An English Gentleman: Wiping out any kind of ambiguity, the Doctor opens the scene screaming out Peri’s name so we know instantly that this is set between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani (and either pre or post Erimem). He’s not exactly Tom Baker when it comes to refuses the task of the Key to Time, casual abandon and the fifth Doctor hardly go hand in hand. He’s such a delightfully four square fellow and is the sort of Time Lord you would want turning up on your planet to explore because he’s so inoffensive. In this case its quite detrimental to the storytelling – a nice Doctor and a nice setting don’t exactly set the universe on fire. It’s a gift that the Doctor gets arrested wherever he goes and Amy points out that the fact that he likes to advertise that he is a man of mystery rather proves that he is not. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Peter Davison narrating a story before and his reading at the beginning of part three is rather evocative, telling the story of the fall of the Red Planet and the curse of the Martian people. ‘Don’t take her Isskar! Take me instead!’ – I never knew that Davison had such a flair for melodrama! The Doctor reminisces about a Jelloid prison on Benk that was very nice. Sometimes I literally want to shake the fifth Doctor to make him feel something. The way he surrenders to fate at the climax doesn’t sound like the Doctor much at all. A mixed bag overall but then that always seems to be the case with this Doctor on audio.
Tracer: The idea of sentient Tracer is inspired and had they not introduced Romana in season sixteen might have been an intriguing new companion to bring in to the show. It means we get all the stories locations mapped out in advance, the exposition is tied up in one character and the companion is vital to the trilogy as it plays. Bravo on all three scores. She’s quite naïve but then she is only four minutes old. Its like taking a newborn baby into the TARDIS, somebody with no experience of the universe at all who will share her wonder with the Doctor as she constantly discovers new things. The name Amy has tasteless undertones these days but its nice to know that the Doctor travelled with somebody with that name who wasn’t a morally corrupt, self centred harlot (meow). Rather than the radiation detector noise of old, Amy’s nose tickles when she catches a scent of the segment. Murder disturbs her greatly and if that is the case then she better get out as soon as she can. This is the period of the Doctor’s life where he has the extreme Jessica Fletcher effect – wherever he goes, mass murder soon follows. The difference between Zara and Amy is that the latter is horrified at what the elements of the Key to Time can do. Amy gets increasingly frustrated that she can sense where the segments are, developing a sense of anger. Its interesting to take a step back with Zara and Amy in episode four and see how the latter has developing already, growing into her role as the Doctor’s companion. At first Amy is jealous of Zara’s ability to get things done no matter what the cost but she’s had a complete change of heart when she realises how far she would go to obtain her segments. By the conclusion she boldly states she would rather be dead than be like her or go with her.
Standout Performance: I have no idea what a one minute old Tracer is supposed to sound like but Ciara Johnson’s performance is a little too mannered for my tastes in episode one, speaking concisely and without contractions. I am hoping that through her experiences she will get more confident and gain more of a personality. With each segment she gains substance and I can’t wait to see where she heads once they have all been collected. You would never be able to tell that Isskar is played by Nicholas Briggs, it is a completely disguised accent.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You can’t be a benevolent dictator. Force is always force.’
‘My wife gave me that gun!’ ‘How romantic!’
‘Doctor! You will die!’ ‘Yes one day I probably will!’
‘You’ve wasted your life looking for us!’
Great Ideas: The Grace are immensely powerful, pan dimensional with powers that the universe can barely conceive and they have the ability to stop time. The Key to Time was built by the Grace, constructed of six parts and can maintain the equilibrium of time itself (anybody who has seen season 16 can happily skip all this but newbies should find it fascinating and definitively seek out season 16 as a result). It can re-write matter and change states. It can restore balance to the universe. Peri is trapped in the limbo of the universe until the Doctor agrees to fulfils the task of bringing the segments of the Key together. The Doctor gets to visit Mars when the Ice Warriors culture was at its height and the thought of strolling through a marketplace on the Red Planet is rather intoxicating. I’ve always thought of the Ice Warriors as a tough, militaristic race (even when they are being portrayed as the good guys) and so it was quite an opener to listen to a market trader who is caught in the earthquake and has his shell torn open. Zara is another Tracer also after the Key to Time segments and his picked up her own companion. On Mars she and Amy are treading on each others territory. The Ice Warriors are a brilliant culture but pride can blind the best of them and millions more will die before they realise that inhabiting the Red Planet is no longer tenable. With the remaining segments starting to decay, holes are opening up in the fabric of the universe. If the Key to Time collapses then so does the whole of the universe. When the Doctor fitted a fake segment to the others in The Armageddon Factor he caused a chain reaction in the CVEs around the universe and no amount of sticking plasters can heal those wounds. The segments rely on each other, recognise each other and a fake one in the mix throws the whole thing out of balance. The Grace have finite powers and entropy has set in, they have to find the rest of the segments and try and sort the situation out. The return of Iskaar was a surprise (although it probably shouldn’t have been given the title) and I like the idea that a great deal of deal has passed for him and his feelings of revenge against the Doctor have grown out of all proportions. ‘She brought you here, she hurt these people and all because she couldn’t find what she was looking for…’ – that Zara’s a bit of a bitch, isn’t she?
Audio Landscape: With everything that has come since we are slowly coming to the point where pretty much every single sound effect from the classic series has been begged, borrowed and stolen! Lightning, twinkling Key to Time, the Tracer, running water, earthquake, Martian sonic weaponry, hissing Martian voices, the Doctor trapped inside the tinkling segment, explosion.
Isn’t it Odd: Generally speaking I am not a fan of Jason Haigh-Ellery’s direction (The Rapture, The Dark Flame) because he seems to have trouble pacing his stories and getting the mix of sound effects, music and dialogue right. All of his main range adventures have suffered a stuttering, awkward atmosphere (which is odd because his Masters of War is mostly excellent). I’m pleased that Lisa Bowerman took up the reins for the rest of the trilogy. I’ve heard people describe stories as ‘worthy’ before as a way of meaning ‘interesting but dull.’ Episode one of The Judgement of Isskar is worthier than most stories without ever threatening to be truly exciting. ‘If the Key to Time collapses then the universe is finished!’ – what a perfectly random cliffhanger that springs out of nowhere. Big Finish have to work really hard to make a convincingly alien environment on audio, a bunch of modulated voices and heightened performance just don’t cut it. For that reasons the Safeplace scenes fell flat and it was very hard to engage with the action (check out Survival of the Fittest for a really good example of this…the devil is in the detail, not the histrionics). The characters appear to be stereotypes (we don’t have the time to get to know them beyond surface characterisation) and without a vested interest in them, I was floundering. These numbnuts are going to war over an entirely meaningless rule. It should be witty but it feels more like reaching for Douglas Adams and failing far short. Comedy monsters can work (The Forth Wall is a recent example) but there has to be more to them than silly voices (listen to Douglas Adams – the man has learnt from example!). The Martians turning up in episode is met with a discordant chorus of sonic weapons that just sounded choppy and awkward, another example of poor direction. It actually felt as though somebody was putting it together in a studio rather than something that was happening around me. Whilst I like the idea of a vengeance spell cast on the Doctor across the centuries, it strikes me that Isskar is angry at him for a good reason but with no actual evidence to support it. Explanations aside, episode three seems to be an awful lot of shooting and running around without the plot threatening to progress in the slightest. Rather hilariously we cut from the charging of the Valdigians into war to ‘Yaaaay! We won!’ with all the in between drama excised. Its astonishingly awkwardly cobbled together for Big Finish. All those busy buzzy insect noises should sound far more uncomfortable and skin crawling than they do. I’m terrified of wasps (well, allergic) and flies (ugh) but these sound effects were just a bit irritating. Plinky plonky piano music points out that the marriage between Mesca and Wembik is supposed to be funny resolution of this section of the plot…we’ll be the judge of that. There is only so many times that Isskar can warn the Doctor that he is definitely going to shoot him this time before that threat starts to lose its integrity. Get on with it already! Naturally Iskaar would only do the honourable thing and sacrifice himself for the Doctor at the climax…the scene where they are all trying to decide who’s to stay and who’s to go is farcical rather than dramatic.
Result: The first half of The Judgement of Isskar is a bizarre hotchpotch of other stories that have been done better elsewhere. We visited Mars in Red Dawn (whilst the story wasn’t up to much the evocation of the Red Planet was more atmospheric and references here encourage the comparison), the panic of a natural disaster was brought to life more intimidatingly in The Last and as an introductory story to the Key to Time its no Ribos Operation. The one thing that The Judgement of Isskar manages to cling onto is the sense of epic; with the decaying Key to Time having to be discovered in a hurry across diverse cultures to prevent the collapse of the universe. It’s a rather gripping scenario for a trilogy of stories to be built around but its shame that it doesn’t come into play until around halfway through the story. The Key to Time season worked so well because it allowed for the time to tell its individual stories as well as exploring the umbrella theme but since we only have three slots to tell this quest in the opener takes in a myriad of locations and times. Even with two and a half episodes taking place on Safeplace, I never connected with any of the characters or the situation that was unfolding. The direction is another weakness that hampers its success, with some very discordant jump cuts, a generally flat atmosphere and some awkwardly blended sound effects that rarely sound naturalistic. The last episode seems to devolve into lots of running around on tippy toes trying to avoid Martians and Tracers. I don’t want to say that I lost all interest but it had waned severely by the conclusion. For a Simon Guerrier script this feels messy and undisciplined but I think that was the quality he was aiming for in this whirlwind of ideas and locations to kick start the Key to Time trilogy. I just don’t think it was pulled off particularly well here. Even the last minute appearance of the Black Guardian failed to rouse me: 4/10