Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The TAO Connection written by Barry Letts and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: The body of an old man is found floating in the Thames although the DNA of the corpse corresponds to an 18-year old friend of Josh and Ellie. Sarah Jane heads towards West Yorkshire in a bid to discover what killed the man, why someone is kidnapping homeless teenage boys and whether there is a link between that and the retreat of philanthropist Will Butley which hosts The Huang Ti Clinic. Sarah discovers that there is more to ancient Dark Sorcery than she may have otherwise believed.

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: Sarah used to earn her living by ‘finding out’ and still has a notebook full of contacts. One of those is Claudia from the C19 who is lucky to still have her job because Sarah kept her mouth shut about their association before she was discredited. Once they are north of London Sarah puts on the most horrendous upper class accent to gain entrance to a shin dig and then an then deepest mummerset to pose as a cleaner at the clinic. Unfortunately her face is simply too high profile to go undercover and she has to pretend that she is always been mistaken for ‘that Sarah Jane.’ Tripe night was the highlight of the week when Sarah was a lass! Josh describes her as caring about things they investigate but also oddly detached and she remarks she probably picked it up from somebody she once knew and if he had seen the things that she had seen he would be too. She’s a dab hand at Venusian Akido now so the Doctor must have spent some time during season eleven teaching her the skill. Sarah dishes out the only punishment that is worthy of Butley and that is to finally force him to grow old and die – if he remained alive her would exploit more young men for their bodies and their life force and she cannot allow that to happen.

Jubilant Josh: There is a very natural chemistry between SJ and Josh already, mocking each other, sharing lunch and joking about. Rather wonderfully when Sarah is trying to secrete Josh into the clinic and they are caught she orders him to kiss her so it looks like she is using her break to get up to some rumpy pumpy!

Standout Performance: Moray Treadwell’s turn as Will Butley was a revelation as the effete gay billionaire trapped in the clinic, flirting with the guards and trying to escape. There is a gorgeously performed scene between him and his bodyguard (played by Robert Curbishley) where you think he will get a beating for suggesting sexual favours but Read admits he has obliged men of his persuasion before for the right price. Its an odd, uncomfortable moment and the story could have used more of them.

Great Ideas: The Huang-Tai clinic chucked Lotus out for being a right pain in the butt, a fact that Sarah can testify having tangled with her professionally once or twice over the years. Huang-Tai was otherwise known as the Yellow Emperor and was the first Sage of the Chinese religion of Taoism which is like alchemy – trying to find the secret to physical and spiritual immortality. Chi is the secret of their long life, its exploitation through acupuncture. When Sarah discovers the therapy rooms in the clinic she finds that blood is being pumped into their bodies and not out of it. Butley is over 300 years old, born in 1697, the Chi not stopping the ageing process but slowing it down. The secret incantation is ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ told backwards which Letts seems to love using (The Daemons).

Audio Landscape: Big Ben, car honking, traffic, wading through water, growling car engine, dog barking, pouring tea, crockery, washing up.

Isn’t it Odd: To find a Barry Letts script full of swearing, cutting edge science and a strained gay romance beggars belief! The biggest problem with this story and for the majority of the first series of SJS audios is that the what should have been a hard hitting drama series is far too concerned with the small scale to make much of an impact. Comeback heads to a country village, The TAO Connection to a rural retreat and Ghost Town to a remote Romanian village. Whilst the Sarah Jane Adventures puts itself on a worldwide scale every other week (its one of Russell T Davies’ favourite clichés) it does at least stress the importance of the series and the lead characters role. With so many visits to forgotten towns off the beaten track the audios stutter for a while by suggesting Sarah is good for little more than solving Scooby Doo-esque minor mysteries. Fortunately David Bishop would be around soon to change all that, to force the series into metropolitan London and to kick start an epic story arc that winds up with Sarah heading back into space. But that’s in the future. The double punch of Comeback and TAO seeing Sarah Jane mixing with yokels with country accents suggests that as much as Terry Dicks and Barry Letts want to suggest that they have moved on (you know the swearing and whatnot) they are very much writers of their generation. What’s really odd about The TAO Connection is that there isn’t any supernatural element besides the extended ageing process which would be fine as long as there was some kind of real world threat or stake to the adventure but what transpires is a tale about an old man who enjoys winding people up with his longevity and little more.

Result: The TAO Connection is badly timed, being another low key charmer with little incident and action coming straight after the same thing in the opening story. Barry Letts is the ideal person to write for Sarah and its no great shock that she is characterised very well in this story but Nat disappears for the length of a bible and Josh is sidelined as comic relief. Letts juggles Taoism and homosexuality and it does seem as though he is trying to bring a modern touch to the range but his storytelling is off his time, slackly paced and focussing far more on character then plot. Saying that there are some nice comic diversions and I thought Will Butley was a wonderful sleazy character to hiss at. Its worth a listen because of the nice performances (its great to see Maggie Stables making a cameo as the deadly chef, Mrs Lythe) but its only once you have heard David Bishop’s fast paced and contemporary thriller Test of Nerve that is next in the schedule that you compare the differences and see which approach is more engaging. A flawed piece but adequate: 5/10

Comeback written by Terrance Dicks and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Six months after the last part of her undercover investigative TV series for Planet 3 Broadcasting went out, Sarah Jane Smith is running scared. Living under false names, her true identity compromised, she has few friends and fewer clues as to her pursuers. Enter three people who will change her life the mysterious Mr Harris, old friend Ellie Martin and a guardian angel in the shape of the rougish Josh. Now, all roads lead to the village of Cloots Coombe in Wiltshire but will she find answers she needs there?

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: It seems that we fans just cannot get enough of Sarah Jane Smith and whilst her involvement with the show is fairly spaced out, there is plenty of Elisabeth Sladen goodness to revel throughout the shows gestation. Her three and half years on the show are an absolute highlight for the series, the aborted spin off for her own show K9 and Company, featuring in The Five Doctors and Downtime, taking part in some splendid novels, her return to the series in School Reunion and the resulting spin off show The Sarah Jane Adventures and of course the audio series from Big Finish. That’s a wealth of material to appreciate the character and I still wanted more simply because the character was so compelling and Lis herself brought so much charm and realism to the role. Its very interesting to see that the tone of the series here is very different to that of the CBBC show – Sarah is a colder character, paranoid because she has upset too many people in her career and constantly living on the run through various aliases. It’s a fascinating take on the character and Sladen really convinces you that the world is out to get our favourite reporter. At the beginning of the Sarah Jane Adventures our heroine is paranoid, secretive and doesn’t want to involve others into her lifestyle and I consider that a result of her experiences in her audio series. Whilst her audio series second season ends on a cliffhanger I definitely feel that was resolved and she wound up moving to Bannerman Road in Ealing after he experiences here. The tone of the two series might be vastly different but in my head I can completely justify that one follows the other and the character leaps from one to the other as though it was made as a seagueway between The Five Doctors and School Reunion. To me it is all one timeline for the character.

The story opens with her Aunt Lavinia’s funeral and says that in a place like Morton Harwood you don’t get slip away quietly which links this nicely to K.9 and Company. She is going to miss her Aunt and all the adventures that they never had and has been bequeath all of her money and worldly goods and she promises to be slightly frivolous as Lavinia would have wanted. Sarah used to work for Planet Three and made documentaries exposing dodgy organisations and Sarah talks of working hard to creating a new life for herself out of the limelight. Her last report with Scottish Fisheries, Hautacore and Sarah believed that researches into fish born diseases was being abused. She followed a trail, got the story and broadcast it. Planet Three had the asses sued off them because everything that Sarah had researched was a lie. She was fired for false allegations, Planet Three coughed up a lot of dough which Hautacore donated to cancer charities. Nobody would touch her anymore. She had no bank balance, no job, no identity, a complete nobody in society. Sarah ceased to exist because someone, somewhere went to great pains to frame her and destroy her life. Listening to Sarah manipulate Hedges on the phone into co-operating with her goes to show just what a good journalist she is. She dresses it up as trying to find out who is messing with her life but I think that Sarah loves all this cloak and dagger stuff and when she says she has to act I feel its more that she wants to. There’s something appealingly reckless about her in this audio series that I like. She has a battered old red Volkswagen beetle called Ethel and its interesting to note that when she gives her car to Luke in The Nightmare Man that it is an spruced up resprayed VW Beetle – even though it is torched here! Perhaps she bought another? Ellie warns Sarah that she is getting a little uneasy in her paranoia and it’s a trait that will become more apparent as the series continues.

Jubilant Josh: I’m so glad to see Jeremy James earning a regular status on this show because he is a staple of the early Big Finish adventures often playing the sort of roles that go unnoticed like monsters. He brings a great deal of real world charm to this series and it would seem that whatever the medium whenever Sarah gets her own series she is always surrounded by likable friends. Josh joins up with Sarah after saving her life during an investigation of a bank and describes himself as a have-a-go hero! He nabs the nickname that Ellie Martin called Sarah – ‘SJ’. His parents run a ski resort near the Alps and are loaded but he is (as Nat describes him) their ‘delinquent only child fending for himself and refusing their help.’ After wasting time hanging out with some fringe loonies he spent eight months in Felton, then worked at various High Street retailers before falling into a dead end job at a builders merchants. Nat rather cruelly lists his failiure of a life and it only serves to make you like him even more. Rather than admitting that he wants to protect her Josh spouts some naff Chinese philosophy about saving someone’s life and being responsible for them thereafter. Josh destroys the MOD facility and mentions it is what he does best – arson. Now we know why he was locked away for eight months.

Natty: I really like Nat because she doesn’t take any of Sarah’s shit – at times our plucky hero can be remarkably cold and put her friends in real danger but Nat has the strength to fight her own corner and tell Sarah when she has gone too far. Played by Elisabeth Sladen’s daughter Sadie Miller, Nat is straight talking and intelligent and her hacking skills are legendary. She probably tried to fight against it but at times Sladen’s natural affection for her daughter shines through but that isn’t necessarily a problem because Nat is often invaluable and deserves the praise Sarah heaps on her. Sarah is suspicious of the slightest co-incidence but Nat quite rightly says that the whole doesn’t revolve around her.

Standout Performance: SJS has a terrific cast and it all starts at the top – the unmistakably talent Elisabeth Sladen. She’s back to give a whole new spin on the character and heads the series with absolute conviction. Her sidekicks are played by Jeremy James who is a laugh a minute in the role and quickly develops a natural chemistry with Sladen and Sadie Miller, Sladen’s daughter and just as convincing as her mother in a difficult expository role. Its Robin Bowerman that I really want to praise however because his delicious throaty voice really sells the menace of the iniquitous Mr Harris and I’m pleased that he turns up in many other stories because he brings a great deal of that old school Who villainy with him. Just wait until we reach Test of Nerve where he becomes even more sinister.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘One day I just might get to unpack.’
‘Its time for you to investigate the newest scientific breakthrough!’

Great Ideas: Showing how well thought through this series is the principal villains of the piece turn up in the pre-titles sequence and whilst manipulating their way throughout the season wont reveal their hand until the very last tale, Mirror Signal Manoeuvre. Harris and his employers hacking into the bank that Sarah is investigating simply because they had the misfortune to give her a job – admitting they have spent a lot of time and energy trying to destroy her. Small village, weird locals, dodgy squire and dead bodies decomposed and carrying the days newspaper found in shallow graves – usual stuff for the likes of Sarah! The thing in the well devours the life force and leaves its victim a decaying unrecognisable corpse. Eighteen years ago the MOD were experimenting with chemical warfare and accidentally contaminated the local area with a leakage of radiation. It left the MOD facility by the church and seeped into the village well which was used for May Day celebrations and other traditions. The village became sterile and Richofet agreed to clone the villagers to give them a new generation. It was just a cover to see if the procedure could work – to grow an army that would have no families so casualties wouldn’t matter and with no payouts for the government. The experiments failed and they created a mutant, a creature that lives of the life force of those whose DNA created it. An army of such genetic trash would be invincible.

Audio Landscape: Car starting, Big Ben ringing, whistling wind, rain whipping at the car, footsteps, chatter in the bank, sawn off shotguns in the bank, alarm, doorbell, caller withheld, keyboard tapping in an internet café, Ethel going up in flames, an owl hooting, crackling fire, crows, the facility exploding, the creature screaming.

Musical Cues: This was a time when David Darlington was responsible for a lot of the Big Finish spin off series music and he does a fine job in giving the series an up to date (I hate to use the word hip) feel. However it does alarm me that at points the music that bridges the scenes can (if your mind can wander that way) sound alarmingly like the stripping off music of a 70s porn film. Not that I have ever watched anything of the kind. No sir J

Isn’t it Odd: I know the producers wanted Sarah to move into a grittier world but reading the name Terrance Dicks and hearing ‘You smug bitch!’ just don’t go together in my eyes. Because the story has spent so much time introducing us to the regulars there is little time to expand on the actual Cloots Coombe plot and so as soon as Sarah meets with the villain of the piece he immediately drops his façade and reveals his plans. There simply isn’t time for any kind of subterfuge.

Standout Scene: The opening monologue shows Elisabeth Sladen at her emotive best and after the tragic news of her death it was very appropriate for Big Finish to use this moment, a reflection on death from Sarah Jane herself, to show just how wonderful the actress was in the role in one of their pod casts.

Result: Comeback is a great introduction to the Sarah Jane Smith audio series but unfortunately it is not such a brilliant story in its own right. Since it spends so much time setting up the regulars and their claustrophobic world it’s the one instance where the story doesn’t have to be too much cop because everything about Sarah, Josh and Nat and the foes that are influencing their lives feels fresh and exciting. The producers desperately want to bring Sarah bang up to date and for the first half of Comeback Uncle Terry is writing a paranoia thriller but he cannot resist moving the action to a country village and churning out ‘same old’ (as one of the characters calls the mysterious happenings in Cloots Coombe). Terrance Dicks is an old hand at this and introduces some lovely ideas at the conclusion and it’s a shame that there just isn’t the time to develop them further but at least there are hints the cloning operation is part of a much larger operation. I went into this re-listen thinking that the opening couple of stories were dreadful and everything that came later justified the series but this was a lot more polished than I remember with some strong central performances and an intriguing set up for the series. I wont say this was the best pilot for a spin off range but it was entertaining and attention grabbing enough to make me want to see where Sarah heads next: 7/10

Return of the Daleks written by Nicholas Briggs and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: No one could ever know. We had to erase the past. Change everything. Start again. But even though it's been centuries now… In our hearts, none of us feels truly… Safe. I think, even if our people were to survive until the end of time itself, we would still fear… The return of the Daleks.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor mentions Mel, Ace and Hex so this story is set quite near the end of his seventh life. He wistfully mentions that time passes and history moves on…and if the sickness has gone so it seems clear that after all his companions choose to leave him some catastrophe will befall him. The story very cleverly leads up to that first scene, explaining what has happened to him and how he wound up believing he might have regenerated. Considering this was released along with The Year of the Pig it is right on the cusp of the Russell/Briggs handover and it shows precisely the direction that the latter wants to take McCoy in. He’s travelling alone, quiet and melancholic, a man who has seen it all and is waiting for his next life to catch up with him. I love the way the Doctor slips into this situation unnoticed until he opens his mouth, making cryptic statements and being more of an observer than a participant for the most part. There is something genuinely sorrowful and almost Godlike about him and its amazing the gravitas he has when he doesn’t have companions around to screech at. I love the way that the Doctor is the only person powerful enough to walk from show to show – people enter Doctor Who (Jack, Sarah Jane) and its still about the Doctor but as soon as the Doctor steps into Torchwood, SJA or Dalek Empire it becomes all about him. The Doctor thought his role here was to make sure that nothing went wrong but he realises he has to interfere otherwise the Daleks will have a terrifying advantage in their war against humanity if they succeed in freeing their army. He wonders if this is his penance for not doing the job properly the first time. He knows that Karlendorf is vital to bringing down the Daleks and offers to work for them, to give them the power of invisibility, in order to ensure his survival and that is enough for Karl to brand the Doctor a traitor to humanity. To ensure the timeline stays on track the Doctor works for the Daleks for years. He’s at his most menacing when he reveals that he has been keeping them happy in order for Karl and Suze to bring down their Empire and gleefully watches them die around him. Brrr…I don’t want to get this guy mad. He genuinely thought he was going to regenerate at the end of this story, his body bombarded with radiation but its almost as if he knows he is supposed to survive until he reaches San Francisco in 1999.

Angel of Mercy: I love Suze’s steel when she confronts the Daleks, she knows that they need her and that she can push them and when she points those facts out they are impotent to simply get rid of her because she is right. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that when Rob Shearman was asked to bring back a single, simple Dalek in the New Series that he cited the psychology of the scenes between Suze and the Dalek Supreme from Dalek Empire as the level of intensity they should be aspiring to. She thinks she can mouth off to anybody and gives the Ogrons an earful, resisting their brute tactics and they simply break her arm to prevent her trying to escape. It’s a healthy reminder that whilst she is useful, she is also vulnerable.

Knight of Velyshaa: Gareth Thomas has a marvellous, gravelly voice for audio and he injected a great deal of charm and gravitas into the Dalek Empire series. No matter how melodramatic the storyline became Thomas was there to add subtleties and give the story its heart. Karl thinks Suze sounds almost proud when she admits that Solaria have a reputation of full co-operation – he is definitely there as her moral compass when she starts to sound too much like a Dalek. The Doctor sums up Karl in about 30 seconds reminding him that he was on a secret peace mission to make a defence pact with the Earth alliance when he got caught up in the Dalek invasion of the galaxy. The Doctor describes him as a force of nature and is clearly here to make a difference in his life, stating he has to make sure that he fulfils his potential.

Standout Performance: McCoy is at his most sinister here, appearing to turn rogue during the finale and practically salivating at the sound of Daleks dying.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They’re beginning to suspect they’ve got it right and they’re about to unleash the most powerful Dalek army ever created.’
‘I’m working for the Daleks now and I really must get started…’
‘History is saved…’

Great Ideas: For anybody foolish enough not to have tried the Dalek Empire series (stop reading this and get to it!) this is a wonderful way to introduce them to the main players, main premise and tone of the series whilst still remaining firmly a Doctor Who story. The Daleks are back and spreading their hate amongst the universe but they are doing it in such a way that might make their tyranny seem more acceptable – by choosing a poster child for their subjugation in Susan Mendez. They head around the Dalek Empire and she makes rousing speeches to the slaves to keep them focussed and working and in return for their loyalty they receive more food and rest. The situation isn’t great but the Daleks get what they want and so the encouragement to kill to keep the workforce moving is removed. Susan has regular chats with the Dalek Supreme who tries to get inside her mind and enjoys mind fucking her. At her side is an ex Knight of Velyshaa (The Sirens of Time), Karlendorf, who tries to remind Suze that she is a Dalek puppet and is actually aiding their suppression of the universe and between them they are seeking planning to overthrow the Dalek Empire. I had a real childish thrill when the Daleks mentioned the Ogrons. Briggs has been quite keen to forge his own Dalek continuity whilst effortlessly slipping in the odd mention of their Doctor Who continuity but he usually sticks to elements from the Hartnell Dalekmania period. To have an element of Pertwee slapped into this story and something as bold as the Ogrons gave me a fanboy thrill. There is a massive Dalek army underneath Solaria that they are hoping to unearth – it is the planet Spiridon which has changed its name to Solaria in order to shield this terrifying army from the Daleks. With experiments they are hoping to unlock the key to becoming invisible. The Daleks are already winning this war and with an invisible thousand strong killing force their victory is assured.

Audio Landscape: Dalek alarm, a sauce descending, Ogrons marching, birdsong, an explosion in the distance wobbling crockery, the screams of the victims as the light wave projectors fire, a humming wind, the snap of Suze’s breaking arm, ice vaporising.

Musical Cues: Its such a shame that Nick Briggs doesn’t score his own directed works anymore because listening to the atmospheric music to Return of the Daleks reminded me of how good he was once he had found his groove. He tinkles on the piano to create a real mood and has these wonderful melodramatic stings that highlight moments of drama. There’s a wonderful moment during the climax where Briggs uses the Dalek Empire theme music to underscore the climactic events and you realise it isn’t just a dynamic theme tune but also a great piece of incidental music in its own right.

Standout Scene: I knew it! As soon as I caught wind of a Dalek army buried beneath a planet I had an inkling that it might be Spiridon from Planet of the Daleks. Briggs then mentions they are encased in ice and my suspicions grew but he still held back from revealing the truth. When he does it is a real punch the air moment and this seamless dovetailing of Doctor Who continuity and the Dalek Empire series makes for a very exciting conclusion. How wonderful to revisit this planet and for the Daleks to take advantage of a resource we thought long forgotten.

Result: Listening to Return of the Daleks should be all the excuse you need to go out and buy all four series of Dalek Empire. It’s not exact a story in its own right but another chapter of Briggs’ signature series but because the Doctor is present it feels definitively like a Doctor Who story. It’s an intoxicating brew of the two ranges featuring the best of both with Suze squaring up to the Daleks in dramatic fashion and Karlendorf learning that he is far too important to be allowed to sacrifice himself on the one hand and the seventh Doctor rarely characterised better as he has jettisoned his companions and is now a force of nature ducking into historical events and ensuring their continuity. There’s a brilliant moment when the location is revealed and a forgotten loose end is brought spectacularly into the new Dalek war and I love the ending that sees the Doctor sacrificing his freedom, matching the fatalistic tone that the Dalek Empire series often adopts. Whilst you can purchase this story now it was a massive thank you to the audience at the time that you could receive a freebie of this quality and it confidently spells out all the reasons that Dalek Empire has been such a hit: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Monday, 28 November 2011

Blue Forgotten Planet written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: 'So, this is the blue planet you’ve forgotten about. But take another look. You helped us once. I know you can help us again.' On Earth, civilization has ended and time is running out for the Doctor and Charlotte Pollard. Will the mysterious Viyrans really help? 'Without you, the human race will die out. And Planet Earth will surely be our tomb.’

Softer Six: We open on a melancholic Doctor sitting by the shoreline on a beautiful planet and wistfully thinking about a friend he has recently lost – could this be the final parting between the Doctor and Charley Pollard? It would appear that the Doctor and Mila (disguised as Charley) have had many adventures together, getting to know each other and drinking in each others company. They skip back into the TARDIS at the beginning of Blue Forgotten Planet giggling, poking fun at each other and talking of mad nights drinking (non alcoholic) cocktails. He talks about it being an ‘extremely long way round’ trip back to Earth for Charley but the tone of his voice suggests that he hasn’t minded one bit. I was literally screaming at the injustice of having Charley frozen by the Viyrans just as the Doctor materialises the TARDIS – the sound of his arrival is such a joyous one and you genuinely think they will be reunited only to have it snatched away. The Doctor scoffs at the Viyrans ridiculous scheme to chase around the universe sniffing out every single virus that was scattered amongst time and space. Astonishingly given how much time has been spent with Charley hiding the truth from the Doctor over past dozen stories when she finally gets to admit that she is from his personal future it is blurted out in the middle of a climactic moment and gets promptly ignored as the story dramatically interrupts! There is simply no time for him to digest it at this point when the fate of the human race is at stake. He can only ever do his best but luckily his best is rather better than average. I really like the way that people who have been pushed to the limit thanks to an impossible situation believe that the Doctor on his strength of conviction can save them without any real proof. Once the cat is out of the bag the Doctor is still trying to protect Charley even when he cannot trust her an inch. Its lovely to see him trying to find excuses to continue his time together with Charley but he knows that he cannot remember her come his future self. Their parting as one of the most successful Big Finish pairings probably came too soon for my liking but golly it has been one heck of a ride.

Edwardian Adventuress: How far has Charley come since she first stepped into the TARDIS in Storm Warning? She has well and truly grown up to the point where she had outgrown the eighth Doctor and decided to leave him and after her tense relationship with one of his predecessors and an unfortunate encounter with a malevolent girl that wanted to steal her life she has wound up working for a robotic race chasing viruses around the universe! Whilst this might sound like a ridiculous path for a character to forge it is only since things have gotten extremely complicated for the character (so around The Girl Who Never Was) that she has really become one to capture the attention in a very captivating way. Charley is now a fighting girl, hanging on by the tips of her fingers and tumbling into one unfortunate situation that she has talk her way out of after another with Time itself unsure what to do with her. This desperate Charley has been a much more attractive character and it is a relief that at this point where she has reached her zenith she is written out leaving people desperately wanting more. Its always best to go out that way – had she gone at the end of The Girl Who Never Was it would have been a case of they’ve finally let go of Charley but the reality is at the end of Blue Forgotten Planet I was thinking I would have loved to spend more time with the Sixie/Charley dynamic. Given how bored I was with the character during the latter McGann era this is nothing short of a miracle. I can’t think of a single instance where a companion has felt so tired and with a single revolutionary step finding myself falling in love with them again but in a whole new way. What’s even more interesting is how India Fisher’s performance adapted with this new evasive Charley and she went on to give her strongest turns against Colin Baker. In all respects this has been a barmy experiment that has paid off. Charley had a phenomenal two seasons with McGann, an inconsistent run in the Divergent Universe and onwards with C’rizz before catapulting into sixth Doctor’s life where she went out at her peak. It’s a shame about the middle section of her time in the audios but taken as a whole Charley has been the poster child for Big Finish companions. A complicated companion whose very presence in the TARDIS is an issue, who declared her love for the Doctor and who broke a vital rule leaping into his past. Ladies and gents please raise your glass for Charlotte Pollard!

Charley has been working for the Viyrans because they promised to wake her when they track down the Doctor. When the Viyrans make Charley aware there is an exact duplicate of her wandering around out there she knows it is Mila and that was when things started to get really interesting. The end of episode one is exactly how the cliffhangers can be drafted in to make the trilogies a more dramatic experience. Patient Zero saw the dramatic events of Mila taking Charley’s place and with Paper Cuts wedged between them we have had a bit of a breather so the impact of the first cliffhanger where a fuming Charley comes face to face with her tormentor and it is a real spine tingler. Mila had absolutely everything she wanted and by bungling on her adventure with the Doctor Charley is about to ruin everything for the pair of them. The Doctor is about to discover that he has been duped twice over (by both Charley and Mila) and this faux companionship is going to be brought to a dramatic end. That first cliffhanger though is superb and almost on its own justifies the Charley/Mila shenanigans. Charley doesn’t have anything like a formal contract with the Viyrans, more of an understanding that they can help each other out. She feels she has some sway with them though because she knows that they wouldn’t have completed some of their missions had it not been for her. When she finally gets to speak to the Doctor Charley tells him how much she has missed him but she understands the situation better than he does – a simple explanation for a very complicated situation that she is going to have to untangle for him once the fireworks are over. The Doctor describes the two Charley’s as an intrusion in time and the cause of a corruption in it. When Charley calls Mila by her name it is as though she has physically struck her – she spits back that that isn’t who she is anymore. Charley admits that she has made hash out of everything – even her pretend existence with the sixth Doctor has been usurped. The last thing I expected was the Charley and Mila working together for the man they both love but it certainly gave the conclusion a burst of sentiment that overwhelmed me. We experience the Doctor’s parting with Mila, promising to look in on her from time to time but it is in reality a fiction placed in his head by Charley who has to finally wrap up her time with the Doctor and make it so he never remembers her. Its an oddly poignant moment because unbeknownst to him he has genuinely been having adventures with Mila. Charley is clever enough to know that if she spells out his future to him the Doctor himself will be forced to forget his time with her. We leave her as an unwilling traveller with the Viyrans, ready to forge a future without the Doctor.

Standout Performance: This one belongs to India Fisher who has grown so much as performer throughout her time with Big Finish to the point where she is playing two completely separate characters in her last story with absolute confidence. Go and listen to her final scene with Colin if you want to know how good Fisher is at her very best – its understated and beautiful and the perfect point to say goodbye to the character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I think the Viyrans are going to wipe out the human race…’
‘Let me tell you a story. You meet a girl on the R-101 airship. She’s meant to die in the crash’ ‘If this is something from my future I don’t think…’ ‘But you save her and that tears at the fabric of time itself – the Web of Time but in a way you don’t care because you’re in love with her’ ‘Sounds like I became reckless in my old age…’ ‘Isn’t that what old age is for?’ ‘Perhaps’ ‘The one day you and this girl, this woman, decide to go your separate ways. But before this happens she sees you die’ ‘Charlotte! I don’t want’ ‘And you don’t regenerate!’ Why are you’ ‘You die!’ ‘Why are you telling me this?’ ‘I think the only way the Viyrans can erase your memory without killing you is if you really want to forget. And now you know when you meet Charlotte Pollard your life will nearly be over!’ ‘Everyone dies, Charley. Even me. I’m prepared for that’ – this is so beautifully performed by Fisher and Baker its everything I could have hoped it would be.

Great Ideas: The best parties in the galaxy are on Grelistor or so they say. There is a very funny moment just after the title music that features a character giving what appears to be a dramatic monologue but in true Armageddon Factor style it is actually a propaganda piece being recorded – an advert for the ‘Save Planet Earth’ campaign. A crater several miles across caused by a chemical explosive device. Without the Viyrans all human life would have died out years ago, sending medication that wipes out the madness. Without the meds you begin to forget everything you have ever known until you are left as a shivering vegetable, afraid of your own shadow. No one knew how to cure diseases, build things or grow things. There were epidemics, catastrophes and the human population was cut by over 2 billion in a decade. Utter chaos ensued with wars breaking out and mass murder with nobody understanding the technology anymore. Viyran ships landed all over the world but it was too little too late. They set up small survivor groups and gave a temporary vaccine to a privileged few. In return they were asked to make documentaries, charity appeals to the Viyrans. Only Charley realises that the Viyrans aren’t medical missionaries but the ones who caused all this madness in the first place. Their mission is to wipe out the Amethyst viruses (that were released in Patient Zero) and the madness disease was their attempt at a cure that went horribly wrong. The Mison particle disseminator that was launched at the beginning of the story was to destroy the minute quantity of Amethyst virus that was detected on the planet but they did not foresee the side effect of the madness. The radiation caused a massive chemical imbalance and somehow the human race had civilisation wiped clean from their collective brains. I just love the idea of the human race being practically wiped out by what is little more than a statistical error especially since the surviving humans have given the mass extinction the feeling of a tangible threat against the planet. The way they so calmly state that in their search for the viruses it has only been necessary to wipe out five races of the millions they have encountered thus far. Only five! The Viyrans have beings in cryosleep from all over the universe that they use in their experiments to find cures for these diseases – I bet that would be a wonderful place to explore aliens from across the universe. The virus is present as one dormant particle in every human being and there is a 1 in 5.4billion chance that sometime in the next 7000 millennia a human may contract the virus! Unbelievably the virus isn’t really dangerous at all, it could only turn deadly against infinitesimal odds! Chronon particles that get released in the time vortex are the cure for the virus so the Doctor extends the time field of the TARDIS around the entire planet and within the sphere reverts the Earth’s timeline to a point before the Viyrans fired their first disseminator. Shifting the entire human race back in time and curing them all of the virus breaks every single rule in the book.

Audio Landscape: Waves lapping against the shore, a Mison disseminator being fired at the Earth – you can hear it screaming through the atmosphere, applause, helicopters tearing across the landscape, blades whirring, the wibbly wobbly TARDIS landing, the Doctor’s echoing voice as he emerges into a canyon, boots marching, what sounds like a crowd in a scrap with machine guns being fired into the melee, a dog snarling, the Viyran ship landing, the landing ramp hydraulics hissing, I love the metallic whirring that signifies a light moving across the Viyrans monitors (very Cylon), siren, guns cocking, madness breaks out with bullets flying, people screaming and being cut to pieces, Charley freezing, levitating the cryopods, the Viyran intruder alert horn, explosions, Big Ben.

Musical Cues: Is this the first main range story that Jamie Robertson scored? If so we are in for an absolute treat from this point onwards since his music is some of the finest that has ever featured in a Doctor Who production as far as I am concerned. I am so glad that the producers decided to add musical tracks as an extra feature on the discs and downloads because you get to experience the scope and emotional drive of some of scores without the dialogue and sound effects distracting you. The horns are very much in evident which pre-empts that this is going to be one of Jamie Robertson’s cinematic scores. Everything about the Viyrans approach is dynamic, loud and proud.

Isn’t it Odd: This is less of a criticism of the play itself and more of fan expectation because I remember there being quite a lot of talk about the Viyrans on forums and in DWM and a lot of people thought they were going to be the next Big Finish Big Bad. When the truth of the matter was they were a fairly mundane robot race that work really well because they have been included in some operatic stories that heighten their status and were memorably brought to life by Nick Briggs. So they did work just not in the way that they were expected to.

Standout Scene: The final goodbye between the Doctor and Charley (and I love the fact that they don’t actually confirm that it is Charley) is everything it should have been. With the truth she has been hiding exposed they can finally talk frankly with each other – Charley knows that his memory has to be erased and she insists to the Viyrans that she has to be the one to convince him that it needs to be done too. Colin Baker and India Fisher are remarkable in this scene and by the end I was grabbing at the tissues. Stick around after the final titles because there is a hint that this might not quite be the very end for Charlotte Pollard who is still out there somewhere working with the Viyrans.

Notes: There was a moment that really made me smile with a ‘Doctor’ ‘You were expecting someone else?’ exchange in episode four which took me way back to the regeneration scene in The Caves of Androzani and reminded just how far we have come with this character thanks to Big Finish.

Result: An aid mission gone fatally wrong leaving the Earth a post apocalyptic wasteland – that’s a fantastic setting for a Doctor Who story. Its used to stage a cinematic extravaganza that paves the way for a final goodbye to Charley Pollard from the main range. It is a testament to how they revolutionised her character since she joined the sixth Doctor that after so many years and releases that it still feels as though we are letting go of the character too soon. Nick Briggs is so underrated as a writer and this is a fantastic example of how well he can craft a Doctor Who story and here has been able to shape a trilogy to ensure that Blue Forgotten Planet is a very satisfying finale. The Viyrans are back for the blockbusting story they were promised and the Charley/Mila storyline is given appropriate focus and tension. Just look at the way he uses the cliffhangers to grab hold of the listen and catapult you into the next instalment – so many writers forget the true effectiveness a good cliffhanger can have and here we have three humdingers. The story holds the attention throughout thanks to a lavish production courtesy of Briggs (the sound effects are so effective that if you close your eyes you are actually taking part) and a Jamie Robertson score that ups the excitement levels at all the right moments. What this story is really about though is separating the Doctor and Charley and on that score it does so with real aplomb. The lies are abolished and they get to say goodbye to each other as they really are and it’s an emotional high for both Colin Baker and India Fisher. Blue Forgotten Planet has so much to do – rounding off a trilogy, telling a dynamic story in its own right and giving Charley a decent hurrah – and Briggsy ticks these three off with such swagger it is a real testament to his talent behind the scenes: 9/10

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Paper Cuts written by Marc Platt and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The Empire is lost. The Deathless Emperors are dead. The future may never happen. An urgent summons returns the noble Doctor to a planet he saved from disaster long ago. But Draconia, so elegant and so savage, is in worse turmoil than ever. Who will be next Emperor? The highest Prince? The lowest peasant? The soldier with no name? Or the Doctor himself – his life at their command? Who controls the army of deadly origami warriors? And is the truth about Charley painted on paper walls in the Emperor’s tomb? History is taking revenge on the Doctor.

Softer Six: ‘The Doctor. The serpent who poisoned the Empire…’ Caught in a temporal disaster, the Doctor’s life is stretched out before him and other faces stretch out before Mila who recognises them from her time hanging around in the TARDIS all these years. The Doctor ponders on whether he has had lots of different lives or one big life and decides he prefers the latter and concludes that it has mostly been fun. When you are a traveller of the temporal highways and byways being late is never an issue (or so you would think!). Lateness is irrelevant because you can still respond to a distress call early and urgency becomes a thing of the past. That explains an awful lot about his irreverent attitude! His summons to Draconia has been in his in tray for over 150 years and he suggests that now a response might be in order. He once beat the 15th Emperor at Sazoo (a kind of Draconian chess), forgetting that you are supposed to lose with as much skill and as humbly as possible to make the Emperor look extremely skilful in beating you – the only thing that stopped him from getting his head lopped off was the fact that he had just saved the planet from a horrific space plague. The Doctor slips into Lord Salisbury’s dinner jacket feeling that this visit requires subtle elegance! He expects the Emperor to ascend to a happy hunting ground or a hall of heroes and finds that the reality of a solid manifestation of a metaphysical concept leaves a lot to be desired. Remembering his first incarnations adventures on Draconia induces a sense of wistful nostalgia in him, you can imagine the sixth Doctor staring into space grinning as he talks poetically of games with the Emperor and courtly politics. You feel the weight of the Doctor’s relationship with the Emperor when he uncovers the living hell he is being trapped in and asks him if he was genuinely ill or if he was forced out of power and into near death. When asked by the many Emperors being held in this pathetic state for the release of death the Doctor violently refuses, he cannot commit murder. It almost sounds like a reaction to his homicidal tendencies at the beginning of his regeneration.

(Faux)Edwardian Adventuress: I’m not sure how to write up this section because the character that appears to be Charley throughout Paper Cuts is in fact Mila, a disembodied spirit of a woman who was experimented on by the Daleks and left a ghostly shell floating about the TARDIS until Charley came along to give her a home. Our Charley has taken her place in the TARDIS, screaming for the Doctor to realise that she isn’t herself. Its nice to hear somebody assume that Charley is a mans name because over the myriad of adventures everybody has happily accepted she is a woman without question. The Doctor figures that Charlotte’s genius must be his influence rubbing off on her! Mila thinks back to being a Dalek prisoner, to finding her way to the TARDIS and quickly changes her story so her past is one of an Edwardian adventuress travelling through time and space with the Doctor. But the paper reveals her real past, cold, white, emotionless walls of the TARDIS. A life of solitude and pain. There’s a dangerous moment at the end of the story where Mila is desperate to get rid of Gomori because she has been waiting for her turn in the TARDIS with the Doctor for so long. She’s willing to leave him to face the music, lies to the Doctor about him wanting to stay behind for her own selfish needs.

Standout Performance: Whatever you might want from a performer in Doctor Who, Paper Cuts has it. There’ Colin Baker’s blissfully charismatic and elegiac Doctor, India Fisher on form playing a resourceful companion who has secrets of her own, a wonderfully villainous turn from Sara Crowe as the Queen Mother, melodrama personified in Anthony Glennon’s wonderful power hungry Prince, down to Earth charm from Paul Thornley’s Gomori and a sympathetic from Nick Briggs himself as he brings the Red Emperor to life. A stellar cast and no mistake.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I shall wrap myself in such clouds of despair that the skies shall weep!’
‘Draconian culture is very formal. Austerely elegant to the point of minimalist. Masked priests, ferocious warriors, the contemplation of a single white blossom. That sort of thing.’
‘The eager dog is always the first to stumble over the cliff…’
‘A Doctor in a celestial tomb? Aint that a bit late?’
‘Condemning fifteen wizened Emperors to eternity like a set of mouldering books on a forgotten shelf!’
‘What’s a sacrifice if we don’t lose something we value?’

Great Ideas: The temporal explosion that the Daleks threw at the TARDIS did blow them apart but because he had put the ship in regenerative mode they were only fragmented throughout the infinity of time for a moment. In this mode she is able to regenerate every single molecular link. On Draconia every death, even an Imperial murder needs the correct ritual but the Emperor’s son is too late since he is already dead. When an Emperor passes on his doting consort accompanies him to heaven with the rest of his possessions. The TARDIS in tray currently holds 31,684 unanswered messages most of which the Doctor considers to be irrelevant spam and the rest is private. The Emperor that the Doctor knew was always a bit of a wild card, upsetting his court with his radical new ideas. Draconians have palaces and tombs floating in space, a necropolis of edifices with one for each Emperor like the Pyramids of Giza. I love the way the tone of the piece suddenly changes after the first cliffhanger, the discovery of the body leaves the Doctor and the Prince alone, unguarded in a tomb and at the mercy of the assassin. 50 years ago there were honourable warm blooded ambassadors from all over the Draconian Empire. The wall screens of the tomb can paint themselves with memories, the paper treated to respond to thoughts. I love the idea of the highest and the lowest holding vigil over the Emperor as he ascends to the heavens – a chance for both walks of life to show their respect for the departed leader. Origami warriors with paper swords, each figure folded out of a single sheet of red paper. The Prince is certain the origami army is a final trap set for him by his late father, to prevent him from ever claiming the throne. He literally throttles his mother and questions his fathers sanity in marrying her – why is it in fiction that the higher the status of family, the more bloodthirsty and traitorous they are? Marc Platt always had an eye for memorable imagery and ideas and the thought of paper game pieces coming to life and being orchestrated by an unknown force is an extremely appealing one. Each Emperor flies through space in their own tomb with a set of Sazoo pieces in their own Imperial colours. Their ideas cannot be lost so they are kept on the brink of life in Imperial heaven, trapped alive in embalming fluid forever with the paper bringing their memories to life and the Sazoo pieces to play against each other. After desperately trying to find out who the Emperor has chosen as his successor and the story has spent an age convincing us that it wont be the Prince we are as surprised as he is that he is the chosen one. The Doctor realises that the Emperors are being held at the brink of life, trapped in some living version of hell and they want the Doctor for what he did to their Empire. The temple of the spilling sun at the heart of the necropolis powers the tombs. I love how the story positions the Prince as an abdicator for a break from tradition whereas the Empress has manipulated events to keep the planet strangled by the past – its an old debate in Doctor Who (it reared its head in the Peladon stories) but it has never been dealt with as poetically and as succinctly through two strong willed characters as it is here. I love the pomp and poetry of the conclusion as the Doctor walks through an army of Sazoo paper warriors in a myriad of gorgeous colours before setting eyes on the power source, one single stemmed bloom in an elegant vase – sun in a bottle. The Emperors want an end to their deathless suffering, a coup de grace since none of them where actually dying when they were suspended in their tombs.

Audio Landscape: Opening with the sound of the TARDIS shattering into millions of tiny pieces, Nick Briggs sure knows how to give a story an entrance! Jumping into water and bubbles breaking and floating to the surface, wading through the water, birdsong, horses galloping, water flowing down stream, polite laughter and applause, astonishingly Briggs manages to convince that an army of paper warriors is attacking, slashing their flammable swords that could slice right through you, pouring tea, screaming babies, scribbling, heavy breathing, slashing through a paper door, birds screaming, the Sazoo armies slicing each other to pieces, the screaming demands of angry Emperors.

Musical Cues: The early episodes benefit from a quieter, more sedate score to give the actors a chance to feel their way into the story and make their mark – it really does feel like the emphasis is on the cast rather than the production. But as the paper soldiers march forth in the last episode I was impressed at how insistent and pacy the story had become thanks to a driving musical score.

Isn’t it Odd: It might have been wiser to have had this story open the season so Charley could have enjoyed an adventure on Draconia before succumbing to the control of Mila in Patient Zero (which in itself has far more links with Blue Forgotten Planet and could have seamed into each other beautifully). I can completely understand why they would want to open this trilogy with a wham bang Dalek spectacular full of incident and twists because it would get people talking about the range…and it worked too. But for the sakes of the running story it harms it slightly because the Mila narrative is completely unnecessary in Paper Cuts but it is understandable that Briggs chose not to open Charley’s final hurrah trilogy with a story this relaxed.

Standout Scene: Its extremely satisfying to see that neither the scheming Queen Mother and her stress on tradition nor her son who wanted to shrug of the shackles of the past and forge his own dictatorship succeed in earning the throne. One is murdered brutally in typical royal fashion and the other has to face the angry demands of more than one vicious Emperor that have been cut off at their height.

Notes: There is a bleed over of Patient Zero’s plot as the Doctor reveals that the Daleks have succeeding in releasing the Amathustra viruses or as Charley puts it ‘they really did beat you this time?’ Unfortunately his unwillingness to tidy up the loose ends of his adventures means the Daleks bide their time gathering up the viruses and create a literal hell on Earth for the Doctor in the staggeringly dramatic Lucie Miller/To The Death. Perhaps he will be a little more tidy next time. The Doctor even states that living as long as he does that past events come back to bite you – ouch! Either this is a stunningly obvious moment of foreshadowing or a thoughtful moment tossed in by Marc Platt.

Result: The idea of the 15th Emperor assembling together four vigilants like Poirot pulling together his suspects in a good Agatha Christie mystery is really appealing, a fascinating approach to a traditional genre. A power hungry heir, his scheming mother, a fallen warrior, a mistaken peasant, a faux Charley and a bluff Doctor make an intriguing cast, all with secrets to reveal as the plot unfolds. It would have been so easy to set this story on Draconia and mundanely introduce us to the day to day life of one of the most elusive Doctor Who planets but Marc Platt never goes for the traditional options and chooses instead to explore the culture through the turbulent change of the death of an Emperor, setting the entire story inside a tomb. As you would expect from this author the dialogue is memorable and paints pictures and the characterisation goes beyond what you would expect from the stereotypes that these characters embody. My one complaint is that by telling a story with an economic cast of characters in one location means that the piece unfolds at a sedate pace but this is such a refreshingly different type of audio story for Big Finish I just relaxed into the story regardless. It’s a shame that this is a Mila story rather than a Charley one but interestingly she makes a decent match with Colin Baker’s championship audio Doctor. Nick Briggs often surprises me as a director because I always peg him as the audio action man (especially after his superlative handling of his Dalek Empire series) but when he gets an opportunity to coax strong performances out of a small cast of actors he often ends up with a very powerful result (Creatures of Beauty is another example). I’m sure this isn’t what the audience wanted at the time when the fate of Charley was about to be revealed but denying people what they want is often the best approach and taken as a story in its own right Paper Cuts is an engaging character drama that looks at an old race in a fresh way: 8/10

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Ferril’s Folly written by Peter Anghelides and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The search for the fourth segment of the Key to Time brings the Doctor and Romana back to Earth in the present day. In a small village in Norfolk, former astronaut Lady Millicent Ferril has established an observatory, tracking a meteorite from the Cronquist System. It is a meteorite that almost killed her years before – and perhaps left her not entirely human. As Ferril’s power grows, so does her influence. She can control metal. And anything metal – from a suit of armour to a bicycle – is now lethal…

Snooty Fox: There is something brilliant, dangerous and otherworldly about Romana. That description comes around 24 minutes into the play but before then we learn nothing new about her – she could have been any generic companion for all the impression her personality makes on the story. Oddly she is supposed to be one of the cleverest minds on Gallifrey but Romana can’t get her head around what a barman is. I desperately want somebody to write a companion chronicle that allows either Romana to shine through (Jonny Morris’ Beautiful People comes the closest but that was more because it captured the tone of season 17 so brilliantly) but in the hands of writers like Anghelides she is relegated to making some very pitiful, plain observations. I fail to comprehend how the Gallifrey series can utilise the character so successfully in a way that this range completely fails to do. Is it because in the Gallifreyan environment Romana thrives on the political atmosphere with the chance to be theatrical and verbose which both Tamm and Ward thrive at? Maybe Romana simply isn’t the sort of character to be looking back at her time with the Doctor because it hardly ever seems to be relayed with much fondness (compare and contrast with, say, Jo Grant, who recalls her adventures with nostalgic, giddy delight). All I know is the Romana companion chronicles are much like the character – cold as ice and at times unlikable.

Teeth and Curls: As usual the Doctor is giving his advice in the most arrogant of fashion and then changing his mind when things don’t quite go as he planned! He thinks Romana always has the tracer (not true) and hilariously peers up her dress to see if she is lying to him! I enjoyed the Doctor’s attempts to rescue a damsel in distress with the Historical Re-enactment Society because I could really imagine Tom Baker marching through a village with a bunch of old cronies in period dress!

Standout Performance: Much like the story itself there is something remarkably off kilter about Madeline Porter’s performance that really got on my nerves. Its almost as if the characters that she is playing knows they are taking part in a Doctor Who story and play up the melodramatic dialogue to the nth degree. When compared to Mary Tamm’s calmer, more relaxed handling of the script it seems even more over the top and the scenes where we cut from one to the other suggests we are moving from two very different kinds of story. The resulting effect is extremely discordant and I’m not sure there has ever been a pair of actors in a companion chronicle least suited to each other than Tamm and Porter, the switches in mood are extraordinarily distracting. And oddly the script seems to favour Porter rather than Tamm.

Great Ideas: Millicent was devastated by the end of her NASA career, a meteorite striking the shuttle she was manning forcing her to endure a replacement metal limb. Instead of travelling the solar system she endeavoured to travel the world. The meteoroid changed course and struck the shuttle deliberately. The observatory is pointing towards the Cronquist System, a brutal race that are powerfully psychokinetic.

Audio Landscape: What a shame that Lisa Bowerman didn’t used Yason and Fox for this story because if there was ever a story that needed some stylish gift wrapping it is Ferril’s Folly but the events take place with quiet, almost shy sound effects. Listen to the sound effects for the suits of armour dragging Romana along. It should have been a clipped, bold metallic march but instead it sounds more like somebody dragging a sack full of cans along a stone path. The climax seems to consist of a recording of a construction site!

Musical Cues: The first episode gives Brett very little to work with but the action packed conclusion provides some moments to add an exciting jingle to events.

Isn’t it Odd: I think I know the reason this story was postponed for so long…it really isn’t very good. The first ten minutes struggle to generate any interest, coming across as a much blander version of a Pertwee Earthbound adventure with a little bit of The Stones of Blood thrown in for good measure. Knights in armour and statues? It feels like a mishmash of various random elements from other, better Doctor Who stories cobbled together with very little sparkle. I really missed the framing device. Whilst they don’t always live up to their potential of saying something new about the companion, having the narrator tell the story from some future date does at least give the story a sense of importance. By opening on a regular Doctor Who story there is little that is special about this. Its just another Doctor Who adventure with nothing to distinguish it. Millicent’s ‘I have a will of iron too’ made me groan out loud – people really don’t talk like that unless they are the Master. There’s a quick trip down the pub for a chat with some country bumpkins to add some local colour – more dull stereotypes. Even the cliffhanger is a completely random moment of jeopardy that happens simply because they needed a break in the action because the format demands it rather than a moment that arises naturally out of the story. The idea of meat cleavers and brass trays coming to life and attacking people is a fun one but it is a distinctly visual one and there isn’t quite the same joy in listening to somebody going ‘ouch’ over and over as they are assailed by household items as there would be watching it. Audio should encourage the exploration of ideas, not just wind up sounding like an audio recording of a story that would have looked far better than it sounds. It’s the same with the bike that turns on its owner, handlebars curling around his arms, etc. It could have looked awesome but on audio its just somebody screaming in pain which doesn’t quite have the same effect. ‘I think the Cronquist are using Lady Ferril to get to Earth!’ – of course they bloody are because it is just about the most obvious, stereotypical approach the story could have taken. An invasion of Earth. There isn’t a single original idea in this tale. Not one. In the second episode K.9 is an important element in the story’s conclusion and yet the script seems to shy away from naming him. The Cronquist are such a dreary menace we don’t even get to meet any of them! Can you imagine a more featureless Doctor Who monster than one that promises to appear but fails to do so?

Standout Scene: Standout suggests something unique in the story. Get outta here.

Result: I’ve heard of formulaic storytelling but this is ridiculous! Ferril’s Folly leaps into its tale with little of the confidence of the season it is supposed to be taking place in and introduces plot elements and characters in blandly scripted conversations that stack up awkwardly against each other. There is no sparkle or wit to the proceedings, just one very boring chat after another between characters without quirks or eccentricities to make them definable. The second episode lurches into an all action conclusion with metallic nasties coming to life and attacking all and sundry but this is another fail because the sound effects and music lacked conviction and I was growing increasingly frustrated that I could see what was going on. Audio really should encourage the strengths of its medium rather than constantly remind us of the senses we are lacking. However the most annoying aspect of Ferril’s Folly is that it fails to do a single original thing – the characters, the plot, the dangers can all be found in other, better Doctor Who stories. This feels like a hastily tapped off fanfic rushed to fill a hole in the schedules rather than a story that has been gestating for the past couple of years. Considering this is another Romana CC that fails to distinguish her character whatsoever it is a strong contender for the worst companion chronicle yet in what has been the most inconsistent season yet: 2/10

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Sentinels of the New Dawn written by Paul Finch and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Some time after leaving UNIT, Liz Shaw calls the Doctor to Cambridge University, where scientists are experimenting with time dilation. A device hurls them to the year 2014, and a meeting with Richard Beauregard, heir to the Beauregard estate. But there’s something rotten at the core of this family… The seeds of a political movement that believes in a new world order. The Sentinels of the New Dawn are stirring. And their malign influence will be felt for centuries to come…

Intelligent Academic: Liz Shaw is another character with so much untapped potential because her four strong season with the show didn’t begin to scratch the surface of what this strong capable is capable of bringing to the show. This is another of those examples where I am already intrigued about what happened to Lis Shaw after she left the Doctor (and why) so when she starts narrating a story that isn’t set in the heart of season seven but after Lis returned to Cambridge I was completely hooked. She was working in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Physics at Cambridge under Terry Billington, still a PHD at that time and good friend of Liz’s. They were working together on experimental time travel and with Liz’s limited knowledge it looks she is close to succeeding although it worried Liz to be working on something so dangerous. She has to make that difficult first call to the Doctor which was never going to be easy when she left him so abruptly but considering their straight talking relationship his reaction could hardly be too much of a shock. Academia is Liz’s natural home but she still wasn’t sure one year on that leaving had been the right decision and she felt a crushing sense that she had let her former mentor down. Life seemed uneventful after all that hullabaloo with the Doctor and she wasn’t sure now she had adjusted if she wanted to start that up again or remind herself of what she was missing. Liz is cross that the Doctor misled her to the point that she was convinced she was on her own but she forgave as she always used to. The whole experience with New Dawn had been a catharsis for her, dispelling her original doubts of leaving UNIT. She realises that she has moved on with her life and so has the Doctor and there was nothing wrong with that. Terry had inadvertently armed an organisation that wanted to hold the world to ransom and Liz has to shatter her dreams in order to stop that. Terry thought it was professional jealousy and never spoke to her again. Liz never entered her involvement with New Dawn into the official record when she was a UNIT operative but then she so rarely did anything by the book.

Good Grief: Impossible for a human to keep up with a lifestyle too intense, he rushes up to Cambridge to see Liz as soon as she calls him and starts talking time travel. He is genuinely glad to hear from her after a year and wants to know everything about what she has been up to and Liz sensed these were real feelings but she could also sense the relief in him to be able to escape UNIT for a few days. The Doctor isn’t as playful as he used to be after the baptism of terrifying invasions on Earth during his early exile, although he could still be mischievous. The Doctor seems shockingly compliant now he has made it to the year 2014 – of course he is. The ability of time travel has been stolen from him and I bet he thinks now he is 40 years in the future that there must have been some developments to allow him to construct a working time craft, the crafty old bugger! Liz knows the Doctor has witnessed ecological disasters as a result of political ideologies and she cannot believe he would smarm his way into the New Dawns without caring what their politics are. The Doctor insists that he can fly the jet helicopter but in reality it would have been Jon Pertwee foaming at the mouth. It’s a nice touch.

Standout Performance: This last week I have been listening to Caroline John’s reading of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography and she has blown me away with the quality of the reading. You could be forgiven for thinking that an actress might not put the right amount of effort into reading somebody else’s life story posthumously but John attacks the material as though she actually experienced these events herself and it brings the (top quality, full of tasty titbits and wry and warm observations) biography to life with real brio and determination. It shows the greatest of respect to Lis Sladen and proves that her voice was simply made for audio, the way she can draw you in so completely. With regards the Sentinels of the New Dawn, just listen to her dramatic reading of the moment Liz and the Doctor travel through time – her pacing, her intensity, its absolutely perfect. And her quiet reveal that a man has died in her arms and what a sobering experience it is beautifully done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Doctor’s hair glinted as it whipped in the breeze’ – I cannot think of a finer description of Jon Pertwee’s man of action being assailed by the elements as he charges down the road in a getaway car loving every second of it!

Great Ideas: With their limited knowledge Liz and Terry had managed to create a time window with the ability to see your stationary position in the past or the future. No great shakes to some people but an extraordinary achievement all the same. Its an ideal way to time travel because you cannot interfere with established time and you can even been seen by those you were observing. New Dawn have peered into the future using the time window and made vast sums of money by playing on the markets. They want to create a wormhole not just into the future but the past as well giving them greater hold over financial and political affairs. They link their device with the original prototype that Liz was working on and acquiring the two Cambridge academics that had pioneered the technology. They plan to make every member of the New Dawn unassailable in their own field. The Helidromus has been built in the New Dawns bio-mechanical laboratory in what was supposed to be a mascot, a symbol for the order but is now being used as Richard’s personal assassin. Among all the philanthropic projects that the New Dawn are involved with providing free medical care to the Third World is the most publicised. What isn’t publicised is the curing of Ebola taking place on British soil of a Third World Country or rather samples being taken to create a biological weapon. It turns out that New Dawn were always going to establish themselves regardless of Liz’s actions in the past but they no longer have time travel technology which limits their ambition.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, the pouring of iced tea, a waterfall bubbling, the time machine going crazy, a hissing burning, helicopter blades whirling, footsteps, polite chatter, Liz’s door locking, the growling engine of the car, the whooping wings and screaming of the crow, motor launches pulling away.

Standout Scene: To be fair to Finch the last scene is a peach throwing a whole new complexion on the framing device and offering hope for future stories featuring New Dawn.

Isn’t it Odd: This story started off with really good intentions to explore Liz’s life after she left the Doctor and for a while I was absolutely gripped by the two of them coming back together again. The idea of the time window also felt refreshing and having the two of them step through time is an idea to relish considering they never had a chance to do so during season seven. By my interest began to wane when we started focussing on the New Dawn because it isn’t a particularly revolutionary organisation (Doctor Who is packed full of these nut job cults that want to take over the world – hell even Torchwood has flirted with the idea in their last series). Actually it is interesting to note that the New Dawn’s plan is quite similar to that of Miracle Day with the unleashing of a terrible medical disaster and the New Dawn stepping in to cure it and restore order, thus taking control. Perhaps Davies listens to these companion chronicles and thought that was ripe for exploitation (but it is only mentioned here).

Result: I think I am a victim of my own making with regards to The Sentinels of the New Dawn because I had built up the story in my head as a gripping precursor to Leviathan that seamlessly answered all my question that the innovative Lost Story left hanging. Alas no, this is a competently told drama with some moments of inspiration (bringing the Doctor and Liz back together was enough to lure me in) but it is weighed down by some clichéd ideas (another organisation with international aspirations) and a lack of pace or tension. What this story does have is the multi-talented Caroline John on board who is one of my favourite narrators because she gives everything to a reading and managed to force moments of pathos and character out of a script that only feeds her morsels. Had this been read by some of the other companion chronicle contributors I might have been a lot harder on the story but John provides a smooth and easy listen and even when I could feel the faults in the storytelling I relaxed into her exceptional interpretation of it. If you have heard bad things about Torchwood: Miracle Day and cannot be bothered to watch it (I would suggest that you do because there is much more there than people have given it credit for) but want to be kept up to speed then simply slip in this story and listen to the Sentinel’s Ebola scheme and mop up. It is pretty much identical to the Families plan in Miracle Day and will save you the bother of having to watch ten episodes to get to the same revelations. Lacking substance but gorgeously brought to life, New Dawn is a curio that I would suggest every Who fan should listen to at least once. Just so you can experience more of Liz Shaw: 6/10

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Forbidden Time written by David Lock and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Time Walkers have descended upon the Earth. This alien race, known as The Vist, has claimed an area of time for itself – any species entering into the immediate future will pay the most terrible forfeit. The human race is in a state of panic, but one woman knows the truth. Her name is Polly Wright, and she visited that future many years ago, with the Doctor, Jamie and Ben. She has stepped into the Forbidden Time – and this is her story…

Lovely Lashes: How brave of Polly to get up in front of a room full of press and recount an adventure with the Doctor. I loved the gasps of astonishment as she started talking about Jamie being from the past and how she could spot those who had met the Doctor because they weren’t looking at her as thought she was mad. Polly considers herself well travelled and certainly having travelled further than most people in their lives. Polly calls Ben her sailor and her best friend when she sees that he is alive again.

Who’s the Yahoos: Jamie was like Polly’s younger brother, always getting into trouble and never quite understanding what was going on but fiercely loyal and absolutely fearless. Its interesting to note that when Ben apparently dies Polly is frozen in her tracks screaming (mind you theirs is a special relationship) but Jamie simply accepts the situation. I really liked that because Jamie is a fighter and used to those nearest and dearest to him putting their lives in danger and being killed. Sweetly Jamie admits that he wouldn’t have missed travelling with his friends for anything. Unfortunately Jamie’s first person narration ends when he chucks the voice recorder at one of the Vist which made me chuckle.

Able Seaman: Ben is running a pub now and he and Polly meet up and talk late into the night about the adventures they used to have. Every time they stopped off on Earth Ben always flicked through a current car magazine because he liked to see how the designs changed over the years – so far he has a pretty good grasp over a 200 year time span!

Oh My Giddy Aunt: These days the Doctor is much more likely to trust the people he is travelling with or at least to listen to them. Polly can remember the older, crotchety Doctor who used to brush off her instincts. His ego is also something that has improved because nowadays he admits when he doesn’t know something whereas his former self would bluff through his ignorance. The Doctor can be so alien sometimes, not understanding why Polly has broken down over Ben’s death. Its wonderful that the most undisciplined of Doctors gets to rail against the absurdity of sectioning off areas of time – he will come and go as he pleases and thinks everybody has the right to as well. He tries to bring down all the gravitas of the Time Lords on the Vist but they scoff his attempts to scare them and have never heard of a race who make a claim as grandiose as regimenting the time vortex. When Polly asks the Doctor about his claims he tells her he doesn’t like to talk about his people. He mischievously tricks the Vist into their own destruction but admits he doesn’t like doing that sort of thing but he has certain responsibilities to time and nobody should go around staking claim to sections of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Well that’s about halfway through the story. I think we should take a break now. Can you be back in five minutes please…’ – is the cliffhanger! Its funny because I was just thinking I could murder a cup of coffee and could do with a five minute break to make one! The audacity of this little wink to the audience really made me chuckle.

Great Ideas: An area of time that all life forms are to detour, punishment of which is half your lifespan if you infringe upon it. That’s an intriguing hook that I am sure would fascinate the Doctor – what exactly are they keeping secret? It turns out that when you are safe in the vortex you exist at all moments of space and time along with everything else so it is impossible to collide with anything. You shouldn’t build walls across the vortex because it isn’t neighbourly! Time is like a line running in two directions, backwards and forwards but it can be sideways as well. Worlds can have shadows and they have less energy than the originals, not enough for life forms to exist. They can recreate the buildings and geography – everything but the animal life. The TARDIS being connected to the real world and the shadow one at the same time is gorgeous, lending the story a melancholic, decaying quality. An Earth made of dust and shadows, its exciting and evocative (if completely unrepresentative of its era) and once you add the towering, bug eyed Vist stomping through this ashen version of London you have some startling imagery. It’s a place that shatters and crumbles to the touch. When Polly says ‘most of you will know about the existence of alien life by now’ is quite an electrifying line because it could mean because of the Vist telepathic signal or this could be the first companion chronicle to be set in the post Davies era where alien invasions have been exposed internationally. The Vist are disconnected from time, they can walk from one year to another and from the real world to the shadow one. To them time is just like up and down or left and right, they can literally walk through it. For years they have travelled the fields of time watching others drift across them disrupting their subtle energies on which they subsist. They chose to section of areas of time and charge for access, stealing peoples life energy. The creatures have taken control of all time from 2011 to 2019, thinking they can fence of a period of time and stop people trespassing on it like a farmer might with a field! Any living creature passing through that time period has to pay a price to the Vist, a proportion of their life energy. I really like how insane that idea is – these creatures need to feed on life energy and figure a way to make it happen so every person on the planet has to pay. Time and space are a function of each other, they both sprang into being with the Big Bang but before that moment neither existed. By tricking them into going back to the beginning of time to assert their dominance over it they will disappear, as though they have walked off the edge of a cliff. Another potent image – the time wall being weathered away by the vortex, slowly weathering and decaying into nothing.

Audio Landscape: Cameras snapping, the press shouting, walking up on stage, that late sixties TARDIS hum is unmistakable, the TARDIS screaming with explosions, screaming wind, windows smashing, the sucking, guttural noises of the Vist communicating, the shadow world turning into a busy London street.

Musical Cues: This is one of those companion chronicles that has a wall to wall score and it works so well here, ensuring the story’s morose atmosphere never lets up.

Isn’t it Odd: They missed a trick in not suggesting that Polly and Ben ended up together. Of course they did!

Standout Scene: There was no moment that really stood out but the whole story is so focused on its atmosphere and creative ideas there really isn’t a moment where it flags either. Mind you I would have loved to have seen the climax where the travellers return to real time on screen, the picture flickering from the black and white world of the shadow dimension to…gasp!…colour! Wouldn’t that have just have looked amazing on screen.

Result: I find Polly a very absorbing narrator of the companion chronicles for two reasons; one being that given she is one of the characters that has had the majority of their episodes junked there always seems to be a lot learn about the character and her relationship Ben and secondly because Anneke Wills brings a nostalgic, wistful quality to her stories that really drags me in and gives me the kind of feeling I am after listening to this series. The Forbidden Time has a lot of strengths in its favour; a memorable, frightening location, a discomforting new alien race (that I would like to hear more of) which are brought to life with some skill by Lisa Bowerman and an unusual threat to the Earth the likes of which we have never seen before. Add to that the intriguing framing device and Wills and Hines on form and you have a strong audio adventure that pushes its era into a pleasing new direction. Having Jamie record his adventures on the Dictaphone is a really clever idea and it gives the story some a fresh feel, offering moments of unexpected tension as we head literally inside the story that Polly is telling. Kudos for the front cover too, which is evocative and nightmarish: 8/10