English Gentleman: There were a few moments of fun in Heroes of Sontar for the fifth Doctor but bombarding him with companions seems to be having a detrimental effect on his lifestyle! Not only are we seeing him sidelined like he used to be when the TARDIS was this crowded on the telly but also Davison’s performance here lacks any kind of enthusiasm. It literally sounds as if he is just reeling out the dialogue. After nearly 150 odd releases with many fine performances from Davison that has completely turned around my opinion on his incarnation it is a shame to see the beige fifth Doctor make a return when cocooned in some many companions.
Alien Orphan: She never imagined that she would ever see the TARDIS again once she had left and when Tegan talks about feeling the same after the mess up at Heathrow but our Nyssa points out that she has been away a little longer! There is a small moment when Nyssa screams at the Doctor not to push her away where I thought for a moment that perhaps she has more invested in their relationship than is appropriate. She tells Turlough that she has a life that she wants to get back to and people who depend on her but the Doctor has given her hope for the future. However looking at the story as a whole this is another story where Tegan and Turlough have come along and shoved Nyssa to the sidelines. Shameful.
Mouth on Legs: I can’t get used to this new positive Tegan, we open this story with her happy with where they had landed (when did that ever happen?), enthusing about her companions and flirting with the pizza boy! At least she’s still horrid to Turlough. Instead of wanting to see if he is all right Tegan just wants the gossip on Turlough! Oddly enough when Tegan faces death for the second time as the ship crashes into the winter planet she turns into a squeaky mouse (‘Eeeeek! We’re gonna dieeee!’). ‘Credit where credits due, you’re amazing!’ she says to the Doctor – umm, is Tegan getting laid or something? I did like this exchange: ‘You don’t want to get into an argument with Tegan!’ ‘Why? What’s she going to do?’ ‘Win!’ Argh – by the end of the story Tegan even starts complimenting Turlough suggesting he is braver than he looks. She must be getting some! She tells Deela when it stops being fun you need to move on, foreshadowing her own departure from the series.
Over the Shoulder: My biggest problem with Kiss of Death was that it was billed as a reunion between Turlough and an old flame but somewhere in execution you never once believe that Turlough and Deela used to be in love with each other. The performances fail to suggest the excitement of two people who were once inseparable and forced apart, Romeo and Juliet style. Its more like two people who have found each other again and are desperately embarrassed that that was what they used to find irresistible. The lack of chemistry between Mark Strickson and Lucy Adams hampers this story considerably and if you want to see an example of how this sort of thing should be done go and listen to Maggie Stables and Gabriel Woolf in Arrangements of War or Sophie Aldred and John Dorney in A Death in the Family. In both those cases you are dragged into the story by the chemistry between the two performers and their relationships. As a result of this lack of spark between the two characters I suspected the end of episode three somewhere in the middle of the first episode and as a result the shock horror twist was met with a groan. He keeps the school uniform on not because JNT thought Mark Strickson looked hot in it but because he likes to remind himself that he is an outsider. As soon as Turlough pokes his head out of the TARDIS the holiday is over! Nice to see that he was a big of rogue with the ladies when he was younger. It’s the old, old story…boy meets girl, boys family and girls family are on opposing sides of a war, boy and girl get jiggy with it anyway…and then families find out and forbid them to see each other! Deela’s father removed Turlough the first chance he got and he was lucky to get away with exile rather than death. Brilliantly when his old flames life is in danger Turlough refuses to budge but when they threaten his life he leaps into action! Turlough’s family used to own the winter planet and the catacombs was where his grandfather used to run his smuggling operations. Turlough and Deela grew closer as their fathers grew apart and when the war broke out his mother was killed and his brother went who knows where.
Standout Performance: By a stretch of a few hundred miles the best performer in this tale is Lizzie Roper as Hoss who might not be bringing to life the most interesting of characters but she sure makes the most of being able to spit out her dialogue in an aggressive fashion! Every single line comes with a bucket load of bile and she was the only person in this cast that I genuinely gave her all. She’s such a wonderful psychotic and when the chips are down she is left screaming her head off and firing her gun like a complete nutcase.
Great Ideas: Kiss of Death opens very well indeed with Turlough being kidnapped and Tegan almost being burnt to a frazzle (okay the Doctor and Nyssa are there as well but there are few things as exciting in life as the thought of Tegan going the same way as Adric) and following in pursuit. The dimensional vault was a secret part of the palace architecture. Turlough and Deela are the treasure that the Morass are programmed to protect.
Audio Landscape: Birdsong, pouring a cocktail, there is a sequence that sounds like it was recorded on Eastbourne beach with seagulls screaming and holiday goers enjoying themselves, there are some brilliant wibbly wobbly alien voices, the robot Tegan calls ‘metal mickey’ sounds like a Cyberman, ship blasting off, the ice boiling away and cracking, electric shock.
Musical Cues: Music is such a matter of personal taste but I personally feel that since the trilogies have begun the scores have been exemplary with Jamie Robertson, Toby Robinson and Steve Foxon in particular providing some very memorable and involving scores. Even better, we have been treated to isolated musical scores on each release which is a massive plus to me because I collect my favourite soundtracks and I love the chance to get listen to incidental music without plot, character and dialogue getting in the way. The one downside to the music being this consistently good is that you can be duped into thinking that lousy stories actually have some merit – neither Kiss of Death or Heroes of Sontar saw Big Finish delivering anywhere near their best but the soundtracks for both are gorgeous! Gone are the days of Nekromenteia when not only was the overall story a load of mouldy bollocks but the music was horridly unmemorable too (see also Three’s a Crowd for another example). Foxon’s music is pacy and exciting and emotive – everything that the story is aiming for but failing to achieve. Basically I’m saying that it’s probably worth listening to the two isolated musical tracks and give the story a miss.
Isn’t it Odd: Looks like we are going to be subjected to some of Steve Cole’s functional dialogue in this story – ‘Do you want to be a mercenary all your life or do you want to make a real killing for a change?’ It’s the oddest thing, sometimes Cole’s dialogue can be sizzling and witty (Timeless, To the Slaughter, The Wormery) and at other times it is so bland it defies description (Feast of the Drowned, Land of the Dead): ‘Since it’s your gaff, ginger!’ Turlough’s kidnappers are deathly dull, not actually characters within their own right but more nasty plot functions who happen to enjoy a little sadism. What is up with these cliff-hangers that see characters screaming ‘nooooo!’ – it honestly doesn’t matter how much welly you put into it love we can’t see what’s happening so its pretty hard to connect with what your fear. Why does the story reveal everything upfront rather than packaging Turlough’s past into something that the listener has to work at, to try and figure out, to be rewarded with once we discover what it is (yes I am comparing with the River Song backstory). When Turlough reveals his rank and history in Planet of Fire it actually feels like an important moment because he has been so evasive to that point but for Kiss of Death to be so blasé and open about his past blunts the later reveal and lacks meaning here. Why do kisses sound so gross and comical on audio? ‘Your next kiss comes from the end of my gun’ – groan. The second episode doesn’t seem to be about anything in the slightest – the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa get themselves lost underground and Turlough and his captors argue incessantly over the dimensional vault but there is no character exploration or plot movement. It’s the audio equivalent of cartoon characters doing that invisible legs running on the spot motion and not getting anywhere. Yoiks! I didn’t understand what the Morass were saying at the end of episode two, which rather blunted the moment. It could have been ‘do you fancy a cuppa?’ for all I know. I really appreciate that they are trying to do something a bit different with the voices of the Morass and their whispering voices sound as though they have got ice congealed in their throats and it is pretty unnerving but unfortunately the very thing that makes this race sound so unique makes the dialogue desperately hard to understand. I kept backtracking to really strain to understand them with meant the narrative crawled along at an even slower, fractured, pace. When they realise Deela’s treachery Nyssa actually says ‘How could you, Deela?’ The conclusion of the story is a wealth of exposition – none of the characters are actually experiencing anything it just feels like a Scooby Doo wrap up where they all stand around and go ‘so that’s what it was all about!’
Standout Scene: The sequence with the army of Nyssa’s is the first time the narrative perked my interest since the beginning of the story – it’s just surreal enough to be exciting and a bit silly.
Notes: Although I haven’t stuck my reviewing fingers into the Cobwebs-Cradle of the Snake trilogy the last two stories prove undoubtedly that there are far too many people crowding the TARDIS. Nyssa, who has been one of the best surprises to come out of Big Finish, has been ignored and the Doctor seems overwhelmed by the wealth of companions. Nobody is getting a great deal of exploration because the writers are having to juggle up the four of them and their own original characters too. Personally I would have one fuck off story with just the four of them, a strong psychological drama between them and then go back to having fifth Doctor and Turlough solo adventures, fifth Doctor and Nyssa solo adventures…and as for Tegan. Well to quote Nero ‘She’s alright but she’s not all that good.’
Result: To give Steve Cole his credit he has written a perfectly authentic season 20 story. The Doctor is as dull as dishwater, Nyssa is sidelined, the plotting is slack, the dialogue is banal and lifeless and the guest cast lack any presence whatsoever. The only noticeable difference I could find from stories such as Arc of Infinity, Terminus and The Kings Demons was that Tegan seemed to be extremely complimentary about everything but that wierded me out too much to be effective. There are two massive issues with this story and the first is that it opens with a wham bang thank you ma’am opening of kidnap and pursuit but then 15 minutes into the story we arrive on the winter planet and where the plot yawns to a halt for the rest of the story. To term this story as a run-around actually insults that particular genre of Doctor Who. Stand-still around is more accurate. Secondly the Turlough/Deela relationship fails to convince on any level, the writing keeps them at arms length and the actors sound awkward together which results in a flat subplot and highlights the most predictable cliffhanger in yonks (Deela’s a bad’un? No, really?). Add to this a general lack of enthusiasm from the cast and a dearth of original ideas (oh look…doppelgangers!) and it actually makes me yearn for a return of the comedy Sontarans. An excellent musical score aside, Kiss of Death is extremely forgettable stuff: 4/10