions rocking the Kaled city.

Isn’t it Odd: The cover for this story states proudly ‘Starring Terry Molloy’ which I think is rather unfair to Rory Jennings who plays the starring role in this first instalment.

Standout Scene: Calcula is such a fabulous Shakespearean villainess. As soon as the explosion tore through the Nasgard household, killing her husband who has returned from the war alive and forcing them to move away from the lake – two things she desperately wanted – I honestly thought I could see her grubby fingertips all over the attack. Her barely convincing heartbreak at her husband’s death is delicious. When it was revealed that she had nothing to do with it I was surprised but in a way even more appalled – she used his death to her advantage in every possible way whilst clearly not giving a shit. ‘I wouldn’t want people to think I had gotten used to the idea of widowhood so…enthusiastically.’ The series plays its hand quite early having Davros lock Magrantine in the radiation chamber when he cannot get any more specimens for study but it is a fantastic scene. He quietly tells his mentor that the people will understand that he has committed suicide over the death of his son.

Notes: I remember when I first watched Revenge of the Sith and whilst I am not the biggest Star Wars fan there was a wonderful sense of coming full circle as all the plot points that had been laboriously handled over the glossy new films suddenly dovetailed with the original trilogy beautifully. There was a sense of satisfaction and reward in seeing the two form cohesion. Like the original trilogy we know where the I, Davros series is going to end up – we have seen the blasted, radioactive Skaro in genesis of the Daleks and the scarred scientist who greedily eats up the planets resources to create his disgusting war machines. My point is I had that exact same sense of excitement as I did with Revenge of the Sith, that the tale was narrative up with the Skaro we know and that we would finally get some answers as to hoe Davros wound up quite as deranged as he did. The bonus this story has other Sith is that the actual events are pretty damn gripping too! I had goosebumps when there was talk of building a protective dome for the city if there should be a nuclear strike… How funny with all this talk of Star Wars that a character says ‘I am your father!’

Result: I really wasn’t sure how this series could work but it does so beautifully and I have never been happier to be proven wrong. Gary Russell has assembled an exceptionally strong cast to bring this gripping wartime drama to life and judging by the potency of Gary Hopkins’ opening script the very best of Big Finish’s writers too. I was very impressed that Hopkins managed to set the scene and tone of the running storyline, introduce a large number of interesting characters, seed plot points that will become vital in later instalments and tell an individual story all within its one hour running time. Innocence sees Davros fall into the arms of a scientist who introduces him to twisted views that would lead to the creation of the Daleks and it is with a great sense of foreboding that before the end of this story the pupil has already outgrown (and murdered) the master. This is an unfolding tragedy and all the pieces have been put in place, I can’t wait to see where we go from here: 9/10