Saturday, 12 July 2014

Breaking Bubbles & Other Stories

Breaking Bubbles written by LM Myles and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and Peri find themselves in the palatial gardens of the deposed Empress Safira Valtris where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Softer Six: The relaxed and casual chemistry between the sixth Doctor and Peri at this point in their relationship is a joy to behold. The Trial music suggests that this story is set post-Mysterious Planet where the two travellers have been together for some time and have found a way of communicating beyond yelling at each other. The maturing relationship between Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant adds so much to the mix too and they now share the kind of interaction that was never really possible on TV. An Imperial Agent or a computer engineer, he has been called many things in his lives.

Busty Babe: Peri fancies taking a few cuttings from the gardens, the writer stressing her interest in botany (that hasn't been mentioned for some time). Peri has seen enough wars by now to know that the one unfortunate consequence is that a lot of innocent people end up dead.

Standout Performance: Jemma Churchill. What has taken Big Finish this long to acquire her services. She has a voice that is made for audio.

Great Ideas: Flesh and Stone introduced the modern Doctor Who audience to the idea of a garden on a spaceship. Although technically the audio Leviathan featured the idea first within the series and its spin off material, a story which featured Peri and must therefore take place before this because she cannot quite get her head around the idea. It's still a lovely idea, backed up by some great atmospherics in this story. A prison transport with a holographic garden to make the journeys more palatable. Safira managed to depose the Emperor successfully and ruled the Empire for almost ten years. Betrayed by people obsessed with glory and titles, she was overthrown and incarcerated. These one part stories need to dream up an instantly engaging scenario with economy and we are in the thick of it in record time here.

Audio Landscape: Bubbling water, crying birds, explosion, Peri transported away.

Isn't it Odd: None of the ideas in this story are especially original and the storyline could be said to be quite predictable if you were the sort that was always looking to be tricked. And it does rather fizzle out without much of climax. It's a nice piece, rather than a gripping one.

Standout Scene: Russian doll tricks have been deployed before but it is always a nice trick if it is pulled off well. The Doctor realises with some annoyance that they never left the prison but merely stepped into the illusion of the spaceship. They are walking through one large simulation.

Result: 'How many lives are your freedom worth?' Nice title, explaining away the illusions within illusions. A pleasant rather than gripping first story for the set, not so much hitting the ground running but easing you in at a gentle pace. That's not such a bad thing since so many of the main range stories of late have been a lot of noise and bluster, a charming piece that sees the Doctor and Peri at their height uncovering the illusory machinations of a war criminal is a nice change of pace. Jemma Churchill gives a fine performance as Valtris, ambiguous enough so she could have been falsely imprisoned or guilty of the crimes that are directed at her. Colin Baker mentioned in the special features of his last anthology (the much undervalued Recorded Time and Other Stories) that he wishes that all of the truncated stories could be longer because they contain ideas that could be explored further. Had Breaking Bubbles been a four parter it might have wound up in the same league as Antidote to Oblivion and Moonflesh, existing far beyond its ability to entertain. This is one story that feels as though it is made for half an hour and doesn't outstay its welcome because of it. Unlike much of the content of late I am pleased to have listened to it and it is firm reminder that if the sixth Doctor can no longer be paired with Evelyn Smythe, his relationship with Peri is a delight to listen to these days. As a taster for the upcoming trilogy featuring them, this has truly wetted my appetite: 7/10

Of Chaos Time The written by Mark Ravenhill and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Cast adrift in his own chronology, the Doctor must avert the consequences of a catastrophic experiment in using time as a weapon of war.

Softer Six: It feels as though Mark Ravenhill has been writing for Colin Baker's Doctor his entire life, capturing his delightful arrogance and conceitedness but peppering that with a sense of humour and gentle assurance. He scores a big win by having the Doctor completely in the dark about his situation and yet improvising madly and putting together the pieces of the puzzle with real incisiveness. Running down corridors has become a regular feature of his life. He might not know where he is or what is going on but the Doctor still has unstinting confidence in his own abilities. According to Peri as well as being the worst dressed person in all of time and space, the Doctor is also the most brilliant. It isn't worth fighting with him when he gets a bee in his bonnet because the Doctor always gets what he wants. Mysteriously finding himself in secure compounds and having to answer questions is an occupational hazard. Someone of his capacious intelligence is hardly in need of luck. Why is it that every person he has ever met that has condemned him as traitor has been a complete idiot?

Great Ideas: Again this does not have an original idea at its heart, the Doctor jumping about through his own personal history and piecing together a scenario, but it is a far more immediately engaging one. A century long war with so many generations lost. A patient is being studied on one of the outer islands, a baby with accelerated chronology. Immediately (and thanks to the Doctor) we can connect his distorted chronology with that of the patient. Time sickness is a new one on me, a chronological condition that forces him to age to death and start the cycle over and over again. A living hell and because it is accelerated we get to experience a conversation between the Doctor and Trobe at various stages of his life. A satellite and a chronon bomb, more pieces of the jigsaw. Cleverly it is the Doctor himself that exposes them to chronon energy that starts this entire process of dropping the narrative jigsaw and trying to put it back together. Years ago a chief scientist called Warmer asked to meet the war council on a matter of urgency and secrecy. He was at the beginning of his experiments to develop the technology for a bomb that could scramble time. Wrecking the enemy's continuum would bring the war to an end. The result of the time experiments was the time sickness. The Doctor makes a very good point about the spread of technology during wartime, however hard you try and make it exclusive to your side the enemy will have ways of infiltrating, stealing and applying. With different creative minds it will adapt and evolve. And with time technology that is a dangerous business. Trobe's condition has caused a high level of time distortion which is the energy that the TARDIS detected and brought the Doctor and Peri there in the first place. The Doctor can harness that energy and create a wormhole that will allow him to make a temporal spatial leap into the heart of the satellite and prevent the time bomb project in the first place.

Audio Landscape: Hydraulic footsteps, robotic voices, baby cooing, time jumps.

Standout Scene: Both the cause and the cure, the same event experienced twice cancelled each other out. Very neat.

Result: A strong piece of storytelling, although perhaps not as dense as Creatures of Beauty or the recent Bernice Summerfield adventure Random Ghosts because they had longer to play about with the idea of a distorted chronology. Of Chaos Time The scores a massive win for it's characterisation of the sixth Doctor, who hasn't been this on fire in some time and Colin Baker responds to the material with real gusto. The Doctor is caught up in the mechanics of a deformed narrative and is having to try and piece together the pieces to find a route out of it. It's one of the pieces where you really have to pay attention but it rewards the patient and intelligent listener and all comes together very satisfyingly. Like Sometime Never... and Brotherhood of the Daleks and other plot heavy Doctor Who stories, I get a genuine thrill when a complex story slots into place seamlessly. Completely different from the first story, this is much more to my tastes: 8/10

An Eye for Murder written by Una McCormack and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The year is 1939, and a case of poison pen letters at St Ursula’s College threatens to change the course of the Second World War. Fortunately thriller writer Miss Sarah Perry is on hand to investigate...

Softer Six: Peri finds the fashion of the post-war women's colleges a little tweedy but I rather like the idea of the sixth out of his eyesore of a coat for an adventure and donning a costume more akin to his eleventh persona. Given his asexual nature throughout his first seven incarnations this is the perfect time for him to ask people to not consider him a man but just the Doctor. From his eighth body onwards that is not really a possibility. His ego is in check this week and he's happy to pose as Peri's writing assistant, the plucky man who helps her to investigate crime in their spare time. There are relatively few period pieces for the sixth Doctor, which is a crying shame because he slots seamlessly into the past (the last time he had a genuine historical was in Recorded Time, officially yonks ago) thanks to his naturally theatrical nature. He is still capable of moments of inexplicable, inexcusable and uncharacteristic moments of stupidity even if he says so himself.

Busty Babe: She sounds positively transatlantic and Hollywood is said to blame for her accent. Peri is mistaken for a famous novelist but has the gumption and the brio to pull off the disguise. Apparently she has an eye for a protagonist, a dashing, aristocratic and tormented individual.

Standout Performance: Is it a condition that every time Doctor Who touches upon the Second World War that Janet Henfry has to play a part in proceedings? The unforgettable Miss Hardaker in Curse of Fenric, she plays a much more grounded character in this story and her cultured, sabulous voice is simply made for bringing to life a stalwart Professor in a women's college.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'That ghastly little man Hitler!'
'This is a different world now, Peri.'

Great Ideas: Such a shame that the renowned writer Susan Perry has to write under a mans name but such was the way of the world in the late 1930s when the scribblings of a woman would scarcely be taken seriously. Poison pen letters are doing the rounds, from a particularly vicious tongued anonymous perpetrator. Doctor Who has dipped its toes into the Second World War many times on TV and in books and audios and it is a moment of reflective calm when the broadcast is issued announcing that Great Britain is at War with Germany. Such a simple statement that had a profound effect on so many people. In many ways one of the most terrifying moments in Doctor Who because it genuinely happened and it was the catalyst for such a loss of life. The presence of the dark vacuum fluctuations might feel like a science fiction copout that is introduced at the last minute but the wary listener will hear the Doctor's device bleeping away in the first scene and offering the reason they have come to this time period. Is this the first example of a sound effect planting the seeds of the explanation rather than words? Imagine an ocean convoy that can conceal itself, or a fleet of aeroplanes or a whole invading army? Imagine the effect on the War effort?

Audio Landscape: Quiet chatter, typewriter, church bells, an electronic device beeping, birdsong, a door crumbling away, a car chugging along the road.

Musical Cues: I was especially aware of the music in this story, an atmospheric score to accompany this period mystery adventure. One of my favourite pieces of music, Pachelbel's Canon, features. Wilfredo Acosta includes a playful theme at the close of this story that suggests optimistic times ahead for the Doctor and Peri.

Isn't it Odd: Una McCormack has a proven track record outside of Doctor Who but is starting to make an impressive name for herself within the series' spin off material too. Which makes her Big Finish debut, her ghastly contribution to Gallifrey series five, a bizarre aberration. Mind you it has been my observation that the Time Lord driven spin off has the nullifying effect of denting the reputation of genuinely decent writers, post series three (Scott Handcock, David Llewellyn, Justin Richards & McCormack has all proven themselves elsewhere).

Result: Precisely the sort of story that I would have loved to have seen the sixth Doctor and Peri enjoying when they were the incumbents on television, An Eye for Murder is a lovely period piece that concerns itself with poison pen letters doing the rounds at an all women's college that could have a disastrous effect on the War. There was a vocal criticism made about a year ago (addressed in my last interview with Nicholas Briggs) about the lack of a female presence within the talent pool at Big Finish and it would appear that steps have been made to rectify the situation. The companion chronicle Starborn, the recent Charlotte Pollard adventure The Shadow at the Edge of the World and now An Eye for Murder are all stories that have a strong female ubiquity and pleasingly don't feel like a reaction to censure but stories that have come to light because of female talent that has been waiting to be harnessed. I welcome much more because the standard of these stories is very high. What I really liked about an Eye for Murder beyond the plot that kept me interested throughout was how it was made to feel like a much longer story, the Doctor and Peri's presence within the college feels permanent rather than a half an hour nugget that we get. A potent setting, a strong cast of characters and a self contained piece of drama in its own right, this is a very strong piece. Between this little treasure and her superb contribution to the latest Bernice Summerfield, Una McCormack is slowly making a name for herself as a very reliable new writer for Big Finish: 9/10

The Curious Incident of the Doctor in Night-Time written by Nev Fountain and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Michael is a young boy who likes to solve mysteries, such as the mystery of the extra gnome, the mystery of the absent father, and the mystery of the strange man in yellow trousers at the bottom of the garden.

Softer Six: Never one for understatement, the Doctor will happily turn up on your doorstep and inform you that he is looking for an alien gnome who could potentially put the whole planet in danger. Peri is aghast at his lack of censure. He likes the word imminent and he may use it next time. The Doctor has a wonderful way of communicating with Michael, often agreeing with his points of logic. He acknowledges that they have a lot in common and that is also being tripped up by invisible rules wherever he visits (never a truer word was spoken). Michael cannot understand why the Doctor wears the same trousers every night because his mums says that that is dirty (clearly a critic of the JNT 'costume'). He doesn't always see the emotions beneath the surface, Peri agrees.

Busty Babe: She has a boys name, which is a logically sound point if you have only met boys called Perry.

Standout Performance: Not an easy task for Johnny Gibbon, being asked to bring an autistic young man to life without trying too hard to push the condition to make it stand out. He's remarkably good, the best performance I've heard in the main range for some time. Imagine an autistic boy as a companion? Could that work long term? I don't have the answers but Gibbon certainly makes a strong case for it being a possibility. Hang eye for detail, an obsession with counting, lacking an understanding of social graces - I think I have finally diagnosed Adric's behaviour. Michael is a much more attractive prospect because he is written and played with such care. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'My mum was going out with my sister on a hen night in Canterbury, which wasn't at night and not about hens at all...though she did come back with a box of chicken and chips from the shop on the corner.'
'An invisible rule is a rule that nobody tells you about until you break it...'
'When people say they have friends they want you to meet on television they mean something completely horrible. Especially if they laugh at the end like you just did.'
'He is in a very special place' 'Oh please don't say heaven. Clouds are just evaporated water, I know this for a fact.'

Great Ideas: Very good at counting and remembering things, desperate to solve mysteries with a uneven sense of reality, too many things that he doesn't understand and a vivid sense of detail - Michael displays many of the signs of autism. Whilst I think that if this is handled inappropriately it could fall flat on its face and wind up causing insult, it is also very brave to tell a story through the eyes of an autistic child. It is something of the like that has never been tried before in Doctor Who and it is rare to come across something this innovative given the engine of storytelling the show has generated. Michael can talk about his feelings ad nauseum without ever understanding them, can recall events with photographic precision and give you his age right up to the minute if asked. Cold and clinical, humorous and touching; it is a fascinating POV, unlike anything I have heard on audio. He doesn't understand how somebody can die when you're not looking because that isn't how it works on television. I love the way that we get to hear the same dialogue being spoken with different tones, revealing how Michael has no way of judging the meaning behind so much of what he is told. Little mysteries like why somebody is crying are far less important than big ones such as the extra gnome that has turned up. The gnome talking to Michael and pretending to be his dad is genuinely chilling, it gave me goosebumps all over. The J'noi are killing machines made by the Galactic Coalition and it was decided that they were too dangerous so they were dumped on the Earth where they would be paralysed by the atmosphere. Llangragen has come to Earth to liberate his fellow gnomes, to wreck havoc on the universe. Am I the only person who finds the idea of psychopathic gnomes quite frightening? Like clowns, their enforced jollity is a cause for concern and the sinister, squeaky voice they employ only serves to press that sinister lovability. Michael is right, not saying what you mean is rude and we are guilty of it all the time.

Audio Landscape: Doorbell, shower, shop clutter and chatter, killer robot activating his weapons, police siren.

Standout Scene: The Doctor visits the past an awful lot (not often enough for my tastes) and he finds it just as exciting as the present and the future. That is where Michael's father exists now, all stored safely and they will never go away. What a beautiful way for the Doctor to explain that Michael can still visit him, just by closing his eyes. It has been some time since I have blinked away tears at the end of a Big Finish story.

Result: Beautiful, a profound piece of writing that is given full justice by a stunning central performance by Johnny Gibbon. I have worked with a boy with autism and listening to this brought back many happy (and frustrating) memories. Nev Fountain usually comes up with something special but he has surpassed himself this time, producing a script that offers probing insight into autism whilst still providing an entertaining story and oodles of sparkling lines. Anything that manages to say so many reflective things from the world we live in from a unique perspective and still provide a rollicking ride concerning psychopathic alien gnomes has got to be doing something very right indeed. I think this is the perfect length, the exclusive selling point of the story might have lost it's charm if it had been stretched to fill a two hour running time. Fountain writes the sixth Doctor and Peri radiantly too and as much as I hate to wish my life away it makes me want to leap forward three months and listen to The Widow's Assassin next. Touching me in a way that only stories I can truly identify with can, The Curious Incident of the Doctor in Night-Time is my favourite story to have stepped from the main range in an awfully long time: 10/10

Overall: A terrific collection of stories that just gets better as it goes along. Big Finish has mastered the anthology by now and this a clear step up from 1001 Nights (which in itself wasn't too shabby). Each story has its own merits and there is far more novel and impressive than the majority of the main range stories for the past 12 months. I especially enjoyed the last two stories but there isn't a duff one in the batch. You've got a great use of the sixth Doctor and Peri, my favourite current Big Finish team and Colin and Nicola are riding a wave of great chemistry which has me hungry for their trilogy at the end of the season. It pleases me to be quite this positive about the range that has always been the beating heart of Big Finish, I just hope the following McCoy trilogy can keep up the good work. Breaking Bubbles & Other Stories gets two thumbs up from me: 9/10


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