Wednesday, 15 June 2011

100 written by Jacqueline Rayner, Robert Shearman, Joseph Lidster & Paul Cornell and directed by Nicholas Briggs

100BC by Jacqueline Rayner

What’s it about: The Doctor and Evelyn arrive in Rome, 101 BC, approximately, October. They meet a young lady of 19, Aurelia. She mentions her husband - Julius Caesar. Evelyn is excited, but her excitement soon turns to confusion. Surely you can't heal a wound in time with just a bit of sticking plaster?

Softer Six: The Doctor takes Evelyn to the height of the Roman Empire, which he considers the birthplace of civilisation! Evelyn’s insane theory about the Doctor saving the life of Orelia and delivering Caeser is one of those left-the-iron moments of OCD for the Doctor. He knows its ridiculous but he just has to pop back just in case she is right. The Doctor proves to be a superb musician (clearly he’s had a lesson or two since The Romans) and rustles up a Roman menu that would have had him earning X points on the Come Dine With Me Roman special!

Learned Lecturer: Whilst she mocks the Doctor getting his toga in a twist for visiting the time of Caesar and Nero it is another historical period that she does find rather exciting to visit. She fancies visiting Cicero and chatting about politics and philosophy until she realises he would be about five. Her Queen of Hearts impression is hilariously awful! Rome is smellier, noisier and grottier than she remembered but it doesn’t matter because stepping into the pages of history is always special to her. Usually they expect the best and get the worst but this time they suspected the worst and everything has gone tickety-boo! Whoops – the Doctor suggests the horror of the most important Roman of all time being a female to which Evelyn takes great umbrage which leads to her determined to ensure that this version of history they have created remains to prove that it could work. Misguided and insane, but quite a fun idea (and anybody who takes this too seriously should get their knickers out of a twist and go and listen to Bang Bang a Boom as penance). . She never had children and she never will and she seems quietly devastated that there is nothing of her going on into the future. Suddenly our lovable Evelyn is replaced by an insane dictator who thinks that she is with the Doctor for a reason, to ensure that women take over history and rewrite it for the better! It’s the craziest leap of character logic we have ever seen from the woman (although her assertion of there being no wars, no poverty and no size zero models making the world a better place is an appealing one). Maybe it is something to do with the execution but people seem to have no problem at all with Barbara’s mad scheme to salvage the Aztec Empire and radically change history and yet when Evelyn suggests the same thing it is suddenly the work of a deranged psychotic. And trust me both Barbara and Evelyn’s plans would have had similarly drastic changes to the timeline. Maybe it is because Evelyn feels dictatorial whereas Barbara took a gentler approach to her schemes and yet I know which of them is posing as an Aztec God to get her way! We get to see a touch of the insidious, pig headed Evelyn that probably drove her husband insane. She does genuinely believe that the future would be better with women in charge but comes to understand that children aren’t about the future but the present.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its as if the Queen had given birth to Charles in Hackney!’
‘Are you suggesting I deliver Julius Caeser?’

Great Ideas: In the oddest of circumstances Oreilia, mother of Julius Caesar, seems to recognise the Doctor and Evelyn! She is all in favour of watching history being made but gate crashing the night when Mr and Mrs Caeser decide to get jiggy with it and begin the stirrings of an Emperor in her womb is perhaps a little too intimate even for them! The birth Julia Caeser, a baby girl, comes as much of a shock to the audience as the Doctor and Evelyn. The Doctor and Evelyn know each other a little too well to be able to outsmart each other – she preys on the Doctor’s chivalry to get him gone whilst she has her wicked way with history and he (seeing through her charade) tries to convince her that he is from their personal future, one where history is changed permanently for the worst (which she sees through!). By throwing out the Doctor and Evelyn in an incredibly manly way Orelia suddenly gets the horn in a big way and we realise that Julia Caeser was the great mans younger sister and this is the day he was conceived – whoops! So all this fuss and nonsense is for nothing!

Audio Landscape: Marketplace bawdiness, dogs barking, carts being wheeled past, crackling fire, the painful screams of the birth of Julius Caeser, the baby crying, the Doctor playing a musical instrument.

Isn’t it Odd: When I first listened to 100 I was obscenely excited to hear another audio release from the sixth Doctor and Evelyn and hoped two towns along to the nearest BBC Shop to nab it as soon as it was released. I was too on the edge of my seat to wait until I got home and I put the first CD on in the car and I remember vividly sinking into my seat with horror at this tale unfolding before me. Jac Rayner, writer of two of the most perfect Doctor Who audios featuring this duo, delivering a story where the two of them weren’t getting along and literally fighting each other to alter history. I was appalled. What an extreme overreaction that was. After just listening to this adventure and aside from some stirrings of discontent between my favourite Doctor/companion team this was quirky, format breaking and pretty audacious (especially after just listening to Heroes of Sontar and Kiss of Death which are the latest Doctor Who releases and seem to go out of their way to be as traditional and vanilla as possible). Why does the music bleed into the last scene when the Doctor and Evelyn are finally getting along?

Standout Scene: The Doctor trying to make an atmosphere conducive to the Caeser’s sliding beneath the sheets with music whilst Evelyn comes crashing in with a party noisemaker and ruining the mood made me howl with laughter!

Result: The only story to have Evelyn inadvertently and deliberately change the sex of an important historical figure! I understand what Jac Rayner was trying to do with this story, its her own little touch of the Romans (comedy misunderstandings, bawdiness and all) with a dash of female emancipation. Evelyn’s sudden history altering tirade does seem massively out of character but its just supposed to be a bit of enjoyment and not taken too seriously and I think had the director toned down Maggie Stables Hitleresque performance a tad this story would be much better thought upon. Really what she is suggesting is no less devastating than Barbara salvaging the Aztecs and Vicki poisoning Nero and those acts of stupidity are happily skipped over. Like Renaissance of the Daleks before it, 100BC is no-where near as bad as its reputation and with a few tweaks could have made a very funny piece indeed. As it is I enjoyed it far more this time round than on my first listening and found premise reasonably thought provoking and the easy resolution quite a charmer. Flawed but fun: 7/10

My Own Private Wolfgang by Rob Shearman

What’s it about: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Born in 1756, a veritable wunderkind - playing music for the crowned heads of Europe as an infant, composing by the time he was five years old. But it's tempting to wonder whether his amazing longevity has overshadowed his creative genius - would Mozart's music be better respected, maybe, if he'd died as a young man? Would he be a legend of music, rather than of scientific curiosity, if he'd never lived to compose the film score for the remake of The Italian Job?

Softer Six: The Doctor offers Mozart a scone that he has baked himself (Mozart that is, not the Doctor), which he has ‘nibbled around the edges.’

Learned Lecturer: Evelyn always thought there never was a Mozart, that it was just a name people hid behind when they didn’t want to own up to the fact that they had written something really, really bad. Her suggesting that with immortality being a rather permanent fixture why doesn’t he try something other than writing music? Poor Evelyn spends the entire week washing up! After her affirmation of female emancipation in the last story this must feel like the most appalling lapse in her lifestyle!

Standout Performance: Even the fact that the back cover ruins all the twists in this little slice of brilliance couldn’t take away from the joy of hearing John Sessions working his way through a succession of different Mozart’s.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I especially liked the diddly dum bit in the middle!’
‘If you’ve had a genius for something its very hard at putting up with being just alright at something else.’
‘Tell him you’ve changed your mind!’ ‘Yes I can really see the Devil buying that!’
‘I’ve heard of artists being self obsessed but employing yourself as your own butler is taking things too far!’
‘Every home with a Mozart of its own!’
‘A man who’s me is telling me I mustn’t trust another man…who’s me?’
‘My future music…will it be like this pastry?’ ‘Oh even worse once you discover hip hop!’
‘There will always be fans and fans never know when enough is enough.’
‘Nobody likes anything that comes to an abrupt en –‘

Great Ideas: Visiting a masked ball at Mozart’s 100th birthday party is an enchanting idea to build a little story around. Poor Mozart comes out with a theatrical flourish and performs his final symphony – shooting himself in the head several times and failing to die. This is exactly the sort of sick wit I love in Rob Shearman’s work and why I miss him so much in the audio series. Well-bred butlers don’t shoot people, good grief! The Doctor asks how Mozart is feeling after firing three bullets into his temple and he replies ‘rather sore.’ He’s tried stabbing himself, hanging and now bullets. Mozart was told he could live forever if he wrote a new symphony on every birthday and he made the deal. To hear Mozart talking about his attempts at pottery and baking (cheesy twists and scones are specialty, you know) made me howl with laughter! A mysterious villain who dresses in black and chuckles and the Doctor greets with an astonished gasp of ‘You!?’ But it turns out to be another Mozart rather than the Master! Thousands of years after his death a corporation time travelled back to Salzburg and scraped Mozart’s fingerprints from his long rusted harpsichords and from the DNA created him anew! So far 800,000 Mozart’s have been created, doing the washing up, the ironing…even the babysitting! The audience at the concert are all Mozart’s! So…to sum up Mozart popped back and cured himself of Tuberculosis and set himself writing new symphonies! The very idea that the people who are famous for dying at the height of their powers, for perfecting their talent and being snatched away from us before we had a chance to see their downfall is an extremely potent one that struck a chord with me. It made me start to think through all the famous people from the arts that have had their day but might have been considered visionaries had they died in their heyday…and people who died as legends but might have vanished into obscurity had they lived a longer, less piquant lifestyle. That’s the beauty of a good Rob Shearman script; he gets under your skin and makes you think.

Audio Landscape: Polite chatter at the party, bullets spitting out of his body as it heals, Evelyn popping through time, scrubbing the pans, a ticking grandfather clock,

Musical Cues: There is an appropriately grandiose score to this episode that is imbued with faux Mozart pieces – quite appropriate for a story about fakes Mozart’s!

Standout Scene: The closing scene that sees a temporal intervention, a blatant disregard of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, a paradox and the nibbling of a scone that changes the future forever. The last line is gorgeous.

Result: The only story to feature Evelyn and Mozart doing the washing up together (‘I’m not drying up this saucepan’ she tells him ‘it still has marks all over it!’). Rob Shearman you twisted genius how I have missed you unique brand of storytelling! To put it simply, Circular Time & Son of the Dragon aside, this is the best thing to be produced since Briggs took over from Russell at Big Finish. It reminds me of the audio series when it was at its height; witty, clever, thoughtful, impeccably performed (John Sessions is clearly having a blast) and a delight to listen to. The tragedy at the heart of this comedy, the romantic climax to Mozarts life blunted by the fact that he survived and his genius turned into a symbol of mockery simply by living adds a whole new dimension to events. Throw in the two best regulars the audios have produced and you have an absolute belter, an inspired piece of farce with a delicious edge to it. This should have opened the collection: 10/10

Bedtime Story by Joseph Lidster

What’s it about: Once upon a time... Jacob Williams is going to tell the tale of Sleeping Beauty but he realises he has told that one too many times so, instead, tells of how he once met this man called the Doctor... It's a tale of love and death and a family with a terrifying secret…

Softer Six: He loves a good scone. The Doctor has the ability of instantly managing to question things. He is creeped out by the death of Mary because from his perspective she is both dead and alive. The Doctor knows that Evelyn was responsible for the poisoning because she hasn’t displayed her zest for a good mystery and has simply stood in the background saying ‘what’s going on Doctor’ which isn’t her style at all. The Doctor has never known the responsibility of love

Learned Lecturer: Turning up on the doorstep of one of her students (again) doesn’t seem to bother him too much and apparently Evelyn wasn’t just famous for her disappearing act but also her ability to down a pint of Guinness! She’s a one, isn’t she? Evelyn was the best tutor he ever had. They aren’t like that, her and the Doctor…he’s far too old for her! Evelyn has changed since she has been travelling with the Doctor, nowadays it is all ‘yes, dear’ where she used to be a right party animal.

Standout Performance: Maggie Stables seems to enjoy the chance to ham it up as the monster of the piece, giving a bravura performance of delicious, camp villainy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All of them, buried alive, lying in the coffin. Awake. Presumably until their mind breaks.’
‘Time for beddy-byes, Doctor!’

Great Ideas: Joe Lidster has a handle on touches of realism in his Doctor Who stories that at their best rival no other. Just go and listen to the first scene of this story featuring a mother who happily gives her opinion to her son and his girlfriend (I mean, fiancé) and somehow manages to compliment the former exponentially whilst insulting the latter and providing a general air of she’s not good enough. If you don’t recognise at least some of that in your own family you haven’t lived. The idea of death on cue at a predetermined time and the occupants of this house being aware of it is skin crawling enough but to follow that up with Frank being conscious as he was placed in a coffin and buried should strike a note of horror in everybody. Every time a boy is born the grandparents die. Someone long lived, vindictive and full of hate who wants to blend in and watch this family suffer. As soon as the Doctor reveals that the alien is a shape shifter there is a real touch of the killer among us and nobody is above suspicion. Lost to the darkness for so many years and drawn to the Earth by its wealth of emotion, the alien took human form and fell in love with Tobias Williams. On their wedding day the creature was spurned when it revealed its true self to Tobias. Burnt at the stake and burning inside with hatred, the true form escaped the fire and the creature swore that he would never be happy. The creatures enjoys boasting about its monstrous curse on the family that the older generation should when the younger generation are born but rather than risk the secret being revealed it poisons those it tells afterwards, forcing them to sleep for 100 years as their families mourn them and dispose of their bodies. The curse is broken when it is revealed that the baby isn’t Jacob’s and he murders himself – the whole family is asleep and silenced and there is no one left to torture. The twist ending that sees the creature outwitting the Doctor and continuing the curse is awesome.

Audio Landscape: Ticking clock, doorbell, the computer booting up, the juxtaposition of listening to a woman choke to death followed by the crying gurgling of a baby is really uncomfortable, Evelyn melts away to nothing with a death scream.

Musical Cues: The most atmospheric score of the piece with stirrings of piano and string work, which combine to create something chilling to wrap around you on cold winter nights.

Standout Scene: The Doctor’s gift of taking those sleeping for 100 years away and showing them the universe and then bringing them back to their lives when they wake up is a lovely ghoulish fairytale touch. A happy ending that is paused for a century of nothing. Which is then completely crushed in the awesome final scene.

Notes: There is more than a little touch of Trevor Baxendale’s The Deadstone Memorial and Matthew Graham’s Fear about the Doctor and Evelyn turning up on someone’s doorstep at night and involving themselves in domestic cum horrific affairs.

Result: The only story where Evelyn murders her way through an entire family. Listening to Wolfgang and Bedtime Story back to back you realise how boundary pushing both Shearman and Joe Lidster are in very different ways. They both have a touch of uncomfortable touch of the macabre to their writing and they enjoy twisting the knife into reality and giving it a good wrench. Where Shearman plumps for a comic angle, Lidster likes taking you down the realism approach and offering a glimpse of your own life that is just out of reach skewed by a sense of horror. This story has a double twist ending that just keeps getting better and constantly wrong foots the listener and denies them a happy ending. Creepy and fun, it was a delight to be scared: 9/10

100 Days of the Doctor by Paul Cornell

What’s it about: Someone has assassinated the Doctor. And he only has 100 days to find out who did it…

Softer Six: If he has one defining characteristic it is that he different from everyone, even his other selves! Evelyn could never hurt his feelings. Sixie on Five: ‘I don’t want to speak ill of him, he’s interested in sports, terrible dress sense.’ In his fifth incarnation he entirely platonically used to put his arm around his pretty female assistants and everyone seems to like this gentler persona much to old Sixie’s annoyance! Being liked isn’t the be all and end all…what’s right is usually the opposite of what the majority would agree with. He admits that being his former self was like being on a wonderful holiday but he didn’t like the way the universe treated him. He’s often when he’s happiest when he has created a family for himself, he concludes as he sees his future regeneration with Ace and Hex. Braxiatel was always the sensible one…and the condescending one. One of his favourite days was flying kites with Evelyn.

Learned Lecturer: A few weeks ago when Evelyn’s back was giving her gib the Doctor didn’t complain at all so now she will return the favour and not point out his every wince and twinge. She thinks the fifth Doctor is dashing and thin and hangs around with such pretty girls (Peri & Erimem). She cheekily suggests that the Doctor wouldn’t have remembered her amongst all the pretty girls but he assures her that wouldn’t be the case at all. Evelyn gets to see the seventh Doctor before her first actually meeting with him in Thicker than Water and her in depth conversation with him in A Death in the Family. She calls Hex a dashing young man, completely unaware that he is Cassie’s son but this will all be dealt with in some considerable depth later. Evelyn found Bernice to be great company and she drinks like a fish!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We now return the control of the Doctor’s body and we will set off towards…his kidneys!’

Great Ideas: The Texineurons, am intelligent virus which has infected the Doctor and multiplied enough times to control him. The Tharsis Acumen is a technocracy, a society run by scientists and when the Doctor heard they were experimenting on prisoners and so the Doctor set a plan into motion. He as thrown into jail, formed a small theatre group, performed a play for the governors, excelled as Mother Courage, had drinks with the Commandant, did a little fiddling with his computer and freed the political prisoners. In revenge they hired an assassin was drafted to fire a dart of the virus under the Doctor’s skin. Erimem made such a friend to Peri and changed her entire perspective on their travelling. They sparkled in each other’s company. They were a ship of bright young things.

Audio Landscape: A jungle planet, party atmosphere, explosion, rain lashing down, a rowdy saloon bar in the American West, strong wind, a cheering crowd, a choking cloud of volcano ash.

Isn’t it Odd: I find it extremely unusual that Briggs should want Paul Cornell to write something this self congratulatory regarding characters such as Erimem and C’rizz when he is jut about to have them removed from the range. There is something of a kick-start to the main range with this production; the 100th release feels as though it is a new chapter of Big Finish adventures. This is a good jumping on point for new listeners to the range and this mini adventure in particular introduces them to all manner of new assistants and so it’s very odd to see companions being celebrated who wont make it past their next story. The scene where the Doctor starts discussing his aggressive persona from the point of view of the audience, the people listening this tale turned far too self referential for its own good. Cornell is no longer exploring the Doctor’s mythology but making digs and it’s quite insulting for the audience and the characters. He’s talking about the Time Lords watching is adventures on the Time/Space Visualisers…but in fact he’s discussing fandom in a critical way from within the story. Not good. ‘Why is it never you first four selves we run into?’ ‘Sheer co-incidence. There are a lot of other stories to be told you know…with the rest of us’ – Cornell beats us over the head with a mallet into the point is made. Considering the coming together of actors in Zagreus and Gallifrey Series IV which upset people no end because they weren’t playing the characters they were famous for…why the hell is this story merely narrated from afar than actually having the actors who play the various Doctors and companions we ‘meet’ taking part? The reaction to the episode would have been completely different if they had. Parallel realities with the third Doctor shacking up with the Brigadier and defeating the Krynoids…make it stop! ‘They’ll all keep going, their continuing stories, they don’t need me…’ – I was getting angry at this point.

Result: The only story where Evelyn gets to walk through the Doctor’s lives. The performances, music, production and direction are all sound and there are moments of charming characterisation for Evelyn. That’s the good. The overall complaint that this is less of a story and more of an extended advert for Big Finish is genuinely valid and I do wonder if this couldn’t have been released as a freebie as they tended to do in the past (ala the third disc on The Settling release) and made way for a more interesting story instead. Worse, Paul Cornell starts getting irritatingly self referential and opinionated in the same way he did in the worst of his New Adventure novels and it feels at times like we are being brow beaten with his taste in Doctors and companions. I was really looking forward to hearing his take on the sixth Doctor within the context of a story but instead this just seems to be an excuse to say how wonderful the fifth and seventh Doctors are at the expense of old Sixie. And don’t the audience out there think that he is an aggressive fellow? Very clever I don’t think. Unfortunately what starts out as having an intriguing premise soon gets mired in continuity and judgment and the overall piece lacks sincerity. Did Cornell learn nothing from the TNG episode Shades of Grey? Disposable, irritating and a disappointing way to end the collection: 3/10
It’s a shame that 100 had to be book ended by the two weakest stories because you go into the story thinking its going to be underwhelming and you leave it with a bad taste in your mouth. The two middle stories are very strong and amongst the best material to be released since Gary Russell gave up the mantle of Big Finish with some deliciously strong ideas and atmosphere. 100 Days of the Doctor is one of the few Doctor Who adventures that promises so much and delivers so little and it is such a shame that people should walk away from this release not thinking that the future is bright but that Big Finish is on a downward spiral of quality. A flawed anniversary release, not everything I would have hoped for but with one above average story and two excellent ones it is no where near as bad as you have heard: 7/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Ben Willans said...

I generally love Rob Shearman's stuff, but I found the Mozart story oddly offensive. I had the same reaction to the Shakespeare/Kingmaker twist. I really don't like the suggestion that the Doctor has mucked about with our greatest artist to such an extent. I'm not for one moment suggesting that the writers shouldn't be able to do such stories. Simply that for some reason it bothers me greatly when they do.

Paul's story was the best of the collection in my view. A lovely celebration and validation of six coming from one of his harshest critics.

Amai said...

Glad it wasn't just me thinking 100 BC had Evelyn wildly out of character. Hopefully given time and reflection, I'll mellow to it like you did, but on first listen I found it super frustrating. As one of my favourite audio companions, to have Evelyn suddenly be militantly feminist came on as quite an unpleasant surprise. I missed a few in the middle, but none of what I'd seen of her so far supported whatever that episode was about. To erase a baby boy from existence because he's not a girl is not feminism... it's awful.