Monday, 30 April 2012

The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel written by Jim Smith and directed by Nigel Fair

What’s it about: Diverted to Victorian London by persons or powers unknown, twenty seventh century archaeologist, adventureress and inadvertent absent mother Bernice Summerfield finds herself beset with problems of a kind that those unused to time-travel could barely even imagine. What are the plans of the mysterious Lord Straxus? Who is Ludvig Cooray and what has the number seven to do with all this? Can Bernice acquire the help of Mycroft Holmes, the cleverest man of the age, and more importantly how is she going to get home.

Archaeological Adventuress: There are several reasons why Bernice has remained such a popular character for so many years (I cannot believe we are about to celebrate her 15th anniversary! Way to make me feel old!). For one thing the people responsible for the various stages of life have ensured that the storytelling has been top of the range and there has always been a great deal of fun to be had with Benny. Secondly her character has evolved and reshaped as she has entered each new phase of her life taking us through bacheloresshood, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, motherhood and surviving all kinds of dangers in between. Thirdly you have Lisa Bowerman who has proven to be an incredible performer and a perfect fit for Benny and taking us through the highs and lows of her life in a very intimate and likable way. The Adventure of the Diagnoses Damsel sees Benny at one of the crisis points in her life, stripped of her home, alienated from her friends, on the run from her mentor and without even the company of her son for comfort. With all these pressures weighing on her and trapped in the wrong time, Benny still manages to shine as she inveigles her way into high society and involves herself in a chilling Victorian mystery. If you need an example of why the Big Finish Bernice range is about to enter its 15th season (with the box sets I find it hard to work out how they work as seasons so I will just assume a season is a years worth of releases) then check out this one release which characterises her with all the magnetism, humour and astuteness we have come to expect from her and then some.

Her life isn’t playing out in the right order at the moment so Benny doesn’t see why we should get off that easily! The only real certainties she has in her life now are a fountain pen and a moleskin notebook. There is a real feeling that Bernice is living her life on the run these days…not from anything in particular but that she has no solid base of operations and she is just falling into one scrape after another without any purpose. Its extremely jarring after the time she had on the Collection building up a family and friends but I’m rather enjoying the ride at the moment because the series feels so different and unpredictable. She is the very image of a modern Victorian woman wearing as she does men’s clothes and with her hair cut short. Time travel used to be easy for her but these days it’s a bit trickier without a chaperone. She describes herself as a part time associate of Sherlock Holmes and once she knew where she was she made her way to Baker Street where she discovered that Sherlock was dead (this informs us rather neatly where in Sherlock Holmes continuity this story would fit). Thank goodness Benny wasn’t a canonical character in the Sherlock Holmes universe because she goes and spoils the end of The Final Problem and makes clear Mycroft’s involvement in his fake death! There’s a glorious moment where Mycroft examines Benny and draws conclusions about her identity that are highly improbable but fit the facts (Benny mentioned the name Menaxus which is only mentioned elsewhere in John Watson’s hand written manuscript All Consuming Fire). Her vocabulary is strange as is her stance which marks her out as somebody who is not of this Earth and she possesses knowledge that is so secret that she must be from the future. She once said that Earth in the 19th Century was the most alien place she had ever been but its currently worryingly like home. Given recent events living in the lap of luxury at Pall Mall is something she could easily get used to if she wasn’t so worried about Peter. The thought of never being able to see Peter again makes her feel hollow. Its only when they introduce a clone of Chris Cwej that you realise how long it has been and how far Bernice has come since she last saw him. Straxus is stuck in the era Victorian era, his TARDIS can travel anywhere in space but it is trapped like a fly in amber in this time period. Bernice is complimented on her interrogation techniques…by the interrogator (‘you’re rocketing into my top ten wankers with alarming speed!’).

Standout Performance: ‘The most remarkable brain of this age and a woman who wont be born for centuries…’ David Warner could turn up in every Big Finish story as far as I am concerned because his talent is without limit and his voice drips with class and intelligence. To match him up with the role of Mycroft Holmes is a stroke of genius and to then highlight his formidable intelligence against Bernice’s sarcasm makes for a fantastic double act. Add in another Doctor Who stalwart – Peter Miles – and you have an economic but very impressive cast.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You find the death of my brother principally a matter for your own inconvenience?
‘There are civil servants of history who monitor and observe the shape of time…’ – Benny trying to describe the Time Lords to Mycroft Holmes.
‘Tied to a chair by a top hatted tosser with a title!’
‘We are clones! Wouldn’t it be more surprising if there was just one of us?’
‘I intend to ask my future self some pretty searching questions in the near future!’

Great Ideas: ‘I know what you’re thinking…you feel like you’ve missed an episode!’ Leave it to Bernice to turn up and put our minds at rest as we seem to have wandered into Jago & Litefoot territory (ooh…Benny and Ellie?) but considering this is such an evocative period I didn’t mind the slight delay in the explanations! Its funny that Bernice should mention that she always thinks of the London Underground as a 20th Century thing because it’s the same reaction that I have every time I hear it mentioned in Victorian set dramas. Naturally to greet Bernice on her return to Victorian London there is a crime spate and this time some nutter is committing crimes that are all linked to the number seven. Something has gone wrong with her time ring but lets be honest nothing ever goes right when the time rings are involved…and we can blame the seventh Doctor for that! It’s a lovely idea to pair up Bernice with Sherlock Holmes’ brother because it plants us straight into a world of criminal gangs and Parliamentary plots and it avoids having to hash up the past that a reassociation with Sherlock would have (Benny having previously teamed up with him and Dr Watson in the innovative New Adventure All Consuming Fire). Mycroft’s housekeeper is called Mrs Grose and we’ll assume to appease our inner fanboy that that is the same plump and jolly woman who served Kedgeree to Ace in Ghost Light. I laughed my head off when Bernice suggested making a mark on history so that the Time Lords notice her anachronistic presence and pick her up and take her home! She scoffs at the idea of doing something as dramatic as assassinating a President which was Roz Forrester’s exact plan in Christmas on a Rational Planet! Benny is certain that Mycroft’s firm still exists in some form in the 27th Century so if she is trapped here for the rest of her life she will write a letter for them to give to Peter in the future at the right point after she is kicked back to the past. Its head spinning enough to be a Steven Moffatt twist! I remember way back in season one there was a memorably graphic and atmospheric death scene in the audio adaptation of Birthright where a Charryl murders Lancashire Lily…well stone me if they don’t top that here with a similarly grotesque and memorable sequence where the killer shoots a police constable seven times (his modus operandi). There’s a mention of a Transuranic which is a not very guarded reference to Sapphire and Steel – I really love how this story feels as though it is part of a much larger mythology. The appearance of Straxus too ties the Bernice Summerfield range to the adventures of the eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller. Chris Cwej is a cloned soldier that the Time Lords have grown in order to assist them with practical and military matters. The Cwejans (not sure about that name) can feel the pain when one of their clones dies. Straxus was placing ancient historical treasures in a market place where they were never meant to be in order to reshape human history and inform his people in which time period he was ensnared. A noticeable but non destructive way of waving a red flag from history! The Cwejans have been introducing the number seven into their sequence of crimes to draw the attention of the dark figure that lurks in their minds otherwise known as Mister Seven (I was certain this was going to be an incarnation of the Doctor with a certain Scottish purr…). London will be devoured in an all consuming fire and Mister Seven will descend and take the Cwejans to safety. A regeneration in Victorian London – could this story get any better? Straxus pulls Bernice out of the time stream at the point the bomb was about to explode. Bernice questions his ability to do this since he has no access to temporal technology but he informs her that his insane scheme to attract the attention of a Time Lord succeeded – it was himself! He’s an earlier version of Straxus, saving his own life before he has even gotten into trouble! I’m going boss eyed! Mister Seven is simply the Cwejans trying to seek affirmation for their existence and actions from mythology, not an actual person. As usual with these things it is the Time Lord’s heavy handed approach to things and their lack of feeling towards their inferiors (Straxus calls the clones ‘instruments’) that has caused all this bother!

Audio Landscape: A steam train puffing, polite applause and guffaws, scribbles, birdsong, gunshots, biting wind, door knocking, seaside gulls screaming, a bomb exploding in water. I giggled when I heard the bubble bursting Time Lord appearance sound from Terror of the Autons!

Standout Scene: I loved the audio landscape of the swirling nuttiness of time in which Straxus explains the plot to Bernice. Its deliriously surreal.

Result: The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel is a special one off Bernice Summerfield story that ties together so many strands of Doctor Who and literature it is worth listening to just to pick up on and bask in the references to other works. The eighth Doctor range (Straxus), Sapphire and Steel (Transuranic agents), the New Adventures (All Consuming Fire, Chris Cwej), Doctor Who mythology (with references to Ghost Light, The Time Lords, Vampires), Bernice’s own mythology (the Time Rings), the eighth Doctor novel range (Faction Paradox) and the Jago & Litefoot series (the foggy Victorian setting) are all alluded to and the way the writer juggles these elements whilst still telling a riveting story is worthy of some praise. Jim Smith is not a name I recognise but given the quality of this script I am left wondering why not. He has a great ear of memorable dialogue and juggles Bernice’s continuing story with an eclectic mystery of his own (I love how this starts out as a typical Holmesian mystery and evolves into a typical Doctor Who adventure). With Lisa Bowerman as erudite as ever and David Warner and Peter Miles to support her, Diagnoses Damsel is beautifully cast too and allows for some delicious face offs during the stories second half. It’s a story that has an evocative atmosphere because of its setting and some attractive literary detail but also flaunts some clever science fiction ideas and climaxes on some very satisfying twists. I really wasn’t sure to expect from this season but after a dicey start with Zombie Titanic (otherwise known as Beyond the Sea) we have had a standout Lawrence Miles adventure followed up a standout literary piece. If they keep this standard up I might just fall in love with Bernice’s new aimless adventuring as much as I did with her time at the Collection! An exceptional standalone story with lots for long term fans and new ones to enjoy: 9/10

88lbs down! Rock on!

The first picture was me last November and the second is me two days ago! 6 stone 2lbs down and counting! A small moment of self congratulation!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

David Richardson Interview Extra

The Jago & Litefoot series has taken on a massive identity of its own and in a recent poll I ran there were points when it came close to toppling the main range as the most popular current Big Finish range. What do you think is the enduring success of this series?
I’m not being disingenuous when I say I think it’s entirely down to Christopher and Trevor. I really do think they are the greatest double act since Morecambe and Wise, and their charm, wit and affection for each other is just as evident in the green room as it is in the series. I think everyone who works Jago and Litefoot tunes into their energy and enthusiasm… something clicked that moment they were reunited for The Mahogany Murderers, and it’s been building ever since. I know this isn’t just another job to them. They care deeply about these characters, the scripts and the stories, and I just think that shows in the product.

Tell us something about working with Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter.
Well, in addition to what I’ve said above, I’d add that they are an absolute riot. The badinage continues from the moment they arrive at the studio until the moment they leave. Trevor told me that he always gets very sad when we reach the end of each recording block – he misses the series when we’re not making it. We all feel the same way. I adore those gents.

I’m sure adding Louise Jameson and Colin Baker to the cast has made for a very happy company. Is this more of an ensemble series now?
Moving forward, actually no it won’t be. It’s going back to its roots, with series five through to seven being more focused on Jago, Litefoot, Ellie and Quick. I think for any series to have an ongoing life it needs to experiment and broaden its horizons. Bringing in Louise and Colin was an opportunity to head in new directions, but I always wanted to go back to the cosy core of the series. That’s not to say there won’t be surprises coming up, but it will be more ‘traditional’ Jago and Litefoot in tone.
I’ve just read the scripts for series six and I really do feel the series is still on a roll. Script editor Justin Richards has some lovely ideas coming up…

Lisa Bowerman has made the step from actress to director extraordinaire. What strengths does she bring to both Jago & Litefoot and the companion chronicles?
A passion for the material, a great eye for casting, a mind for detail, an ear for sound design and music and endless enthusiasm.

What delights can we expect in series five?
Well, all I’ll say is that a journey began in series four that will be complete as we arrive in series five. I haven’t heard any of the edits yet, but I think series five might be my favourite so far.

You must be extremely proud of the companion chronicles and how they have taken off. What was the thinking behind focussing more on the first three Doctors? Are there any more one offs like Zara and King Peladon in the pipeline?
I am very pleased by the response to the Companion Chronicles. To be honest you don’t really know how well something is going to be received until it’s out. There have been titles that I thought were brilliant that got mixed reviews; likewise titles that perhaps fell a little short of what I’d hoped that went down really well. But as a team – and it is a team on the series, myself, script editor Jac Rayner, Lisa and the writers – we really do strive to get it right.
I did wonder if I might run out of ideas and energy by now, but they still keep coming – and I’ve come up with something for the anniversary that I’m really in love with. That’s been a lot of fun to develop.
I think what’s happened with the Chronicles is that they’ve developed from being mainly talking books to being an almost indefinable hybrid of narration and full cast play. The more productions we do (and we’ve done a lot now!), the more Lisa and I come to realize how much we can push the format, how much dialogue we can do ‘in situ’, and how much we can create a full-fledged soundscape. If you listen to stuff like The First Wave or The Selachian Gambit, I believe they do sound almost like TV soundtracks.
I’m really focusing on the first three Doctors as, with Tom now aboard, the eras of Doctors four to eight are well covered elsewhere. There will be a one-off with a non-companion in 2013. It’s about time a villain got to tell their story isn’t it?

Whilst the range is packed full of gems do you have any stories of the last two years that you are particularly proud of?
I was really pleased with the Oliver Harper trilogy, partly because the character was so close to my heart. I wanted to create a gay companion, but I wanted his story to be told through the prism of history. Less than 50 years ago gay men were imprisoned in this country; today we have civil partnerships. So what would it be like for a gay man to step from the early 1960s into the future?
I think my absolute favourite Companion Chronicle, though, is The Rocket Men. I just think it’s beautiful – thanks to Dorney’s writing, William Russell’s performance, and Howard Carter’s mesmerizing sound design and score.

Can you tell us something about plotting out a season of companion chronicles? How do you decide upon the mix of styles, eras and tones? If an actor is unavailable would the story be put on hold or rewritten to feature another companion? Have you ever gone into the studio expecting a certain type of performance and been completely blown away?
I work with the writers to develop stories for specific companions (there’s never been an occasion when a story has switched from one companion to another). Then, during the development process, I’ll work these stories into the schedule to get as much variety as we can. Sometimes things change at the last moment – the Oliver trilogy, for example, was originally going to be staggered over the course of two years but I decided to go with the trilogy’s momentum and released the stories close together.
If a companion proves unavailable for a recording, I just bump the slot further down the line. Sometimes at the last minute. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle but somehow it all comes together!

You have now released a wide range of Lost Stories from many different eras. What has the response been to the range so far and which have proven to be the most popular?
The response has been great, and I think we’ve unearthed some stories that perhaps feel like little classics. Farewell, Great Macedon, The Elite, The Foe from the Future have had amazing feedback and I think there are some wonderful treasures yet to come in the third series.

How do you go about recreating a particular era of Doctor Who – go back and watch all the stories of the time and take notes?
It’s just in our DNA I think. I’ve seen or heard all the Doctor Who tv stories so many times that each era is ingrained in there. Sometimes I’ll dip in just as a refresher, and I’ll often get sound designers to look at the TV stories for inspiration – for example Toby Robinson watched some of Season One before embarking on Farewell, Great Macedon… and I think that shows in the finished production.

Both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy have been afforded an extra season from these ranges that some would say they were denied on television. What were the actors’ reactions when they were given the opportunity to bring these lost eras to life at long last? Are there plans for any third Doctor Lost Stories?
They were both delighted. In fact, we made the Season 27 stuff at Sylvester’s request – he’d heard that we’d done Colin’s Lost Stories, and was keen to make his own missing season. There will indeed be a Third Doctor lost story in the fourth and final season. I’m waiting for the adaptation to be delivered very soon…

With regards to each of these ranges are there any snippets of information that you can give us to the wet the appetites of the readers?
Here you go:
Companion Chronicles – We’re planning some more companion team-ups for 2013. I have three in the schedule currently.
Lost Stories – The range will end in 2013 with four adaptations of unmade scripts from the first, second and third Doctors. They’ll all be performed as in the same way we made Farewell, Great Macedon.
Jago and Litefoot – We’re just working through ideas for season seven, and having a lot of fun with that. Series six starts recording in three days’ time.
The Fourth Doctor Adventures – If all goes to plan, The Oseidon Adventure should feature a trailer for the Romana stories. I’m just waiting for the edit.
Counter-Measures – I’ve got the finished edit for episode one, and I’m delighted with it. I think it’s the scariest thing I’ve produced for Big Finish. I leapt out of my skin twice!

David, thank you very much for your time.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Wanderer written by Richard Dinnick and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Siberia at the end of the 19th Century, and the TARDIS arrives just as a shooting star hurtles to the ground. With it comes an illness that affects the Doctor and Susan, and knowledge that must not fall into the wrong hands. With his friends either dying or lost, Ian Chesterton must save the future and win the ultimate prize – a way home to 1963…

Science Teacher: When you look back at the original line up of character you can see how carefully crafted they are as a team. Whilst An Unearthly Child appears to have haphazardly thrown these four people together it is in fact a rock solid family unit (you can see that as far back as episode one of The Daleks with the four of them huddled together and looking at the city in the distance) where each of the characters has something different to offer. History teacher Barbara, maternal and spiky. The anti hero Doctor with a blistering intelligence and sulky mood swings. Susan, the child who can prove surprisingly mature and emotional at certain points. And Ian, the science teacher and protector of them all. As each story progresses and they reveal more of each other you can understand why these four were chosen to kick start the series and how much drama (and comedy) can be channelled through them. When it comes to the companion chronicles there is a wealth of dramatic potential waiting to be tapped and with William Russell and Carole Ann Ford both on top form (check out The Transit of Venus, The Rocket Men, Farewell Great Macedon and Here There Be  Monsters) they have proven (along with the other first Doctor adventures featuring Steven and Sara Kingdom) to be the pinnacle of the range. Russell makes every word count when he performs a dramatic reading and at some points in this story he quite took my breath away.

Ian never thought of himself as much of wanderer because was too attached to home, to England; taking walks, going to the flicks or the pub. He liked the familiar and the comforting. It seems so tantalisingly close to be only sixty years away from their own time and halfway around the world. As Grigory tells the traveller all about his life Ian listens and absorbs the information, there is a respect there that vanishes with some of the later companions in Doctor Who’s run. Ian and Barbara fear that they are going to go completely mad like Susan. Something that was often neglected in the series was Ian’s scientific knowledge so its nice to see him once again engaging with alien science (attention was drawn to this in The Rocket Men also) and he is more than up to keeping up with the Doctor’s complex notes on the device. When Ian tells Grigory that he has seen the Earth’s past and its future he sounds like some kind of elemental and his friends scepticism is quite understandable. He knew such things were impossible himself until he met the Doctor and experienced them.

Bouffant Babe: Barbara considers a near miss a good thing, it means they are getting closer and closer to home with each passing adventure. Like the Doctor had companionship from Susan, Ian had companionship from somebody who understood and cared for him.

Alien Orphan: Like an animal, as if she has lost all reason, Susan tears through the cabin and runs off. I had forgotten how terrifying this alien orphan can be.

Hmm: The ultimate wanderer treating distant planets and the Earth’s past alike. Listen to the way that William Russell so effusively portrays the Doctor as he approaches the towns people and reminds us of what a charming rogue William Hartnell could be in the role. The very idea of the landing in such an isolated, dangerous location and having the Doctor stricken by an unknown agule is ripe for good drama. What’s fascinating about the Doctor’s reaction to Grigory’s knowledge of the future is that it matches the intensity and fury of that of The Aztecs. He calls Grigory an opportunistic thief that has stolen knowledge he has no right to have. The Doctor always knows and had full knowledge of who Grigory was from the very beginning.

Standout Performance: With William Russell and Tim Chipping both giving such passionate performances the result drama is breathtaking at times.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When you see the history of this planet the Doctor is woven through the tapestry of time!’
‘We are time travellers! We have seen the future and the past! We have learnt that history is not as robust as historians would have us believe! That it hangs by a very slender thread – a cobweb! Nothing more! The wrong kind of breeze will unsettle it.’

Great Ideas: More than any other era the first three seasons of Doctor Who makes me think of limitless possibilities and careless ambition. It was a time when the show had no formula and made up ways of telling stories as it went along be it past, present or future. It was a time when the production team would think nothing trying to reproduce the Himalayas or an alien world in cramped overlit studios and when the actors were so good at their jobs you were taken away on terrifying adventures just through the brevity of their performances. So when I read ‘Siberia at the end of the 19th Century…’ at the beginning of the blurb for this tale it means I can see picture perfectly how this would have been realised at the time with chilly hand rubbing, fur coats, plenty of polystyrene and some convincing performances. At any other point in the shows history I might have though ‘how would they begin to realise that?’ but not during the first Doctor’s tenure. They were pioneers and would have seen it as a challenge.

The idea of setting aside the very concept of home to wander the land is an appealing one that everybody must have felt at some point in their lives. Unlike many of the first Doctor’s adventures The Wanderer comes with its own portent of doom in the shape of a shooting star to mark their arrival in this time. I love the way that Grigory spills out his entire life history and belief structure to Ian on their vigil because it really reminds me of Doctor Who’s educational remit at the time and sounds like a similar speech to that of Marco Polo upon his introduction in the season one classic. The device that is causing all this bother is an intelligence gatherer like a spy sent behind enemy lines. It is detecting and recording the Earth’s future. Proving that just because they come from a time that is considered more primitive than ours historical characters are in no way stupid, Grigory figures out that the others were stricken because touching the machine causes an absorption of information about humanity’s future. With his knowledge of the future it is nice how Grigory can then tell Ian all about the aliens that have returned for the device and how they invaded the Earth in the future. The primitive and the prophet have exchanged places. The Doctor uses the TARDISes telepathic circuits to remove the knowledge from Grigory’s foreknowledge.

Audio Landscape: Biting winds, birdsong, the unnerving whine of a shooting star, the hum of the TARDIS console room, horse and cart clattering along a rocky path, dog barking, bubbling, the burbling of the scanner, lapping waters, terrifying alien voices, metallic bands locking in place, a big splash as the device sinks under water, the TARDIS going doolally.

Musical Cues: The music makes an instant impression with some impressively emotive piano playing introducing Ian to the audience. Throughout Andrew Edwards excel with regards to his engaging soundtrack and sound effects. Big Finish continues to pioneer the best in audio talent.

Standout Scene: The cliffhanger is astonishing primarily because of the intensity of Russell and Tim Chipping’s performances. The script affords Grigory a vastly intelligent moment and then tops that with a terrible choice and Lisa Bowerman’s direction rises to a dramatic crescendo. Everybody involved is on top form during this cliffhanging scene and as Doctor Who history comes pouring out Grigory’s mouth I had goosebumps running right up and down my body. Outstanding. The sudden reveal of Grigory’s true identity comes as a massive shock – perhaps others were better off to guess this before it is exposed but I had no idea and it left my jaw hanging.

Notes: Grigory offers a list of future foes to the Earth that would play out throughout the series subsequent years including denizens from hell, soldiers from distant worlds and home spun foes, plastic people, men of metal, creatures of carbon, silicon and calcium, Egyptian Gods, werewolves, ghosts and vampires.

Result: Proving that Record Time and Other Stories was a great way to discover new talent; Richard Dinnick’s first solo story is a wonderful piece which continues the magical run of first Doctor companion chronicles. I like how nothing is rushed in this story which is very faithful to the era and the slow burn tension in the first episode as the Doctor falls ill and Susan goes mad sees the schoolteachers trapped in an isolated location with an ever encroaching danger. An alien intelligence gathering machine falling to Earth and glowing figures in the Siberian woods coming to claim it back…The Wanderer has a beautiful menace all of its own. The story is brought to life by William Russell so immediately that it has a maturity and passion that some of the other readings lack and he proves adept at bringing each of the four travellers to life with some empathy. Tim Chipping is certainly no slouch either and its been a little while since we have seen a pairing of actors quite this strong. Events takes a pleasing detour in the second episode and manages to invert the danger of The Aztecs with the Doctor is just as scared of somebody from the past being able to manipulate the future as he was about somebody from the future being able to manipulate the past. There is a powerhouse twist in the second episode that absolutely floored me and left me banging my head on the desk for not realising it – after a similarly pleasurable surprise at the climax of The Memory Cheats this range is proving the one to leave your jaw hanging! There’s no part of The Wanderer that isn’t firing on all cylinders and it’s the second Ian led companion chronicle to reach such a piquant high this season: 9/10

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Binary written by Eddie Robson and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s is about: A damaged alien computer is being guarded by UNIT troops, but the soldiers simply vanish…Usually the Brigadier would call in the Doctor – but on this occasion the Time Lord is being kept out of the loop. Instead, it’s up to Elizabeth Shaw to oversee the project to repair this alien technology, and recover the missing men. And then Liz vanishes too. Trapped inside the machine, Liz faces a battle for survival against a lethal defence system. And this time, she must save the day without the Doctor at her side…

Clever Scientist: Season seven is always considered something of a series high by fans of Doctor Who and its one instance when I am in absolute agreement with them. It’s a year that is consistently excellent (there’s nary a duffer amongst this lot) buoyed by some excellent production values, a gripping new shift in format, some clever stories and a gritting, realistic tone. However I also think that had Doctor Who continued in this vein it would have died a quick death but a few years later because the dour tone of season seven means that whilst I think that each story is something of a classic it is a season that I rarely re-visit simply because I have to be in the mood for something that unrelentingly adult. I head back and watch the Graeme Williams less regarded stories far more than I do Pertwee’s better regarded ones because I am far more in the mood for fun and frippery than I am for absolute seriousness. Having companion chronicles set during and after season seven is a real joy for several reasons. One is to give the year a little more colour and variance and the other is to give the lest represented and yet paradoxically one of the best companions, Liz Shaw, a chance to appear in more stories. Caroline John is one of my favourite actresses to have appeared in the series simply because she plays the role with such conviction and like Sarah Jane later Liz was no slouch when it came to having her own life to return to away from the Doctor. John made a real impression in her four televised stories and continues to do so in Big Finish today. Its another reason we should be grateful that the companion chronicles do what they do otherwise Liz Shaw would simply be a well remembered and yet distant memory and that would be a crime when she has so much to offer to a contemporary audience.

Liz promised not to tell the Doctor about this project on pain of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and she hates it when UNIT waves that bloody thing about. Sadly mere mortals have to obey protocol. Lethbridge Stewart talks about Liz’s degrees as though her knowledge is a bad thing but she takes it as a compliment and realises he doesn’t know how much work is involved. It doesn’t help having the Doctor around because he is like the Professor who has read every novel ever written and you have to try and look as learned. She has spent her timer at UNIT playing second fiddle to him and that is a bit unfair considering she is the best in her field at meteorology. As soon as this task is over she is leaving UNIT and heading back to Cambridge. She knows it seems churlish to want to give up a job that allows her to explore whole new fields of sciences and pushes the limits of humanity’s knowledge but she wants time for proper research and not to just experience everything on the fly. UNIT makes you see things in a whole new way and doubt everything you know. She doesn’t believe in ghosts. When it comes to a choice between repairing the computer that could have catastrophic consequences for the planet or her death than the choice is obvious and she is prepared to make that sacrifice. The fact that the computer can make its own choice is why she is allowing it to do so. The events of this story teach Liz that she has a different perspective on things than anybody else in UNIT and that it might be in her best interests and especially in theirs that she continues working for them. Sometimes a decision just feels right.

Good Grief: If the Doctor knew about this project he would lobby for it to be shut down and when they ignored him he would sneak inside and smash it to pieces. They might try and lock him up but they would never succeed. He’s surprised that Liz has gotten involved in this project after everything that he has taught her. He is furious about her involvement but she explains that she has effectively freed a slave and he comes around to the idea…slowly.

Standout Performance: Caroline John battles with the remote tone of this story and it down to her strengths as an actress that Binary scores as highly as it does. There’s none of Liz’s usual warmth present that papers the icy scientific cracks in her personality and there a few moments when she is terrifyingly spiteful about the Doctor and the Brigadier. Its in those moments where the story scores most highly because it is something very new.

Great Ideas: The cover is very memorable not least because it has two very nice examples of UNIT hotties glaring smoulderingly out at you! The idea that Liz has been shrunk down inside the computer is intriguing and I wish something more imaginative could have been done with it. Learning that Liz is interacting with the computer and the failsafe makes for an unusual battle of wits for sure! The computer is alive and if Liz shuts it down it would be like a Doctor killing a patient.

Audio Landscape: The lack of immersive sound effects and music in the first scene is very effective in making you just listen to the actors and the dialogue. It makes Liz’s scathing condemnation of both the Doctor and the Brigadier that more effective because there is nothing distracting you from it. Unfortunately the episode never really gains much in the way of immersive sound effects or memorable music and plays out much more like a dramatic reading. The trouble with that is there isn’t enough of a story to keep the listener engaged and I found my mind wandering at some points where some strong music or distracting sound effects might have helped.
Isn’t it Odd: All the character stuff in the first episode is riveting but it is competing with the cold logic of technobabble that comes with two characters trying to reactivate a computer that is nowhere near as interesting. Liz and Child’s make their way through the alien landscape but since they both seem like old hands at this sort of thing and there isn’t any great danger it feels more like a stroll through a garden than the oppressive, extraterrestrial landscape it could have been. The trouble with all the theorising is that the story never quite wants to settle on where they are what the purpose of the computer and the transportation device is. None of the theories are even especially original. I think I have been listening to the companion chronicles for too long now but it is easy to spot when a character isn’t quite what he seems to be and the revelation that Childs is a projection of the computer didn’t surprise me in the slightest. When he turned up so suddenly at the beginning of the story I suspected as much. I certainly hope that there isn’t a formula developing or predictability is creeping into the range. Given the strength of the first half of season six I am prepared to believe this is a one off. As soon as Childs disappears and Foster is returned it is clear they are one and the same. The fact that Liz has been interacting with two elements of a computer might go someway to explaining why this story feels as inexpressive as it does. It’s a fascinating idea but with regards to entertainment perhaps not a wise one to realise. The epiphany that Liz reaches in Binary that perhaps her time with UNIT isn’t quite over is pleasing but considering the depth of ill feeling she expresses early in the play I don’t think what she experiences in this tale is enough o have changed her mind so completely. It makes even her mind seem like a computer that can be quickly reprogrammed to change its mind so suddenly.

Result: ‘You’re just a machine!’ An oddly distant companion chronicle and a rare misfire for the range, Binary suffers from a story that has far too much detail in wrong places (there’s plenty of cold science) and too little detail in others (especially with regards to the soundscape which is minimalist and unmemorable). Caroline John is always worth listening to and Eddie Robson tries to engage by dealing with the point where Liz decides that she is going back to Cambridge but it gets lost somewhere in the not very interesting mystery of the alien computer that never feels as if it is leading anywhere exciting. The result is an oddly unbalanced piece which feels as though it should work far better than it does (especially with the Doctor turning up and guiding Liz through the alien ship – these scenes should have been gripping but they feel as plodding as everything else here). Season seven stories are vast sprawling epics packed with fascinating characters and danger but Binary feels far too focussed and small scale to be a part of the same year of portmanteau storytelling. I went into this with high expectations because I always find John a delight but ultimately came away unfulfilled. The answers we get are actually quite satisfying but the journey to get to them is far from it and when the scales are going to be tipped in only one direction or the other I would prefer it to be the latter. Next time ditch the science and focus more on the characters – when you have a crabby companion (Liz’s feelings towards the Doctor and UNIT are at their nastiest here) and a logic based mystery it makes for a cold and unengaging experience: 5/10

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Fourth Doctor Adventures

Destination Nerva: I was shocked at what a non event this was. After a decade of bringing us top-notch audio adventures I was appalled that Big Finish could introduce their supposedly greatest coup (stroking Tom Baker’s ego enough to get him to agree to make a trip to the studios) in such a slapdash story. Destination Nerva fails on practically every count as far as I can see – it’s a confused narrative that is spliced together from other, better stories, the guest characters are one dimensional and vacant, the dialogue lacks sparkle and the jeopardy angle lacks any excitement. Even worse the one reason people will pick this story up so eagerly is the reason it bombs so spectacularly – Tom Baker gives the least convincing performance I have ever heard from him. People might bemoan that the Hornet’s Nest Doctor is a far cry from what we saw on the television but at least that was Baker giving a hearty, menacing performance. The way that Tom Baker inflects some of his dialogue you would think that he was the one that was possessed at the end of part one – some lines fast, some lines slow, some injected with madness, some deep and menacing. It is literally all over the place and needs a much stricter director to whip him into shape. I don’t think even McCoy who was until now the most inconsistent performer has ever been this incoherently schizophrenic in a story. When your main man can’t even say ‘Run!’ convincingly at the cliffhanger you are in trouble. He does settle down a bit in the second episode  and at the conclusion seems a lot calmer so lets hope this is first story jitters. Louise Jameson tries gamely to salvage something and she is the one person who escapes this madness with her dignity intact. I think the advent of fourth Doctor’s return will be enough for everybody to give this a pass but if anybody can objectively say this is to the usual standards of Big Finish…well I would say they were wrong: 3/10

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The Renaissance Man: A funny, colourful adventure with delightful characters and dialogue, The Renaissance Man would have made a far superior opening adventure for the Fourth Doctor Range. There is such a gulf between my reaction to Tom Baker in this and Nerva because here he made me laugh my head from his first scene to his last and rather than stumbling through an awkward plot he seems to be having the time of his life and its infectious! Coupled with the fabulous Louise Jameson who shows a real flair for comedy and you have a marvelously humorous double act fronting this story. The setting allows for a very domestic audio landscape that was very easy on the ear and Jamie Robertson’s Simpsonesque music continues to shine. Justin Richards is a fine writer who so rarely lets me down, after all these years of telling Doctor Who stories he also seems to come up with something fresh and exciting. Some of the ideas are plundered from his other stories (I detected some concepts from his novels Option Lock and The Clockwise Men) but the tone of the piece is vastly different. Energetic and enjoyable, this isn’t Big Finish at its absolute best but its still a hell of a ride: 8/10

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The Wrath of the Iceni:  A dramatic tale that deserves applause for giving the fourth Doctor and Leela the sort of material they were denied on television but loses impact by covering some familiar ground. Louise Jameson gives a Doctor Who career best in The Wrath of Iceni and whilst Tom Baker is very good in some scenes he once again seems a little discordant and out of tune with the material as he was in Destination: Nerva, although nowhere near to the same extent. What really works is how the period of history chosen is so pleasingly tailored to Leela and generating tension between her and the Doctor and yet I found myself distanced from the tale because it wasn’t a period of history I was familiar with and nothing presented here made me want to learn more. Direction and dialogue are both top notch and you certainly couldn’t argue with how the material is presented, some scenes are so viciously presented you will be left reeling from the impact. It’s a tale that managed to thrill and frustrate but its definitively pushing the Doctor and Leela into new territory, if not the series and that can only be for the good of this range. A mixed bag then but erring on the side of excellent for the most part and fans of Jameson and those who want to see some riveting development of Leela have to seek this out: 8/10

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Energy of the Daleks: Personally I found this far superior to Destination Nerva on just about every count. The simpler, more dramatic story is a blessing, the characters whilst not Robert Holmes memorable were serviceable to the plot and there is a very real threat in the shape of the Daleks. Had Nicholas Briggs failed to impress me with a Dalek tale after his superlative four season Dalek Empire series I would have been gobsmacked but he understand the creatures too well to disappoint on that score. I’ve already heard people suggest that this should have been a longer story and I cannot help but agree with that assessment because the first episodes flies by in a hurry and only leaves a scant 25 minutes for the Daleks to impress. I’m not sure if the reason is financial of creative but two of the four released so far have suffered greatly from their reduced running time (and I don’t buy that Nick Briggs cannot work to a 50 minute schedule because he provided some belters in the 8DA range) and could have done with some fleshing out of the situation and the cast. Its all about as deep as a puddle but its very exciting and quite funny (I loved the character who kept pointing out how mad the Doctor was) for that and its good to follow up the high drama of Iceni with something this unpretentious and fun. There’s been nothing in this first fourth Doctor season that I would call and out and out classic but they are certainly bubbling along quite nicely. I just wonder what the first knockout of the range is going to be (looks up Jonny Morris’ next contribution in the Mary Tamm season…). Energy of the Daleks isn’t going to be anybody’s favourite audio adventure (at least I don’t think so) but it’s a harmless Dalek diversion with plenty of bang for your buck and I can certainly think of far less fun ways to spend 50 minutes of your life (I’ve just reviewed seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager). Enjoyable: 7/10

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The Trail of the White Worm: I take real issue with the first episode of The Trail of the White Worm that consists of the audience being dropped into what appears to a chase sequence and then spends 20 minutes jogging on the spot only to lead to a cliffhanger that is spoiled on the cover. Its 25 minutes of the Doctor and Leela dashing about and all they manage to achieve is reaching the manor house where the actual story is going to take place – even the Doctor and Peri in season 22 got involved in the story with more speed than this! Its nicely performed but there is so little substance to it that a good sigh could blow it away. I don’t mean to be ingenuous to a range that is bringing together the Doctor, Leela and the Master but there seems to be little more to this adventure than that very purpose. The story that surrounds these three characters is just an excuse to have them all in the same vicinity rather than this being a narrative that had to be told. The Trail of the White Worm has all the elements of a traditional adventure; a country manor setting, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, the Master, a grotesque but misunderstood monster, an eccentric nutcase…but it brings nothing new to the mix that would have bound all these elements together and made it more than an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a brainless energetic run-around with a fantastic turn by Tom Baker (probably his best since The Renaissance Man) but ultimately there is no innovation or imagination to any of it. Its odd that seasoned Big Finish writers that have written amazing stories in the past (Alan Barnes was good enough to whip up Neverland, The Girl Who Never Was and Death in Blackpool which are three of my absolute favourites) are really faltering in this first fourth Doctor season. I was expecting something far more dramatic and considerable than this: 4/10

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The Auntie Matter: ‘Leave the man! It’s the girl I want!’ Whimsical, funny and with a delightful atmosphere; I’m really pleased to see this range going for something a little more out there. Its not the space faring nostalgia fest that Destination Nerva was (thank goodness) but instead season two of the fourth Doctor adventures takes a new route – simply providing a rollicking good time! I love the slower pace of this adventure, not trying to cram everything into an hours adventure and having the chance to enjoy the scenery and indulge in some warm and witty characterisation. I would do anything to listen to the divine Julia McKenzie getting the chance to embody one of Fishers ‘maiden aunts’ and she doesn’t disappoint and for the chance to enjoy Baker and Tamm back in action (slipping into this period with consummate ease) is a delight. Its light on plot but full of energy and has more great lines than you can shake a stick at. There’s a dash of The Stones of Blood (a succession of aunts over time) and a pinch of The Androids of Tara (Romana is proposed to again) but this exists very much independently of them. However very much like season 16, The Auntie Matter isn’t the most intellectual exercise but if you are after a story that will make you beam from ear to ear throughout then you should look no further as this is the best example yet from this range. The image of the fourth Doctor screaming along the country roads in a vintage roadster like some mad take on Toad of Toad Hall, scarf flailing about him makes me giddy with joy: 8/10

The Sands of Life: It’s time for the most explosive pregnancy in the history of fiction. The Sands of Life is all set up but let’s not beat around the bush…it’s bloody good set up! You’ve an intriguing new alien menace, a well drawn period of future Earth history for them to flock towards, a wonderfully dry and cynical new recurring villain in Cuthbert, a story that isn’t afraid to head out into new locales (the Sahara) and one that isn’t afraid to ape the Russell T Davies finale lead-ins by presenting a situation that looks like it could mean that end of the planet. Like the Dalek Empire series, Briggs revels and excels in this sort of action adventure and if there isn’t anything spectacularly original taking place (beyond the nature of the Laan and their potential effect on the Earth) then this kind of engaging escapade is infinitely preferable to the overdone nostalgia of the previous season. A few complaints; Cuthbert aside, none of the original characters came alive especially and even Romana felt subdued and lacking her usual vim despite taking a central role in proceedings and in places the dialogue was a little too informative. It isn’t so much of a problem because unlike The Auntie Matter this isn’t trying to be a character drama but instead carry you on a wave of excitement to a cliffhanger that makes you want to see how it pans out which it manages admirably. I’m really pleased that this was extended to three parts because it gives the story time to breathe and add some nice touches to the setting – the 50 minute stories of the first Tom Baker season always felt as though they were scrimping on detail to squeeze a four part Doctor Who story into two. It pleases me even more to think that David Warner is going to have a dominant role this season because his presence elevates this adventure considerably: 8/10

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War Against the Laan: It was quite a brave idea to tell a story where the invading aliens aren’t invading but just looking for a place to give birth and the unfortunate consequence is that the planet that they touch down on (Earth, naturally) would be shattered under the weight of so many explosive pregnancies. I means that there are no real monsters to fight in the traditional sense in this five parter so Briggs has to invent some human ones to stir up trouble, exploit the situation and complicate an already precarious situation. Stand up Cuthbert…so brilliantly played by David Warner and who in other hands may very well have come across as little more than a series plot contrivances. He’s a vicious sadist, a powerful egotist and a man with lots of secrets. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeves away from this Earth-in-danger scenario. Ultimately this isn’t one of the better alien invasion stories because although it is masquerading as one there isn’t a particularly menacing enemy to fight so the danger often feels falsely prolonged by the efforts of Cuthbert. The solution is extremely simple and I don’t see why the Doctor couldn’t have explained all of this a lot earlier before all the this unpleasantness took place. It sure would have saved a lot of lives on both sides. Looking at the production this rollocks along at a great pace, has some typically exciting Nick Briggs set pieces and sees some very nice work by Tom Baker (I couldn’t tell it was one of his earlier performances) and Mary Tamm (Hayley Atwell makes far more of an impression this time around as well). Ultimately this five part epic is more of a prelude for things to come rather than a completely satisfying story in its own right. What is the experiment that Cuthbert was implanting when the Laan attacked? War Against the Laan shouldn’t be listened to in isolation (it is very much the conclusion of The Sands of Life) and whilst it has its moments (I’m still very fond of that unusual threat to the Earth…I thought everything had been done already!) it provides a predictable conclusion that feels underwhelming after all the stimulating build up: 6/10

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The Justice of Jalxar: Looking back and taking everything into consideration (plot, characterisation, dialogue) it was John Dorney’s The Wrath of the Iceni that was the standout story of the first season of 4DAs. It was the only tale that tried to do something completely original with the fourth Doctor (stranding him in a Hartnell historical) and Leela (having her turn her back on the Doctor for the sake of her beliefs) and the overall story (whilst erring on the side of convention within the historical genre) managed to surprise and thrill. It was the standout achievement of the season and given his status as one of the best writers of the Jago & Litefoot range as well (Beautiful Things is one of my most re-listened to stories of any range) I was expecting great things off this second crack at the whip (although he is up against some stiffer competition this year with Morris’ The Auntie Matter and Briggs’ The Sands of Life providing some top notch entertainment). I shouldn’t have doubted him for a second. I thoroughly enjoyed this from the first second to the last and its tick list of elements (the Doctor & Romana, Jago & Litefoot, the foggy Victorian setting, a ultra cool robot, a nuanced villain) all worked as individual pieces to the puzzle but brought together assembled something that was impossible to resist. It is one of the better paced 4DAs with the first episode providing some memorable set up and reunions whilst catapulting the four protagonists into an adventure of machiavellian machinations whilst the second part wastes no time exploring its ideas and whipping up a satisfying resolution. Dorney’s real skill comes into play when it comes to handling his characters – he has already proven himself as one of Big Finish’s brightest script writers in terms of imagination and perfectly crafted stories but it is how he manages to bring so many different Doctors and companions to life with such legitimacy that always surprises me, giving them lovely things to say and revelling in their strengths (this extends to Jago & Litefoot here too). It delights me that Mary Tamm enjoyed material of this calibre in one of her final Doctor Who appearances. Whilst The Justice of Jalxar might not share the same rudiments as sixteen (with its historical trappings, continuity and Earthbound skulduggery) it does have one thing in common that screams of authentically capturing the tone of the period – the zest for adventure and lust for life. John Dorney has tapped into something extremely addictive and if you don’t come away from this adventure with a smile on your face then you are resisting something that is trying to make your life a more cheerful place for an hour and why would you do that? If you have been avoiding the fourth Doctor Adventures because of mixed reviews then check this one out. I promise you wont regret it, it is the best story of the range yet and another feather in director Ken Bentley’s cap too: 9/10

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Phantoms of the Deep: With some startling atmospherics, it is very easy to slip beneath the waves with Phantoms of the Deep and enjoy the stifling ambience of a tale set beneath the ocean. Jonathan Morris has always been a versatile writer but the gulf in genre and tone between this and The Auntie Matter establishes his ability to turn his hand to any type of story more effectively than ever. Where he opened up the season with a sunny, light and blissfully funny tale, here he indulges in the claustrophobia, terror and crushing horror of a base under siege adventure in an enclosed location. Between the two stories he has covered what must surely appeal to every Doctor Who fan. It’s a story that isn’t afraid to present some exciting set pieces despite the fact that there are no visuals (the underwater sea walk is very impressive) and Ken Bentley is more than up to the task of bringing these ambitious sequences to life. The first episode lays down all the individual elements (the intelligent jellyfish, the derelict submarine, the large underwater body) and then the concluding part cleverly weaves them all into a satisfying narrative. In storytelling terms there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before, it is the location that sets it apart but even on those terms this makes for highly enjoyable night time listening (turn all the lights out and press play, trust me it’s fantastic). It is probably the story that relies on the Doctor and Romana the least, at least in terms of their particular personalities. You could happily switch them for any other Doctor/companion combination with the minimal of tweaking, which is certainly not something you could say about The Auntie Matter but is often the way with such a traditional Doctor Who story. Regardless, Tom Baker seems to be having a blast and his enthusiasm for the material is quite infectious. Well paced, full of excitement and evoking a malevolent flavour, Phantoms of the Deep is another winner for the second season of fourth Doctor adventures: 8/10

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The Dalek Contract: Big Finish have tapped into something far more engaging with their second season of 4DAs whilst not aspiring to the heights of true greatness that the main range can hit when at it’s best. Nick Briggs remains heavily involved (because, I suspect, Tom Baker feels more comfortable being involved that way) and his habitual, meat-and-potatoes approach to Doctor Who once again proves to be diverting enough but is still several notches down from his finest work (Creatures of Beauty, Dalek Empire). Mary Tamm’s Doctor Who experience in season sixteen was an atypical one; a series of linked adventures that indulging in science fantasy far more than science fiction that took Romana on an enchanting tour of some of the more imaginative locations in the universe on the hunt for the Key to Time. Without demeaning this year of audio adventures in any way, they have provided the character with a far more traditional season of adventures to compliment that. From historical comedy to space opera, from nostalgic fantasy to base under siege, it has encapsulated Doctor Who in it’s entirety and given Tamm’s interpretation of the character plenty more variety and scope. The Dalek Contract gives her (and K.9) the chance to butt heads with the Daleks and the unique idea at the heart of this tale is that this squadron are apparently hired assassins, under the thumb of Cuthbert (once again played with brio by David Warner). Neither cliffhanger feels especially memorable which is a shame because as scripted they are both great moments, especially the first one which subverts the usual Dalek shtick and sees them behaving in an unusual fashion, which is often when they are at their best. It’s non-stop action with some pleasant character moments for the Doctor and Romana (I feel that Briggs understands the characters without ever attempting to probe them too much) but very much the first half of a much larger story and you might feel a little short changed once you have reached the end of the disc purely because it abruptly stops just as the story hits a dramatic high. I’m not sure how to judge The Dalek Contract on it’s own merits because so much of it’s effect will depend upon the concluding half (we still don’t know why the Daleks have teamed up with Cuthbert or what his experiments entail) but needless to say this was diverting, time-honoured Who of the sort that I will never get tired of, even if it isn’t exactly firing at full throttle. What others will make of something this undemanding effort is beyond me, but it does at least entertain for an hour and thanks to an authentic score really feels like it has come from the era: 6/10

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The Final Phase: Perfectly average, but never stimulating. Nick Briggs can be a fine writer but you only have to compare The Final Phase and To The Death (both epic Dalek finales that climax a series of 50 minute stories) to see that he is stating to get a little exhausted, possibly because of his prolific presence in this particular range. Like The Dalek Contract, The Final Phase has its moments but they are scant and submerged in all the rest of the noisy fluff. The dialogue is mostly functional rather than characterful, serving the scant plot and so the guest cast get a bum deal of being some the least interesting and memorable that have appeared in a Big Finish for some time. If the second season of 4DAs has been your first exposure to Big Finish then this might feel like a genuinely climactic and exciting adventure but if you have listened to even half of their other Daleks adventures (especially the likes of Davros, Jubilee, The Juggernauts, Enemy of the Daleks and Patient Zero) then The Final Phase is likely going to feel like quite the letdown. The Doctor and Romana play out the roles that is expected of them but aren’t stretched in any way (even when it looks as if the Doctor is dead the aftermath is handled too quickly and his return to the story quickly follows) and whilst David Warner continues to delight (despite his stiff characterisation, I don’t think this guy knows how to give a bad performance) Cuthbert’s story fizzles out without any resolution. The whole self fulfilling prophecy angle has been done before, and better, and I couldn’t help but think considering that since the story was promising an epic revelation (universal destruction, time and space split asunder, etc) that this was more than a little underwhelming. I struggle to see the merit in playing it quite so safe with the 4DAs. Even season two, which has been a quantum leap in terms of quality from season one, has failed to take any big risks (the best stories are a P.G. Wodehouse parody, a reunion with Jago & Litefoot and a claustrophobic SF tale beneath the sea – all quality stories but nothing especially groundbreaking). Next year I would like to see them try and push Tom Baker into more challenging areas, edgier drama and more oddball comedies. I would love to see him get his own Jubilee, Chimes of Midnight, A Death in the Family or Dr Who & the Pirates, something truly memorable. The Finale Phase caps off an entertaining season of adventures but I cannot imagine ever choosing to listen to this particular adventure again: 5/10

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The King of Sontar: A confident, memorable opening to the second season of adventures for the fourth Doctor and Leela. I'm getting to the stage now where the name John Dorney on a script is an instant stamp of quality because I cannot think of the last time he delivered anything that wasn't worth listening to. Whilst this does feel as though it could just about squeeze into season fifteen, Dorney is too original a writer to simply go for the nostalgia factor and he takes on a fascinating journey that allows us to look at the Sontarans in a fresh and interesting way. You've got the poignant relationship that builds between Leela and Vilhol, enemies with a common cause. You've got Strang, a legion of Sontarans amalgamated into one terrifying individual. And you've got the fascinating prospect of Sontarans fighting Sontarans in a war to the death plus the chilling thought of them being able to transport anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye. There is far more innovation going on here than initially meets the eye. Then there is the climax which sees a massive tear form between the Doctor and Leela, a gripping conclusion and the sort of character development that I have been waiting for in this range for some time. A fantastic script then, buoyed by Nicholas Briggs' typically immersive direction and strong performances from a memorable guest cast (Dan Starkey ably brings a very different kind of Sontaran to Strax to life). This is exactly the sort of direction that the 4DAs need to venture into, I was mightily impressed by The King of Sontar and look forward to seeing where this season of adventures heads: 9/10

White Ghosts: 'Don't leave us in the dark!' Unlike many a new series episode, White Ghosts opens with an episode where all is not explained about the setting and the characters in the first five minutes and we are allowed the luxury of trying to figure out the situation as we proceed through a number of exciting and dark set pieces. I really liked that. For once the Doctor doesn't know everything and has to use his wits to try and piece everything together. It's hard to argue with a scenario as gripping as this one; a lifeless planetoid transformed into a deadly jungle in a matter of moments after a missile has exploded before hitting the surface, accelerating the life cycle of the aggressive wildlife. Barnes' tale might not have character on he brain (Hey's character aside I didn't really remember anybody from this story) but he has sure struck gold with his setting, ideas and imagery. With horrific plant creatures attacking, vampire transformations and the Doctor and Leela (both superbly characterised) being hunted within and without, White Ghosts errs towards the Hinchcliffe era than the Williams one but there's no denying that this story moves at a furious pace and kept my interest up throughout. If there is one thing that Doctor Who does well more often than not is a good base under siege story and this is certainly the most dynamic example in years from Big Finish. The first 40 minutes are near-flawless but the only blemish in attempting to produce a story so dense with ideas in an hour means that Barnes has to rush through a great deal of exposition in the final 20 minutes and a debate between the Doctor and Leela is frustratingly cut short. There is still plenty of drama though and the fate of Bengal and the others is one that I wont forget in a long time. White Ghosts is an attempt to create something a little darker and deeper than the usual 4th Doctor snog to the past and for that I commend it greatly. A few rushed explanations aside, it is the second very strong showing for the range in its third season: 8/10

The Crooked Man: I'm so conflicted with The Crooked Man because there are a lot of good ideas in place and it has some effective moments but I don't think it holds together anywhere near as well as it should. I'm not sure it is the realisation because Nick Briggs' direction is typically strong (although he lets a couple of poor performances through) and Jamie Robertson's soundscape and music both capture the horror of the situation superbly. I can see what John Dorney was going for with this adventure and intellectually he approaches the Land of Fiction from a less showy and more substantial angle than The Mind Robber. However there is no denying that waltzing with literary figures in a fairytale land is much more exciting and colourful than meeting a collection of fictional stereotypes turned baddies in a seaside town. Concentrating on the unknowns in fiction is a smart idea in theory, those characters who are long forgotten whilst the classics are given plenty of attention but the resulting guest cast is pretty unmemorable as a consequence. There is a much more tragic story to be told about these forgotten,embarrassing characters of hack fiction created by lesser writers and unfairly compared to the greats of literature. Instead of going for a more affecting angle he instead turns the characters into stock villains trying to take over the world. It is a novel idea but following in the footsteps of so many other Doctor Who stories. Maybe he didn't want to go over familiar ground since he already approached the idea of having clichéd characters take on greater dimensions in The Forth Wall. Mind you he talks about the responsibility of the writer to his characters in the extras for that tale and seems retract that here, suggesting that this cast of villains is merely the sum of its not very skilfully written parts. Maybe he doesn't have to accept responsibility when they are written as somebody else's creations? Tom Baker veers between very good and awkward in this story and whilst she isn't given her best characterisation in the range, Louise Jameson supports him well as Leela. I find it sad that a story that made me think about its ideas should just scrape an above average mark but whilst I can appreciate what the writer was trying to achieve I don't think the overall story came together quite as engagingly as he hoped. It's good but it could have been great. After setting up an intriguing scenario with the Land of Fiction rejecting its lesser creations, there is no time to explore the concept before the story has to be wrapped up in a terrible hurry. Perhaps this is another case for longer stories for the fourth Doctor, in which case there would have been time for the villainy and a chance to flesh out the characters too. Kudos for trying something a little more subversive and less traditional though : 6/10

The Evil One: How seriously can you take a story that can be summed up with: Leela is hypnotised by the Master to murder the Doctor. If that doesn't sound like the most appalling fanwank imaginable then I don't know what does. Even so, if you were a writer of terrific dexterity and intricacy you might be able to pull this off, abandoning the shows adventurous roots and going for something insanely dark and psychologically destabilising for the characters. Like having Leela beat the Doctor beyond recognition in her insane lust for his death and having to deal with consequences. Or the most stalwart of Doctor's being genuinely frightened of a supposed ally. Or Leela examining a disturbed relationship with her father. Instead this is a typical Nick Briggs script in the 4DA range with lots of running about and talking plot, very little substance and personality. It does try and pretend that it has something profound to say about Leela by linking her brainwashing trigger to the death of her father but it doesn't bother to scrutinize her relationship with him or explicate why his death might weight heavy on her mind in any great depth. Instead it's just a plot device, a way of flipping a switch and turning Leela from noble savage to mindless killer. On the basic level of sticking on a Big Finish story and being swept away for an hour of casual frolics with the Doctor, Leela and the Master this is enjoyable enough (I was certainly never bored...incredulous but never bored) but don't go in expecting anything revelatory because you will be sorely disappointed. I remember a time when Briggs conjured up an insidious and dark character drama that pushed the regulars to the edge and featured an astonishingly vivid guest cast. It was called Creatures of Beauty. This had the potential to be as hard hitting and unforgettable as that story but somewhere along the way Briggs has lost his nerve. Tidy, traditional, inconsequential - pick an adjective: 5/10 (I wanted to score one lower for being so unambitious but the production is too good to punish it like that - all praise Jamie Robertson!)

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Last of the Colophon: 'We're the ones that set him free!' A pinch of Talons of Weng-Chiang (Morax's condition), a sprinkling of Planet of Evil (a survey ship landing on an alien world), toss in some Brain of Morbius (an engaging scientist with a dark secret) and a huge dollop of The Armageddon Factor (a world devastated by war, a story told in a handful of sets)...mix it all together and serve it up as a two part audio story and slap the title Last of the Colophon on it. I have to admit that this is one of the stories in the third season that had me the most excited before I heard it (along with White Ghosts and The Abandoned). The cover is phenomenal and after reading the synopsis I felt wrapped up in the warm glow of nostalgia for the era (a dead world, a survey ship, a brilliant scientist under house arrest and a robot nurse sound like the ingredients for an engaging fourth Doctor romp). I've been harping on about how traditional these fourth Doctor adventures have been to their detriment and along comes a story which does absolutely nothing new that I thoroughly enjoyed. Go figure. Episode one is extremely predictable (Morax is the villain of the piece as soon as Thomas utters his first word) but even so it builds to an impressively creepy climax with the characters trapped inside the prison at the mercy of the madman. I might sound like a broken record but this is another terrific showcase for Jamie Robertson's talents, one of the strongest talents to have been acquired by Big Finish in the past five years. Much of the effect of a story this slender comes down to how it is presented and Robertson provides sounds wonderfully frightening moments, shock sound effects and a big, filmic soundtrack. I think Jonathan Morris understands the fourth Doctor era (and the fourth Doctor himself) better than any of the other writers in the range. Whether he is writing a witty Wodehouse pastiche for Romana, a claustrophobic underwater SF tale featuring a villainous K.9 or transporting us to the budget saving three set spectacular on the dead world of Colophon there is something authentic of the era about his tales whilst still being solid stories in their own right. Given his penchant for Douglas Adams pastiche (check out Babblesphere, The Beautiful People, Festival of Death and The Tomorrow Windows), I am assuming he is going to feature heavily in season five. I can't wait. If you are seeking out the 4DAs because you are looking for a nostalgia fix for the Baker years on television, this is by far the most accomplished that has emerged. Utterly clichéd and for once it's a plus, Last of the Colophon embraces predictability and uses it to deliver an energetic hit. Gareth Thomas excels: 8/10

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Destroy the Infinite written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

Result: War, possession, gaseous many clichés can you pack into one Doctor Who story? I think it is a little unfair on the era that this story is supposed to be aping to suggest that Destroy the Infinite is merely going for the nostalgia jugular. It's something that I have heard a lot lately with regards to the 4DAs (especially in my own reviews) and I think it is worth remembering that the Hinchcliffe/Williams eras are some of the most innovative and imaginative periods of the show. Certainly there was nothing that surrendered quite as much to formula as The Evil One or Destroy the Infinite. The producers would simply not allow anything this predictable to screen. What Briggs is doing it pulling a number of Doctor Who clichés out of the bag (Master + companion gone bad, war + possession) and applying them to the bare bones of a narrative and injecting it with a sense of adventure. Superficially fun but the merely the essence of a Doctor Who story rather than a substantial one. Destroy the Infinite feels like one long action set piece rather than a plot that has been well thought-out and given they are as blankly characterised as the guest cast this story could pretty much feature any Doctor/companion combination. The Doctor and Leela could easily be excised and the third Doctor and Jo or the sixth Doctor and Peri slipped in. I'm not saying that every piece should be uniquely carved to a particular set of regulars (although some more the of the probing of this pair would be welcome after flirting with the idea in The Heroes of Sontar/White Ghosts) but they should never be this throwaway. This is passable filler (I seem to keep saying that about Nick Briggs' 4DAs, easily the most expendable stories of the range because they never attempt to think outside the box) but as an Eminence story The Seeds of War was more intriguingly structured and detailed (with a stronger cast of characters) and Time's Horizon in the Dark Eyes II box set was much more frightening. I had no problem listening to Destroy the Infinite but I wont pretend it challenged me for a moment. Listening to a 'written and directed by Nick Briggs' story at the moment is like enjoying a Chinese buffet; instantly fairly gratifying but you will have forgotten all about it within five minutes and never be able to distinguish it from the other meals you've had for the rest of your natural. Sometimes it's nice to chow down on something memorable: 5/10

The Abandoned written by Louise Jameson & Nigel Fairs and directed by Ken Bentley

Result: 'What is the point of the point of stillness?' Brave and challenging, it's time for something completely different. There are going to be people who really don't like this kind of thing because they have a certain expectation of what they want from Doctor Who. And there will be others that adore because it is pushing the boundaries and giving a range that has surrendered to nostalgia and predictability more often than not a shot in the arm of creativity. I'm mostly in the latter category and think it is long past time that this range started displaying some individuality but I do have an issue with some elements of the execution of the tale. I did enjoy some of the TARDIS based atmospherics and Nick Briggs certainly fulfils the remit of utilising the sound effects of the ship to create an unique audio environment, playing to the strengths of setting a story entirely within its walls. The moments of random weirdness reminded me of Sapphire and Steel but the first episode might test your patience because it doesn't appear to have any structure to it and there are some moments of assaulting shrieks and laughter that encourage the application of paracetamol. As you might imagine from a script partly written by Louise Jameson the characterisation of the Doctor and Leela is extremely strong, returning them to their roots of teacher and pupil but also saying some new things about both characters. That genuinely surprised me in a period where I have come to expect little definable examination of the regulars. Stephanie Cole is one of my favourite actresses and I have always wanted her to appear in a Doctor Who story so I can cross that off my wish list. With a little binding of the script and production so that it wasn't quite as all out cuckoo, this would have been an absolute classic. As it is I would still say it is a massive leap in the right direction for the 4DAs, an attempt to try something completely exclusive rather than trading on past glories. Nigel Fairs and Louise Jameson should team up again, they are clearly full of ideas (the former brings his penchant for fairytale notions and the latter a willingness to experiment and pioneer...and Jameson certainly brings a narrative coherence that has been lacking in Fairs' last two scripts) and are invested in the characters. With firmer notes from the script editor they could produce something truly outstanding instead of something flawed but fearless: 8/10

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Zygon Hunt: What is the point of a story like Zygon Hunt? It barely holds the interest over its length and has nothing to say about its subject matter, its returning monsters or its regulars. It's under an hours worth of dashing about and sound effects that make me nostalgic for the story that inspired this one rather than wanting to listen to this one. Nick Briggs is capable of so much better than this and his recent efforts in the 4DA range truly feel as though they are bypassing everything that is good about him as a writer (of which, contrary to some peoples opinions, there are a great many things including an ability to tell an epic story with lots of clever details, stirring melodrama and twists that make you genuinely gasp). The first episode is almost entirely without substance...there is plenty of interaction and running around but nobody seems to be talking about anything tangible, we don't seem to get to know anybody in any great depth, the monsters aren't explored at all because they haven't appeared yet. It's half an hour of empty incident. Briggs was openly critical of The Zygon Who Fell to Earth in one of the issues of Vortex, stating that it was not the sort of story that he enjoys. If the paucity of content in Zygon Hunt is his reaction to such a tale I would have to admit that I'm sitting squarely in Paul Magrs' corner. The 8DA tale had strong characters, real drama, comedy and an achingly poignant finale. Zygon Hunt is just sort of there doing exactly what you would imagine of this kind of story doing and holding no surprises. The third season of 4DAs has been a real mixed bunch, some genuinely strong tales (The King of Sontar, War of the Colophon, The Abandoned) and some mundane ones (The Evil One, Destroy the Infinite, Zygon Hunt). I want to see Briggs produce his very own Creatures of Beauty and Lucie Miller/To The Death for the 4DA range. Hop to it. A beautiful Alistair Lock score aside (and even that is inspired by Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom rather than creating anything original), this was devoid of interest. Even my reviews of these stories are starting to sound like a broken record: 3/10

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The Exxilons: A love letter to Death to the Daleks might not be on anybody's wish list but I'm not surprised that it exists given the 4DAs penchant for nostalgia trips and Nicholas Briggs waxing lyrical about this serial on the DVD release (while not the best story he admits it is the quintessential Doctor Who story). Bearing in mind it comes after Zygon Hunt, which was a love letter to Terror of the Zygons with a parody score it does tend to suggest that this range is sticking with the same formula that has plagued it from the beginning: imitation not innovation (with a few rare exceptions). If you lower expectations (a hard job given the strength of the recent Gareth Roberts fourth Doctor novels that have been released), this really isn't terrible. The Exxilons has the brio and confidence of a season opener and is fast paced, well performed and blessed with a stunning Alistair Lock score that fuses too eras together beautifully. You cannot have failed to have noticed that I have spent more time in the sections above discussing the stunning sound design rather than the lacklustre storytelling and there is a very good reason for that. This isn't going to challenge you (unless you are really very simple) but it will provide you with a warm glow of Doctor Who gone by and pass an hour amiably. I should be more critical of a story that is this well made but lacking so much ambition (it is devoid of it) but I kind of enjoyed it on its own terms. There were no surprises, everybody behaved as I predicted they would and the story dodged several attempts to give the city or the Exxilons greater meaning...but as a Doctor vs. baddies it trotted along nicely enough. I think it helps that I am a big fan of Death to the Daleks and am on the same page as Nicholas Briggs with how enjoyable the story is. It's easy enough to blow a kiss to a story as popular as Terror of the Zygons because it has many supporters but to get people in the mood to watch Terry Nation's Exxilon based adventure is really rather impressive. Easy to listen to, never inspiring: 5/10

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Requiem for the Rocket Men: There is one thing that you can say for Requiem for the Rocket Men from the off...this is not something that would have been aired in the mid-seventies. For those of you who tune into the 4DAs for a nostalgia kick that might be a problem but for the rest of us who have been bemoaning a lack of a fresh direction it is practically a godsend. You simply would not have had a story told primarily from the Master's point of view with the Doctor in the background trying to outwit his scheme. That alone makes this tale worth checking out. I found this story ridiculously enjoyable throughout, the narrative subversion gave me an effortless entrance but what kept me entertained was the glorious treatment of the Master and the Doctor and how their cat and mouse game in the clutches of the Rocket Men continued to evolve. I have rarely seen the Master written this enjoyably and Geoffrey Beevers seems to relish the opportunity to play something a little different to the usual stereotypes. The moment he laments for the Doctor's death was magnificent. The first episode reminded me pleasingly of the DWM strip 'Death to the Doctor!' with a great sense of paranoia brewing around just when the Doctor will spring his trap. As a result Tom Baker's gleeful madman seems more dangerous than ever. If the second episode progresses into something a bit more predictable that doesn't really hamper the pace or the glee with which the story is told or the priceless lines on display. Requiem for the Rocket Men sounds like it is going to be another thoughtful story in the ongoing saga of this criminal organisation but really it is nothing of the sort. It goes for the entertainment factor and succeeds in droves and it pleases me no end to thoroughly recommend a fourth Doctor adventure after savaging so many of this ranges output. If every story was as easy on the ear as this one I wouldn't have any complaints: 8/10

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Death Match: The most blatant Blakes' 7 rip off I have ever seen in Doctor Who is pulled off with spectacular style. I thought Chris Boucher returning to his roots (both the 4th Doctor and Leela and the combat scenario that played out in the Blakes' 7 episode Death Watch) in the BBC Novel Match of the Day felt congratulatory and self plagiaristic but this takes things a step even further. If it wasn't all so deliriously enjoyable to listen I would probably take more of an exception to it. This is a range that is finally starting to deliver on a regular occasion (that's three strong releases in a row) which makes me very happy for Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Nick Briggs who I am sure have figured this is the kind of success they have been achieving since day one. Death Match sports some delicious Doctor/Master dialogue, which Baker and Beevers relish like a fine wine and it provides some new insights into the relationship of the two rivals. The story is fast paced, set on a gloriously Terry Nation-esque world (acid seas and testosterone fuelled competitions) and features a terrific score courtesy of Jamie Robertson. Listening to this story was effortless and I had a smile slapped on my face throughout. This is a little longer than your average 4DA too so you'll get a little more enjoyment for your buck too. Matt Fitton deserves some recognition as one of the breakout talents of the last few years, he's delivered again (The Wrong Doctors) and again (The Fall of House Pollard) and again (Equilibrium) and again (Return of the Rocket Men). Give that man a pay rise, he's approaching the Dorney's and Morris' of the company. If you want to take this as Requiem of the Rocket Men as a four parter there is an argument to be made for that...but they are equally strong standalone stories too. The usual suspects will tell you that this is undemanding fare but it is hugelyenjoyable and in this range that is a valuable commodity: 8/10 

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Surburban Hell: What is going on with the fourth Doctor range? This is the third story in a row that is a massive departure from the 'it's 1977' nostalgia rush that the range has been keen to capture in the past. I could really get used to this. Remember when Tom Baker said that he turned up at a random house and asked if he could watch The Deadly Assassin part three because he was worried about the content, well the fourth Doctor and Leela emerging as guests at a dinner party and the entire story being contained in a domestic setting is just as wonderfully bizarre. I got a Sapphire and Steel Adventure Five vibe from this story that pleased me because I think it is one of the unsung stories from the series - a mystery spread across two time periods in a domestic and yet completely artificial (in terms of the furnishings and the relationships between the characters) setting. This is a lot more frivolous and frothy though, which might explain why it feels so throwaway when it is genuinely doing something a bit different. Splitting the narrative between two time zones gives the story more scope and allows the Doctor to investigate the cause and the Leela the effect and between them they sow up who is the vessel that the alien is looking to inhabit. Tom Baker is on fine form but he has been all year and I really think he has come into his own on audio now. My only complaint is that this had the opportunity to be a devastatingly witty, almost Coward-esque play but Barnes doesn't quite have the comedy chops to pull it off. Instead we have to make do with an entertaining romp but don't underestimate Suburban Hell because I describe it as such because so many 4DAs have been anything but: 7/10

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The Cloisters of Terror: To say that a 4DA is offering nothing revolutionary can hardly be a surprise to anybody who has followed the range regularly. Recently I heard a suggestion that this arm of the fourth Doctor's adventures is deliberately unambitious, that they are light affairs catering to an audience that want to lie back and let a story wash over them rather than challenge them. Sometimes I'm in that mood and these stories fit the bill perfectly. Even the superb Dorney/Fitton two parter this season was frothy and amiable rather than anything that really made me work at unearthing its treasures. Jonny Morris delivers a fun enough script but it follows the 4DA pattern; well made, acted and scored but lacking any ambition than killing an hour in a reasonably amusing way. Like so many of these economically told adventures, I can't imagine waking up with a burning ambition to listen to The Cloisters of Terror again in a hurry like I do with the best of Big Finish. Everything played out in a way that made sense and the setting was rather nice and the atmosphere of ghostly spectres was very in keeping with the early Tom Baker television tales. The trouble was I never had a genuine sense of danger, especially with the Doctor taking everything in his stride and Leela and Emily acting more flippant than anxious. The SF elements don't really come off either, feeling as though they were dumped into the story rather than part of the narrative from the get go (when I'm sure that is not the case). I think if this was double the length with time for Morris to allow the characters a chance to breathe and spend more time with the aliens of the week and set up their plight this might have appealed more. As it stands it is like a bite size chocolate bar, over too soon and lacking in substance. After listening to four companion chronicles that utilised their time to tell intelligent, thought-provoking and staggeringly dramatic tales these 4DAs seem all too opaque. If Big Finish were looking at producing quality over what sells, I know which range I would reduce to box sets and which I would be releasing every month. Stunning cover, though: 5/10

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The Fate of Krelos: 'It is a terrible sight in the light of three moons...' I can see precisely what Nick Briggs was going for with The Fate of Krelos and to some degree he has succeeded but I think that is mostly down to his work as a director rather than a writer. There is a disquieting atmosphere to the whole piece that is world away from usual fluffiness of this fourth Doctor adventures and it genuinely feels as though it is building up to something spectacular. It isn't quite the Lucie Miller of this line but it is certainly along those lines. I love the idea of the Doctor and Leela going on holiday and causing a chain reaction of devastation because of that but I don't know if this was subtly written enough to explore the idea. The first episode is quite bluntly plotted to ensure that by the time we reach the climax we are dead certain of what the writer is trying to say. It's rather like being bonked on the head with the Doctor's mistakes rather than learning about them naturally. The concept isn't explored imaginatively or emotionally, it's simply presented to you and you are left to make up your own mind as to what you think of it all. However the atmosphere is unnervingly maintained throughout, helped no end by the curious use of K.9. What really stood out to me in this story was the very natural chemistry between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson and how so much of the story was told through the eyes of the Doctor and Leela. Over three seasons the characters and actors have developed a fine rapport and since Briggs has become intimately acquainted with both the actors and their roles the net result is a story of terrific interaction (with some surprisingly touching moments). Surprisingly dramatic and eye-opening, I hope the second half can keep up the feeling of dread: 7/10

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