Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Elixir of Doom written by Paul Magrs and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Once, Jo Grant travelled in Space and Time with the Doctor. Now, she is travelling with trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme. Arriving in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Jo and Iris are caught up in the glamour of Hollywood. Monster movies are all the rage. But sometimes monsters are real…

Groovy Chick: In 197 the Doctor brought Jo to LA in search of a vampire, a tale that I wish we could have seen on TV instead of The Mutants or The Time Monster. Jo and Iris are less Thelma and Louise and more like Hinch and Bracket. Jo wont stand for bullying, even if it is a monster that is in the firing line. It's wonderful how she stands between Vita and the Jellyfish and gives her a torrent of Jones abuse. The proximity of the Doctor makes Jo feel just that bit braver. Jo knows her own mind and is determined to free the monsters from Vita's prison, regardless of Iris' opinion. She will always do the right thing as she sees it and doesn't need anybody's permission. Crusades are her bread and butter these days. The Doctor never leaves your life entirely, even when it appears as though he has.

Transtemporeal Adventuress: Drinking when she is driving helps her to focus on the timelines. Iris baulks at the idea of there being rules to time travel - clearly Jo has been trapped in the Doctor's way of thinking ever since she stopped travelling with him. Iris has a lot of work to do with this one. The only parties she will go to contain fabulous, beautiful famous people. I don't care how many of Iris' tales are apocryphal or not, she spins a great yarn and in the end of the day isn't that what matters? She was an extra on the film Boudica and kept pointing out the inaccuracies because she was there at the real event. The thought of the Doctor's gallantry makes Iris moisten. She's with the sisterhood, a feminist to the last. Find and Replace offered up a bawdy, hilariously screwball Iris but this time around Magrs has gone for a more balanced approach. She's capable of moments of great insight and depth in between swigging back the champagne and flirting with the fellas. There's an unexpected moment when she quietly admits that she is always blamed by the Doctor for all manner of temporal criminalities. Iris has grown very fond of Jo Jones and is worried that if she realised she had the opportunity to head off with a breathlessly dreamy version of the Doctor (the 8th Doctor is exactly the sort of romantic drip that Jo used to fall for) she will smuggled herself in his TARDIS before you know it. Iris screams for help in the face of grisly nasties until she is reminded that she is a feminist and she offers to give them a bunch of fives. How can you fail to love this woman? Because of late night chillers Iris has learnt something about late night creature features. Iris doesn't like being compared with the Doctor, the dilettante fop! She was off her face most of the time in her youth and so she cannot be blamed for leaving a bottle of elixir from the Higher Tombs of the Atrixians lying about for anybody to get hold of. She's less heroic than the Doctor, sometimes she does things for purely selfish reasons. She got her mitts on the elixir so she could shed a couple of years and make herself more palatable again. Iris admits she is more like Jo than she is the Doctor and that she doesn't have an extra set of lives - I wonder if she is fibbing again. You never can tell with this one.

Standout Performance: At this point the multitude of voices and personalities that Katy Manning can bring to an audio never ceases to astonish me. She is so used to playing both Jo and Iris that she can slip into either character with consummate ease and convince the listener that there are two actresses in the studio rather than one talking to herself. She also gets to throw in an interpretation of the eighth Doctor (I kid you not) and an appallingly insensitive American Hollywood star.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'That'll mess up the fan boys!'
'The monsters must have their revenge...'
'All husbands revert to type eventually.'

Great Ideas: Paul Magrs stories often leave me with a warm glow of nostalgia in my belly, usually for an era of Doctor Who gone by (or in the case of his superlative novel Diary of a Doctor Who addict of my childhood). That same warm glow you get at Christmas when you are revelling with your family, when you are on a friends holiday and lazing on the beach with your best mates half drunk and when you have shared a wonderful meal with the person you love. With Find and Replace and now The Elixir of Doom he manages to wax lyrical and get me yearning for a time period that I wasn't even born in! This might be a rosy glow imagining of the seventies but it is one that is very easy to slip into. Magrs loves offering an amusing spin on accepted tropes and in this case creates psychic money, the currency that keeps on giving if you think hard enough. Oh the day out I could have with a couple of those notes. I love the fact that Iris takes over the narration at points, it gives us a greater perception into both characters to have their own unique take on each other (and besides Iris is willing to embellish and make naughty observations than Jo). Something terrible happened on the set of Leopard Boy Meets the Human Jelly (sounds amazing)...and Iris has the hindsight to know that the film was never completed. It's time to find out why... In a bizarre twist it turns out that Vita has her own giant jellyfish waiting backstage along with the other monsters, gorging on the elixir. Vita literally turns her husbands into monsters and uses them in her movies. Apparently the Doctor is the second biggest nosey parker in the galaxy (after Iris herself, naturally). It wouldn't be an Iris story unless she was responsible in some way or another and low and behold her penchant for booze has made this whole ghastly situation possible, allowing Vita to turn men into monsters. Apparently Panda has been on a little trip on the Orient Express.

Audio Landscape: Police siren, the hustle and bustle of LA streets, tills pinging, the bus growling, shopping, pouring a glass of bubbly, party atmosphere, glass smashing, people screaming, growling, hissing, dogs barking in the distance, the hustle and bustle of a studio, jellyfish voice, the wobbly jelly exploding on set, birdsong.

Musical Cues: I was just saying in my Tomb Ship review about how predictable the music has become of late in the main range adventures - how every story seems to contain the same bangs and flashes of a high octane action adventure movie. I also said that there was often more diversity and identity in he spin off ranges. Richard Fox and Lauren Yason wrote the score for Tomb Ship. They also wrote the score for The Elixir of Doom and the difference in quality and style is extraordinary. This is a stylish period piece set in US of the happening seventies and so needs a soundtrack that will conjure up the imagery of smoky back streets, vintage cars smoothing past, seductively lit clubs and fashion on acid. It does that and then some.

Standout Scene: The appearance of the eighth Doctor was completely unexpected and therefore utterly delightful. They have encountered one another a number of times in the novels but I would kill for a bona fide audio featuring Manning and McGann. I think they would spark off each other really well. The Scarlet Empress and The Blue Angel are both name checked.

Result: Just delightful, the main range has been in such a poor state of late that listening to a companion chronicle as effervescent as this is like throwing down a cocktail at the end of a long, stressful day. There's nothing especially deep going on with The Elixir of Doom but who cares when the dialogue is this snappy, the interaction between Jo, Iris and the Doctor so bouncy and the plot races along with so many humorous and exciting moments. It's a Doctor Who romp in a fabulous location, packed with grisly monsters and fronted by two great characters played with incredible deftness by the same actress. Am I the only one who is clambering for an Iris and Jo spin off series with more adventures in this vein? It's probably not on the cards given that an Iris spin off series has just been given the chop but a run of adventures in the same vein of Find and Replace and The Elixir of Doom would be the perfect antidote to the musty staleness that is permeating certain ranges being put out by Big Finish at the moment. Katy Manning has emerged as one of the more remarkable performers of the companion chronicles, an actress of diverse talents with a million and one voices at her disposal. Manning with Paul Magrs' skilful, sunny writing is a match made in heaven. There is probably a much darker, thoughtful tale to be told about turning men into monsters but I don't think Doctor Who is the place to do it. Magrs rightly keeps things jolly and there was a smile slapped on my face throughout. Add in the atmospheric post-production work of Fox and Yason (especially the delightful score) and I was unable to resist: 8/10

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Tomb Ship written by Gordon Rennie & Emma Beeby and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Nyssa to a vast pyramid, floating in space. A tomb ship – the last resting place of the God-King of the Arrit, an incredibly advanced and incredibly ancient civilisation, long since extinct. They’re not alone, however. Another old dynasty walks its twisted, trap-ridden passages – a family of tomb raiders led by a fanatical matriarch, whose many sons and daughters have been tutored in tales of the God-King’s lost treasure. But those who seek the God-King will find death in their shadow. Death from below. Death from above. Death moving them back and forward, turning their own hearts against them. Because only the dead will survive.

An English Gentleman: Davison sounds a little more invested in this story which is strange because it gives him even less texture to play about with than Moonflesh. I would have loved if he would have snapped Virna's neck, sawn it off her head with a rusty blade and then ripped out her spinal column. I honestly wouldn't have objected. At least it would have been something out of the ordinary. He bellows, objects and behaves in a generally Doctorish manner...yadda yadda yadda. Just copy and paste what in Moonflesh. Davison is not being pushed by any of this material.

Alien Orphan: I discussed in my review of Scavenger (which is becoming more and more appealing with each successive release since then) that it was quite refreshing (at least for me) to enjoy a companion who is simply along for the ride rather than one that is suffering all kinds of emotional turmoil and intense development. You only have to look at the latest Hex story to see the kind of unpersuasive madness that leads to (let the character go already). Back in the day many of the Doctor Who boys and girls were simply there to prop up a story, provide some jeopardy and banter and make the Doctor look extremely clever as he explains all the complicated science to them. Nyssa was one of them. Irritatingly I am having the reverse reaction to her treatment lately...which is to fulfil the function of the traditional companion to the nth degree. Where Flip was infectiously bouncy and addicted to danger so she could get away with an absent back story and missing dimensions, Nyssa in the recent releases is being written in such a level headed, plain and sensible fashion that it is impossible to find anything of significance to grab onto. Where Flip was vacuous from the word go, Nyssa has a fascinating back story built into her character (the destruction of Traken, the death of her father, the alien orphan walking abroad in a dangerous universe) that is ripe for exploitation. Frankly there is no excuse for her to be written in such a tediously monotonous way. Sarah Sutton is ready to up her game whenever a script emerges with the right material (Spare Parts, Creatures of Beauty, Circular Time, The Eternal Summer, The Emerald Tiger) but she has been particularly ill served of late. I don't know how many more Nyssa stories I can listen to where she wanders about giving stock responses to disposable threats. That just doesn't float my boat.

Standout Performance: Even Eve Karpf admits that Virna is a character lacking in dimension and that it gives her the chance to go completely over the top. She succeeds admirably.

Great Ideas: The Tomb Ship is a treasure house, a repository for all the God King's wealth. When the Tomb completes its journey it explodes with enough power to create a new star  - a bomb. The music of the spheres are radio waves emitted from the stars. Arit-co means slaves of the Arit, genetically engineered to live aboard this ship and serves its occupant - the Arit God King. The Arit thought their Kings were Gods even after they died all alone and drifting through space for thousands of years. A God needs his worshippers until it was time for the ship to go nova and turn a God King into a God Star. An inhabitant planetary system with a supernova bomb heading towards them...this story is channelling the Voyager episode Dreadnought. Jhanni is one of Virna's children who came on her last expedition. She has been waiting for her mother to come back for her ever since. The God King is a nine foot tall giant in funereal robes waiting on his throne to become a living star. A cellular stasis field keeps him looking as though he only died yesterday. Is the scrap between Virna and Jhanni the first instance of a full blown Eastenders-style bitch fight in Doctor Who? I suppose that's worth celebrating.

Audio Landscape: A banging door, TARDIS landing, crackling fire, insect creatures forming a bridge, gunfire, screams in the distance.

Musical Cues: I feel as if I am being hyper critical of this release (thank goodness this gets me up to date with this years main range releases so I can head over to the companion chronicles next and start spreading the love) but even the music treaded water as much as I could tell. The trouble with one big bold action adventure after another is that they all require the same kind of score; bolshie, strident and melodramatic. After a while they all blend into each other. I can't remember the last time the music in the main range genuinely surprised me (yes I can, it was Fanfare for the Common Men but that was a special case) in the way that it used to habitually in the first 100 releases. Remember Alistair Lock's stunning orchestral soundtrack for The Fires of Vulcan. Or Russell Stone's romantic, melancholic score for The Stones of Venice. Or the unnerving work of ERS on Time Works. These days every other story sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. It's not that it is bad music and all of the isolated soundtracks are fairly decent in their own's just they all bleed into one another and nothing stands out as particularly worthwhile. And I'm talking about Richard Fox and Lauren Yason here, and I consider them the best of the Big Finish musicians. Go check out their work on the companion chronicles, it makes this shallow action adventure fare haemorrhage into insignificance.

Isn't it Odd: The trouble with Virna and her boys is that I had them sussed from the very first second. She is such an outrageous old harridan without scruples that you know from the off that any of her children are expendable. It means, much like Moonflesh, that these characters don't have very much to offer but dwelling on cliché, unless the writers are going to break them out of that bubble and have them behave out of character. Which they don't. To anybody who is familiar with The Last, Virna is a carbon copy of Excelsior. Just as self obsessed, just as psychotic, just as greedy...unnervingly the actresses sound very similar too. I got bored of Virna using 'the family' as emotional blackmail to ensure her gullible kids did as they were told about 15 minutes into the play...I knew I was in for a long, tedious ride with this character. Was it my imagination or was the first episode filled with...a whole lot of nothing. We don't learn where the Doctor and Nyssa are or what Virna and her kids are searching's one tedious dialogue scene after the next that tells us precisely zilch. Like Moonflesh nobody is discussing anything of any substance, it is simply a lot of running around and shouting at pretend dangers which is about as pointless on audio as you can imagine. This is a dialogue driven medium, a chance to explore language and ideas so why is nobody talking about anything interesting these days? 'This is where the TARDIS's gone!' - how many freaking times can writers pull that one out of the bag? What's worse is that Tomb Ship tries to package it as a cliff-hanger despite it being the one millionth time the 'shock twist' has been deployed. Was it just me who had real trouble telling the boys apart? Either they employed very similar sounding actors or there wasn't enough differentiation in character to set them apart. I regularly lost track of who was who and who they were with. Maybe I just wasn't giving this story adequate attention (it didn't deserve it). The second cliff-hanger is just as prosaic as the first, supposedly offering an impossible Sophie's Choice style dilemma for Virna when it has already been established that she doesn't give a crap about her children. Not when treasure to be had - oooh argh! 'Sometimes sacrifices have to be made...' she retorts, writing her kids of as collateral damage. Imagine how appalling this would be had Virna been more cautiously written in the first two episodes, had we been made to believe that she has genuine affection for her brood. Going back to the Excelsior parallels, whilst the ruler of Bortresoye might not have been the most subtle of wicked aunts either, she did at least provide one gob smacking moment when she smothered Charley with a pillow, killing her outright. That was only possible because she was seen as somebody on the verge of psychosis, rather than somebody who had plummeted head first into a vat full of derangeade. There's no hope for such a traumatic twist in Tomb Ship because Virna's rectitude was spelt out in her first scene. Those children of hers are just a first wave for her to send down ahead and draw off the enemy fire. Virna's motivation for going after the treasure is to look after her family long after she's gone...and yet she's happy to sacrifice many of them in order to achieve it. Doesn't quite add up, does it? The twist at the heart of Tomb Ship is the shock return of...Hannah Bartholomew! Who? Yeah, I'd tried to erase her from my memory too. If this is the best way to link up these adventures I'd rather three standalones. And as absurd as the surprise is...why isn't it the cliff-hanger to episode three instead of another explosive (read: loud) moment of false jeopardy. I asked in the last story for a new companion for the fifth Doctor. When will I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut? There never was any treasure, it was just a misunderstanding of the inscriptions. Four episodes for that astonishing bombshell?

Standout Scene: Some amusement when Nyssa groans in pain but it sounds like she has finally blossomed as a woman.

Result: It feels like the well of talent is starting to run dry. If you had never heard a Doctor Who story before then this might...might just scrape a pass on the grounds of its novelty. But with 185 main range adventures coming before it (ranging from the ultra traditional to the boldly radical) the sheer level of banality that Tomb Ship offers simply is not good enough. It's another adventure that feels like it should be seen rather than heard and fails to exploit the muscles of the audio medium; the exploration of language, ideas, relationships and atmosphere. Whilst acceptable in their own right, the sound effects and music are starting to sound a little familiar too. I think script editor Alan Barnes needs to take a step back and ask himself if these stories need to be told because even a causal glance at efforts like Moonflesh and Tomb Ship would suggest otherwise. The setting might have been interesting had it been a little more incongruous and exotic. The characters might have excited if they had more than one dimension. The plot might have surprised if it had a single twist (especially the biggie regarding the treasure, a hackneyed concept when it was utilized in Enlightenment) that wasn't signposted from the very beginning. Except for that twist...which is just absurd. Tomb Ship could be made to work if it had its guts completely torn out, extra nuances added to the family dynamics, more spirited characterisation of the fifth Doctor and Nyssa and extra chills added by actually making us give a damn about the guest characters rather than wishing to see them all dispatched so we can head off and hang out with a more engaging bunch. More importantly it needs to be shortened to a two parter...although I still think it would struggle to fill half the length with a plot quite this thin. It breaks my heart to see the main range churning out such mediocrity - I can remember a time when this was the only product that Big Finish produced and each story was so thrilling to get hold off upon release (I travelled all the way from Crawley to London to Forbidden Planet to get my mitts on The One Doctor as soon as possible). Nowadays I find all the innovation and diversity in the spin off material and find myself in the unfortunate position of praying that the main range wont disappoint. That's two clunkers from Rennie and Beeby as far as I am concerned. No more please: 3/10

Monday, 26 May 2014

Simon Guerrier Interview Extra II

You have written more companion chronicles than any other writer, all of them extremely popular. What did you learn as a writer producing such a prolific number of stories for the range?

Hullo Joe. That's very kind of you to say so. I wrote more than anyone else mostly due to circumstance. For example, the outline for Home Truths took longer than usual to get approved because it had to go via Terry Nation's agent who needed to check on the particulars of Sara Kingdom. After it had been a few months, and we were beginning to think it might not happen, producer David Richardson commissioned me for what became The Prisoner's Dilemma – and then just as I started that, the approval for Home Truths came in, so I wrote both about the same time.

The Memory Cheats, The Uncertainty Principle and The Anachronauts were all written because scripts by other writers had been delayed. Well, by another writer - singular – as in each case it was John Dorney, who kept being asked to write new things for Tom Baker and so on, damn him. And I don't think the Oliver Harper trilogy was originally intended to be released all within one year. David just took pity on me when I was having a bad patch with other freelance work. That was extraordinary kindness on his part.

I learnt lots of practical things writing my Companion Chronicles, such as ways to create and build atmosphere, make the exposition more vivid, and draw the audience in. I've learnt lots from the research I've done on the stories, too – I ended up doing a GCSE course in astronomy as a result of working on The Cold Equations, and I've read a lot of books and things to prepare for some of the others. But the main thing I learnt was how much I love working with the three people who really oversaw that range: producer David Richardson, script editor Jacqueline Rayner and director Lisa Bowerman.

Now that the Companion Chronicles have all been recorded we have the chance to look back at the quality and variety that range has had to offer. What do you think were the unique qualities that this range had that made them so popular?

For me, what made the format so effective was getting into the companions' heads and hearing their thoughts about the time they spent with the Doctor. That's something you only get from their narrating in the first person. It means there's a perspective not only on the particular story but of that period of Doctor Who more generally.

Do you have any particular favourites, both of your own output and what others have written?

Oh, plenty. I'm very pleased with mine – as much because of the performances, sound design and just the fun of making them as because of what I might have written. But there are so many good ones in the range. Frostfire – the very first one – is utterly enthralling and the feel of it was a big influence on Home Truths. Nigel Fairs' stories for Leela were a big influence, too – at least, they encouraged me to push what my stories might do. To be honest, I've nicked loads from the other stories in the range: for example, Mother Russia and The Suffering gave me much more of a handle on Steven Taylor's character than his TV stories did. Then there are then ones that have stopped me in my tracks and made me want to up my game, like the amazing The Last Post. And then there are the ones that are just a delight to listen to: The Mahogany Murders, The Beautiful People, Peri and the Piscon Paradox, The Scorchies, Council of War... Oh, there are too many to mention.

The First Wave features two brave decisions, to bring back a distinctly unpopular monster (the Vardans) and to write out a companion in a pretty permanent sort of way. Why the Vardans? Did you think they deserved a second airing and that they were more suited to the audio medium? Was Oliver always only going to feature in three stories? Can you tell us something of his journey in the three stories that you wrote for him. What was it like writing for an all male TARDIS team?

The Vardans came about for two reasons. First, I wanted something extra for the third part of the trilogy – just as we'd brought back Mavic Chen and Bret Vyon for The Guardian of the Solar System. So I was thinking of old monsters. I remembered that we'd been able to use the Guardians in Key 2 Time because they were owned by the BBC and so included in our licence for Doctor Who – we didn't have to pay extra to a writer, like we do for the Daleks or Cybermen. So I asked David Richardson who else was included in the licence, and the Vardans were one of those. If I remember rightly, it's all down to The Invasion of Time having been writing by the script editor on the TV show while he was in post, so the work is owned by the BBC rather than him as a freelancer. Or something.

The Vardans appealed to me because they'd not been altogether effective on TV. With a well-realised monster, you run the risk of producing a sequel that's just not as good as the original, whereas here I had something to build on. And then, doing my astronomy GCSE, I had a homework question about how far our radio signals have reached into space. That got me thinking about who might receive those signals, and from that came the story.

Oliver Harper – his name, his background, a lot of his character and what happened to him – was all in the brief from David Richardson. I was thrilled to be trusted with that assignment and loved working with actor Tom Allen. The initial idea was to base Oliver on Dirk Bogarde's character in the film Victim (1961), in which a happily married barrister is blackmailed having been photographed in a car with a young man.  So I watched that film and some other ones with Bogarde, did some research into the stock market of the 1960s, and wrote The Perpetual Bond round that. David also got me to listen to The Suffering, which helped with the comedy bits and rounding out Steven's character.

Once that had been recorded, I based the second two stories much more on the characters of Steven and Oliver as played by Peter and Tom, and talked to them a bit about where it was all going. I only realised as I was writing the last one that I'd left no space between the three stories for more adventures with Oliver, but I rather like the idea that there's no room for any more. I spend my whole time slotting new adventures in between the TV stories, so it feels a bit wicked to say no, there can't be more for Oliver. And I think it makes us feel his loss more, too. Also, I am a rotter.

As for writing an old-male TARDIS team, it makes for a different feel of story but I'm not sure what it changes in terms of the writing. I introduced a female Vardan in the last story as much because I knew she could be played by director Lisa Bowerman (and for no extra cost) as to balance things out in terms of gender. Does that make me a bad person?

The Anachronauts is a double length companion chronicle featuring the first Doctor, Steven and Sara. What benefits/disadvantages does the extended length bring with it? What appeals to you about writing for Sara Kingdom? Do you think that The Daleks' Masterplan lends itself for all these additional adventures?

The Anachronauts had to be written very quickly, as I remember, because it was a replacement for something else that had been delayed. And then I managed to lose 7,000 words of it when my Word template crashed, despite me being diligent in backing up all the time. So I really don't remember much of the writing except as one big panic.

The original idea was to tell two separate stories that then turned out to be one big story. I thought that was making life easy for myself, as I was used to writing Companion Chronicles of the normal length. I don't think it ended up making anything easier. Ho hum.

The other problem was that I'd already written a trilogy each for Steven and Sara, so struggled a bit to find something new to say about them. For those stories, I'd picked over the TV episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan, so this time I read John Peel's novelisations, which included more on their relationship and gave me something new to hook on to. As I said before, the Companion Chronicles let you cast new light on a particular era of Doctor Who, so it's a question of finding that angle. But whether The Daleks' Master Plan lends itself to all these new stories... Er, I have a vested interested in saying yes, of course it does. Dare you to say otherwise.

You corrected me on my misunderstanding of the Uncertainty Principle in my review - was it your intention to teach a little science to the audience? Is it tough to crack a scientist like Zoe and make her inner thoughts accessible to a wider audience? How much did you work in collusion with John Dorney regarding the overarching framing device of Zoe in prison slowly remembering her time with the Doctor?

I hadn't planned to teach anyone anything. It's more about what I find interesting, and interesting enough to explore in a story. Shadow of the Past came out of something someone said: a soldier returning from a long stint in Afghanistan that he saw his job as going where things were kicking off, standing in the middle and shouting “Stop”. The Guardian of the Solar System came from the clock in The Hudsucker Proxy – one of my favourite films. If the thing I'm noodling over is a bit of history or science, I try to get it right in the story, which means reading up on it or – even better – finding someone who knows about it and taking them for a drink. It's as much about keeping the job interesting for me, and encouraging me to learn something as I write these things. My worry is to ensure I don't get derivative. There's always something new – as least for me – in what I'm writing.

I think I struggled more to get in the mindset of a scientist with Liz Shaw in Shadow of the Past, and picked the brains of my friend Dr Marek Kukula for that. With Zoe, I really just followed what John Dorney had done.

John did a great job with Zoe in Echoes of Grey, and my job in The Memory Cheats was just to say what happened next – which was like a parlour game, and great fun to do. John – and producer David Richardson – then had quite firm ideas about what the trilogy (as it was then) would be, so I think there was more rewriting and remoulding than usual to fit with those plans. I remember arguing that Zoe should be happier and more fulfilled in her life after the Doctor, because I am a big softy. That didn't fit with John's diabolical schemes, so my happy skippy ending got over-ruled. The man is a monster.

Then his finale got delayed so I was asked to write another instalment, and The Uncertainty Principle was much easier because I had a better grasp of what David and John needed it to do. As a courtesy, John then sent me the script for his finale, Second Chances, and I got to make a few suggestions. (I am hoping my idea for big, happy ending with dancing and cake makes it to the final version.)

The Library of Alexandria is one of my favourites, a stunning tour de force performance from William Russell bringing to life an emotive, educational script. I loved the fact that a monster from the Bernice series (the Mim) turned up into the most unlikely of Doctor Who eras. What was the reasoning behind that? Although the production team in the shows early years were ambitious this is a story that would have been far beyond their resources. Is that ever a consideration when writing a script? Do you like to keep things as authentic as possible or simply let your imagination determine the scale of the story? What sort of research did you have to do to capture the setting? Can you say a few words for William Russell's contributions.

Thank you. It all came from watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series, which I'd got on DVD for my birthday. There's a sequence in that where he wanders round a mocked-up version of the library of Alexandria and helps himself to the long-lost books. I wanted to do a historical story after so many ones about physics, and that had the right feel.

My touchstone was the TV story Marco Polo, which told a huge story spanning months of time and whole continents. So in my head, The Library of Alexandria is an adaptation of a seven-part TV story that had lots of filming at Ealing to do the harbour bits.

But having set that up, the second half of the story just seemed a bit flat – I didn't want to do what happens in the film Agora, where Hypatia just happens to stumble onto Keppler's laws of planetary motion hundreds of years before he did. And I didn't want the Doctor and his friends to just meet her, have a chat and walk away. So I introduced the alien book... and then the aliens looking for it seemed a natural progression. Then it seemed fun to set up what seems like a pure historical story, and have a monster cliffhanger. I used the Mim because they're my creation, free to use and can smash things. (Strictly speaking, I used them in a Doctor Who short story before they appeared in Benny's adventures.)

Once I'd written the script, I sent it to my clever friend John J Johnston (who you can watch here explaining that Sutekh wrote the first recorded chat-up line in history, to his brother: John gave me some great notes – not just about the history I'd got appallingly wrong, but also where things weren't clear and so on. He also advised on the artwork for the cover.

I was delighted to get to write for William Russell, though sadly other commitments meant I couldn't be at the recording. What an amazing job he did, bringing it all to life. Though, of course, he says there was never any question of Ian and Barbara getting together. HE IS WRONG.

Your final companion chronicle (for the time being) is The War to End All Wars. Do you think that Steven makes a good narrator for these stories? Was the centenary of the First World War an influence in the telling of this war story? Will we ever learn the outcome of the framing narrative? Is there space for more stories featuring Dodo?

Er, yes, I think Steven is a good narrator or I wouldn't have used him. And Peter Purves must think I'm not too terrible as a writer because he asked for me to write more for him, which is how The War to End All Wars came about. That's probably the nicest compliment I've ever been paid for my scribbling.

I wrote the script wanting to push Peter a bit – he's a very good and versatile actor, and I knew he'd make it work. And yes, the centenary of the war was a big consideration. As I say in the sleeve notes, my first idea was to write a story as if it had been made in 1966 for the TV show and influenced by the writing of Alex Comfort, after Matthew Sweet told me that Comfort was one of the people Gerry Davis considered as a scientific advisor on Doctor Who. Comfort wrote about the mentality of war, which gave me the in for the story. And then it struck me that, if the story had been made for television in 1966, any old men in the cast would probably have served in the First World War. So I was thinking about how a family show on the BBC at the time would handle the sensitivities of something like that.

The Doctor-in-a-jar was a very late addition, after wise Jonny Morris pointed out that the copy of the Doctor's mind survives at the end of The Savages. I wrote the cliffhanger ending in the hope that I could somehow force Big Finish to do more Companion Chronicles, or at least give me a job on the Early Adventures, or somewhere.

As for what happens next... I know what I'd like to happen and I've talked it through with producer David Richardson. As to whether you get to hear those devious schemes, and in what format that would be... Wait and see.

Shadow of Death was your contribution to 50th anniversary audio series, Destiny of the Doctor. I found it refreshing to have a story with the most juvenile of TARDIS teams (the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe) treated so seriously. Was that a consideration? These stories play like companion chronicles written in the third person. Is that a difficult adjustment to make when you are used to writing in a different style? How was the running narrative with the eleventh Doctor turning up in these stories determined? It is a chilly, unnerving tale...were you pleased with the end result?

I didn't really think about their ages, to be honest. It was more about trying to match the feel of Season 6, in particular The Seeds of Death – which is magnificently strange and spooky, and then stops rather abruptly when the Doctor finds the solution. I'm not sure I quite managed it: a few people have said the ending of my story is a bit glib and easy, undercutting what's gone before. Oops.

The third person narration was fine – in fact, if it had been first person, I'd have had to explain how Zoe or Jamie could remember the events to recount them, given what happens to their memories in The War Games. And it makes for a different feel, and ties the Destiny of the Doctor stories together.

I'm really pleased with that story, and Frazer was amazing in getting the atmosphere exactly right. It's incredible watching him work, jumping from narrator to Doctor to Jamie without pausing, always making it clear who is speaking at any time. The effectiveness of the story is really down to him making that work so well.

As for the Eleventh Doctor, I don't think I'm breaking too many confidences when I say that the original plan was to have Matt Smith cameo in each story. As I remember, that didn't happen for boring logistical reasons – we needed to deliver the first two stories quite early to get them out in shops by January and February 2013 and the schedules didn't work. So my favourite bit of the script I wrote – the meeting of Frazer Hines' Second Doctor and Matt Smith's Eleventh – had to be massively reworked. These things happen, but when I hear the story now, I do miss that daft scene.

            FRAZER (NARRATING)
He was in the observation room where he'd first met Sophie and the others. Tables and chairs were arranged in front of the huge window that looked out on the amazing sky, the barren surface of the planet and the ruined city. The Doctor knew he shouldn't linger, that the whatever-it-was might follow him any moment. But he couldn't resist such a view.

And then he stopped. In the glass, like a ghost, he saw his own reflection. And beside it...

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            (HORROR) Oh no! Whatever it is, no! I don't want to hear it! (BEAT) Well, say something, can't you? It is you, isn't it? I mean, me. Somewhere under that chin.


            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            Hello, Doctor. You look... I was going to say “well”, but you look sort of jumpy. I've caught you at a bad time.
            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Well, yes, actually. I've just escaped from a -

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            I know I've caught you at a bad time. I remember this happening to me.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Oh. Well then, if you're me and if you remember, you'll know exactly what I'm going to say -

            What noise annoys an oyster?

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Hardly. You're breaking all the laws of time. Our people are going to catch up with you...

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            Doctor, I need your help.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            Of all the pompous, conceited... The laws of time are important. We can't just make up the rules as we go along.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            You do.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            I know what I'm doing! Give me one good reason why I should help you. I mean, apart from you being me. Another good reason.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            We have a lot in common. Look. Bow-ties are cool.

            SECOND DOCTOR:
            (OUTRAGE) Cool? COOL? (BEAT) Oh, do you think so? I suppose they are. Look, all right, I'm not saying I'll help but tell me what it is. And hurry up. As you must remember, there's an invisible monster in that room behind me.

            ELEVENTH DOCTOR:
            I want you to turn round and go back in that room.


            SECOND DOCTOR:

What can we expect from you next, Simon?

I am currently producing a documentary for Radio 3's Sunday Feature, which will be on in the autumn. It's about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Oliver. I am also writing some Big Finish things I can't tell you about, and attempting to interest people in some other things I wrote. And there's that movie script for Cleaning Up which needs some work doing on it... I say “some”. A bit like our staircase to the Moon needs a bit of work.

Moonflesh written by Mark Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: One wouldn't normally expect to find elephants, gorillas and rhinoceroses roaming free in Suffolk in the year 1911. One wouldn't normally expect to find an extra-dimensional police box at the same time/space location either. Two aliens, named the Doctor and Nyssa, exit said box, only to find themselves pursued by a hungry lioness – for they've landed in the private hunting grounds of the famous explorer Nathaniel Whitlock, who's brought together a motley group of friends and acquaintances for a weekend's shooting. But one of Whitlock's guests isn't all they seem. One of them wants the secrets of the Moonflesh, the mystic mineral looked after by Whitlock's retainer, a Native American known as Silver Crow. Because the Moonflesh is reputed to have the power to call down spirits from another real…and soon, the hunters will become the hunted.

An English Gentleman: I've been hoping for some time that Peter Davison would be afforded the chance to enjoy a trilogy without being encumbered with companions that steal his limelight. Such a shame that it should be with Nyssa because I feel the character, despite a renaissance that has seen her character live up to its potential in a way that it never did on television, has been overused in recent years. This would have been an ideal time to feature a 5/Peri or 5/Turlough season or even introduce a new companion to jazz his stories up a bit. There's nothing especially impressive in the writing of the character beyond the usual fifth Doctorish clichés and despite Davison admitting he likes the historical stories in the interview at the end I couldn't help but feel that he was a little disinterested in the whole affair. Fanfare for the Common Men aside, I haven't felt much creative energy from Davison or his stories since the Emerald Tiger trilogy. The Doctor thinks his body might be allergic to late October although he makes a great show of the fact that there is nothing more appealing than Suffolk at dusk at this time of year. As you could imagine from the most diplomatic of Doctors, he remains firmly on the fence when it comes to hunting. It makes sense not to upset his hosts but it would make far better drama if he had a stronger viewpoint. Sixie would tear through this crowd with his post-Two Doctors vegetarianism. He's ready to offer himself as the host to save Phoebe and appease Nathaniel. The Doctor was taught by Crazy Horse himself.

Alien Orphan: Described by an aristocrat as impudent but the Doctor corrects that to curious. With Nyssa on hand as the voice of reason opposing the hunt of creatures that have been shipped in from Africa, this looks set to be a moral tale that examines the rights and wrongs of hunting. Unfortunately the script never takes this route and offers little more than token objections on Nyssa' part. It would have been very right-on for her to take matters into her own hands and sabotage the hunt. Like everything else in Moonflesh, the obvious is the order of the day and so Nyssa is left on the sidelines moaning when she should be pro-active. She's a little unsure of the etiquette of the era, suggesting that Phoebe encourages the advances of Hector and seeks his company after the hunt. Since she has a latent psychic ability Nyssa is the obvious choice to play host to the alien seed. With Nyssa's mind (once again) taken over by an alien force (on television she was hypnotised by the Master and embodied by the intelligence in Time-Flight and she has been puppeteered several times in Big Finish stories) you might think that this would be a good time to explore the effect of so many exotic intelligences strolling through her psyche. Instead we just get a token 'oh it was much rage!' Very revealing.

Standout Performance: This is a stunning cast that suffers the indignity of being shackled to a less than impressive dramatis personae. It's painful listening to decent performers trying to breath life and extra dimensions into characters that have none. Morris admits that this story was written in a hurry and it's clear that none of that scant writing time was wasted on the characters who wander about the story in a painfully predictable pattern. It's a group of upper class toffs that sound as though they have been assembled for an Agatha Christie effort. I would always give my time for a story that features the likes of Hugh Fraser, Time Bentick, John Banks and Francesca Hunt but Moonflesh almost convinces me that I shouldn't. It's isn't even that they are boring characters - they are simply exactly what you would expect from this setting without offering a single surprise. We're one more 'what ho!' and 'golly!' away from a Wodehouse pastiche. And boy did they shout a lot.

Terrible Dialogue: 'On a journey. A journey of the mind...'
'It's a head! It's a giant flying head!' - why would the Doctor feel the need to explain that when he and Silver Crow are both flying towards it?

Great Ideas: It did amuse me that the second the Doctor figures he is in a zoo in England that it has to be Whipsnade. The Order of the Crescent Moon are a group of like minded individuals who believe that mankind lives in the thrall of invisible beings who stroll through time and space. Although that apparently is a gross misrepresentation by a disbeliever, even though we don't find out much more about them so it is hard to discredit the claim. The Moonflesh is like intelligent lightning, a creature that has the ability to invade and influence anything; people, animals (even rock!). Vatoose fell to Earth, drawn by Silver Crow's detached state of consciousness and attempted to possess him and use him as a physical host. Somehow Silver Crow was able to best Vatoose and the seed was reduced to a harmless rock. Gripping stuff. The murder of Edwin was the first time my eyebrow even twitched in anything approaching surprise.

Audio Landscape: An owl hooting, an elephant screaming, a lion roaring, pouring drinks, approaching horse and cart, crackling fire, dogs barking, a scream in the night, clock ticking, a scream in the dark, firing a shot, red lightning crackling, horses whinnying, dogs barking, meteorites falling, screaming shadows, beating wings, clay birds, hissing snakes, splashing under water, swimming ashore, a giant octopus.

Musical Cues: There's absolutely nothing wrong with Andy Hardwick's score for Moonflesh. It is atmospheric, moody and occasionally quite romantic but my issue is that I feel as if I have heard everything that this musician has to offer. There wasn't a single cure here that I felt I hadn't heard before in some place or another and many of them took my back to other, better stories. 

Isn't it Odd: Once the Moonflesh was a seed of the Prime Cluster, heir to the Takeler Empire but the Cluster was scattered from within by bad seeds. It slipped between dimensions to evade absorption and when it reached Earth it fell into a dormant state so they would be unable to detect them. It's as insubstantial an explanation as I think I have heard to explain the strange goings in a Doctor Who story, again riding the formula of similar back stories for aliens with unusual powers. Morris may have well have just said 'I am an alien and shit happens when I'm around.' The assassins following are tireless, fearless, creatures of instinct and savagery. Well it's damn lucky that the Doctor has a ready made hunting party on hand to track them down then, isn't it? Moonflesh does keep up the traditional of the fifth Doctor allowing all and sundry into the TARDIS, both allies and enemies alike. In this case he finally gets his hand bitten when Vatoose (predictably turning out to not be the victim it painted itself as) tries to take over the ship and use it to escape. An alien seed causing mischief? I can't be the only person who was cringing at the thought that it might turn out to germinate into the Isolus from Fear Her. The only thing that could make this story more tedious would be an appearance by Chloe Webber. Vatoose is a rogue element responsible for the cessation of numerous energy links within the cluster - how is that supposed to mean anything to an audience that was brought up on Terra Firma?

Standout Scene: The ghost dance ritual at least has a little atmosphere, thanks to Ken Bentley's direction and John Banks' performance.

Result: With the advent of this release there has been something of a backlash against the state of the main range over at Gallifrey Base (dissatisfied customer on that forum - what a shock!) and when Moonflesh is latest example to test the quality of the merchandise currently being produced it is hard to argue with the air of disillusionment. Looking back at the past years worth of releases there has been a wildly inconsistent altitude of quality with Eldrad Must Die!, Persuasion, Daleks Among Us and Antidote to Oblivion being amongst the worst Big Finish have ever delivered. This story can be added to that list; an intellectually stunted, over described, under characterised period piece without an iota of innovation. Moonflesh embodies the worst of Doctor Who when it is churned out ad nauseum like a string of sausages in a factory. There's nothing about this story that demands it be told on audio and I think this is something that needs to be addressed. Moonflesh would still be a rush job, predictably plotted and ill characterised but at least if you could see the action it might come alive in some visually spectacular ways. On audio it is a painful experience, a bunch of characters hunting and being hunted, shouting 'hit it!' and the audience being assaulted by a number of animal noises. And lots and lots of shouting. If I wanted to listen to Doctor Who stories that sound like audio recordings of television adventures that have been destroyed I already have plenty to choose from (and in the case of stories such as The Myth Makers & The Massacre they work better on audio than some stories specifically made for the medium). The Doctor is pleasant. Nyssa is pleasant. The upper classes hunting party are toffy and arrogant. The foreign character talks in myths and legends. The alien presence isn't as lily white as it presents itself. I could make this stuff up in my sleep. Judging by the interviews at the end of the piece I figure this is the audio equivalent of The Time Monster, where the cast and crew were having much more fun than the audience were. Well, this audience member at least. Mark Morris at his best is a writer that can thrill, chill and surprise (Forever Autumn, The House of Blue Fire, The Necropolis Express) so I can only assume that a much superior novel (seriously check out his non-Who work, it's excellent) was stealing the time away that was needed to make this meagre effort work: 3/10

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Last of the Colophon written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The planet Colophos is a dead world. Nothing but dust and rubble – and the ruins of a once-great civilisation. But is it really as dead as it appears? When the Doctor and Leela land, joined by the crew of the Oligarch survey ship, it’s not long before they receive a communication from one of the ruins. A communication from Astaroth Morax, the last of the Colophon. Attended by a sadistic robot nurse, Morax is in a wheelchair and bound in bandages to conceal his terrible injuries. But is he really as powerless as he seems? What became of the rest of his race – and why didn’t he die with them? Entering his lair, the Doctor uncovers a terrifying secret…

Teeth and Curls: Bracing is what people call cold when they are on holiday and since he is always on holiday that is his preferred term for extreme climates. He's in an especially witty mood this time around and enjoys making a song and dance about new information he is given before dismissing it utterly. He has no qualms about making the suggestion that they have come on holiday to a lifeless rock - if anybody was likely to do so this improbable duo would fit the bill. On a good day the Doctor calls nearly being killed quite an easy exercise. I'm pleased that the Doctor was smart enough to go along with Morax's tragic tale even when he didn't believe a word of it. Baker has a way of sounding as though he is taking the piss even in an incredibly tense situation. His 'tap-tap-tappity-tap' had me giggling in at a very inappropriate time. I thought this might be the first story of this season where the fourth Doctor restrains his malice but he reserves it for the final sick joke at the villains expense. Nice one. 

Noble Savage: The Doctor calls Leela a creature of limited cultural horizons which I thought was quite harsh given he is the one that has been trying to push those boundaries. Leela scoffs when an inferior opponent threatens her. In a story that signposts its bombshells, the moment that really took me by surprise was Leela's quiet (you really have to try and listen out for it) admission that she wishes she could go home. A small moment within this story but I think this might have greater ramifications down the line, especially in Jameson's own script. 

Standout Performance: It has been some time since Gareth Thomas has turned up in a Doctor Who story and so long distant memories of Lord Tamworth did not affect my enjoyment of his villainous turn in Last of the Colophon. Thomas' voice has changed drastically since his Blake's 7 days and so I don't have the same problem that I did with Michael Keating in The Evil One. These days his distinctive, gravelly voice is simply made for audio. Having two B7 actors turning up in an audio season of Doctor Who whilst the other series is currently being made by Big Finish is a nostalgic reminder of the time when the two television shows shared a pool of actors. It is a great performance, Thomas never pretending to be whiter than white so that when the extent of his crimes is revealed it isn't a terrific surprise. And was I the only one who was getting a Shivan vibe from the Blake's 7 episode Voice from the Past from Morax? I was wondering what was going to be unveiled beneath those bandages...

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It is like before a thunderstorm. Like the world is holding its breath.'

Great Ideas: Whatever civilisation was on Colophon before has exhausted all the fossil fuels so there are slim pickings to be taken away. Why make a door that is designed to open from the inside only? Because it is designed to keep something inside... I love moments of uncertainty like that, when what we understand about a story is turned on its head. From victim to prisoner. Many years ago a pathogenic strain was created which was lethal to all known medicine and within days the resulting infection had consumed the world. Morax performed an experimental treatment on himself which left him crippled but allowed him to the survive the contamination of his world. In reality Morax was one of the worlds greatest scientists but he used his genius for evil - he sought power and killed all those who stood in his way, his cruelty and resourcefulness without precedent. He was the one who released the bacteria that condemned his people to destruction. His punishment when his people knew they would be driven to extinction thanks to his actions was to sentence him to eternal life, enslaved by a robotic nurse. The reveal that there is nothing beneath Morax's bandages was lifted straight out of The Three Doctors but it still made for a chilling scene. Morris uses Morax's blindness to great effect, one of the few writers of late to tap into the possibilities that the audio medium brings. It really feels as though we are inside his head as Leela taunts him, bringing all of her prowess as a huntress to mock his affliction and disorient him. I especially liked it when the lights were extinguished - now all the characters are as without visuals as the audience and need to explain their actions. Morax has altered the harmonics of the standing waves of his constituent atoms by application of photon radiation. Now light passes straight through him, making him invisible. Unfortunately he has also committed suicide by doing so, weakening the binding forces that hold his body together.

Audio Landscape: Once Morax's mask is torn away (both figuratively and metaphorically), sound designer supremo Jamie Robertson gets the chance to play some wonderful audio tricks on the listener, making it sound as if the husky madman is all around you. A ship firing its engines and stabilizing in orbit, a grumbling sky, breathing equipment, walking on rubble, gun cocked, the robotic nurse, Morax's wheelchair, explosions, gun shots, alarms, auto destruct, an almighty explosion, the lights snapping off, banging on the door.

Isn't it Odd: Putting two and two together was never my strongest ability but even I figured that the initial sympathy towards Morax (pleasingly from both Leela and the Doctor, showing the humane side to what they can bring to a story) would turn sour once they figured out why he was imprisoned on Colophon. If the story didn't take a dark turn like that...well there wouldn't be much of a story. It is hard to pull off the double climax in any story because you have to time it just so that the false ending is close enough to the end of the running time as not to draw suspicion to itself. Unfortunately Colophon tries to pull off this trick at 45 minutes into the narrative, which if this were the case, would make it the shortest (and least economical) 4DA on the market.

Result: '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

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Smith and Jones written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: Martha Jones finds herself on the Moon...

Mockney Dude: David Tennant has enjoyed an inconsistent but sporadically very good first year in the role, survived the loss of Billie Piper and a tongue lashing from Catherine Tate and is now ready to start a season solo. He just feels more confident in the role and seasons three and four would go on to see him at his magnetic best. Turning up in a hospital bed as a mad patient who dribbles on charismatically and winks at Martha when she detects his double heartbeat, he makes an instant impression this year. You can see precisely why Martha is so seduced by him in his spanking new blue suit and with his answers for everything, leaping around kicking radiation out of his shoe and pressing lips to pass on a genetic signature. There really isn’t a great difference between his squeaky voiced prattling postman performance and the Doctor we travelled with in the entire previous season which makes this con all the more delicious to watch. He’s a clever bastard in allowing Florence to drink his blood to contaminate her and prove to the Judoon that she is an alien and arrest her. The trick with the tie and the TARDIS really made me smile. The Doctor can barely bring himself to talk about Rose because the events of Doomsday clearly still haunt him. Watch how the final scene plays out with the Doctor sweeping in and taking Martha away from all of her troubles, I can't determine whether it is played like a best friend seducing a troubled soul away from her life for a while or that of a man who is actively seducing a woman with his lifestyle. Martha clearly thought it was the latter. 

Daring Doctor: If people thought that Donna had a hard job to perform coming after the unbelievably popular Tyler clan than Martha’s role was even more vital. To be the first long term companion to travel with the Doctor after Rose means that she had some big shoes to fill. It’s the oddest thing with Freema Agyeman because I know people who think she is the best thing since sliced bread and others who condemn her to companion hell. My friend Emma can barely bring herself to mention Martha’s name she dislikes the character so much. I have to say (as is often the case I hope) that I fall very much in the favourable category. Whilst I wouldn’t declare Agyeman the finest actress that walked the Earth (both Piper and certainly Tate were stronger dramatic actresses) there is a charisma and energy that she brings to the role that is extremely watchable and given the path she goes down across season three I find it impossible not to like this girl. Because the Doctor spends the entire year mooning over his last companion there are times that he barely notices that he has paired up with somebody even more resourceful and fun. That is the tragedy of this relationship, he doesn’t realise it until it is too late and she has fallen too much for him to stay. Its one of the very few Doctor/companion relationships that never falls into a steady groove (unlike Rose who enjoys an entire second season and Donna who hits her comfort stride by the third episode of season four) and constantly wrong foots the audience. For her initial run Martha is treated as a child who is allowed ‘just one more treat’ trips in the TARDIS. Then once that is put to rest (and come The Lazarus Experiment it is more than time for her to stand up to him) there are three episodes where they are either torn apart by circumstances (Human Nature) or barely feature (Blink). Then it is time to wrap up this relationship in a three-part epic that sees Martha grow up and realise that her unrequited feelings for the Doctor aren’t healthy and she needs to move on to somebody who can reciprocate them. Which leaves 42 as the only story this season where Martha can claim to be a willing and able companion of the Doctor with no fear of being dumped at any minute. People say that there is no chemistry between Tennant and Agyeman but clearly that is nonsense. I rather think they might be confusing the strained and nuanced relationship between the Doctor and Martha for a lack of sparkle but with so much going on beyond the usual adventuring with these two it is one of the most interesting Doctor/companion pair ups we have ever seen. By having the Doctor moon over Rose and barely acknowledge Martha at times it is an easy way to draw us to her character and she proves that she keeps on evolving with consistent development once she leaves and turns up in season four (for five episodes) and Torchwood. Martha surprised me by being characterised as not-Rose for so long but come the seasons end she is ten times the character her predecessor is and has completely stepped from her shadows. To her credit, Martha evolves into a worthy character whereas Rose seemed to devolve out of one. 

Rather wonderfully Davies skips over the whole Martha/Adolah identity issue with one throwaway line. Yes she looks a character from Army of Ghosts, he says, lets move on. Martha loves basking in the moonlight (literally in this case) because they might die at any moment but what an experience all the same. She keeps the Doctor on his toes by telling him that (like her) he has to earn his title. I really like how despite being portrayed as smart and resourceful Martha also has moments where she whimpers like a little girl and panics. You wouldn’t want her to be too sassy (ala Rose in much of her second season) because it’s the flaws that make these people feel human. Rather than give up like everybody else Martha chooses to save the Doctor’s life with CPR and then in turn he can save her life by carrying her out of danger. It’s a clear example of the two of them working together as a team. Martha’s first scene stepping into the TARDIS is one of the most understated of its kind but actually its one of my favourites because if it. It's gloriously shot in a rain soaked alley (Davies is right, filling the screen with beautiful images does make a difference) and has some wonderfully observed moments like Martha declaring the TARDIS is wood and the Doctor mimicking her ‘it's bigger on the inside.’ It's not a great revelatory scene but an expression of understated wonder and pretty much matches what my reaction would be if I were in the same situation. Much like her entrance to the show Murray Gold’s theme for Martha is understated and rather lovely.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re on the bloody moon!’
‘I was only salt deficient because I’m so very good at absorbing it but now I need fire in my veins. And who better than a consultant with blood full of salty fats and vintage wines and all those Michelin star sauces. Look, I’ve even brought a straw…’
‘Its raining on the moon!’
‘Your spaceship’s made of wood…’

The Good:
*   With Moffat he deliberately created a character in Amy Pond as a person without a past because that was tied in with his season long arc of the crack in time having gobbled her family up. Whilst that was a creative decision it made the character extremely difficult to understand or warm to (at lease for me) and heading back into the Davies era reminds me of his astonishing talent at introducing new characters and their families so effectively in only a handful of seasons. The opening montage of phone calls in Smith and Jones is a skilful shorthand for the dynamics of the Jones family with Francine the matriarch trying to get her way, her ex husband and his floozy objecting and the kids trying desperately to please their parents. It’s a fast paced, contemporary way to start the season but it also says everything you need to know about Martha’s family in a couple of minutes and makes them a fascinating, if fractured, backdrop for this new character. It also helps that they are all really well cast and pretty too.
*   Doctor Who continues to attract the finest talent that television has to offer and Anne Reid’s second appearance in the show (after her small but memorable part in The Curse of Fenric) is an unforgettable one and she really enjoys playing the villain and sinking her straw into the part. Every time I see her she makes me smile and oddly it has nothing at all to do with her performance (as good as it is). It makes me remember the year this episode went out and Simon and I were extremely screwed financially and on my birthday he went out and bought something (no matter how small) that was connected with this season of Doctor Who (there was a little stone angel, a feather boa and flying car). But what really made me chuckle was the cheapest item of the lot…a little straw! And he even did the line as he gave it to me to drink with! Awww…that’s love! I have just finished watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang (an episode per cross train session works a treat!) and there was more than little touch of that masterpieces set up to Smith & Jones – taking a story that belongs elsewhere and placing it in an unusual setting. In Holmes’ masterpiece you have a time traveller from the 51st Century menacing Victorian London and here you have an alien vampire being pursued on a 21st Century hospital transported to the moon. In both cases the backstory being locked into such an abnormal location really helps to increase the enjoyment of the tale.
*   Smith and Jones is an episode of simple but bold images that really show how assured the show has become in its core audience. Doctor Who wouldn’t have dared to feature rain travelling upwards or a hospital on the moon let alone giant space rhinos walking across the lunar surface to lay siege to the medical facility. What a brilliant way for Doctor Who to have its cake and eat it by plonking a hospital on the moon because it makes the entire episode studio bound for the most part (who can’t knock up a hospital?) but doesn’t sacrifice any of the wonder of exploring the wider universe. Scenes such the hysterical patients staring out at the nights sky or the Doctor and Martha walking onto the veranda have a real sense of fairytale magic about them. The typical establishing shot of London is given a delicious makeover since there is a massive crater where the Royal Hospital should be. Florence sucking blood from the Doctor’s neck by a straw is absolutely disgusting and very funny at the same time, another of those tricky balances to pull off. I love the shot of the moon in the puddle that gets stepped in, so simple and yet so effective to make the point of the storm out scene at the end.
* After the success of the Ood last year it was clear that there was room in the show for other insane looking alien creatures and Davies scores another winner with the Judoon. They are one of those rare Doctor Who alien races that comes along every now again that aren’t evil and don’t want to take over the world/universe but are simply amoral and scary looking. They will only kill you if you commit a crime and get in their way (‘Justice is swift!’) but if you co-operate then you will be fine. That’s a lovely new take on an alien threat. The prosthetics work is superb and with animatronics taken to this level we are approaching Farscape levels of skill with the craft. They sure know how to make an entrance too with their sturdy cigar shaped ships blasting down on the moon and entire columns of soldiers marching across the surface in jackboots! Doctor Who is taking no prisoners this year. I love it when they fill the hospital reception area because if you took the space rhinos out this could literally be an episode of Casualty but by contrasting the mundane and the ridiculous you have another bold example of why Doctor Who has lasted as long as it has. You can’t argue with success and the Judoon were popular enough to be brought back in The Stolen Earth, The End of Time, a Sarah Jane Adventure and two Doctor Who novels as well. 
*   As much as we (and Peri) complain about it ad nauseum I rather think Doctor Who fans like a bit of corridor wandering. Its like our comfy blanket when a story needs padding out (plus shows like Greatest Show in the Galaxy show how it can be done really vividly). Smith & Jones has more than its fair share of dashing up and down hospital corridors and stairs but fortunately we have Charles Palmer on hand to make these scenes as dynamic as possible. I wanted to leap into the screen and get running with the Doctor and Martha and that has to be a good sign.
*   A nice mention of Mr Saxon. Davies is setting up his arcs early this year and all the better for it.

The Bad: Would there be such agonised panic at finding yourself on the moon? Dramatically speaking yes but it does bother me that Martha seems to be the only person not overreacting to their situation. Why not just stamp the word companion on her forehead. Morganstein was really irritating but I guess that is supposed to be the point of him.

The Shallow Bit: Reggie Yates is just about the hottest bloke ever to appear in Doctor Who. Bestill my beating heart. Freema Agyeman is smoking hot all of the time but she looks positive combustible in the closing scenes.

Result: I remember when this episode first aired and an old friend was visiting with her irritating son who didn’t shut up all night except for the 50 minutes when Smith & Jones was on where we didn’t hear a peep out of him. I honestly didn’t think I could love Doctor Who more and if I ever needed a demonstration of its magic there it was right before me. Putting to one side the glorious introduction of Martha and the charismatic return of David Tennant just the very idea of the intergalactic police catching up with an elderly vampire in such an innocuous setting transported onto the moon is enticing enough to earn this a winning score from me. Charles Palmer and NuWho are a perfect fit and he directs this episode with real class and fills the screen with memorable images which is perfect for a season opener. Freema Agyeman and David Tennant enjoy an instant rapport and have a great madcap mystery to solve in their first story together and the episode is also given a lot of credence with the presence of Anne Reid and Roy Marsden. Even the Judoon who under any other circumstances might have felt out of place make a memorable and insane debut. Smith & Jones is basically one long run-around but one that is stuffed with great scene after great scene, fun characters, pace, wit and style. A really strong start to the season: 8/10