Thursday, 30 June 2011

Deadline written by Robert Shearman and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: It's been forty years since Martin Bannister encountered the Doctor. They were different men back then. Martin was young and talented and The Times' seventh most promising writer to watch out for. The Doctor was mysterious, crotchety and possibly oriental. It was an encounter that destroyed both their lives. Pity poor Martin now... His career is in ruins, all forgotten. His estranged wives keep dying in the wrong order, and there's a nasty green stain by the wardrobe that could be an alien footprint or, possibly, just mould. Martin's life is about to change unexpectedly… Impromptu poetry readings. Elephant expeditions. An obligatory bug-eyed monster. And a last, desperate chance for love, before it's too late. Sounds like it's time for the Doctor to come into Martin's life again. And sort him out. Permanently.

Trev’s Brother: Martin Bannister is one of the finest characters in any Big Finish audio drama because he provokes the listener into feeling so much towards him. Throughout the course of this piece I felt sympathy, hatred, annoyance, shock…in a way he reminds me of Tom Baker before he became the cuddly Uncle he is today, Thoughtlessly rude, hilariously arrogant and scathingly intelligent- maybe not a person you would want to know personally but someone who it is always fascinating to listen to and be provoked by. In some ways the premise that fuels Deadline is even more heartbreaking than the one in Auld Mortality. A broken, failed writer trussed up in a nursing home and taking the elements of his dull life and trying to recreate them into a mysterious and exciting adventure in time and space. You have to wonder what Martin could possibly have done to make his son what to hurt him so badly by visiting and telling him that they had his wife’s funeral without him. His only reaction is that his wife forgave him everything and that was why he found her so dull. When he was young he wrote plays of dazzling sophistication and intellectual rigour but eventually got stuck on a show as tedious as Juliet Bravo. He never got Doctor Who off the ground but he was in love with a show that had that much imagination – he could do anything and go anywhere. Reality and fantasy starting bleeding into one another until Martin doesn’t know if he really is Doctor Who (should that be the name of the character or the series?) or an old man in a nursing home. His characterisation was always disappointing because he never took the time to understand real people, not even his family. Unbelievably Martin pours his wife’s ashes into a tea cup and then when asked by his son why he left them he tells him that he thought they were boring! Its almost enough to argue for families to live under a pretence of niceness and keep the bubbling resentment away! Like Dickens and all the great writers he treated his family like shit because only the art mattered.

Standout Performance: The chance to hear the scenes where Ian and Barbara enter the TARDIS for the first time being played with Derek Jacobi in the role of the Doctor is worth buying this CD for alone. I never realised that the marvellous Jacqueline King had played a part in a Big Finish audio before appearing in the series as Sylvia Noble…and it was a lovely surprise to find her here playing the role of Miss Wright. Her hysterical madness when talking about her ex Ian Chesterton is shocking stuff. Peter Forbes has the impossible job of bringing a character as loathsome as Phillip to life and he gives one of the tour de force performances from Big Finish – he’s exceptionally good at provoking sympathy whilst at the same time you hate what he has become. All this in just a handful of scenes.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Does it mean the Granddaughter is called Susan Who? Doctor Who? Sounds vaguely oriental.’
‘We know each and every anecdote back to front!’ – Is he talking about Terrance Dicks? Even my husband who only flirts with watching the classic series has picked up enough from DVD Commentaries to be able to shout out ‘Daleks are not wobots!’ and ‘The colour for monsters is always gween!’ oh and that brilliant one about the kid who refused to take his teddy bear to bed!
‘Any series which kicked off with Neanderthals grunting about making fire wouldn’t have lasted four weeks let alone a full year!’
‘But Grandfather I love you!’ ‘Well I don’t love you so sod off!’ – my all time number one ‘I wish this had been in the series’ exchange.
‘Doctor Who you utter bastard!’
‘If we weren’t father and son we wouldn’t have anything in common at all! I wouldn’t give you the time of day! – a brilliant line that probably works nine times out of ten when applied to families.
‘You start of as an Unearthly Child but before long you’ll be just another teenage girl screaming at shadows and needing to be rescued.’

Great Ideas: How does he do it? How does Rob Shearman get to the ugly heart of relationships so succinctly? When Phillip rages at his father about how much he hates him and that he refuses to let his son feel about him the way he does about his father…well it might have well have been me talking. It’s a universal theme but one that Shearman pulls off with uncomfortable accuracy. Looking into the notes of the behind the scenes making of Doctor Who when it was first broadcast there were scrawled notes all over the synopses for the characters with one line comments and suggestions from Sydney Newman – just like Rob Shearman plays out over the first scene of Deadline. Ouch, Shearman makes a brilliant dig about Martin’s writing career which has won him awards for sophisticated dramas but all he is remembered for is a cheap old tatty serial that appealed to the masses. Beautifully tying in with Auld Mortality the Doctor takes Ian, Barbara and Susan to the time of Hannibal. When they land on a petrified jungle on an alien planet Martin comments that it doesn’t look like the basis of an educational series and…oh dear – a bug eyed monster! Sydney Newman would never approve! Martin is appalled to learn that there are unofficial Juliet Bravo magazines as well as the official one…and videos, conventions, spin off novels and audio dramas featuring a handful of the original cast (‘the programme may be dead but it still lives on for us!’)! He’s perfectly disgusted to hear that grown men are trying to analyse a show that was just supposed to be a bit of cheap Saturday night viewing that was supposed to get the viewers from the football scores to the Generation Game! Perhaps I have matured like a stinky old cheese but I remember finding this all very distasteful in my youth but much like Sydney I seemed to be missing the point rather. This stuff is ingeniously self facing – and me writing a sentence as pretentious as that (and all the others in all those reviews)…well I’m just as bad. Writing reviews about stories about writing reviews and how sad it all is…I’ve just gone boss eyed. When Ian and Barbara die of radiation sickness Susan figures at least now she doesn’t have to do the homework they set her. The last scene is brilliantly ambiguous as Martin realises he has ruined everything only outside the wardrobe – inside he can be whoever he wants to be.

Audio Landscape: Nicholas Briggs makes a very wise move and doesn’t try and distract the listener from the strength of the script and the performances with a lot of audio trickery. As such the sudden scratching and banging at the wardrobe and the footsteps that approach are really frightening.

Musical Cues: Every time Martin remembers the series there is a lovely flash of the opening bars of the Hartnell theme tune.

Standout Scene: In a moment of unbelievable dark humour (even for Rob Shearman) Phillip admits that his mother isn’t dead and he made it all up just so he could see his dad and he bought and burnt a guinea pig to pose as her ashes. Words fail me.

Result: What if Doctor Who never made it to the screen? One of the boldest, most subversive scripts to bear the Doctor Who logo which also rather brilliantly takes the time to insult the hell out of me. There are so many spine tingling breaths of genius to the writing it would impossible to list them all but as usual Rob Shearman has put a lot of thought into his material and ensured that there is much to think about after you have turned it off. Big Finish should be proud for producing something that is so clearly going to divide opinion and a lot of the continuity is used as a weapon that knifes you in the gut over and over. Want to hear the Doctor swearing at Susan? Want to listen to Barbara talking about her scummy ex Ian Chesterton? Want to imagine Doctor Who as the work of a failed man who cruises through life treating people like shit for the sake of his art? Want to hear the brains behind Doctor Who mistakenly appearing to molest a young boy in a cupboard under the illusion of taking him for a trip into time and space? Maybe not but I suggest that you do. This is button pushing at its best and practically every line is a gem. I can understand why I used to hate this story but now I love it and oddly its for exactly the same reasons: 10/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

He Jests At Scars written and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: The thing about meddling with time is that one moment something is real, the next, it's been erased. Probability become just a possibility. Established truth becomes a theoretical falsehood. Like dominoes, as one timeline falls, the others come cascading down around it. You can engineer new timelines, new possibilities but before long, the distinction between what is, what was, what might be and what never can be becomes blurred. Out of this grow myths, lies and legends. The Doctor was one such legend, but no one knows whether he truly ever existed. Well, not now they don't. The Mighty One, ruling the multiverses from the eternal city of Chronopolis has made sure of that.

Evil Doctor: The Valeyard is characterised with such extraordinary subtlety that he snaps the neck of one of the cute wickle Pakhars just so we know he’s evil. What good is power if it sits around with no one making use of it? Throughout his lives he has let objects of power and influence pass through his hands but never again. He is a conglomerate, composite Doctor – a 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Doctor all in one possibly superior mind and body that has absorbed (via the Matrix) all those future Doctor memories and experiences. He is weaving new and far more interesting patterns in the fabric of space and time… but why exactly? If the Valeyard has the collective intelligence of all the Doctor’s incarnations then surely he has enough common sense to realise what he is doing is catastrophic even to himself. Oh right but he’s a villain isn’t he? So he has to behave in stupid and overcomplicated ways because that’s what’s expected of him. Its thoroughly tedious – especially after David Bishop’s far more interesting bad Doctor in Full Fathom Five. Hilariously he calls his past selves stupid when he is the one who wants to allow the Romans to conquer space so he has an army to back him up on his adventures. Yaaaaawn. Its inexplicable that anybody would think that they could pull this many threads out of the timeline and not make it unravel – you never once believe in this character.

Alternative Ginge: Spare us the thought of Mel becoming a violent, aggressive bully who calls people things like ‘lice infected crud.’ She even says you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry! Mel is looking for the Doctor and if she doesn’t like what he has to say she is going to execute him. Mel kills the last Tharil and doesn’t give a damn. Russell takes the time to voice fandom opinion of Mel (holier than thou, squeaky voice, etc) which is kind of like shitting all over the good work done with her character in the audio range. Criticising something that handled badly in the series in a story that is handled unbelievably badly has a certain irony to it don’t you think?

Great Ideas: The Doctor never escaped the Matrix at the end of Trial of a Time Lord because he went back to try and save his nemesis. The Valeyard has wiped out the all the time sensitive races and kept one example alive.

Audio Landscape: Clanking chains, Gallifreyan staser, rocks falling, a Pakhar voice, seagulls, Silurian doors, screams as the time vortex is tossed aside, the destruction of Gallifrey.

Musical Cues: Appropriately for the weakest Unbound story, the title music is shite as well.

Isn’t it Odd:
· The first scene is unpleasantly written (with far too much emphasis on weak characterisation and insults) and directed (with an ugly echo to events that makes the scene sound untreated).
· Of all the people Gary Russell could have included as the Valeyard’s companion he chooses Ellie from the Sarah Jane Smith audios who is only a very minor character from that series. For anyone to get the link they would have to be extremely geeky and otherwise she is a complete nobody.
· Megalomanical malefiecence do not belong in the same sentence together let alone next to each other.
· The Time Lords are so stupid in this story that they need Mel to point out that the Valeyard changing history willy nilly is a bad thing. Before points this out their attitude is ‘Well he hasn’t changed that much.’ And then its suddenly all of time and space has been thrown out of whack and they start panicking. There’s a word for characterisation this shocking – delinquent.
· Why didn’t Russell take this opportunity to ask why the Valeyard is so evil rather than taking it as given and having him twirl his moustache at every given opportunity. That would have made a far more interesting story.
· Naturally the Valeyard destroys Gallifrey with the Doomsday Weapon because…well just because. That’s what villains do, isn’t it?
· When the Valeyard commits accidental murder of his fourth self preventing him from becoming his fifth self I was desperately hoping that this whole sorry mess would be over. Its not even enjoyably complicated – it’s a run of idiotic moves by the Valeyard that cause more problems to solve than benefits to himself – its just ridiculous.
· Then things get even more daft when the Valeyard figures that by destroying Logopolis before the fourth Doctor visited means that he could never have gone there in the first place to be killed in the time ram! This skips through so many hoops of illogic I can’t even be bothered to discuss it.
· The eternal city of Chronopolis turns out to be…Brighton. Big woo.
· ‘I will be a God!’ – that was the one cliché the Valeyard hadn’t succumbed to. Nice to see he goes the whole hog.
· ‘Right now your brain is being munched by the Web of Time!’ – where’s the script editor?
· Why is the Valeyard doing what he’s doing… ‘because I want to.’ I’ve stepped in dried up puddles with more depth.
· The Valeyard visited his previous incarnations at many different times and places and tried to convince them to do things differently and when they disagreed he killed them all. Can this script get any more ridiculous?
· When the Valeyard rants about meddling with the continuity of the Doctor’s life’s it might have well have been Russell talking directly to the audience.

Continuity Skewered: Like Russell needs a reason to consume oodles of continuity and vomit it out in a narrative – that’s been his raison d’etre ever since he began writing original Doctor Who (and I use the term original loosely). It would have been more of an Unbound adventure if the ‘what if’ had been ‘what if Gary Russell wrote a Doctor Who story that was continuity free?’ So we start with Ellie complaining that the Valeyard moans about her carrying weapons unless it suits him (ala the seventh Doctor and Ace), the Pakhar’s (okay that’s one of Russell’s so we’ll let him off on that count), the Trial is mentioned and to please the fans its ‘as if this whole sorry business never happened’ (groan), Vansell from the Gallifrey series, discussion of the Watcher (its not unheard for a Time Lord at the point of death to receive a visitation from their self in a proto plasmic pupae stage), watching the ‘Hyperion escapade’ with the Valeyard in the Doctor’s role (he leaves the Commodore and his whole crew dead and leaves the ‘augmented aubergines’ to their own devices), discussion of Mel not meeting with the Doctor in a police station in Brighton because the Valeyard prevented it (Russell trying to canonise his PDA, Business Unusual), the Valeyard gave a formula to the Thals and stopped the Daleks from being created, the Galapagos Islands featuring the Silurians (from Jonathan Morris’ far superior Bloodtide), the Doomsday Weapon on Exarius (Colony in Space), he wants to stop himself destroying Logopolis and nick the Master’s TARDIS (Logopolis), Time ramming the Master’s TARDIS (The Time Monster), Tharils (Warriors’ Gate), the Monan Host (Gallifrey series), Urbankans (Four to Doomsday), Moroks (The Space Museum), a de-horned Nimon (Horns of Nimon), Navarino (Delta and the Bannermen), Steven and an extinct bird (Dodo), ‘Lets go back to Kiev and grab that ridiculous Dodo girl’ (Bunker Soldiers), there’s an appalling spin on the Doctor’s speech to Davros in Remembrance of the Daleks, ‘Carrot Juice, Carrot Juice, Carrot Juice’, Mel killed on the colony world of Heritage (Heritage), killed on the Starship Nostferatu II (Dragonfire), Cybermen, Sontarans, Peri, Evelyn, Hex, Ace, Charley, C’rizz…MAKE IT FUCKING STOOOOOOOOP!

Result: This should have been the most exciting Unbound adventure of the lot (the Valeyard’s back!) but the fact that it is possibly the worst audio adventure ever released by Big Finish says something about the quality (or lack of) of the writing. The script is stupid, illogical, crammed full of tedious amounts of continuity in place of characterisation and plotted with all the skill of a child being given sticky backed plot points and shoving them all over a wall willy nilly. Its so absurdly awful you have to wonder why someone didn’t take Russell to one side and say something. His direction is at its lowest ebb too with lots of horrid noise going on in the background of most scenes that are the only distraction from the sweaty bollocks that is playing out in the script. Immature, unsophisticated and soulless, you would be hard to find a single example of audio drama that sets its sights lower than this. I cannot think of a single reason this was made beyond a warning to never do anything like it ever again. What if Doctor Who was really, really shit: 0/10

Buy it from Big Finish here (if you dare...):

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Full Fathom Five written by David Bishop and directed by Jason Haigh-Ellery

What’s it about: "If I told you the truth, I'd have to kill you..." The Deep-sea Energy Exploration Project was apparently destroyed by dirty bombs in 2039 AD, turning the surrounding sea bed into a radioactive tomb. Rumours suggest the DEEP was conducting illegal, unethical experiments... In 2066 the Doctor discovers the research centre remains intact. The terrible truth about what happened twenty-seven years ago will soon be revealed. The Doctor is determined to be the first to uncover and confront the secrets of the DEEP. But unearthing the past can have terrible consequences for your future…

Cool Collings: Imagine if the Doctor was the villain of the piece? An intelligent, devious, manipulative man who dresses up his adventures as something good? This the third Unbound story in a row that has been expertly cast – David Collings has portrayed a number of impressive roles throughout classic Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel and Blakes’ 7 and I have never seen him give a less than stellar performance. His turn here as the growling, bitter Time Lord is unforgettably nightmarish and I don’t know if I could handle a continued series with him because he scares me so much! Never one to pull his punches, the Doctor nakedly tells Ruth that his father is dead despite whatever she may have read in a top secret report. He made a promise to her father that he would keep her safe and he intends to keep it. The Doctor isn’t a stupid man and he knows Hoskins brought him to the DEEP to smuggle something away. He left the TARDIS 27 years ago and now he has come back to claim it – he has been trapped on Earth all that time waiting for the radiation levels to come down. He starts destroying evidence of the secret project that was taking place in the DEEP. The Doctor refuses to carry firearms and points out that the last person to brandish it is dead anyway. To hear the Doctor say ‘I don’t care if he lives or dies’ is brutal – it’s the last sentence I would ever expect to part his lips. Ruth’s father made him promise that he would never let her know that he became a monster. Lee tries to get the Doctor into a ends-justifies-the-means debate by asking if he would have stopped the obscene experiments during World War II if he knew that the research data would save millions in the future. We’ve already seen the dirty side of his nature creep out but when he shoots Lee to drive his point home I was clapping with delight. What on Earth will this nutcase do next? He has no concept of what is right or wrong when he understands what is for the best and when that means killing somebody he is perfectly willing to pull the trigger. He’s like a rabid animal when the TARDIS key is dangled in front of him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I came here to ensure the secrets of the DEEP stay buried…’
‘You gunned down an innocent man just to tidy up a loose end!’
‘One down. I wonder how many more lives this bastard has left…’

Great Ideas: Splitting the narrative between the Doctor and Ruth discovering what did happen at the DEEP and actually experiencing the tale with the Doctor at the same time is a clever conceit that allows David Bishop to set up surprises in one and then spring them in the other. Chimney like structures on the seabed pumping vent mineral rich water into the ocean at temperatures approaching 370 degrees. Black smoke could the new hit energy supply. Ruth’s fathers negligence poisoned the fish stock for miles around and many lost their businesses. A ring of mines in the ocean that the Doctor avoids by making the submarine appear organic. Lee has been diverting funding from the Black Smoke project to run his own experiments on the sidelines. The military were never interested in the Black Smoke project – they just needed a credible smokescreen for the real work that was going on. The DEEP was the site for a series of vile experiments that saw genetically enhanced DNA being taken from marine species living in the vicinity of the black smoke and injected into growth accelerated human clones. Trying to create a super soldiers in utterly unethical and extremely dangerous experiments. There were grotesque failures that were left to rot in the vats, even babies. Ruth’s father became the scapegoat when everything went wrong. A cluster of dirty bombs was placed around the base so nobody could come near the place for years. The General wound up becoming the very super soldier that he was trying to create.

Audio Landscape: Seagulls screaming in the sea air, the sea rolling into the shore, the rusty hatches of the Neptune, proximity sensors, sonar, water dripping on the decks, the submarine docking with the DEEP facility, bubbling vats in Lee’s laboratory, the echoing hull of the base after the devastation, ripping pages and burning them, heart monitors, Hoskins being heard whilst torn apart over the intercom, I really like the gurgling voices for the infected people,

Musical Cues: Wowza, one of the most dramatic scores ever to grace a Big Finish production and no mistake. Matching the bombastic, unrelenting attitude of the script, Toby Robinson ensures that this is going to be as exciting as possible. I especially love the single note piano strikes during the tensest scenes.

Isn’t it Odd: Some of the characters err on the wrong side of melodrama (well it is in keeping with the tone) in places and whilst it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the piece for me in the slightest I could imagine other people finding it a bit flat. Vollmer is the worst example with his peace loving protests but Ruth gets infected by the stories end. I personally don’t mind stories that slant this way as long as there is strong drama at the heart of the tale to justify it and Full Fathom Five deals with enough weighty issues to get away with it.

Standout Scene: Full Fathom Five saves its best surprise until the conclusion: that the Doctor murdered Ruth’s father to stop any part of Lee’s experiments from leaving the base. When Ruth discovers this the Doctor decides that she needs to be silenced too. I’m sure other people have thought about the shock of killing the Doctor and then as soon as he wakes up murdering him again until all of his regenerations are wasted but David Bishop is the writer who actualises it and it is a perfect place to leave this story on. Wasting all of those potentially long lives in a few seconds because he failed to live up to his name. Its brutal and shocking and brilliant.

Result: Full Fathom Five is right up my street. A concealed underwater location dripping with secrets, discussions of morality in science, twisted surprises around every corner and a truly haunting interpretation of the Doctor. I don’t give a damn that the melodrama is turned up to the umpteenth degree, this is quite simply a deliriously exciting slice of traditional Doctor Who which is so dark it is looking out at ‘normal’ Doctor Who from the other side of an evil universe mirror. This is a Doctor who is willing to murder, who curses and who has no principles when it comes to doing what he considers right. David Collins is so frighteningly good in the role I had the chills before the story was over and I kept thinking how this was just like the first Doctor when we first met him but pushed into even more extreme circumstances. I love David Bishop’s uncomplicated and direct approach to storytelling – he cuts straight through all the pretence and gets straight to the drama and as a result this story has real pace and atmosphere. Definitely a one off but a kick ass one: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Monday, 27 June 2011

Sympathy for the Devil written by Jonathan Clements and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: 1997… and a lone exile arrives on Earth, years later than planned. On the eve of the Handover, an advanced Chinese stealth bomber crashes in the hills above Hong Kong. The discredited UNIT has just 24 hours to steal the technology, rescue the passenger and flee to international waters. Down by the harbour, there's big trouble in Little England - a bar owned by an old soldier, who simply wants to forget the past. But an ancient evil is stirring in a place of peace. The Doctor finds a world on the brink of terror. A world that has lived without him for years. A world that is frighteningly like our own…

Alternative Good Grief: Another obvious choice to play the Doctor is David Warner who has worked his way through many cult TV shows, impressed in movies and enjoyed a vast range of roles with Big Finish. Like Geoffrey Bayldon he is one of the countries leading acting talents of his generation and it is a delight to see him dominate a story with his own unique take on the Doctor. I seemed to remember him being far more abrasive in this story but my biggest impression was of a sensitive and beaten man who is trying to make the best out of bad situation. He often picks the wrong time to arrive and realises that something is very wrong when he lands in a world where the Brigadier is a pub owner rather than a military man. Because in this reality the Doctor was never exiled to Earth the Brigadier doesn’t understand why the Doctor has a different face and the Doctor palms him off with a story about cosmetic surgery. The Doctor’s superiors don’t like him interfering. The Master tells the Doctor that he never sees the big picture, that he just turns up and helps the little people but he argues that they are all little people. He makes a difference where he can with the people around him, he can’t change everything but he can make a difference for the common good. He can’t be everywhere at once and the Master accuses him of abandoning the Earth during the Dinosaur and Lizard disasters. The Doctor turning his back on the madness that spreads at the end of this story is shocking but its less him being thoughtless and more him not thinking the Earth is his responsibility. There are so many potential story ideas in that it is such a shame we only had one more adventure with this pair.

Alternative Chap With Wings: He didn’t get much to do in Spectre of Lanyon Moor and was let down badly by Minuet in Hell and so if you want a thoroughly enjoyable slice of Brigadier audio action Sympathy for the Devil is the one for you. Nicholas Courtney is always a joy to listen to and he builds an immediate rapport with David Warner. The Brigadier is running a pub in this timeline and Englishman’s house is his castle – trespasser will be shot. He was a career embarrassment and only noticed when he made mistakes and problems like that start to build up on your record until you are discharged. There was nothing for him in Britain anymore and so he sought refuge in Hong Kong. He’s a past master at Venusian acupuncture! We hear that the Brigadier was made a laughing stock after the Auton fiasco as he ranted about plastic daffodils being unsafe and he became known as the man who whenever he organised a peace conference somebody was killed!

Standout Performance: David Tennant’s Brimmicombe-Wood was the best thing to come out of the UNIT series and it is a joy to see him in another spin off series. Whilst I genuinely think Lethbridge-Stewart’s personal and polite approach to problems (except when it’s the enemy of course, then open fire!) is the better way it is very refreshing to see the other, less cricket, approach. Bullish, insulting, arrogant and thoroughly unlikable, Wood is hilarious and fun to be around (‘Take it up with Miss Manners!’). ‘It’s the Chinese Ambassador!’ ‘Och, tell him to piss off.’ ‘Boo hoo! Don’t be such a pansy!’ Hahaha! A definite officer but not a gentleman. I bet Mark Gatiss was jumping with joy at the chance to bring to life an alternative Master and he approaches the role with all the oil and menace you would imagine.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Where were you when I needed you?’
‘You can’t just barge in there…it’s a Buddhist temple!’ – what would Barry Letts say to see his innovations to the series shat on so completely?

Great Ideas: An invisible jet crashing into the hills. The Curler Division are the Chinese brigade of rehabilitated criminals, suicidal zombies that fight on the front lines. That’s a very nice take on the Keller Machine from Mind of Evil. UNIT will allow Curler to defect, war crimes and all, if he comes up with stealth gadgetry for them. The Master is brainwashing soldiers for the Chinese and fleeing before the handover back to the people he betrayed. The Soul Jar is a prison for something that feeds on human misery, madness and evil and the Monks have been chanting day and night for many centuries to keep it from effecting the people who live in the surrounding areas. It turns out that Captain Yates and team of crackpot soldiers volunteered to go back in time with nuclear warheads to wipe out the Silurians before they had a chance to get a foothold on London. As a result there is a large abscess at the heart of London where the explosions took place. The Doctor wasn’t there to help during the Mars Probe crisis and that’s why there is a line of craters in America. The Master lived through all of these disasters exiled to Earth whereas the Doctor was nowhere to be seen. Rather wonderfully the Master is tricked into thinking that the Brigadier’s pub is the Doctor’s TARDIS. Unbelievably the Doctor and the Brigadier skip off as the world goes mad, the Curler troops have been driven mad by their conditioning and are taking out their vengeance on the whole world. Starting with Hong Kong.

Audio Landscape: Nightlife is conjured up very well with late night traffic, music blaring from a pub and bottles being smashed and rolling along the pavement, an explosive atomic test, the Brigadier clearly up the empties, a jet roaring overhead and crashing into flaming wreckage, wind stirring the trees, insects in the scrub, helicopter blades, crackling radio communications, guns cocked, chanting monks, the creature feeding off anger, birdsong, fireworks exploding in the sky, bullets flying everywhere, helicopters crashing.

Musical Cues: Now we have moved into an alternative seventies the theme music is much bouncy, much more…disco. There’s a gorgeous exotic sting every time the Doctor starts reminiscing and it sends you off down memory lane with him.

Isn’t it Odd: Given what I am currently reviewing in the main range (ie after his time) it was a real shock to hear Gary Russell’s voice in a Hitchcockian cameo again.

Standout Scene: The last scene really warms the cockles because the Doctor gives the Brigadier a chance to redeem himself and venture off into time and space with him. It is a partnership that I hope had many, many adventures together.

Result: What if the Master had been exiled to Earth rather than the Doctor? The answers aren’t pretty. Sympathy of the Devil is an odd beast for sure because the main plot that is cobbled together from elements of The Mind of Evil isn’t really very interesting but all of the peripheral elements combine to make the overall piece one that is well worth seeking out. You have the gorgeous Warner/Courtney dynamic which is so successful it scored a sequel, a lovely oily turn from mark Gatiss as the hard done by Master who was forced to live through all the invasions the Doctor failed to stop and the world building is extraordinary – painting a picture of a devastated Earth that has taken too many knocks from Silurians, Dinosaurs, Autons and the like. As an audio production it is very good indeed with some strong direction from Gary Russell and a beautiful score. I forgive this story its few sins just to be able to spend a few more seconds with David Tennant’s brilliantly rude Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood: 7/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Auld Mortality written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In a marble mausoleum, deep in the cisterns beneath the Capitol, Gallifrey's favourite author faces his ultimate destiny. Who is the woman who claims to be his granddaughter? Who is the sepulchral figure in robes of night? Which path should Hannibal's army take to Rome? And on a snowy mountain high in the Alps, the Doctor remembers the ultimate question: What if he and Susan had never left Gallifrey?

Alternative Hmm: I cannot imagine anything more devastating than the thought that the Doctor never left Gallifrey and simply dreamed of his adventures from afar. Its such a stirring idea I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire series of Unbound adventures wasn’t commissioned on the strength of it. Think of all those adventures undone, all those people he never would have met and all those companions living dreary lives without the joy of travelling through time and space. Think of your own childhood without the Doctor. It’s too devastating to contemplate and Auld Mortality whips me up into an emotional state quicker than most stories take their entire running time to achieve.

The Doctor is writing an exciting novel featuring himself on the planet Earth observing (not interfering with the course of history) the crossing of the Alps by Hannibal. His characters always get uppity and start writing their own stories. His manservant Badger is programmed for the lowest form of wit. The Doctor doesn’t give a damn about Presidential policies but instead obsesses over the reports from the observatories. He could drink a Macedonian under the table. He is studying the planet Earth because intoxicatingly it has an ongoing history unlike Gallifrey, which stop evolving so long ago. It is just like the Doctor to make an embarrassment of the family, ass over ceremonial tit in his robes! No one else in the family ever showed so much promise. He’s living in a crypt underground down in the cisterns under the Capitol but he thinks he is in rooms in the Capitol. He always wanted to travel and had his eye on an old TARDIS that was retired and due for the breakers. Time is a concept that has gone out of the window within his fantasy life. He’s made his fantasies real but sometimes he can’t tell where reality stops and imagination begins. Once he thought he saw himself spiralling between worlds in an old TARDIS just like he had always planned to but he can’t because they wont let him.

Simply Susan: All of his family disowned him…or possibly he disowned them and there was only one person who saw things his way. Dear little Susan who was always full of wonder and looking for the best in things. When she starts spouting out the usual Time Lord propaganda the Doctor wishes he had taken her education in hand. She worked hard at the Academy and if she becomes President she will open the windows and blow out the stale air and if she can’t open them she will throw stones at them!

Standout Performance: If the Unbound series is the embodiment of ‘what if…’ then Big Finish have triumphed one of my all time wishes – to see the superb character actor Geoffrey Bayldon play the Doctor. There are shades of William Hartnell in his performance but Bayldon is too good an actor to merely rely on mimicry. What we get is a gentle, thoughtful but still bitingly controversial (at least in the eyes of his people) Doctor who has so much potential. I love how the tale tucks him into a fantasy land of adventure, driving home his need for exploration and giving the audience a massive shock of joy when he finally gets his wish at the end and plays the role he always should have done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We have the gift of time travel but do we visit the universe? No! We just catalogue it!’
‘I want to understand other worlds, Susan! The historical figures I can never meet! I want to know what the aliens think and eat and smell like.’
‘Possibility theory and imagination – two of the relative dimension we’ve hardly come to explore!’
‘You don’t know if it is impossible until they tell you it is impossible!’
‘Time’s roses. Scented with memory.’

Great (Unbound) Ideas: Half a galaxy has gone down to the Thalek Empire but nobody on Gallifrey batters and eyelid because it doesn’t threaten them. The Doctor refused to even entertain the idea of campaigning for the Presidency – he knows full well that they never survive a second term! Quences is long dead but is still manipulating the Doctor’s life via Badger in his fantasy. He snuck his brain in Badgers positronic minds, the servant that he gave the Doctor. Any unscheduled excursion into the universe disrupts the Web of Time. Later today Susan takes her first steps as a candidacy of President of the Supreme Council. The Doctor genuinely believed that there was a TARDIS in the generator but it was just a literary conceit to get his characters from one place to another. There are paintings in the Presidential office, pictures of investitures going right back and Auld Mortality is there. Sometimes only a shadow but he is in all of them, always in dark robes just behind the President as if he is whispering in his ear. The generator was a TARDIS all along and he was inside it all this time…buried under all the paper! The idea that we don’t know if the TARDIS really was there or just another illusion is the perfect finishing touch.

Audio Landscape: Elephants trumpeting, birdsong, marching beasts, footsteps crunching on snow, crackling fire, a screaming blizzard, sheathing swords, banging on door, water running.

Musical Cues: It’s been so long since I have heard the music stirrings of Alistair Lock that I had (almost) forgotten what a talent he was during those early days of Big Finish. His music is unmistakable and I recognised the light and dark underpinning of events instantly without having to look at the sleeve. I wont complain too much – we currently have musicians such as Jamie Robertson and Steve Foxon delighting us with their scores – but it does as well to remember that Lock and Russell Stone were as important as Murray Gold is to the new series in their day.

Standout Scene: The moment the Doctor realises who Susan is my heart melted. The two of them putting their minds together to whisk away somewhere completely different left me beaming. The melding of two fantasies – the Panopticon and Hannibal’s expedition makes for a very memorable scene.

Notes: Drafting Marc Platt to write the opening instalment was a clever idea and anybody familiar with the New Adventures will recognise the plot elements and characters from Platt’s Lungbarrow. It is a lovely way of bringing those ideas alive in audio without suggesting it is established continuity.

People have complained that Big Finish haven’t released another series of Unbound adventures (aside from a sequel to this adventure and the next one) which I find a little odd because all of the spin of material is pretty much ‘what if?’ stories brought to life. What if Jago & Litefoot had their own series? What if there was a political drama set on Gallifrey? What if the Daleks fronted their own series? What if a companion headed off for her own adventures after leaving the Doctor? That is not to say that I do not consider these series’ canon (or whatever word is bandied about to suggest something is real Doctor Who or not) but the Unbound series is still going strong today in all manner of spin series and that should make all of us smile.

When the Doctor fell into the generator with Susan I honestly thought that Platt was going to suggest that his adventures with Susan and beyond were all a fiction and he had lost his mind inside his fantasy world. Just imagine that – all those adventures we shared with the Doctor and in all that time he was a decrepit old man slowly dying in a crypt underneath the Capitol on Gallifrey. Dreaming. What a chilling prospect.

Result: Proof that not all stories set on Gallifrey have to be stuffy political dramas; Auld Mortality is one of the most sensual and emotional dramas yet. Bristling with imagination and intelligence and taking the idea of ‘what if?’ to its most extreme (what if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?), I was impressed how this unique production sucked me in so completely. The potential for this to stretch into a series of adventures is irresistible with the gorgeous Geoffrey Bayldon giving a beautiful performance as the Doctor and accompanied by Carole Ann Ford who gives her best ever performance as Susan. The line between fantasy and reality is one that we all have to face and I have rarely seen it handled in such an optimistic and creative manner. The last scene splits the drama two ways that really shows that the possibilities truly are endless and it remains one of the best scenes in Doctor Who. Ever: 10/10

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Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Boy That Time Forgot written by Paul Magrs and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: A lost world. A prehistoric civilization. A dark secret. The Doctor and Nyssa find themselves transported from Victorian London back to the dawn of time, accompanied by debonair adventurer Rupert Von Thal and no-nonsense novelist Beatrice Mapp. Together these unlikely heroes must brave primitive jungles and battle ravening insects as they make their way to the city of the giant scorpions, ruled over by... The Boy That Time Forgot.

An English Gentleman: Considering his exile on Earth during his third incarnation it is odd that I have come to rely on the TARDIS so much to recognise the show as Doctor Who and to the point where having a story that bypasses the ship completely feels very fresh and original. To see the Doctor having to rely on his wits with no chance of escape and to find new ways to travel about is very refreshing. I wouldn’t ever extract the TARDIS from Doctor Who permanently - it is the most wonderful plot expediency that has allowed to visit all manner of places and times - but as a diversion from the norm The Boy That Time Forgot offers an intriguing alternative.

When the Doctor says that some of his best friends have been human beings Nyssa comments that she has never understood that (but then I guess her only example of long term exposure to humans is Tegan and that would be enough to put anybody off the species). The Doctor considered Adric headstrong, argumentative and loyal (hmm I’ll go with the first two but I’m not so sure about the last…perhaps the Doctor chooses to remember him that way after their painful parting). Telling Adric to grow up must have been extremely satisfying for both the Doctor and Peter Davison! There’s a lovely moment when the Doctor bowls out one of the scorpions. He wonders how he makes such a mess of things sometimes and Nyssa sympathises, saying she knows how hard it must be just being him. Listen to Davison as the TARDIS appears – he sounds absolutely overjoyed like a kid who has been told he can go into a sweet shop!

Alien Orphan: Nyssa objects to being called a maid or an assistant. She has spent a little while in the Victorian period and she is glad to be out of it because they pretend to be civilised and yet they enslave and exploit the rest of the world. Filling it with foul smoking fumes, creating wars, revelling in inequality. Poor Nyssa has to put with the thought of this decrepit Adric lusting and longing for her after all these years. He always thought that they had so much in common, both so young, orphans and dependant on the Doctor. Nyssa did love the awkward, frustrated, pig headed boy. Nyssa’s ‘stop touching me!’ is unbelievably creepy.

Boy Genius: A lot has been said about the madness of continuing Adric’s tale after his shocking and dramatic departure from the series. The idea has split the audience into two camps, those who find the whole thing tasteless and a waste of time and those who welcome a chance to find some redemption in the character. I’m somewhere on the fence (look, just there…I’m waving) because whilst nothing pleases me more to see fan boys getting in a tizzy when continuity is well and truly trounced for the sake of a good story (something that the master craftsman Robert Holmes was never afraid to do and something that I whole heartedly approve of but then I have never had to have everything fit into one conforming universe – adhering to a set of plot details limits the imagination and that will never do!), Adric’s death was such a gob smacking moment to leave the character on it kind of blunts the impact to think that he survived after all and that Tegan was right to want to go after him! Big Finish and Paul Magrs must have known that they were opening a big slimy can of worms when they fronted this idea and I respect them for going with it even when it would cause such a uproar from the anally retentive malfeasance quarter. However despite my reservations as to whether this story needed telling the very idea of poor Adric (and I never thought I would put those two words together) being abandoned in such a harsh wilderness is a pretty dramatic idea to explore and considering he always was pretty emotionally challenged (‘Why isn’t he here! Why is he never around when you waaaant him!’ etc) the resentment this abandonment has bred makes for some pretty juicy scenes. All this discussion and I haven’t even mentioned Andrew Sachs who gives a wonderfully convincing, snivelling and aggrieved performance as our favourite Alzarian and pretty much wipes out any memory of Matthew Waterhouse playing the role by actually bringing him to life with a degree of skill. Sorry Matthew, but this is how its done. What I really love about this insanity is that Magrs has taken all of the characteristics about Adric that were just bubbling under during his time on the show – his affection for Nyssa, his resentment of the Doctor’s likeability and intelligence, his inability to connect with people and his penchant for working for the enemy and lets those qualities run wild with a delicious dark edge to them. It’s a controversial take on his character for sure but one that is well observed and thoughtful. A barmy idea then but one that is pull off with some style.

Has an affinity with spiders and all creatures with an ability to weave timelines through mathematics. Adric has been languishing here in this prehistoric wilderness for many years and his indignity at being abandoned by the Doctor has changed his perspective on their meeting. He no longer considers that he chose to leave with the Doctor but that he was kidnapped. All this time in a place like this can turn your thoughts bitter and they can turn to revenge. Adric throws the Doctor into his pets lair to ‘give him a little scare’ – have no doubt about it, the nasty little git is capable of exactly this sort of menace. Adric needs Nyssa to love him and she wants to stay here and be his Queen. He might be an old man but he is still a child at heart. When he escapes his world he feels a terrible guilt that he has abandoned his friends but the desire to be amongst people again after 500 years it was just too strong to resist escape. He’s completely deranged by his experiences after so long and starts talking to every day Earth insects and trying to get them to talk in binary. Adric tells Brewster that if you don’t belong anywhere, in any time then the best thing is to stay with the Doctor.

Standout Performance: There wasn’t a performance that really stood out as being more impressive than the others but there isn’t a weak link here. It’s a very strong cast that work very effectively together. Certainly Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton continue to do fantastic work together and you have to bow down to Davison’s idea that the fifth Doctor and Nyssa would have been strong enough to carry the series.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘My blade simply bounces off its chitinous hide!’
‘My what big eyes you’ve got!’
‘He’s a glitch in time. An abomination.’
‘I was a brat, wasn’t I?’
‘A sticky cobweb in time with me at the centre.’
‘Did you say Teegarna?’ ‘It was the name given to me by His Excellency. In his language it means ‘mouth on legs.’
‘Pike off!’ – the latest version of ‘Spack off!’ but it sounds much ruder!

Great Ideas: It might sounds like absolute madness but the Doctor gathering a crowd for a séance and having them each saying a different binary sequence not only achieves transference when the TARDIS is absent but also proves to be a highly atmospheric sequence of overlapping voices. Block transference is never that quick which is a huge clue as to is behind all of this. Naturally the assembled Victorians think it is some kind of meditative fakir chant. Take the references of St Paul’s Cathedral and a giant termite hill and mix the two together in your mind and fill it with oversized scorpions and you have one of the most intoxicating audio images since the city made up of Dalek casings in Renaissance of the Daleks. A bridge made out of spiders silk. Based on the Logopolitan method of block transfer computation, Adric has the scorpions whispering computations to keep this reality alive. The catacombs are the crashed and burnt remains of the freighter. Dinosaurs never evolved in this version of reality because they were eaten by the scorpions and as the Doctor walks into a charnel house he realises he is being led straight into a trap. When the scorpions devouring the brains of each other they absorb the sentience of their meal. The Star that controls this world is the untutored intelligence that was at the heart of the Cyberman computer on the freighter. It was the Doctor’s unconscious guilt that saved Adric from his death on the freighter – he reached out from the séance and gave him the computations he needed to survive and to create this reality.

Audio Landscape: Jungle wildlife, drawing a machete, moving through foliage, tapping a glass to make a speech, ticking clock, shaking tea tray, creatures scuttling about at the back of your mind, flies buzzing around the crackling flames, the mixture of a strong wind stirring up crackling flames and scorpion mandibles and clacking makes for a discomforting scene, there is a pleasing flashback to Adric’s last moment on the freighter, the humans talking from the scorpions POV is very nicely done (sounds like they are underwater), we actually get to hear Teegarna being eaten which is as uncomfortable as it sounds (especially with all her screaming), church bells, walking on gravel.

Musical Cues: The music in this story drives the pace forwards, there is a constant feeling of momentum to the tale thanks to Steve Foxon’s encouraging music.

Standout Scene: I really loved how Magrs made time to give his guest characters a moment to surprise and shine and Rupert’s admission that he is the great traveller of repute is a lovely moment (‘A day trip to Folkestone was my limit and even then I cam over a bit jippy.’) His sacrifice is a surprisingly poignant moment.

Notes: Was an Adric-centric tale included in this tale to highlight his differences to Brewster in the stories that precede and follow? Remember my discourse on unsatisfying audio cliff-hangers? If you two examples of how it should be done (ie not just moments of danger but actual clever plot twists that change the direction of the story) then episodes one and three end on great examples.

Result: Sometimes I think Paul Magrs has gone stark staring mad and I’m often extremely glad that he has because he adds a welcome touch of the fantastic to a series that can so often get bogged down in the formulaic. You certainly couldn’t say that The Boy That Time Forgot conforms to any of the rules; it has a unique setting, a disparate bunch of characters, it shits all over continuity and it writes the TARDIS out of the equation completely in a way that feels rather permanent. For the most part these innovations conjure up a feeling of originality that is very refreshing and I found my enjoyment fuelled by the thought of fan boys weeping into their Tom Baker underpants and stamping their feet at the thought of continuing Adric’s story. That alone makes the exercise worthwhile. This is easily the darkest of Magrs’ plays by some stretch and benefits because of it, all the evocative fantasy elements are as you would expect but skewed by a sense of the macabre which makes the experience pleasingly disquieting. On the strength of some heated viewpoints I didn’t expect to like this very much and to my delight it turned out to be far more agreeable than the button pushing failure some of repute. It just goes to show – don’t read to reviews before you have heard something. Not even this one. Make up your own mind and mine says this is a worthy coda for Adric with some real bite: 8/10

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Friday, 24 June 2011

The Death Collectors written by Stewart Sheargold and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: 'There is only death.' A virulent disease that killed millions. A missing scientist. An ancient race of salvagers who collect and preserve the dead. The quarantined planet Antikon connects them all. When the Doctor arrives on a sky station above Antikon, a single accident has already set in motion a chain of events that will mean the death of every living thing. And the only way he can stop it is to die. Again.

The Real McCoy: I am officially stumped. The Death Collectors sees McCoy once again flying solo and once again triumphing within that role and within one minute at the beginning of this tale: ‘Hello? Someone in trouble? A Distress call? Lets find out…’ he is somehow more believable than he was in The Dark Husband’s entirety. Is it his companions that provoke his less than stellar performances? When stating he is a Time Lord he gets an extremely unimpressed reaction in the shape of ‘I’m sorry am I supposed to bow?’ Despite all the intrigue his many regenerations is quite a dull affair and he doesn’t want to add to that story today thank you very much. Pure speculation is not very specific and he prefers to find and see! The Doctor tries to convince the virus to become one with him and it can die finally when he regenerates but that will take too long for them. The Doctor asks Danika to join him on his travels but upon hearing that she wants a quiet life he concludes perhaps they wouldn’t be the best of companions.

Why does he always end up on the wrong side of the door – any door? He doesn’t sound best pleased to have landed on a Dar Trader ship so they must have history. When asked what he is doing in the airlock the Doctor smugly answers that he enjoys putting himself in near death situations (and I think there might be a touch of truth in that!). Unfortunately he left the proof that he was alive in his other coat and is claimed as spatial detritus!

Standout Performance: She’s versatile, I get that but Katerina Olsson has appeared in so many Big Finish adventures I’m starting to think that other actors are being put out of work. Worse, her plumy tones as the sarcastic computer voice Nancy really grate after about ten minutes and sounds exactly like a robotic Headhunter. McCoy’s airy, breathy performance as the virus is so odd I don’t know how to judge it.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Who is this rather offensive little man?’
‘Death is merely a science, Doctor. Measure it correctly a cure can be found.’
‘Science wins!’

Great Ideas: The Dar Traders (or Death Collectors as they are otherwise known) scavenge the aftermath of battles. They display a vast array of dead creatures on their walls. They have never collected a Time Lord before. Antikon’s Decay decimated an entire system so naturally there is a government funded project to research the virus. Their resurrection ability is not natural, they traded it with something that was infected with decay. Ridley’s signal corrupted Nancy, reanimated the collection of dead things and created the creature – I’m so glad the Doctor explains this in episode three because I wouldn’t have had a clue otherwise! Its not an alien intelligence masquerading as a virus – that is its natural state as pure decay. They tend killing those that they try to communicate with, trying to computerise their organic selves by using the signal. Corrupting Ridley’s suit when trying to kill him and then corrupting Nancy as they tried to sneak in via her – their own means of communicating through them is death. The virus tries to invade the Doctor via the TARDIS telepathic circuits.

Audio Landscape: Commotion, caterwauling, turbulence, discordance, hullabaloo, stridence and general uproar! That’s the only way you can describe the execution of this story. Brain meltingly noisy and incomprehensible.

Musical Cues: There might have been music in there somewhere but it is smothered in all the pandemonium.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s all a matter of grabbing the audiences attention and not letting go. When I listened to Red a few months back I found the first episode arresting because it laid all of its cards on the table immediately and then proceeded over the four episodes to explore its sinister concepts. The direction was extremely clear too which made the horror of the situation all the more frightening – there was no escaping the fact that people were being murdered horribly and it was being enjoyed. In comparison The Death Collectors gets off to a dreadfully uneven start – you don’t have a clue what is going on or who anybody is 20 minutes into the story and freshman director Ken Bentley (who, I might add, would go on to direct some stunning McCoy releases) confuses things even more with a great splurge of noise over the important moments where crisp, clean effects would have made things a lot simpler. Its not helped by one of the characters asking ‘Can you make any sense of it, Nancy?’ when they play back the horrendous racket. I do recall a thread on Gallifrey Base regarding the eighth Doctor third season story The Cannibalists which one poster was suggesting was an affront on their auditory systems because it was so noisy. I don’t subscribe to the same opinion but I suggest that he doesn’t listen to the last couple of minutes of this story because I was a terrible headache from the extreme levels of unpleasant noises that were strangling my eardrums! I should never have to wince when listening to an audio, let alone drag the earplugs out to escape the hellish sound! Unfortunately things fail to cohere in the second episode and since these characters lack any believability or sympathy and the situation continues to devolve into a lot of screaming white noise my attention really started to falter here. I find it a little too convenient that there are two separate plotlines – the Dar Traders and the virus and by a matter of pure co-incidence one collects the dead and the other can only communicate via the dead. Talk about driving the idea home with a sledgehammer. The ending tries to be hard-hitting but winds up being far to melodramatic for its own good (‘Taaaaaaaakkkeeeeee meeeeeeeeeeeeee!’).

Standout Scene: I wasn’t entirely convinced by the end of episode two but the thought of dying out in space with Madame Butterfly screaming in your ear is truly haunting.

Notes: The connections Doctor Who makes to culture is sometimes breathtaking and to any scholar of music a snippet of Madame Butterfly would simply be a beautiful piece of music with Puccini at the height of his powers. To a Doctor Who fan it brings images of a semi naked Sylvester McCoy on a hospital bed being murdered. The gag is that the Doctor refuses to die to the sound of elevator music…and for once unsubtle continuity really does get the laughs.

Result: A note to all future writers of audio drama. Lots of growling aliens, breathy villains, screaming, explosions and shouting does not make good drama if you doesn’t have an engaging narrative to hang it on. Without it all you have is noise. Which is pretty much what The Death Collectors is. A whole lot of noise. Its a shame because the first few minutes suggest something far more atmospheric and intellectual and a thoughtful performance from McCoy is wasted (although he does lose it in the last episode when he starts bellowing for the sake of melodrama). Sheargold’s Red threw a scary idea at you and developed it through its strong characters but in The Death Collectors the writer has a ton of inexplicable events take place to a loosely sketched cast and then has the Doctor explain what was going on at the conclusion. I don’t mind a good twist that changes my perception of a story but I don’t like to have to have the entire plotline spelt out for me because the writer has forgotten to do so as the story progresses. What bugs me even more is that the ideas are intelligent and commendably dark but their potential is lost in the deafening execution and the vacant narrative. Now excuse me I’ve just popped two solubles into water and I’m off for a little lie down. Approach with painkillers: 4/10

Spiders Shadow written by Stewart Sheargold and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: It is the eve of battle and the Martial Princesses Louise and Alison are hosting a royal ball. But there are unwelcome visitors in the garden and a sequence of events spiralling out of control. And what's more, the Doctor doesn't even remember arriving.

The Real McCoy: What I really like about this story is how we get a keen glimpse into the seventh Doctor’s intelligence as he hastily tries to arrange the scenes into some sort of order to make sense of them. So many writers (and with the return of Andrew Cartmel in the Lost Stories range it is more prevalent than ever) bypass the aptitude of McCoy’s Doctor by stressing the fact that he has set up adventures and know their outcome before the audience joins the story. But here he is wrong footed from the beginning and left trying to piece together a puzzle that sees him shine once assembled. The Doctor is alone in the TARDIS once again with only death for company. He dances superbly and with a blood flower in his lapel he cuts a dashing figure. An intruder who thinks himself amusing. The TARDIS wont let the Doctor leave and is described as a very wilful vehicle. He’s as free of an agent as he can be but a slave of his own conscience.

Standout Performance: Katerina Olson sound far more convincing as a aristocratic head of state…but she’s still made her name as the Headhunter and it is clearly the same actress which makes me expect a twist that simply isn’t there.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time can do anything it pleases given the right encouragement.’

Great Ideas: Louise has been imprisoned in a moment of time and now it is folding back on itself. A chaotic time loop which is corrupted and destroying itself. Nerve endings pressing themselves into this dimension. The TARDIS was drawn into the time loop and is causing it to collapse. The creatures are playing out the events over and over, each time the jealous sister getting more resentful of the pretty one. The Doctor altered the loop so that the two sisters no longer hated each other and one acknowledged the others beauty.

Audio Landscape: Party atmosphere, the night air full of creatures, hissing spiders, a cracking, bubbling noise,.

Musical Cues: Kudos to David Darlington who by this point had been scoring Big Finish productions for years – his work was quite primitive when he began but it has improved practically with every release until he is scoring stories with this much talent. I especially liked the building tension in the music as the Doctor hops from scene to scene with increasing speed, it really drove home the insanity and delirium of the moment.

Result: A piquant little corrupted time loop with a great performance from Sylvester McCoy, it comes as no great shock that once again the one part sweetener overshadows the main release. I was reminded of Mission of the Viyrans with all the crazy audio trickery but Sheargold ensures there is a masterful reason for his scattered jigsaw pieces of plotting coming at the listener in all directions. The limited running time means that we can never get too close to these characters or understand the planetary situation in any depth and its quite a shame because the hints that we do get sound far more interesting than those in The Death Collectors. Ken Bentley’s direction is assured here and you can see the master craftsman starting to develop his art: 7/10

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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Assassin in the Limelight written by Robert Ross and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Ford's Theatre, Washington. Friday, 14th April, 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The place, the date and the event which made history. Or did it? Someone has been tampering with time, muddying the waters of history for his own purposes. Time itself is out of joint and the chief culprit is the enigmatic Doctor Knox. Somehow the Doctor and Evelyn must put history back on track before the future dissolves into chaos. But Knox, it turns out, may be the least of their worries

Softer Six: His gear makes Oscar Wilde look positively passé, it might be all the rage in Piccadilly but folks in America will take him for a theatrical. Knox hopes the Doctor wont be adopting his usual tedious high moral tone but I think that’s a given. Literary criticism is not his forte. The Doctor tries to rouse some interest in Booth’s murder outside the theatre but they think he is just another street corner huckster promoting a show. Knox suggests the Doctor with his towering intelligence could easily work out why he stayed behind after the crime was committed but hilariously every explanation he thinks of is dismissed. We haven’t had witty interplay in the main range that is infused with such mutual distrust and hotheadedness since The One Doctor and when Knox tells the Doctor he must find the controls of his obviously superior TARDIS baffling I was just waiting for the fireworks! He wont fiddle with the timelines further on the grounds that Knox has already started it. The Doctor has a stronger stomach than you might think thanks to Alton Towers! The Doctor was lured here by Knox who wanted to make sure that history didn’t drift too far off course whilst he handled his nasty business with the Indo. If a Time Lord were to give up control of his body to the Indo then all of history’s horrors would be there’s to feed on. I love the fact that the Indo are defeated by the Doctor in such an effortless and theatrical flourish its like they were hardly a threat in the first place.

Learned Lecturer: Evelyn is amazed that they have landed on Earth again and once again showing off her expertise she can name any number of historical events in any chosen year. Over the years having to explain why they have shown up in the middle of nowhere doesn’t get any easier. Evelyn made me crack up with her delicious double entendre when told she will get a taste of Tommy truncheon and she replies ‘I’ve never heard it called that before.’ Evelyn doesn’t understand why the Doctor wont save Clara from a lifetime of misery because of some mythical adherence to the Web of Time and when he blames her for missing their ride in Knox’s TARDIS because she was gassing she has had enough and stomps off. I really enjoyed how Evelyn came to the conclusion that sometimes she is a very stupid woman on her own when she tried to talk Clara out of associating with Knox and realised that she read the situation all wrong. If the Doctor doesn’t come back Evelyn will be busking on street corners and collecting with a tin. As a historian Evelyn feels as though she should witness the Lincoln’s death but is convinced otherwise by the Doctor.

Slimy Snake: I welcome the return of the divine Leslie Phillips back as Dr Knox because he made such an instant impression in Medicinal Purposes and created one of the most charming and oily villains we have experienced in an age. He’s back on top form in this tale, posing as Oscar Wilde with his ‘devastating, isn’t it?’ wit! His elderberry cordial is a trifle tart on the tongue but he still knocks it back with a cry of ‘bums up!’ He’s travelling around in a magicians travelling box. He’s become something of a temporal plagiarist, plucking greatness from history and adopting it for himself. Only Knox could slaughter a man with the dry epitaph of ‘he was a dreadful actor anyway.’ His plan to save Abraham Lincoln from assassination is naturally fuelled by a desire for money and he has wonderful visions of the two of them heading around the world charging for a performance of the Gettysburg Address. As he pulls the wool so spectacularly over Ford’s eyes he comments ‘truly some mothers do ‘ave ‘em!’ Sticks and stones will break his bones but alliterations will never hurt him. Midlife? He must be older than Methuselah and his breath is like a Labrador with halitosis! I was laughing my head of as Knox, poisoned by his own cordial, finds the music in the TARDIS elevator very jolly and sings along despite himself! Only Knox could sound so smug even in death and his parting message for the Doctor is gorgeous! If the entities have been truly defeated there is only one person who could possibly have inhabited Pops’ body and broken the lock…Knox! Make sure you listen on after the closing theme tune as we catch up with Knox in Pops’ body…passing himself off as Arthur Conan Doyle!

Standout Performance: The Baker/Stables/Phillips triumvirate made me laugh my head off on many occasions. What a shame we wont have any more adventures with this three.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Ah Dr Smythe! Such an expected pleasure…’
‘If Booth’s dead whose going to kill the President?’
‘Of course he shall need some new material…’ ‘Lincoln’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches?’ ‘Lincoln’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner?’ ‘Lincoln’s Lonely Hearts Club band?
‘Can the Can-Can will you? It doesn’t suit the ambience!’
‘Hang on, he’s not a policeman? What’s he doing with handcuffs?’
‘Every star turn needs an understudy…’ – Knox manages to insult the Doctor, even in death.
‘I hope the evening goes with a bang.’

Great Ideas: The Importance of Being Earnest…only good enough as a door stop? Of all the explanations as to how the TARDIS manages to sneak itself into places it couldn’t possibly fit I have never heard one as logical as the fact that it might be collapsible! Time abhors this sort of anomaly and if Booth doesn’t kill Lincoln then somebody else with a similar passion will be prompted to do so. Knox makes a very interesting point about people whose lives are ruined same time as their more famous counterparts – nobody ever remembers them because of the have been overshadowed by the events that are remembered by history. Parker planning to dress up as Booth and assassinate the President (given he has already written his confession and all) is a wonderful get out clause for the story and as usual its all about money. Which is then trumped by the even better notion that Booth is reanimated by corpse rising aliens and is influenced into killing the Big Chief. Which is dismissed when Booth is revealed to be alive after all! I love how this story twists and turns with such delightful frequency. The flu virus that Knox was infected with in Edinburgh (see Medicinal Purposes) left him with only one course – to make a deal with a creature who could keep him going after death. The same creatures the Doctor and Evelyn faced in Brighton (in Pier Pressure), the Indo. The creature that sustained Knox was found on Mercury trapped in a crater of congealed iron magma and he promised it one of his magical history tours if it kept him alive. The Booth Experience – the chance to get inside the head of one planet Earth’s most notorious assassins. These creatures cling like barnacles to human tragedies drawn by their hunger for misery and pain. Knox contaminated Booth with an extract of iron as well as poisoning him so when the creature took over its body it would be trapped there like the one inside his TARDIS.

Audio Landscape: Church bells ringing, riots on the street, a lovely dizzying dematerialisation sound, ticking grandfather clock, the sultry voice of Knox’s time travel capsule, his TARDIS has a brilliant dematerialisation sound of its own, electrocuting the beast in Knox’s TARDIS (‘Frying tonight!’), heartbeat, Lizzie smacking a bottle of whiskey over Parker’s head, street scenes.

Musical Cues: Martin Johnson’s score for Assassin in the Limelight is a revelation after the quiet undertones of The Condemned and the atmosphere depleting whinings of Haunting. He guides you through this story and really drives home the importance and drama of the prevention of historical events. During the scenes in Knox’s TARDIS we go from CanCan to gothic organ playing to mysterious alien abduction music in one scene – it’s a remarkably versatile score and no mistake.

Isn’t it Odd: The blasé way that episode three’s cliffhanger is dealt with is almost admirable if it wasn’t such a cheat.

Standout Scene: Knox recounting the President’s assassination is dramatically brought to life by Barnaby Edwards and his actors. Booth being a terribly good actor and faking his own death is the one option that nobody thought was possible!

Notes: Ross is clearly a fan of Talons of Weng-Chain (aren’t we all?) because he not only mentions Six Guns Sadie and her troop but there are other nods to the verbose style of Henry Gordon Jago throughout. Indeed I think Ross would provide a pretty unique tale for that particular spin off.

Result: I think its easy to say that you don’t like a Robert Ross script after Pier Pressure but Assassin in the Limelight has an unfair reputation because it flaunts a superb premise (what if Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was killed before he committed the act?), a witty script (pop back up to Sparkling Dialogue and some the dialogue quoted in the character sections), a talented cast (the Colin Baker/Maggie Stables/Leslie Phillips combination is once again gold) and another knockout production from Barnaby Edwards. I’m a huge fan of Ross’ verbose, colourful style of writing which only works when it is tethered to a strong, fast moving narrative (which is where Pier Pressure fell down) and this tale skips along at a fair old pace with plenty of fun incident. For his first foray into the main range lets give a huge round of applause to Martin Johnson who provides the best score in ages and conjures up some wonderfully evocative locations. Assassin in the Limelight mixes drama, comedy and time travelling madness together with some skill and I spent most of the story with a big smile on my face especially when things get giddily complicated in the last episode. I honestly cannot understand the ambivalence about this release, I found it thoroughly enjoyable to listen to: 8/10

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Haunting of Thomas Brewster written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Thomas Brewster is haunted by the ghost of his drowned mother. But she is not the only apparition to disturb his dreams. Every few years, he is visited by a mysterious blue box... Helped by his new assistant, the young Scots scientist Robert McIntosh, the Doctor struggles to unravel the twisted knot of temporal implausibilities which bind the TARDIS to Thomas Brewster. Meanwhile, lost in the stews of Victorian London, Nyssa must face a host of spectral creatures gathering in the fog.

An English Gentleman: Lost in the TARDIS corridors again. Looking for Nyssa the Doctor inveigles himself in Victorian science circles and is seen giving a lecture with bushy whiskers and an awfully posh voice. He has set himself up with a house and an assistant in a few seconds from Nyssa’s point of view but what is twelve months for the Doctor. Stranded with a broken TARDIS he manipulated his way into the Royal Society to gain access to certain materials that would allow him to repair his ship. Its such an inventive premise I could happily spend a trilogy in the company of the fifth Doctor about Victorian London solving crimes ala Jago & Litefoot. He constructs a device that can detect disturbances in the space/time continuum which was how he knew where and when Nyssa would arrive. The Doctor keeps his secrets from Robert and pays the price, after a year of knowing the Time Lord he realises he didn’t actually know him at all and insulted at his lack of honesty tells him after this adventure they will part company for good.

Alien Orphan: Its nice to see Nyssa get more of a character role than just spouting the usual science dreck she was lumbered with in the series and much like Circular Time Sarah Sutton is afforded some refreshingly deft material to sink her teeth into. I loved the difference between Nyssa and Brewster’s descriptive talents, of the gas creatures she describes them as ‘a life form based upon suspended gas particles’ and he calls them ‘a living pea souper.’ The Doctor always told Nyssa that the future was indeterminate. Morris finds a wonderful avenue for Nyssa to sympathise with Brewster since he has lost his parents too but she asserts that her mother and father wouldn’t have wanted her to waste her life as he has done. She has made a future for herself not to forget her parents but to honour their memory. When the Doctor and Nyssa discover a future TARDIS she is just full of good questions like where their future selves are and what if they are dead? There were only so many times that Nyssa could say ‘yes, its quite logical’ to the most brain bursting line of thoughts before I was laughing my head off!

Artless Dodger: Brewster made a real impact on me because he leaps from this adventure as the very Adric-done-right they were aiming for and then some. Played by John Pickard who could charm the hind legs off a donkey, there is none of the irritating petulance and immaturity that came with our favourite Alzarian but a genuinely roguish character that walks the fine line between ally and enemy. He only gives the creatures access because he thought he was helping out his mum and he is capable of abducting Nyssa and punching out the Doctor if the situation calls for it. His double of abduction of the TARDIS proves he is a kid of no small talent! The first thing Brewster remembers is his mother’s birthday at four or five – it’s hard to remember considering he has never had any birthdays. His only memory of her is dead in a box with a veil over her. He remembers the TARDIS lamp flashing at the funeral. When Brewster is offered an apprenticeship he gets the joy of sleeping in the bed where his predecessor died. On his first day as a Mud Lark Brewster is told to watch out for the corpses that wash ashore but to check their pockets for any valuables and cash. What a dreadful way to live a life. Listening to Brewster getting a vicious whack of the stick made me wince. From the point of view of a Victorian crook the white serenity of the TARDIS console room is akin to a chapel. He used to feel bitter that his mum died and that he should have done something.

Standout Performance: By allying the Doctor about town with a Scottish gentleman I sensed strong stirrings of David Pirie’s Murder Rooms series inspired by the case stories of Sherlock Holmes. Christian Coulson has the perfect voice of a Victorian gentleman and I really wouldn’t have objected to him stepping into the TARDIS with the Doctor and Nyssa. In a story packed with well acted characters the titular character is charmingly realised by John Pickard and I am glad there were more stories scheduled for him after this trilogy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She had been in the water five days when they found her’ – what a chilling cliffhanging line, telling you everything you need to know about this ghoulish spectre unveiling itself.
‘Somebody has just punched a whole in the universe!’
‘You were in the TARDIS in the year 2008 which will shortly be ending up at the bottom of the Thames. You are now inside the TARDIS that was in the Thames and that is currently inside the other, earlier TARDIS.’
‘I don’t believe it! He’s done it again!’

Great Ideas: Five years or so after her death Thomas Brewster was haunted by the deathly cries of his mother. There is a definite Dickensian feel to the early material that sees Thomas brought up in a squalid orphanage and press ganged into nefarious activity. Oliver Twist is one of my favourite Christmas films (the Ron Moody version, naturally) and so I this dark homage helped to bring the world of Victorian London in front of my eyes with ease. Mud Larks are lads who scour the low tide of the Thames and scavenge for whatever has drifted ashore; driftwood, flotsam, barrels of brandy, silk, lace, tobacco… There is something wonderfully evocative about dirty, scavenging boys heading out into the tide a midnight – if we were seeing this from the point of view of the Doctor and Nyssa they could very well be the very image of a Doctor Who monster wading through the misty shores. The TARDIS half buried in the sleet and the slime of the Thames is a fantastic image. Thomas is directed into stealing various scientific apparatus by the spectre of his mother. In one of the many potential futures that lay before us in an indeterminate universe the gas creatures control the Earth. It’s a remote possibility but if in that universe they have the ability to send information back through time like how to create a time corridor they can use it to travel through time and influence events so the future they rule becomes more likely. A bloody brilliant summation from Morris of the madness of alternative universes and their potentially disastrous consequences. Possibility becomes probability becomes certainty! Glowing mist reaching out for the people, an image so gorgeous Morris used it again in one of his strips. The very idea of a paradoxical menace from a future that cannot exist is awesome but as Brewster so eloquently says Nyssa and the Doctor question their nature with big words doesn’t escape the face that the menace is still there! Brewster stealing the TARDIS leads to the Doctor and Nyssa having to fulfil and explain their brief appearances that we saw in the first episode. Landing the future TARDIS inside itself in a previous time is so mind boggling I had to go and have a lie down to think through its implications but I was applauding the ingenuity of the concept. We get to visit a potential future 2008, the planet reduced to ash and clinker simply to generate the energy to summon this reality into existence!

Audio Landscape: Polite murmuring and coughing at the funeral, crows crying at the graveside, bawdy orphan house, the creepiest rendition of Oranges and Lemons you are ever likely to hear and church bells playing the same tune, water splashing, bubbling mud, boats honking on the Thames, Mr Creek being dragged down into the bubbling swamp is horrible, rowing in the Thames, dogs barking, Nyssa jumping from the train as it still clacks loudly along the tracks, electricity crackling through Brewster’s device, the whispering gas creatures, squeaky floorboards.

Musical Cues: It’s the weirdest musical score I have heard since Malcolm Clarke’s racket in The Sea Devils with moments of evocative underscoring but also plenty of intrusive bridging of scenes where the music draws attention to itself far too dramatically. The strangest thing about the repetitive cues is that after an episode or two I started to enjoy them and by the end of the story I was singing along with them! So its either the equivalent of a really irritating pop song (lets say Barbie Doll) getting stuck in your head because of its sheer infuriating catchiness or a song that you hated when you first heard but grew on you with time (for me a good example would be Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love). You decide.

Standout Scene: Morris knows how to play with conventions and surprise his audience – Robert turns on the Doctor for concealing his true identity for a year and then moments later sacrifices his life for him. A shame to waste such a strong character but a total surprise. In a story was packed to the gills full of moments subverting the audiences expectations that duplicating the twist of Brewster stealing the TARDIS is a moment of triumph to close the story on.

Notes: A quick word about Nick Briggs and co inviting Jonathan Morris to contribute a wealth of adventures from this point onwards – pretty much the best decision they made since the new administration took over. His standard is so high and the stories under his belt - The Eternal Summer, Cobwebs, The Crimes of Thomas Brewster, Max Warp, Ressurection of Mars, The Glorious Revolution light up their respective ranges.. His is the only name I smile at when I see it coming up in the schedules repeatedly because you know it is going to be something a bit special. With Charley and the eighth Doctor having exciting new adventures independently to each other, the introduction of the trilogy format (of which this is the first), Brewster’s inclusion and C’rizz’s departure plus the welcome return of writers like Morris it really feels like this range is gaining a brand new identity.

Result: In sharp contrast to The Dark Husband which featured probably the worst first episode to a release since Big Finish have begun, The Haunting of Thomas Brewster opens on the most attention grabbing, moody and exciting first episode in many years. Set over Brewster’s miserable childhood with the TARDIS as a beacon of hope appearing many times across his youth, I was dragged straight into this opening instalment thanks to its focus on the strong guest cast over the regulars. Just when you think episode two is going to tell the same tale from the Doctor and Nyssa’s point of view Morris trumps your expectations again with a brilliant conceit of the Doctor spending twelve months in Victorian London waiting for Nyssa to arrive. A hint of Dickens, a splash of Holmes, scares, action and innovation and even room for a sweet unrequited gay romance, this is a story that never stops giving. Haunting has all of the atmosphere and chills of the New Series’ The Unquiet Dead but wins out with its stronger cast of characters, more intelligent narrative and the host of surprises that get more insanely engaging as the story progresses. Even the brisker running time works in its favour because the story never feels as though it outstays its welcome and finishing flourish of the Doctor and Nyssa losing the TARDIS caps off an ingenious and practically flawless puzzle. Again in contrast with The Dark Husband (where it was the best thing about it) the really distracting music is probably the only thing preventing this story getting full marks: 9.5/10

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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Dark Husband written by David Quantick and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: "This whole wedding is like making a nuclear bomb with half the instructions missing!" A week-long respite from a prolonged and bloody war, the Festival of the Twin Moons of Tuin makes Glastonbury look like a church fete... or so the brochure says. The Doctor and Ace are looking for rest and recreation. Hex is looking for the beer tent. But eternal enemies the ginger-haired Ri and the coot-bald Ir are plotting to turn their Festival truce to their own advantage. Only the Dark Husband might stop the celebrations turning to horror... but who is the Dark Husband? And what terror awaits him on his wedding night? If anyone knows any just cause or impediment... speak now. The lives of billions depend on it.

The Real McCoy: You can usually tell within a scene or two whether McCoy is having an on or an off day with his stories and it took me about 30 seconds to realise that this was having an extreme off day when this was recorded. He sounds distracted, unrehearsed and tonally all over the place. There are very few lines that he delivers with any hint of believability and I find it inexplicable because we know that he can deliver when he wants to (Master, Valhalla). The script is full of humorous wordplay that needs a quick performer to reel the lines out and score the jokes but McCoy’s delivery is so slack and robotic it pretty much kills every gag. There are only so many times I can hear the Doctor say sor-ry in that singsong voice of his before I want to gouge his eyes out with the sonic screwdriver set to high frequency burn. The Doctor came here to end the war, not to party and his method of which is marriage. Thank goodness the Doctor is due to marry a woman – I don’t think I could handle the thought of the seventh Doctor bedding another man. I would probably have to start batting for the other team.

Oh Wicked: Ace wants a break, a day off or even a week. Hex thinks she is very attractive when she gets angry. After Ace is tricked into becoming the Doctor’s intended she actually says ‘That’s another fine mess I’ve got myself into!’ without a hint of irony. That’s the level of characterisation on display here. I don’t want to go into any detail about how dreadful Aldred is here because I’m pretty much bored of hearing myself say it. Just take it as read.

Sexy Scouse: Since when did Hex become a raging, jealous, chav of an alcoholic? I was always so happy that he was written as a sensitive sort of lad and found him to be a positive role model for young men. I take it all back. Now he just wants to knock ‘em back and get pissed and regale the Doctor and Ace with tales of his misspent youth spreading graffiti on the walls where he used to live. David Quantick clearly hasn’t listened to a single Hex story or been given a clue how to write for him and this is the one and only time he is portrayed as a loutish, unthinking thug with lines like ‘I snogged your mum and she was rubbish!’ and ‘Oh no the ginger mingers back!’ Thank goodness. It would appear that Hex means something naughty in Ri (obviously in a tale so obsessed with crudeness). ‘I thought I’d come out on the interplanetary lash!’ – shut up Hex! The script gets so desperate it resorts to having Hex acting up because he is jealous of Ace who is getting married to the Doctor. I would understand if this was played in jest but Olivier sounds deadly earnest and as such Hex feels completely out of character. How awkward does he sound when putting himself forward for the wedding at the end of the third episode? You can hear in Olivier’s voice that he is mentally contacting his agent and screaming blue murder about having to perform this horrific script. Argh, Hex actually says to Ace: ‘You were all for it when you were going to get married to the Doctor’ in a jealous tone. I’m reaching my limit… What is the next Hex story? The Magic Mousetrap? He’s back to being a sensible young man again in that one so I can only imagine the TARDIS must have picked up some chavvy space plagued that unhinged his mind throughout the course of this adventure.

Standout Performance: Danny Webb is clearly having a ball playing three parts and whilst you would find it hard to distinguish his voice in any of the three characters I didn’t find any of them especially memorable. Well the Brian Blessed impersonation was but not in a good way. There’s only one Brian Blessed (‘His name is Dorff and you are scum!’). In a few desperate moments Webb sounds panic stricken as he has to play two characters talking to each other and you can hear him getting out of breath.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s a war on and it wouldn’t be much of a war if we didn’t kill anyone, would it?’

Great Ideas: Brochures without a screaming face on the front are the more humanoid friendly. The Doctor is coerced into taken his friends to a weeklong party on the planet Tuin to celebrate all that is great about their culture – the planet that has been coined the brewery of the galaxy. Unfortunately it turns out to be a planet of gravestones, the churchyard and only common ground between two warring factions. The Ri and the Ir have been at war forever but they share the same religious belief system and one day every few centuries they all come together for a wedding. Tuin is the planet and it gave birth to the Ir and the Ri.

Audio Landscape: Even the sound effects so as though they are from Big Finish’s stock library. The party atmosphere, gong, thunder rumbling, crackling flames, lightning, rain.

Isn’t it Odd:
· I should have been forewarned when the story opened with Ace screaming her head off (Aldred’s hysterics cut through my brain like cheese wire), Hex being covered in snot and crying ‘that’s another fine mess you got me into!’
· The humour lacks any subtlety even when the actors aren’t killing it – the sequence where the Doctor suggests that the war probably started over something trivial that turns out to be a plague missile stinks like a bad fart.
· Groan – the Doctor, Ace and Hex are saved from death by a ceasefire as the festive of the twin suns begins. Saved by a party?
· The Dark Husband has the worst first episode ever. You’ve got a clichéd situation weighed down with dismal humour, rabid attempts to be funny that fall flat on their face, mischaracterized regulars who bore the pants of you and the scarcest of sound effects conjuring up zero atmosphere whatsoever. I think I was more impressed with Dreamtime’s opening episode than this. If I weren’t reviewing the story I would happily have turned it off at this point and go and do something worthwhile.
· How long did it take for Quantick to think up names as exciting and innovative as the Ri and the Ir?
· Having one actor play three parts is fine by me but why go to the trouble of disguising it with such ridiculous pseudonyms?
· Quantick seems to think there is a great deal of humour to be had in repeating the same plot contrivances over and over and so we have Ace learning about the Shining Wife and that nobody knows how the wedding is to be conducted, then Hex, then the Doctor. It all gets a bit tedious if I’m honest. More tedious.
· The stone made chroniclers of Tuin might have been worth a chuckle had the multiple-choice gag not been played so often and so nonchalantly.
· The plot twists are banal too…they are looking for a Shining Wife – a brave woman without fear and terror who will save the Dark Husband. Can you guess who it is? Make the pain stoooooop.
· How much funnier (or possibly more awful) would it have been if the Doctor had to marry Hex?
· Episode three is dragged down to further depths by listening to the riveting stories of how Ir and Ri came to be…twice.
· ‘Step forward Hox!’ Everybody: ‘Hex!’
· Just when you think this story cannot get any worse the Doctor screams out (mock Battlefield) ‘There will be no wedding here!’ Even McCoy sounds embarrassed.
· Head on desk. Head on desk. Head on desk. I couldn’t bear the scenes between Ori and Irit (more imaginative names) resolving their differences. ‘You speak with wisdom!’ ‘I doooooo?’ ‘And I, Irit of Ir, I can show courage!’ ‘You caaaaaaan?’ I’ve never heard anything this retarded in my life before!
· The ‘Is that a clinical diagnostic Master Hex?’ is repeated again and again…
· Ace and Hex are turned into zombies and in both cases it sounds like a blessed improvement! Seriously, if it were a choice between the bolshie screaming harridan and the drunken coarse prick or a pair of robotic nomads I would take the second pair any day of the week.
· ‘Tuuuuuinnnnn! Yoooou are eviiiiiiillllll!
· War ended, harmony restored, job done – just read this line and save putting yourself through the story.

Standout Scene: My favourite moment came when the Doctor was gagged (as far as the seventh Doctor is concerned that is a blessing) and he is tied to the stake and set on fire. Its like David Quantick was providing wish fulfilment for me…

Result: Can you imagine listening to anything more tiresome than a pair of stock Doctor Who species being forced to reconcile their differences through a wedding that has a list of tiresome comic customs attached to it? I’m not sure what the writer and script editor were thinking when they were putting The Dark Husband together but if it was supposed to be a witty farce it has lost its sense of humour somewhere in its realisation and the resulting tale is a car crash of hideously embarrassing moments. Move over Lakertyans, push off Trogs, stand aside Dulcians…we have a new winner for the most tedious alien race in Doctor Who. The Ri and the Ir aren’t even bad enough to annoy me - they are just insipid, tasteless caricatures and their ridiculously bland approach to marriage and war and well everything left me desperately wanting to the turn the story off each time an episode ended, But I knew if I did that I would never put it back on again. Any story that even suggests the seventh Doctor being chained to a lamppost in his boxer shorts is an affront to humanity and every copy must be tracked down and destroyed. Sylvester McCoy gives potentially his worst ever turn as the Doctor (I’m not sure if this was worse than his ‘Dorotheeeee! Mcshaaaaaannee! Hacccceeeee!’ delights from The Rapture but its pretty close), Sophie Aldred gets to shout a lot which is as stomach churning as ever and when these two have frequently let us down in the past we can usually we can rely on Philip Olivier to salvage something. But even Hex is badly characterised (as the ultimate happy slapping bling boy - what was Quantick thinking) and even Olivier surrenders to the appalling tone of the script and delivers an awkward performance. I would have thought it an impossibility but Big Finish have delivered a seventh Doctor story that is even worse than The Rapture and Dreamtime. Without merit: 0.5/10 (I lied, half a point for a nice score in places)