Sunday, 30 November 2014

Flatline written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Douglas MacKinnon

This story in a nutshell: Creatures from another dimension bleed in to ours with devastating consequences...

Indefinable: He's on fire now. There's no mistaking the fact that Peter Capaldi is playing the Doctor and even trapped in the TARDIS in the strangest of circumstances he still manages to steal the show. The crabby old git is delighted at the fact that he has come face to face with something he hasn't expect and doesn't know how to deal with, his shrinking transport. The twelfth Doctor finally gets one of those big brash 'I am the Doctor' speeches but unusually I was cheering rather than trying to gouge my eyeballs out with a rusty fork. It was nice to see him step from the Ship and take his part in the conclusion (this is the opposite of Kill the Moon in that respect where he took part in the main body of the story but stepped out at the end) but more importantly than that I think this was an exclamatory moment where he is established as the Doctor of the moment. He's had moments before in the season where he has flirted with the role but this is where he embraced it head on and stood up for humanity as he has always done. It helps that it was well scripted and played, naturally. Interestingly the Doctor chooses to interpret the two dimensional creatures motives as hostile when he has no real evidence to support that (body snatching could come as natural to them as breathing). I think viewing them as monsters helps to make what he is about to do more comfortable for him. The fact that he chooses to see conflict rather than communication says a lot about this Doctor.

Impossible Girl: Finally Steven Moffat has made his dream come true and excised the Doctor from the show and pushed a companion of his making centre stage. Moffat has a similar obsession with Clara fronting the series as Davies did with Rose and yet I find the on the whole the Doctor managed to keep hold his series in the first four years in a way that Capaldi failed to do so, relenting a little in season eight. The main thrust of the series is the Clara/Danny relationship, Listen saw her taking another important position in the Doctor's history, Kill the Moon left the weight of the climax entirely in her hands whilst the Doctor skipped off for some tea, Flatline writes him onto the sidelines whilst Clara does all the reacting and come the end of the season Jenna Coleman has replaced Capaldi's face on the credits and her name shoots at the audience first in a bizarre gag. Make no mistake - Moffat has gone on record as saying the show is more about the companion than it is the Doctor and certainly this season he has set out to prove it. Strangely I have reached a point in Flatline where I don't mind anymore. Clara is being written for in such a skilful way and Coleman's performance rockets as a result. Seriously, go back and watch her struggling with the insubstantial characterisation she was handed  in series seven and then watch Flatline. There is a massive difference. I don't know if it is confidence, growth or simply that the writing is geared to making her a character who struggles as opposed to a character who smugly takes everything in her stride. It has taken a whole season (Kill the Moon is where I really felt the shift in her character) but finally Clara works and what's more she's likable, practical and relatable. Credit where it is due, that is quite a transition. Flatline shows you how the show can be fronted by a companion and it can still be recognisably great Doctor Who (the only other time I have felt that was Turn Left, which this episode can't quite match).

I still don't like the idea of Clara popping back and forth between two lives - despite the evidence I fail to see how that could work for either parties or be an entirely satisfying existence for her either. It makes me feel like she is only a temporary companion rather than somebody who is embracing the life and staying for good (I know no companion is ever going to stay for good but I do like the illusion that they will be travelling with him indefinitely for some time). She's bequeathed the screwdriver and the psychic paper and I think (given how abusive he has been to her this year) she has more than earned the chance to prove herself. I'd say she's also earned the opportunity to poke fun at the Doctor whilst pretending to be him. She skips away from a harrowingly dangerous experience whilst lilting 'I love you!' to Danny. I've lamented about her fearlessness in the past but this was pulled off brilliantly. She's been lying to Danny about travelling on board the TARDIS and the Doctor wants answers about that. Clara gets some shocking insight into why the Doctor has to make the decisions he does and gets to understand his cold logic a little better. She talks quickly and smartly when it comes to convincing Rigsy not to sacrifice himself at the climax. In a moment of clarity for the character she stops thinking about what the Doctor would do and starts thinking what she is going to do. It's an important moment and the point where the character has outgrown her mentor. A renaissance moment. Clara uses the resources that she has around her (Rigsy's talent, the 2DIS) to think her own way out of danger. The Doctor wont tell Clara to her face that she did an incredible job but when the moment came he was extremely proud of her.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It's bigger on the inside!' 'You know I don't think that statement has ever been truer.'
'It's long been theorised but no-one could go there and prove its existence without a heck of a diet!'

The Good:
* A beautifully simple teaser that tells you very little about the villain of the piece but informs you that it is going to be something very different to the norm. I love the dreary lighting and uncharismatic panic of the man, right from the off Flatline is aiming for a cold realism.
* I commented in my piece on Listen that horror is far more frightening when you don't know what is frightening the characters. Despite something of an outcry at the indefinite conclusion of Moffat's best episode of the year, I stand by that opinion. A shadow moving, a noise in the next room, heavy breathing behind you, something brushing past you in the dark...scary ideas that would lose their impact if the lights came on and you could see the nasty that you are facing. Imagination takes you much further than prosthetics and CGI. Flatline takes the idea of an unknowable horror and puts a fascinating spin on it - the horror from another dimension is so different from us we can't tell whether their terminal attacks are intentional or simply their attempts to communicate with us. That's a terrifying notion, especially when you could have the dimensions sucked out of you and wind up a silhouette on the wall in the effort to determine their intentions. At the end of the story we still don't know whether this is a spectacularly bad introduction between the human race and the two dimensional beings or whether they deliberately leaked into our plan of existence to wipe us out. The various ways in which the creatures attempt to understand us prove to be far more chilling than any bog standard Doctor Who monster dribbling along a corridor. There is enough of a hint (the chilling moment where they try and communicate verbally and we realise they are targeting the numbers on the workers jackets) that they are doing something by design...but it is never confirmed what.
* I was starting to wonder with a sense of dread that I had seen everything that this show had to offer (at least under a Moffat administration). At the beginning of the season everything was starting to feel a little samey (the Paternoster Gang, another take on the droids from The Girl in the Fireplace, a lone Dalek in a cell, a celebrity historical, the Doctor living the life of a human being for a spell, etc) but somewhere along the line the innovation train took over and fresh ideas have started to emerge. Imagine my delight with Flatline and it's shrinking TARDIS, an idea so simple (and low budget) that I'm surprised nobody (aside from Christopher H. Bidmead before he officially fell in love with the TARDIS and married one) has played about with it before. A toy sized TARDIS with the Doctor inside? A genius notion that kids can mimic with their toys. The rapidly shrinking doors offering some wonderfully odd visuals and comic moments. Matheson doesn't just suggest the idea, he really plays about with it to see how many ways he can delight us. The 2DIS. Come on, a weapon that bring a two dimensional drawing to life and flatten a three dimensional object into an outline? That's bloody cool. 
* 'No decent characters....bibble bibble bibble' That's pretty much been my biggest complaint in Moffat Who and I've started to sound like a broken record. To be honest the characters in Flatline aren't much cop either, which is a shame after Matheson provided a stellar guest cast in Mummy on the Orient Express. What saves this is the performances, the fact that the situation they are placed in is so interesting and that they are true to themselves throughout. Fenton might be a one-dimensional bully that enjoys getting in the way and insulting people but nothing that he goes through in this episode changes that one jot. Rigsy (an unfortunate name that left me thinking about Rising Damp) is Clara's one-shot companion and he's likable enough. You can't help but cheer for the underdog and clearly society has treated this lad badly. I think the problem with the characters in Flatline is that that the setting is looking to be as naturalistic as possible and as a result the cast are all folks you could meet on the street without any particular quirks that make them stand out.
* I can't remember the last episode that conjured up as much dazzling and terrorizing imagery as Flatline; the one dimensional victims trapped in the walls slowly coming to life, the teeny weeny TARDIS with Capaldi's grumpy face peering out, the spatial dimension trickery of seeing the Doctor in the TARDIS being held by Clara (I kept doing a double take), the blistered desert crags adoring the wall that turn out to be a blown up piece of human skin, the fluidic effect of the creatures running across the floor to reach out to the police officer and watching her melt away into the carpet (a million times more effective than a similar scene in Night Terrors), the giant hand that snatches its victim away, the flickering, screaming shadows emerging from the tunnel...
* Why on Earth is there a chair hanging from the ceiling? That was my first question. Where can I get one? That was my second. What followed was one of my favourite set pieces to have sprung from the last four series of Doctor Who. When the couch bursts and melted away like paint simultaneously exploding outwards and inwards I was slack-jawed and had no idea what was going on. That's an exciting feeling I haven't felt for ages. Terrifying in it's strangeness, whacky in design and an amusing cameo by Danny (let joy be uncontained, he can be funny)...I was in seventh heaven watching this on transmission. That would go down as my favourite scene of the year if it wasn't for the TARDIS on the train track (the Doctor on the train track - Uncle Terrance must be appalled!). Walking the TARDIS off the track with his hand and his little dance when he has succeeded left me applauding the TV. I haven't been this much in love with the show for a long time. The build up to the TARDIS being smacked by the train was expertly handled by the director, leaving me breathless.
* One aspect of the show that I cannot fault this year is the music. There have been some repetitive cues but that doesn't matter one iota because they are all fantastic. Flatline has a terrific soundtrack that allows for quiet moments of understated horror as the reality of the danger that the characters face sinks in and also fast moving action, foot tapping cues that me dancing in my seat whilst gripping the arms in fear.
* Trains! Just when you think this is going to be the super cheapie of the season (comparisons with Fear Her were fair, at least in budgetary terms, until about halfway through) Clara and her chums head into the train dock into what proves to be a vast and robust setting. There are no concessions to this being science fiction as far as the setting is concerned, it's forbidding realism all the way. A neglected council estate, the filthy, forgotten storage area of a train station and dark and dank tunnels underground. After reading Damaged Goods this is was precisely the sort of urban realism that I expected Russell T Davies to bring to the show.
* In a season that has thrown all kinds of horrors at us - hands grabbing from under the bed, giant spiders spitting in the face, a desiccated mummy reaching out of its victims - Flatline delivers the most frightening visuals of the year. Ambling forwards awkwardly like Walking Dead rejects with features that melt and cohere endlessly, the two dimensional beings cloaked in human flesh are a chilling sight to behold. No way to reason with them, no way to stop them. They're coming out of the dark and they're coming for you for goodness only knows what purpose. They're relentless, even after Clara has deployed the train. That's enough to give me nightmares. It's their indefinable nature in conception and realisation that chills the blood.
* Even the climax isn't a cheat. Another of my regular complaints is that the conclusion so often fails to match up to what has gone before it. Unanswered questions, bad logic, deus ex machina, spectacle over intelligence...there are a wealth of reasons why so many NuWho adventures don't quite click. Flatline works because it makes up its own rules and it uses them to provide the solution. The creatures trying to open a door that never existed and leeching the power back into the TARDIS (when it was drawn from it in the first place) makes perfect sense. It's very cleverly done.

The Bad: I am reliably informed by a very handsome friend of mine that despite the odd gesture to suggest that this story is set in Bristol that it does not recognise any part of it that he knows (and he should know, he works at the Caaaaan-cel). It's not a problem for me, Doctor Who often dresses up parts of Wales as other parts of the globe but I wonder if it would be different if it were my home town that was being misrepresented? The closest we've come is Brighton in The Sound of Drums and that nearly brought me out in hives.

Result: The series eight episode that single handedly restored my faith in Doctor Who. Kill the Moon was bold and uncompromisingly frightening and daft and Mummy on the Orient Express provided an atmospheric thrill ride but Flatline truly went where Doctor Who has never gone before and I was all of a tingle throughout. I haven't felt this kind of excitement from the show simply through the possibilities of the ideas and the breadth of the storytelling since series four. Flatline is Doctor Who being made for adults with very little in the way of light relief, pleasant characters or quirky settings and it has a truly foreboding menace. How this aired in the same season of The Caretaker baffles me. You wouldn't want the show to be like this every week but my word has it pulled its socks up and delivered something unique and transfixing. What I loved about this story was how it never stopped giving; it opened up in an unique approach (the shrinking TARDIS) and rather than rest on that idea it kept delivering surprising and ingenious notions until my brain was rattling with them. Matheson pins them to a gripping narrative that puts Clara centre stage and truly allows her to shine. Goodness knows where MacKinnon has been hiding these talents but he is making huge leaps in quality with each episode he directs (check out the progress: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, The Power of Three, Cold War, Listen, Time Heist, Flatline). This is the most tautly directed piece of drama to have leapt from Moffat's era, packed full of memorable images and with a tangible sense of tension. I've not been discreet when it comes to my dissatisfaction with the series over the past couple of years and I will equally effusive in my praise for a season that has just knocked three standout episodes out of the park, each one improving on the last. Flatline is bold, imaginative, terrifying and original. An argument for a season comprised entirely of new writers has been made. This is the evidence: 9/10

Thursday, 27 November 2014

In the Forest of the Night written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Sheree Folkson

This story in a nutshell: Betray paradise...

Indefinable: I honestly don't understand why the two extremes of humanity are ignored in favour of twenty-something young girls all of the time (actually yes I do, it is easier to write romance into the series that way) but I would love for their to be a child or elderly companion at some point in the series. The series flirted with the idea with young Amelia Pond and it does so again here with Maebh and the response from the Doctor is fascinating and very entertaining to watch. Capaldi's Doctor in particular gets on very well with children (as exemplified with his uncomplicated relationship with Courtney earlier in the season) simply because, like them, he says what he thinks and does what he wants. He doesn't want to get involved with the dreary mechanics of human relationships when there are the wonders of the universe to see. He'd rather ride a rollercoaster than have a hug. He understands children because he listens to them. It's the gentlest showing of Capaldi by far in season eight, the one where the Doctor behaves most reasonably and human. I missed the asshole. It's also one of those rare events where the Doctor has to do nothing in order for the planet to survive, just realise what is going on (see also: Warriors' Gate and Planet of the Ood).

Impossible Girl: Here's our chance to see how Clara and Danny would cope as parents in a sticky situation and the net result is an awful lot of bickering, some bad choices and a general desire to stick by each others decisions in the end. I think they would do fine.

Mr Pink: Probably the strongest showing for Danny in season eight because like the sun peeking through a rain cloud he is allowed to show sense of humour behind all that sulky dourness. Danny Pink the teacher is certainly more appealing than Danny Pink the lover. He's fun and he's absolutely rock solid when it comes to dealing with and protecting children. He would make a wonderful father, I think. Danny doesn't have to do a great deal beyond being brave and shielding the children and yet he performs both of those roles admirably. I think Moffat made a cardinal error in making him Clara's boyfriend above all else because that highlighted all the joyless aspects of his personality. He's come across as somebody who fails to see the excitement in having all of time and space at your fingertips. And yet in Forest we have a glimpse of a man who could have had adventures, who has real spirit and life in him. That's the Danny Pink I would have liked to have known. Before this episode I probably would have written him off as an entirely failed experiment but after this I'm left shaking my head at a missed opportunity. Who would have thought singing his way through a forest with children would have been his brightest moment.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Has he even been CRB checked?' - what a suspicious world we live in. What a lovely dig at that paranoia.
'I hope I'm right. It would be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point.'

Dreadful Dialogue: 'So you think that's how Spring begins. With a group message on tree Facebook?'
'When I get stressed I forget my anger management' would be tough line for anybody to pull off, let alone somebody under sixteen.
'Can we take another selfie, sir?' - not a line I ever wanted to hear in Doctor Who.

The Good:
* I thoroughly enjoyed the pre-titles sequences and was perfectly convinced that we were onto a winner. In fact, I text Simon during the titles and told him that I thought he was going to really enjoy this episode. When will I learn not to tempt fate like that. Walking into the TARDIS from a child's point of view is something that has never been done before and Folkson captures the magic and the scale of the craft with real skill. She shoots from below so Capaldi seems like a giant through Maebh's eyes and the tracking shot around the gallery in the console room is gorgeous. I don't think there will ever be a time when this console room isn't a work of magic for me. The gorgeous, leafy location work is immediately stunning too, driving home the idea of Little Red Riding Hood being lost in the forest. And the pan up Nelson's Column is as bold and innovative as a similar shot up the statue of the Monoid in The Ark was in it's day, opening out onto a stunning landscape of modern day London engulfed in greenery. My jaw was on the floor, this was going to be something quite special indeed.
* Kids are given quite a hard time in fiction these days. Nobody wants to watch perfect children behaving in reasonable manner so more often than not soaps such as Eastenders and Waterloo Road sensationalise how dreadful kids can be. In essence, I like what Cottrell Boyce is doing with his group of students in this story. A bunch of misfits that don't fit in being brought together by two teachers that really care about their emotional growth (don't groan) and a situation that allows them to work together to prove their worth. Without ever bring gripping, that is a worthy journey to take these kids on. What hampers the experiment is the general whininess of the kids and the weaker performances. Ruby's facetiousness in the classroom is amusing but her panic attacks really start to grate after a while (it remind me of Catherine Tate's 'Oh my God children we're all going to die!').
* What a shame that Barry Letts wasn't around to watch this episode. He might have had some issues with how it was presented dramatically but I think he would have wholeheartedly approved of the ecological message that is spread. And so do I. I have no issues with the imaginative leap that the planet would rise up and try and protect us from harm. Trees already do a massive amount to allow the human race to survive so it isn't that much of a leap in the Doctor Who universe (where anything can happen, trust me) to assume that they would step up and protect us. If I'm honest I would have had the danger build up and strike throughout the episode and saved the pop up forest for the climax - it would still have it detractors but it would at least be a dramatically satisfying piece instead of an extended coda of a story that has already taken place. Trees are cool seems to be the message and I endorse that 100 percent. Doctor Who with a moral message doesn't have to be a lecture. I thought the dig at all the tree chopping was handled with quite a light touch...until the 'be less scared, be more trusting' phone message. That encouraged my dinner to reappear.
* There were some playful moments of music that reminded me strongly of Sherlock.

The Bad:

* Apparently sleepovers at museums are a genuine event that takes place...but that doesn't make the idea any less hokey. It's a rather bizarre way of keeping all the kids together away from their parents as the disaster strikes.
* I love the ambition of Doctor Who. It is something that you have to admire even when you are watching through your fingers as the giant ant creatures of Vortis clank into cameras, big man T-Rex bursts from a wooden brick wall in Central London, a giant squid rises from the depths and mounts a refinery or a lumbering sea creature slops green paint all over the pristine walls of a Sea Base. It has been suggested that the show has always been under funded, which is probably true but has anyone taken the time to consider that that might be because the writers aren't tailoring the stories to the amount of money that is available? I guess if you never try and push the boat out you will have a very safe show but sometimes you have to wonder if the writers have ever seen an episode of Doctor Who before. I can't bring myself to dislike the show when it tries and fails because frankly it has spent so much of life trying and getting it right (or nearly right). What I do object to in the new series is when the show is tailored to a specific (and far more impressive than the classic series) budget and it still attempts to try something that it will never pull off. In the Forest of the Night is supposedly set in a Central London that has been contaminated with foliage - that is the sort of notion that a big budget film would have difficulty trying to bring alive. The lack of imagination is staggering - this feels as though it has been filmed in a forest with a few random props strewn about to convince that it is Central London. Invasion of the Dinosaurs might be staggeringly over ambitious for the time but they went to the effort of filming a deserted London for the first episode and creating wonderful miniature environments for the puppet dinosaurs to roam about in. There is no such creativity here. And where are the people? Cottrell Boyce tries to cover this with a line about everybody being told to stay at home but would that really be adhered to by the entire population of London? Really? Roaming gangs of people, that's what was needed. I know it would fight against the lyrical, poetic atmosphere that the episode is promoting but it would feel a hell of a lot more convincing. My trouble with how the scenario is presented (and it could have been a gripping one) was that it was so unconvincing that I was dragged out of the story too often. It is the effects shots of London streets under a canopy of trees and the Earth stained green from a distance that do most of the work but these are scant seconds of this episodes running time. It isn't often that I will criticise a new series production for its visuals but a lack of inventiveness on this scale is pretty inexcusable. I never felt I was in London with a forest dropping by to visit, I felt as thought I was in a forest with scant elements of London dropping by to add some colour.
* Maeve happens to be from Danny's school party and happens to stumble upon the TARDIS during the point when this crisis has struck? That's a whopping great co-incidence. If I was a paranoid man I would detect the hand of Missy guiding this but I think this genuinely a eye rolling piece of narrative flukery.
* Maebh's mum didn't realise that her entire street has been swamped with a forest until she opened the door? No wonder she lost both her daughters. Even the cubes were noticed faster than this. Is it reasonable that the only other person that we see exploring the dense forest of Central London is this woman? Like night following day you predict that Maebh and her mother will meet up before the climax despite the size of the Capitol and what a maze of foliage it has become. Nothing that has been through a half decent script editor should be this predictable.
* It was quite a bold idea to front a Doctor Who story that had no big bad to fight. I can't think of a single time when that has been done before so kudos for trying something completely new. Saying that I think it was a mistake because once you have gotten over the shock of the setting there is relatively little else to hang your interest on. There's a token wildlife issue at the heart of the episode which is so throwaway I wonder why they bothered (oh yeah because this would literally be 45 minutes of wandering around a forest chatting otherwise) and brings with it its own problems (Why would the forest appearing mean that they suddenly escaped from the local zoo? How does an iron fence stop a tiger and a pack of wolves? How does a small girl out run pack animals?). Aside from that the danger of this episode has been dealt with before the story even began. The forests arrival was the solution. So it's three quarters of an hour hanging around with kiddiewinks waiting for the characters to realise that the work has already been done for them. Hardly the most gripping way to spend a Saturday night. Ultimately what In the Forest of the night proves is that Doctor Who works best when there is a palpable threat at the heart of the story. At one point Cottrell Boyce does try and present the deforestation team as something for Maebh to fear but since we have already been warned of their arrival the shock of this moment is completely blunted. It's the equivalent of saying 'I'm going to jump out at you' before doing it. A bit like Nelson's Column falling over (sacrilege, darling) - false tension.
* What is up with the solar system? We've had the sun and the moon try and take us out this season.
* The whole scene of Clara telling the Doctor to leave is peculiarly characterised. Is this an acknowledgement that the Doctor was right in Kill the Moon to leave the Earth and its people to their fate and make their own decisions? Has this Doctor suddenly developed a conscience and a need to protect the planet?  Because the way this is presented is the polar opposite of the climax of Kill the Moon and the two do not sit comfortably in the same season a few episodes apart. And as for Clara's admission that she doesn't want to be the last of her kind...just bizarre. I felt this was contractual obligation to add some character depth to the story rather than something that sprung naturally from the story. Not every episode has to say profound things about the regulars, especially when it is handled as half-heartedly as this.
* Simon walked out of the room at the school project moment where the kids gathered around the console to save the Earth, exclaiming 'oh fuck off!' It was the point where I thought he had given up on Doctor Who altogether. Fortunately, he really enjoyed Dark Water. The less said about his reaction to the final scene the better.
* The forest just vanishes when it is no longer needed? This is the closest the show has ever come to embracing magic because there is relatively little science to back it up. Why didn't the trees have something to say during all those invasions? Apparently the human super power is forgetting these miraculous events. That wouldn't be a problem if they weren't becoming more epic in scale as the series continues. By the end of this season a dinosaur roamed Victorian London, a forest consumed the Earth and the dead return to life as Cybermen. That is some selective amnesia.
* Is the return of Annabel the nadir of NuWho? Has an narrative trick ever been both this predictable and irksome?

Result: I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. It's no secret that I was starting to find the Moffat era of Doctor Who an extremely tiresome experience, especially during the latter half of series seven and that that ambivalence infected the first half of season eight (and with gems such as Deep Breath, Robot of Sherwood and The Caretaker it is easy to see why). However something rather miraculous happened around the middle of the season that took my breath away - the season (and era) started to get a second wind. I was asking for new writers with fresh ideas rather than relying on the old hacks who have had their day. I was asking for edgier, more innovative storytelling that push the envelope and did something original. I was asking for writers to engage with the characters of the Doctor and Clara. The triple whammy of Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline was the best run of episodes we have had for simply ages and my faith in the series was starting to build again. Then came In the Forest of the Night. Me and my big mouth. A new writer? Check. Innovative storytelling? The whole world gets turned into a giant forest - check. Something original? There is no danger whatsoever - check. And yet these things become weaknesses, not strengths. In the Forest of the Night feels as though it is about five drafts away from being something very special. However you would need to times the budget by ten, jettison the climax and completely revolutionise the narrative and characters in order for it to work. And tone down the kids. It's not all a disaster though or certainly not as much of one as some people have made out. Whilst the money doesn't support the bold concept there are still some lovely moments of direction. Capaldi relates wonderfully to children and there are some amusing moments. Danny Pink even cracks a smile and starts singing. And you have to give credit for trying something this different even if they don't manage to pull it off. Ultimately it feels like a waste of an hour. Cottrell Boyce has written a puzzle where the solution is that the problem has been solved before the story even began. We're just waiting for the Doctor and chums to catch up. Building to something this anti-climactic is never a smart move. In the Forest of the Night is being compared with Fear Her and The Doctor's Daughter as one of the worst episodes since the show returned. I'd say it's too inoffensive for such a bold claim but it is still a pretty lackadaisical hour of television. Frank Cottrell Boyce spends an hour trying to convince you of a danger that isn't there: 4/10

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: Rule of the Eminence written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: The Master doesn't fear the Doctor but he is a sanctimonious do-gooder of the sort that always interferes with his plans. He has to say goodbye to Molly to ensure that the Daleks, the Eminence and all the other nasties that want a piece of her leave her alone. What a pity to lose the sparky chemistry between these two.

Alter Ego: 'You twisted psychopath!' Bringing together Narvin and McQueen's Master gave me a little thrill, it felt like a union between Big Finish of old under the Gary Russell administration and the current Big Finish taken care of by Nicholas Briggs. The Master fears the Doctor because he alone has the power to defeat him. Will it prey on the Master that he actually helped to save a colony?

Dark Eyes: In a clever moment of deception it appears that the Master was responsible for Molly's dosing with the retrogenitor particles, stealing up on her in the war the Doctor took her away from and kick starting her part in his Masterplan. It's all smoke and mirrors though, it's just a dream sequence inserted to complicate things and reveal how Molly is being psychologically tortured by the Master.

Martyr: Liv has gone from all the possibilities of the TARDIS to a glorified nurse maid at Molly's side. She misses her friend though and will do anything to make sure that she is okay. The Master is so sadistic that he had cured Liv a long time ago but neglected to tell her - he says it is because he thought she had come to terms with it but I have to wonder if it wasn't just because he enjoyed making her suffer knowing he could take that pain away. Liv talks about an exciting time when she travelled in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Molly - it is a shame that we haven't been able to experience any of their adventures as I am sure the three of them would make a fine set of regulars for a trilogy of adventures or two. There's a cute moment where Liv asks to join the Doctor on the TARDIS and see the universe, something I heartily approve of (although Molly should have gone along too). Let's hope that next time around she is a bit more cheeky and less miserable, especially now she knows that she isn't dying. 

Standout Performance: There was something a little off about the way that Ruth Bradley interacted with the rest of the cast. I haven't had the chance to listen to the interviews feature so I'm not sure what the situation is but both her vanishing act from the central story and her distance from the other performances leads me to believe that her lines were fed in later. Correct me if I'm wrong. Should you really call a series Dark Eyes when the reason for that is now your least prominent feature?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You do rule the cosmos but only when you're all that's left.'

Great Ideas: Narvin may work for the CIA but he doesn't necessarily approve of their methods and where possible he tries to mitigate them. That's why he has headed back in time and created a position for himself - he always was a sneaky bugger. The American newsreader immediately brings to mind The Seeds of War (and also lashings of Gridlock) and the announcement that the war between the Eminence and humanity being over seems like an unusual place to open the culmination of the Dark Eyes 3 box set. Fortunately we have the Master on hand to point out that with his tinkering things really aren't as salutatory as they seem.

Audio Landscape: Explosions, heart monitor, applause, rolling waves, the Master's chorus of slaves. 

Isn't it Odd: The reason that the first two stories in the Dark Eyes 3 set were so effective at putting across the horrors of the humanity/Eminence war was because we were able to get down in the trenches (so to speak) and up close and personal with the victims. Rule of the Eminence wants to play a much different game, aiming for a more epic approach as the broad sweep of the war is reported and manipulated. As a result you lose that personal touch that made those early instalments so gripping. When your identification figures are the Doctor, the Master and Narvin you lose that personal contact with the characters because they all have secrets up their sleeves. They're all playing games. Molly and Liv are kept at a distance, which doesn't help. I personally felt that Fitton did a better job of capturing the human face of this conflict in The Seeds of War because it managed to explore the dramatic turn of events through the eyes of handful of intimately drawn characters It was a family too which intensified the emotional connection with the audience. Whilst the story that plays out in Rule of Eminence was exciting enough, I never felt personally involved in the story. There was an opportunity here to really get under the skin of the Master (which was achieved as best as I have seen it done in Masterplan) and to tie that into his overall plan so we get a strong link between why he does what he does and the ultimate expression of that psychology in the linking narrative. I was expecting...something a little more than him just wanting to take over the universe because. It's what I have said about the character all along, he's pure panto with relatively little depth to him other than to embrace the role of a villain and try and control people. Beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much more to say. The moment where Molly realises that she has been conned should have been climactic and powerful but because of her lack of involvement in the set it feels tacked on and irrelevant. I'm starting to wonder about the dramatic possibilities of the Eminence too. Created out of technobabble and merely a tool for the Master to take over the universe, they've gone from being a mysterious possessive force to a plot tool over the course of these four stories. When it was the Doctor being possessed in The Seeds of War I was perfectly convinced that they could emerge as the new Big Bad but now as stooges to the Master they've lost their edge. A means to an end more than anything. The Eminence are dispersed, the Master gets away, Molly is saved and Liv isn't dying. All very neat, all very predictable. You see what I mean about expecting a little more? To the Death might not have been subtle but it sure made a massive impact on the listener. This was ticking. Is this the end of Molly? I hope not, she was one of the more unique Big Finish companions and I genuinely think that Ruth Bradley did a superb job. I would love to see some non-Dark Eyes stories with her character, a bit like those we had in the first box set. 

Standout Scene: I rather enjoyed the moment when the newscaster went from reporting the events of the war to a propaganda puppet for the Master.

Result: A bizarre story and a disappointing climax to what has generally been the strongest Dark Eyes box set. After listening to this I get the same feeling that I used to when Russell T. Davies was racing towards the culmination of one of the four and a half seasons he plotted. Seasons dropping intriguing hints and building in elements that cohere wonderfully in the penultimate episodes (The Sound of Drums and The Stolen Earth are possibly my favourite episodes of their respective years) and promising one hell of a dramatic conclusion. And then nothing. Or nothing as impressive as I was expecting. Dark Eyes 3 feels like that. Like it had real confidence in its various plot elements (the Master, the Eminence, the war) and explored them all in dramatic circumstances whilst pulling them all in the direction of The Rule of the Eminence where they should have dovetailed beautifully and brought the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. But it kind of feels as though all the juicy stuff has been dealt with (the Doctor/Master therapy session was the highlight of the set) and this is merely a box ticking exercise to get the story where it needs to be for Dark Eyes 4. It doesn't help that the titular focus of the range has been sidelined so spectacularly throughout these four instalments and so giving Molly such focus now seems like a distraction. More of an administrative exercise than a piece of drama; the Master's plan is revealed and he's not up to anything original, he's defeated and the war is brought to an end. But all of this is done in a perfunctory way without much in the way of drama, sacrifice or desperation. The technobabble catalyst at the conclusion was the biggest shocker and perhaps the greatest indication that this arc has lost its heart at the last hurdle. Perhaps hanging a 16 story arc on retrogenitor particles was a mistake: 4/10

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: Masterplan written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: 'If I'm going to die on an exploding spaceship frankly I can't think of anybody I would rather take with me...' Masterplan opens with a gripping five minute sequence where the Doctor tries to convince Professor Schriver that the Institute that he sets up (IDES) would go on to cause chaos and destruction in the galaxy. The Doctor tries to make the attack personal, like everything the Institute caused in the perverted timeline would be directly his fault. It reminded me of how he tried to play God in A Christmas Carol but it doesn't irritate me quite as much. In the Christmas special the Doctor was re-writing time to save a handful of people, something that he has always said is expressly forbidden. It made me question why he had let other people in the past die, if he was so invested in keeping these particular people alive. Whereas the eighth Doctor of Dark Eyes is already fairly damaged after the loss of some good friends (Lucie, Tamsin, Alex) and his adventures have taken a downward spiral of being incapable of saving a soul from the machinations of the Eminence, the Master and the terrible humanity/Eminence war. I don't condone what he is doing, but since the timeline has been corrupted anyway...isn't it acceptable that he might try and alter things back to how they should be or stopping them from ever happening in the first place? Who knows, he could be bringing an even more corrupted timeline into existence. This is the Doctor at his most eloquent, trying to persuade the professor of his good intentions...and at his most desperate given the lengths he is going to. If it comes to a choice between heading backwards in time and re-stirring the pot or allowing the Eminence to terrorise the universe at large the Doctor looks for the nearest ladle. With the Master gone, the timeline and the Doctor's friends are safe and if he has to die to make sure that his oldest enemy bites the bullet then so be it. The Master thinks it is easy for the Doctor to play the rebel when he was always the teachers pet. The Doctor chides the Master for daring to use the names of his friends that have died...and for suggesting that Molly was marked the moment she met him. Does the Doctor run because he doesn't trust himself to stay around and face the consequences of his actions? Russell T. Davies made a similar argument in Boom Town and I have to wonder if there isn't a grain of truth in the idea.

Alter Ego: Of all the ways the Master could niggle the Doctor, calling the TARDIS an antediluvian bucket of bolts takes the biscuit. After being so in control throughout the first two adventures it is nice to see the Master caught out for a change and forced to improvise. Things have been going a little too well for him of late and now it's time for the Doctor to intervene. The Doctor declares him a spoilt child that has to get what he wants or everybody suffers, the trouble being that he doesn't know what he wants beyond killing the Doctor. According to the Master they both want to change the universe, it is only the scale of their ambition that sets them apart. Why doesn't the Master kill the Doctor when he has the chance? Is it because he doesn't want to? Or is it because he needs the attention he so desperately craves? Humans come and go in the blink of an eye, he doesn't understand why the Doctor gets so worked up over them. He simply wishes to maintain order, that's why he plans to control the universe. They were friends once but the Doctor maintains that he outgrew the Master and his pathetic schemes. He enjoys hurting people, he enjoys being irresponsible...if that makes him evil then so be it. He wants peace just like the Doctor, which will only happen when the universe is of one mind. For a moment he is remorseful at the loss of Sally...but only for a moment.

Martyr: I wouldn't say that Liv hasn't worked as a character before Masterplan because she is being played by Nicola Walker who is a fine actress and she could inject life into the weakest of characters. However I would say that, Robophobia aside, she has hardly marked herself out as anything special from the norm. A reasonably resourceful woman with a decent moral code? Hardly enough to set my world on fire. In the comparison stakes I would say that Molly (loathed by some) was far more interesting because of her fiery personality, passion for their travels, interesting accent and history as a wartime nurse. However, things have started to turn around for Liv in this story, especially during the sequence where she gets to lock horns with Sally and try and work her way inside her head. Sally mocks it as amateur psychology but there is no doubt that Liv attacks her with some fervour, an act of spite that shows that she does have some fire in her belly after all ('You and I know who the Master really cares about. It's Molly, Molly with the Dark Eyes. You? You're expendable. Your days are numbered, Sally, and you know it.'). Liv has come to accept her fate in grand scheme of things. If that means she has to be sacrificed to make things right then so be it. She looks forward to letting all of her worries go.

Standout Performance: McGann and McQueen excel in their two hander scenes together. It's as good a Doctor/Master chemistry as you have ever seen.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We all rewrite history, Liv. Every day of our lives, every decision we make.'
'There's no genius without a touch of madness.'
'Who do you think you are, Doctor? Judge, jury and executioner?'
'It's not about the numbers. I look at what's in front of me.'

Great Ideas: Professor Schriver is brewing up the consciousness carrying gas that forms the Eminence, thinking that his research is for the good of humanity when ultimately his work will come close to destroying it. His work will result in untold suffering. It was given to him by the Master, meddling in history to create the Eminence and therefore allow him to increase his army of slaves in the future. I tell you what, he thinks big. Molly, awash with retrogenitor particles, is trapped in the teleportation casket and infusing the gas compound and stirring up what will become the Eminence. She is vital in the Infinite Warriors creation. The Master has scattered people across the stars spreading his antigen and when they are possessed by the Eminence the retrogenitor particles will react, combine and he will take control of them. He will be Master of all. 

Isn't it Odd: I can understand why people might be a little under enthused by the amount of technobabble that makes up the Master's plan. Whilst I like the idea of him creating the Eminence in the first place and snatching their Infinite Warriors away from them (typically over complicated and devious but quite clever all the same) the use of antigens and retrogenitor particles and teleportation chambers does make the plan seem a little...clinical.

Standout Scene: Scenes of the Doctor and the Master psychoanalysing each other might not be everybody's cup of tea but when scripted this well they deserve your respect regardless. The fate of Sally is remarkably dramatic, you can't help but feel sorry for somebody who has had their ego fed so completely by the Master and been walked like a lamb to the slaughter.

Result: Some Doctor Who stories fail to generate one big dramatic idea but Masterplan juggles two quite adeptly and proves to be the finest Dark Eyes instalment to date. You have the notion of the Doctor and the Master confined in one location and forced to discuss their relationship and back story but there is also the whopper of an idea of the Doctor re-writing history simply because he doesn't like the way things have turned out. So much dramatic mileage in both cases and Fitton goes further than I have ever witnessed before to tackle both and with some success I might add. I have never been a huge a fan of the Master, I have to be honest. Not because I don't find the character a lot of fun (because I do) or because he has been performed badly (because everybody who has had a go - even Eric Roberts - has brought something fresh and interesting to the part) but because his ridiculous schemes are often paper thin and easy to untangle and because his motives (despite nearly 50 years worth of appearances) are often utterly vacuous. Masterplan goes someway to addressing that, to nailing down the love/hate relationship between the two Time Lords and probing the Master's psychosis. I found that rather exciting. I bet Paul McGann was excited by this script too as it offers the Doctor some dramatic opportunities and dialogue. His performance steps up as a result and his scenes with McQueen crackle with energy and tension. For once the sound effects and music are at a minimum and rather than playing out as an action adventure without pictures the whole piece is generated of the exploration of character. The central plot of the box set isn't neglected either, Masterplan showing how certain elements of the first two stories came to be. I've read complaints that this set is too slow to get anywhere (we are three hours in and this is still practical set up for the finale) but there has been a focus and intensity to the storytelling that was lacking in the first two Dark Eyes sets (they were more diverse and whimsical but lacked this kind of cohesion). A great script, bolstered by gripping performances. The only thing that stops this getting full marks is all the technobabble: 9/10

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: The Reviled written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: After giving him a break from playing the protagonist in the previous story, Fitton is now committed to pushing the Doctor about as far beyond his comfort zone as he is prepared to go. The resulting drama is excellent and Paul McGann suddenly bursts in to life in the final ten minutes of this story in a way that we haven't seen since the first Dark Eyes set. You thought you had seen the Doctor angry before? The Doctor is always looking for the best solution for all races, not just the ones that he happens to like. You can understand why he might be a little cheesed off at having to hop around this time period and clean up his arch rivals messes - it must feel as though he has been doing that his entire life. The trouble with having so many companions is that you forget where you have left them most of the time. He always tries to see the best in people because in his experience when people know that is what you are looking for in them they help you to find it. Liv figures that even when it is none of his business that the Doctor cannot help but try and make things better...his philosophy is to always leave a place in a better state than how you found it. Of all the horrors that he has encountered in the universe nothing frightens him more than human beings capacity for vengeance. He's getting angrier with each passing story, feeling helpless as the Master and the Eminence and the Time Lords pull his strings and murder more people he could have saved. What use is a Doctor if he can't save people? A good question. Let's hope that he manages to resolve some of these issues before the end of this portion of the Dark Eyes saga or I can see him ending up in a more suicidal state than he was at the end of To the Death. The Doctor is coming to some very dangerous conclusions at the end of this story. Conclusions of the sort that he would later go on to consider at climax of The Waters of Mars. Could he really sweep clean an entire timeline? Re-write history, every line?

Alter Ego: It's almost as though Fitton is trying to use the Master to push as many of the Doctor's buttons as possible before locking them together in their own two hander in the next story. What he does at the climax of The Reviled, rob the Doctor of his chance of saving people when he is certain he has already achieved that, is perhaps the cruellest thing he could do. What a bastard. Sparks will fly, I tell you.

Martyr for the Cause: Sent by the Time Lords with medical supplies, the Doctor is suspicious about Liv's presence here but not her personal motives. She's been to the end of the universe and back, the Doctor has faith that she can cope with just about anything. At the climax we learn that Liv is dying and the Doctor promises to do something about that. He's planning some big revisions.

Standout Performance: It's nice to have Nicola Walker back and she certainly commits to playing Liv as realistically as possible. The downside to pairing her with the eighth Doctor in a dire situation is that there is no space for humour in their relationship and as such both actors come across as remarkably sombre. It's not that they are unpleasant to listen to, they compliment each other rather well in this scenario but it's hardly a relationship that will set your world on fire with excitement.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'My oldest friend and my oldest enemy' 'How does that work?' 'We grew up together studied together. We both found Time Lord society didn't entirely agree with us but came to different conclusions regarding the rest of the universe. I wanted to see it, he wants to run it' - In all their stories together over the past 40 odd years I haven't heard the differences between the Doctor and the Master described quite so economically and eloquently. Without delving into the psychological implications of this statement, Fitton has their relationship bang on the nail.
'I'm going to stop a war.' 

Great Ideas: Matt Fitton is very effectively managing to build a picture of this corner of the galaxy that is caught up the conflict between humanity and the Eminence (with the Master claiming entire worlds in the crossfire). Without its fatalistic tone, it reminds of Dalek Empire insofar as we are able to spend a great deal of time in the same time period and hop from world to world and see the damaging effect the conflict is having on the people. It's unusual for Doctor Who to hang around for quite this long across a spread of stories but it is yielding some interesting results and painting a detailed picture of the setting. This colony is the best lead that the CIA has on the Master who is dosing them with his retrogenitor particles. Earth Alliance has abandoned them and only Liv Chenka seems interested in helping them out. The war always seemed so far away, even when the garrison were called up they felt that it would be over with in a heartbeat. Two years later there is still no end in sight. The 'Roaches' are the indigenous lifeforms, a nickname that the first settlers gave them that has stuck. The Ramosans are intelligent and they are more scorpion than cockroach. They aren't a target for the Infinite Armies but the colonists do. Sally is there to do the Master's bidding, to take the colonists off the Ramosans' hands with a financial sweetener to make the transaction more palatable. The Doctor uses the communications equipment to construct a sensor shield around the continent with all human lives hidden from the Infinite Warriors. IDES have had the desire to colonise Ramosa from the very beginning, from the first exploration probes to the recruitment of the colonists. When it turns out the supplies that Liv has been provided with by the Time Lords are terminally dangerous I started to wonder if anybody was looking out for the people in this conflict. You've got the Eminence trying to recruit Infinite Warriors on the colony worlds, the Master trying to bend people to his will, humanity attempting to swell their armies numbers and the Time Lords trying to wipe people out. This conflict desperately needs a man of the people, somebody who is going to protect the players in this war of possession and murder. After Liv boarded the shuttle the Master landed his TARDIS around the transporter disguised as the transporter - when the colonists thought they were boarding Liv's ship they were in fact boarding his. More recruits for his cause. What the hell is he up to? The Eminence are unforgiving in their vengeance, burning worlds that they cannot convert.

Audio Landscape: Rain lashing, ghostly cries, wet foot in mud arrows shooting, alarms, gates opening, crackling translator, flame throwers in the distance, jungle sounds, burning Ramosans.

Result: I asked for a more robust story for part two of this saga and I was not disappointed. Matt Fitton is one of those rare Big Finish writers that comes along that ticks every box to make a story work - he has ear for memorable dialogue, he never forgets about his characters, his stories are complicated enough to engage but not too ungainly to be able to follow, he adds little details to a setting that make them more memorable than they would have been and he has a way of stirring up drama without cheating the audience. The only time I think he has failed to achieve one of these essential ingredients is when exhausted or failing story elements are forced upon him (Signs and Wonders). When he is left to get on with something original, he always delivers the goods (The Wrong Doctors, Return of the Rocket Men). For Dark Eyes he has been handed a great shopping list of ingredients and none of them are his own creations (The Master, The Eminence, Narvin, Liv, Molly) and yet he rises to the challenge of bringing all these elements together in a way that feels fresh and invigorating, for each of the individual elements and for the Dark Eyes story. There's a dramatic focus to the saga in this set that comes from one writer taking responsibility for all the stories and having a clear direction of where it is going. With The Reviled, Fitton gets to explore the conflict that is taking place and the effect it is having on the 'little people', how so many powers are trying to influence this war that those in the trenches are the ones that are suffering. The Doctor emerges as something unique because he is the only person that isn't trying to exploit the colonies, he's the only one that is trying to help them. It seems that no matter what he does to try and warn them, to protect them or even to intervene with their kidnap the victims of the humanity/Eminence war will always end up under somebody's thrall. It certainly makes for an exciting final fifteen minutes when the Master pulls off a deceptive coup. It's quite bold to snatch victory from the Doctor like this when he is already feeling vulnerable and it brings out an intensity from Paul McGann that quite took my breath away. It's time the rival Time Lords finally ran into each other, I think there will be a few choice words to say: 8/10

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Dark Eyes III: The Death of Hope written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In his quest for universal domination, the Master plans to exploit the terrifying Infinite Warriors of the mysterious Eminence. The Doctor's friend, Molly, is key to that plan's execution, and now, aided by corrupted genius Sally Armstrong, the Master is close to success. Paranoid and perplexed after his recent experience, the Doctor skirts the fringes of the fifty-year conflict between humanity and the Infinite Armies. Wary of changing the course of history, he fears that to fight the Eminence would be to do the Daleks' bidding. But when Time Lord CIA agent Narvin provides the impetus for the Doctor to act, Liv Chenka joins him in a desperate race to save their friend and stop the Master. As the Doctor goes head to head with his oldest and deadliest rival, this war is about to get very personal indeed...

Damaged Goods: It's always quite unnerving to listen to the eighth Doctor interacting with the Time Lords with the foreknowledge of where both he and they are heading. At some point between Dark Eyes and Night of the Doctor the Time War will erupt and force the eighth Doctor to abandon his skin and transform into a warrior. That means some serious shit is going to go down. The fact that we are privy to this knowledge but the Doctor and the Time Lords aren't adds an edgy layer to events of the sort that I haven't felt in any other Big Finish series. His TARDIS has been ripped from the Time Vortex and impounded and he has been imprisoned by his own people. What he has been shown of the Master's activities brings out an anger in him that we haven't seen since the beginning of this Dark Eyes saga. His greatest enemy is abusing people he loves without them even knowing about it and amassing an army of his own. To prevent that from happening is his only desire now. The trouble is who does he save first...Molly, Sally or the colonists? Fitton has set up a lot of work for the war beaten Time Lord. Have we ever had the Doctor hang around this long and deal with the consequences of his previous adventures? It feels like he is settled in this time zone for some time, mopping up his mess.

Alter Ego: Unusually this opening instalment gives all the fun to the Master (don't the villains always have more fun?) as we observe one of his adventures along with the Doctor. I can't help but wonder if Big Finish were so seduced by the McQueen version of the Master (and naturally so, he's a delight) that they were tempted to give him his own spin off series (their all the rage these days). This seems like a fair compromise, for the Master to have a huge presence in the Dark Eyes series and for us to be able to observe him at work through the Doctor's eyes. This is quite a new take on the character because we rarely get to see the Master putting all the pieces of his plan into place, we usually catch up with him once his traps have been set and the Doctor has walked in to them. Now is a chance to see what happens to the Master between the Doctor's adventures, what he gets up after his last defeat and before his next (I hate to sound pessimistic but it's his lot in life). I love the idea of him walking into a tow under threat in a white hat and declaring himself a knight errand who has come to save them all. Such egotism. Is this the only time where the Master walks free of an adventure having achieved everything that he wanted? Horrifically, I could get used to this.

Dark Eyes: A prisoner of the Master, it has not yet been revealed what Molly's role is to be. Her Nan sounds like a lot of fun, a palm reader that her mother disapproved of. Given the reaction against her character has been that she is too acerbic, it's great to see a little of her wartime bedside manner at work. In her heart all she wants to do is help to heal the sick.

Standout Performance: You can tell when McGann is engaged by the material that he is playing, there is a certain frisson in his voice. It was there in Storm Warning when he first started out Big Finish and again when he first struck out in 45 minute stories with Lucie Miller and once again when Dark Eyes kicked off. When each of these formats has become the norm (the Divergent Universe, some of series two of the 8DAs and now at the beginning of Dark Eyes 3) McGann coasts a little, sounding a bit disinterested. The lines are delivered but there isn't any great passion in them. Mind you given he is merely an observer to events rather than the protagonist in this story could explain his ambivalence. Let's see how this develops throughout the box set. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Since when did Doctor translate into 'gun for hire.'
'Oh get back in your box...' - not a great line in itself but the delivery is wonderful. It's about time that somebody give the two finger salute to the Eminence.

Great Ideas: To give new listeners a chance to jump on board with this release without having to purchase and listen to over four hours of material to reach this point there is a summary of the events of the first two Dark Eyes set. Given it has almost been a year since the last instalment was released it is probably no bad thing that the experienced listeners are given a reminder too. I remembered all the elements (the Master, the Eminence, Liv, Molly, the Daleks, etc) but I couldn't quite recall how they were all linked. There is a war on between humanity and the Eminence and it is one the Doctor feels the Time Lords should have no part in. Is this one step closer to the Time War? There's talk of scrapping the fifty year war between humanity and the Infinite Warriors but playing about with the web of time is a messy business. An innocent woman was stolen from Earth's history - Molly O'Brien - and was turned into a weapon against the Daleks. When that didn't go to plan the Time Lords sent the Master of all people in to clear things up using the Eminence. In the original timeline the IDES scientific Institute was a research body established in the 1970s and little more than an academic institution that faded away in the 25th Century. In this new version of history, post Straxus, it is at the forefront of exploration, space travel, colonisation and technology. The Infinite warriors are the perfect fighters in war because they are merely empty vessels used to ship around the breath of life...they don't feel pain. Because these people have been touched by Molly and have been infected with the Dark Eyes virus, they are now immune to the Eminence. Anyone that the Eminence possesses that are primed with the Dark Eyes antigens will fall under his control instead. The crafty bugger. It was obvious that he was never there on philanthropic terms but to walk into a town of desperate people to recruit a new army of slaves for his cause...that's callous. With the Eminence infecting people with the breath of forever and the Master dosing them with retro genitor particles nobody in this war is fighting because they want to. It's a war of possessed soldiers.

Audio Landscape: Scratchy SOS message, breathing the vapours of the Eminence, gunfire, rubble strewn, all out war, the Master's TARDIS materialising.

Isn't it Odd: Very much the first chapter of this set, I'm not sure that The Death of Hope holds up well as a story in its own right but it certainly gets the audience up to speed and offers some intriguing hints for the future in its economic running time. I can make allowances for a story that has a weighty list of requirements like this but the next instalment needs a stronger focus on its distinctive narrative now all the preparation has been performed.

Standout Scene: The double meaning of the title really hits home in the last five minutes. The Master, happy with the results of his experiment, leaves the people of this colony to their fate. Or does he...?

Result: Part One of The Master Adventures. No wonder Paul McGann can't quite keep the irritation out of his voice. It's a clever, backdoor way of showing what a Master series might be like and with Alex McQueen playing the leading role it looks like it would be a delight to listen to. Regardless of the fact that they are in a set and all written by the same person I will be reviewing these pieces independently as they all have their own titles. The Death of Hope is all set up and prompts about the events of the first two series with hints of what is to come. As a story it certainly has more meat on its bones than The Traitor, which opened the previous set, mostly because of the Master's involvement and how Fitton waits until the last possible moment to reveal his true plan, stringing out the tension. There's not a great deal to discuss because so much of the impact of this story will depend on how it is followed up. Heron's world is nicely sketched in, it's populace represented by a handful of nicely drawn characters but I can't say I was overly concerned about their fate. Had this been a world that I was intimately acquainted with it might have made more of a difference. It's the Master that rises out of this story triumphant. He has achieved his aim but we still don't know how he plans to apply his newfound ability. I can't wait to find out: 7/10

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Masters of Earth written by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on. The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy. When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators. By history. Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless... The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help

Softer Six: We have the best of both worlds with the Doctor and Peri these days. Once the black sheep of the Doctor/companion family, they have both matured exponentially on audio to a point where the characters are older and wiser and the actors are intimately acquainted and the net result is a partnership that rivals the best of the best. I've always enjoyed the spiky relationship between this pair but if you were to tell me that the day would come when they would be my favourite Big Finish team over any other combination of regulars I might have laughed in your face. There is a genuine warmth and affection between them now that is palpable. And yet there is still that spikiness and tension that rippled between them too, that can erupt when you least expect it. The Doctor admits with a laugh how much he has missed her these past five years. The Doctor has promised Peri a fresh start and complete honesty. Like an authentic take on the first Doctor's adventures, the Doctor is prevented from returning to the TARDIS to aid his rescue of Peri when it is swallowed whole by a bog. Instead he has to ride across country in a motorcycle, an image I would have loved to have seen on screen. It goes against everything that he believes in but the Doctor cannot get involved. He doesn't give a fig about the Web of Time, he just doesn't want to give the Daleks the heads up about himself or the TARDIS. Trusting Peri with this information, he asks her to do whatever it takes to prevent the Daleks from capturing him and finding out his role in their demise. Even if that means extreme action... This might be the only time in the Doctor's life where he has given his companion permission to kill him, that's how high the stakes are. The Doctor promises to never let Peri down again, a big guarantee to uphold. Listening to the sixth Doctor talk about Dodo is just surreal. He chooses his friends very carefully and his enemies usually choose him.

Busty Babe: Peri remembers that momentary fizz when the Doctor doesn't know where they are once they have landed. She saw enough executions on Krontep to last her a lifetime. She's even more reckless these days because she's enjoyed years of autonomy without his restraining influence. After her experiences as the widows assassin her own name sounds funny in her mouth like she is isn't sure who she is anymore. Because they have been apart for so long Peri has started to wonder if the Doctor has changed more than she thought and because it took him so long to look her up after the last time they were split she wonders if he will just leave her to her fate. After all, he doesn't seem to be particularly interested in getting involved in this conflict with the Daleks. One moment that really stood was Peri calming Ross down in a particularly tense situation when he doesn't think he can go on - this used to be Peri that panicked in these fraught situations. She's furious with the Doctor when he calls her a stupid woman and slaps him around the face, a violent act that shows that she has really grown a pair. You have to feel sorry for a woman who has spent the last five years in the thrall of a nasty from the Doctor's worst imaginings and as soon as she gets her faculties back she is preyed on by Varga plants and partially transformed. I think Peri might be in need of some major therapy once her travels with the Doctor are over. Peri channels Evelyn for a moment when the Doctor appears dispassionate about the loss of one of their friends and she is appalled. Her reaction to the Varga transformation is one of outright hysteria, a very natural response to having your body and mind consumed by pure hate. The writers have Peri react to the massacre at the end of this story in a way that Eric Saward should have had her do in the mid-eighties. She's appalled at the loss of life and how the Doctor got others to pull the trigger for him, keeping his hands nice and clean. In that respect she doesn't think he has changed at all.

Standout Performance: Concentrating the story in Scotland is another unique aspect, giving the story a distinctive location via the actors' brogue. It's a great cast of actors with very natural chemistry, something about how all the characters are working together desperately to survive that gels them into a strong unit.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Like brutal barons of old, the Daleks have cleared the Highlands.'
'I've parked better.'
'Watch out the human race is coming...'
'The Daleks are evil...but they exist. It's not for the likes of me to sign their death certificate.'

Great Ideas: The Dalek Invasion of Earth presented the ultimate post apocalyptic nightmare, the subjugation of the human race by the most evil creatures in the universe. Human beings were either exploited or killed. The planet was raped of its resources. Whilst I question the execution of the story in parts, on paper it is a compelling scenario and one of the few occasions where the Doctor has been on the Earth to prevent its occupation by an alien force. By the time he arrives to sort the problem out it the human race has already suffered for over ten years. It's a huge stain on the planets timeline and the Doctor's record. It is a period that has been mostly ignored since given the end of the story has already been told but it provides Cavan Scott and Mark Wright a fresh avenue to tell a Dalek story in, one where they can explore the psychological ramifications of Dalek occupation without having the burden of having to bring the invasion story to a climax. They can concentrate on their handful of characters and how they are dealing with the nightmare scenario. The human race is trying to hold onto its values but when it is every man for himself the social niceties tend to go out the window. There is always the chance that fresh writers can examine what was presented in an earlier story and offer a gripping new spin on it and the idea that the Dalek neck restraints are curved to prevent the slave workers from slicing their throats open and free themselves from Dalek labour is a case in point. Pure Scott and Wright. Meteor bombardments and sickness struck the Earth and then the Daleks moved in six months later like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The solar system is blockaded and other worlds are unable to stand against the Dalek Empire. A decade of occupation that almost brought the human race to its knees. Moira Brody is on record as being the leader of the Scottish resistance, a woman who was essential in the rebuilding of the Earth when the Daleks were defeated. Her timeline has already been polluted by exposure to the Doctor and Peri and he is starting to worry about further changes if they don't get her back where she needs to be. A forest of Varga plants in Scotland? They are a particularly nasty form of plant life native to Skaro and they have been shipped to the Earth as another arm of the Dalek invasion. The Daleks are turning the Earth into a battle platform that will be piloted through space and plan to shower each planet with Varga seeds prior to their invasion. Varga literally means 'devourer.' If a return to the Dalek Invasion of Earth wasn't enough with an added forest of Vargas, Scott and Wright throw in an ocean seething with Slythers to truly take you back to the height of Dalekmania. Without realising it this band of rebels have passed an intelligence test, managing to escape all the dangers that have been put in their way and reach what was supposed to be an island of safety. There are two types of robomen, the simpler versions and the Elite and unwittingly the Doctor and his friends have been tested to see if they have the appropriate skills to pass as one of the latter. Very sneaky. The Daleks are growing tired of rebel factions springing up all over the world and want to infiltrate those groups with sophisticated robomen that appear to be normal human beings. The trouble with double agents that can blend in seamlessly is that it can work both ways...and that's where things get a little be complicated. Who can the Doctor and Peri trust? Who can the Daleks trust? After all those years of fighting off Dalek subjugation is it any wonder that the human race has developed a sense of xenophobia? Would they become as intolerant of others as those who forced those feelings out of them? What if they had the strength to make sure that no other races in the galaxy had a pop at them? Would they really turn away from that opportunity? Fascinating questions this story throws up. Whilst the Doctor and Peri don't get to bring and end to the Dalek invasion (that was never on the cards), at least one arm of their attack on the earth withers away and dies because of their intervention. Who knows, by causing the Elite programme to fail they might have made a significant difference to the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

Audio Landscape: It's been a while since I have been this impressed by the direction of a main range adventure and it comes as no surprise that it was Nicholas Briggs that was responsible for bringing this two hour long action set piece to life. Birdsong, a lynch mob, a Dalek saucer descending and the landing ramp coming down, Robomen walking through wet mud, the TARDIS swallowed by a bubbling bog, authentic Dalek spaceship background noise and doors, lifted straight from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, pouring a glass of liquor. heavy machinery in the refinery, motorbike spluttering out, Daleks on the intercom, sparking Roboman helmet, gunfire, alarm, two Daleks taken down by a truck, a bracing Scotland wind, a sheep on open land, Robomen shooting at the truck, Dalek fire raining from the sky, the truck tipping down a ravine, dogs barking, Varga plants smashing windows and slurping in hunger for blood, seagulls screaming, waves both inside and outside the boat, a screaming Slyther attacking the boat, heart monitor, high pitched whine, a huge explosion, dragging the TARDIS out of the mud.

Musical Cues: I really enjoy Nick Briggs' soundtracks and don't think we get nearly enough of them these days. He is more in favour of ambient music rather than melodies which reminds me of the scores of stories such as The Dalek Invasion of Earth ad The Daleks' Masterplan. There were moments in Masters of Earth that reminded me strongly of Jubilee, The Apocalypse Element and Dalek Empire. That's a good thing.

Isn't it Odd: It was a creative decision to update the quality of the Daleks voices in Masters of Earth (the ones from Invasion Earth were particularly effeminate dictators) and yet Briggs chooses to keep the slurred voices of the Robomen authentic. I would have been bold and changed those too because at times the remedial brogue of the metallic slaves makes this sound like amateur hour. 'Escaped prisoner has escaped!' - Daleks have never been known for their scintillating conversation but this bunch are validly crass. With so many moments of high drama there were a few occasions when the story descended into an awful lot of hysterical shouting.

Result: I have often complained in the past about certain Big Finish stories coming across as big brash action adventure stories that feel like soundtracks to missing stories, presenting big set pieces that should be seen rather than heard. Rather than exploiting the audio medium for its greatest strengths, the exploration of language and ideas, the stories instead indulge in lots of shouting and explosions. Well I'm going to go against my own argument when it comes to reviewing Masters of Earth because it features more than your usual handful of action sequences and yet delivered by director supremo Nicholas Briggs I was able to shut my eyes and see every frame of the action taking place. Desperate rebels travelling across country and pursued by Daleks at every turn, Masters of Earth presents a gripping scenario that is well dramatised by the authors and expertly brought to life by the director. The action is fast and furious and I was helplessly caught up in dramatic kisses to Dalekmania throughout. The characters feel much more vivid than your average 2014 main range adventure too; battered , bruised and desperate, this band of unlikely friends have developed a no nonsense attitude to life that sees them through the hardships of this story. It's an unusual Dalek story insofar that the writers aren't in the position of having to put a stop to the threat because that has already been dealt with elsewhere so they can concentrate on their own band of characters and their journey exclusively. I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish setting and it was a delight to hear so many distinctive accents in play, another unique selling point. Even the dynamic between the Doctor and Peri has been given a fresh lick of paint. Whilst they are far more comfortable with each other now they are older and wiser, her return has brought a bit of that spikiness back to his character and she is no-nonsense these days in an extremely forceful way. They make a great team but there is room for some very interesting tension that comes from knowing each other so well and trying to discover each other again after five years apart. That I wasn't expecting. The final surprise is the fourth episode, which from nowhere reveals that everything that we have been through in this story to that point has been for a purpose. What appeared to be a plotless jaunt through the Dalek invasion coheres into a very strong and well thought through narrative. I was prepared to be very cynical about another Dalek story (tenapenny these days) but this was much, much stronger than I was expecting. I thought the setting and characters were brawny enough that this could have been a pilot for a spin off series - mixing Terry Nation's Survivors and Dalekmania. I'd buy them if they were as good as this: 9/10