Saturday, 31 January 2015

Community: Social Psychology written by Liz Cackowski and directed by Anthony Russo

What's it about: Jeff begins to bond with Shirley over Britta's new boyfriend and his teeny tiny nipples...

Ensemble: I'm sure we've all had that moment where we have been part of a group of friends and have found that there is one person included that we would rather avoid spending time with alone. Like Jeff, I found that once I started spending time with them I actually had a great deal in common and began to enjoy and look forward to my time with them. He pigeon holes Shirley as a squeaky clean mum of two without any vices but the truth of the matter is that this God fearing Christian is the biggest tattle tale on the planet. She ruthlessly enjoys taking the mickey out of those who come onto her radar and Jeff and Shirley have an ideal target in Vaughn, a man who is screaming out to have the world mock his naiveté. It is a joy to watch them ripping on the eccentrics that surround them at Greendale (and there is something about Shirley's laugh that I find impossible to resist). Annie lost her scholarship and virginity to the pills that she took in High School, that's why she has found herself stuck at Community College. I am deeply in love with John Oliver's portrayal of Ian Duncan and so more time in his company is a huge bonus in this episodes favour. Teaming him up with Annie is a stroke of genius, the stuffy (but horny) English Professor and the perky (and chaste) American straight-A student. Donald Glover was somebody who wasn't on my radar in the initial episodes but he grows to become one of the most versatile and nuanced of performers in the ensemble. His breakdown in Duncan's experiment is the first signs of the greatness to come. Interestingly this is the first instance of the impenetrable nature of the group and their closeness hurting people around them. Vaughn might be a bit of a dork but what the group do to him is bullying, plain and simple. Their destructive nature is revisited several times in later seasons to fascinating effect (poor Todd).

Introducing: Britta's new boyfriend who lasts about as long as sneeze before moving onto fresher pastures within the group. I would like to say something deeply profound about this new ager who seems to do everything but hug a tree but my one residing impression of him (despite his hilarious break up songs) are his microscopic nipples (and kudos to Olsen who runs with the gag). Shirley searching for them on his chest when his back is turned is laugh out loud hilarious.

Feeling Hot Hot Hot: Vaughn is something of a cutie, despite is widdle diddle nips. Even Jeff thinks so.

Meta: 'I figure we were more like Chandler and Phoebe. They never really had stories together' - Abed on his relationship with Annie. This is something that would drastically change over time.

Great Gags: 'My kids got hamsters with bigger nips!'
'Honestly Jeff, how dare you!' - sometimes timing is everything.
'They call me Tattleina. It's a bumble bee nickname. It's cute but it stings.'
'What are we going to talk about? My kids? Your Doctor career?' 'I was a lawyer' 'See, I'm already bored...' - reminds me so much of one of my friends with the shortest attention span ever.

Funniest Moment: Duncan's experiment revolves around people being kept waiting for an experiment to begin and seeing how long they take to break. The punchline comes when all the test subjects breakdown and leave the room in various spectacularly dramatic ways but Abed waits patiently for over an entire day. Which in turns double backs the experiment and causes the good Professor and his students to succumb to the 'Duncan Principle' as they are forced to endure the never ending wait to see the experiment throughout. The emotional punchline comes when we realise Abed was seething with rage the whole time but contained it because he wanted to be a good friend to Annie and she had asked him to participate. He really doesn't exist on our plane, does he? But he is so sweet. Chang breaking down within seconds is worth a chuckle too with Ken Jeong losing it in the way only he can.

Sidelined: Community has such a large cast that not every character can be highlighted each week and this is the section that will flag up who has been shunted into the dead end gag of the week. Pierce and his 'earnoculars' take the biscuit this time around.

End Tag: Gleefully funny, Troy and Abed take the piss out of a handful of people behind a glass partition that they think cannot hear them. 'Just pretend like you were sleeping.'

Result: 'We'll always have tiny nipples...' Joyfully ridiculous and finally shining the spotlight on arguably my favourite character (Shirley), Advanced Psychology had me in stitches from beginning to end. At some point the show has to drop the ball but it's opening stretch of episodes is one of absolute confidence in it's mission statement to entertain. Season one is something of the odd man out when it comes to Community, the only season that sits comfortably beside all the other happy go lucky sitcom out there before things get anarchic and out of this world. But within that ordinariness the creators have cultivated a stunning ensemble and some outrageous scenarios. Duncan's psychology experiment gone hideously wrong proves delightfully oddball and has a fine heart-warming sting to it and Shirley and Jeff's outrageous tittle tattle builds bridges between the two characters in a way that neither of them were expecting. What else is there to say except stop reading these reviews and grab yourself season one - I cannot see how you could ever regret it: 9/10

Friday, 30 January 2015

Bloodlust Episode Six written by Alan Flanagan, Will Howells & Joe Lidster and directed by Ursula Burton & David Darlington

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

The Cunninghams: Harry genuinely hated his father and wished he was dead but now it has actually happened he is conflicted. It's something you think but don't mean. He, Amy and Tommy will make an unusual family but I could see it working. You would think Harry spitting insults at Angelique would encourage her to flay the skin from his bones but it has quite the opposite effect. She likes the fire inside of him. And despite her unholy alliance and supernatural powers I believe her when she says she didn't kill Andrew. She has no reason to lie.

Standout Performance: Kathryn Leigh-Scott. I just think she's fabulous. Give her more to do please.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Isn't marrying you a quick and sure way of signing your own death warrant?'
'We need to stop pretending that the supernatural isn't real. Collinsport is a town blighted by creatures of the night.'

Great Ideas: Quentin is a werewolf.  Maggie threatens to tell the town what he is unless he leaves immediately, her name clearly carrying a lot of weight in Collinsport. Or possibly Andrew was killed by something supernatural like a witch, as the pentagram implies. Frankly there is such a list of suspects in this town it would probably be more productive to decide who isn't a possibility and work backwards from there. Nobody seems that keen to have Quentin in town but then across his extreme spread of episodes in the TV series he seems to have had his hand in just about everything. He's in love with Leyla Collins and they are married. Angelique is using her time in the cave to contemplate, to plan...possibly a revenge on Barnabas? She turned Quentin into a wolf to defeat the Rankin creature, it is trapped in the portrait but it claws at his heart. Spare me the thought of Cody perving over Tommy, especially when he is technically (if not physically) still a very young child. And even moreso because he might be infected with a certain lupine strain of madness that could erupt at any time. There was no gas leak when the Beyond the Grave team came to town. Collinsport is simply a place where bad things happen and people go missing all the time. The Birds, the ghost ship, the death of Susan nice to see a number of standalone Dark Shadows storylines being dragged into the greater whole, enhancing them. How awesome to hear Maggie Evans finally take a stand against the supernatural forces that are tearing apart their lives in Collinsport.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong (it's so unusual to have a sound effect that isn't trying to scare the shit out of you that it really stands out), doorbell, pouring a drink, pub crowd, an angry mob (Big Finish doesn't have a good track record at convincing with these but these scenes are brilliantly done), cocking a gun,

Standout Scene: The final scene is to die for. Finally...he has arrived!

Result: 'It's time for us to stop waiting to die!' Reasons to love Bloodlust at this point; it is completely unlike anything else that Big Finish has ever put out before in it's serial nature, it has an enormous cast of characters that are all well defined, it is juggling two murder plots with a plethora of suspects, there is an unusually dominant female presence which is hugely refreshing, it deals with elements of the TV show but has added all manner of intriguing extra characters and is pushing the established ones in fresh directions, the standalone Dark Shadows audios are being slotted into the central narrative to add further weight to the series and range as a whole, the serial is being scripted and directed by fresh talent (and some old talent that hasn't been exhausted out of constant employment in the Doctor Who ranges)... I might have been a little skeptical in the early episodes of Bloodlust because the set up took a little while to get going but now things are complicated and dramatic and running away at a rate of knots. It's probably the most substantial thing Big Finish has brought out in about three or four years, thanks to its serial nature and the fact that it is set in one place. Unlike Doctor Who, Blakes' 7 or Jago & Litefoot there is no need to maintain the status quo at the end of a story - people can be bumped off or treated appallingly and that is a very exciting prospect. Actions have consequences. Emphasis on Quentin is exciting...but it is the Angelique material that is the most exciting again. And Maggie Evans is on the warpath and anybody in their right mind would pay good money for that. And the ending had me salivating for more...the character I have been waiting for more than any other! Stirring stuff: 9/10

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bloodlust Episode Five written by Alan Flanagan, Will Howells & Joe Lidster and directed by Ursula Burton & David Darlington

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

The Cunninghams: It's finally time for Amy to have it out with Andrew because her family is now being affected by his shadowy dealings with Angelique. Andrew has known the truth about Amy since the day they first met and has been planning a return to Collinsport for a long time. So was this a marriage of convenience all along? It is very refreshing for somebody who isn't a viewer of the TV series to have Amy's past spelt out in quite so much detail. She studied parapsychology and fought the living dead in Egypt. One of her brothers was a werewolf and her sister in law killed him because she was one too. That's the sort of family history that would drive anyone bananas. Amy understands that when you mess around with magic and the supernatural, people die. It isn't something to dabble in when you don't know what you are doing. Even Harry doesn't want anything to do with his father anymore, he would choose to stay with his new wife than him. It is very empowering to hear Amy stand up to her husband, to toss him aside and take the fight to Angelique. She might have been playing the meek housewife but it's clear that she has teeth.

Standout Performance: Now it is Stephanie Ellyne's turn to step from the shadows and show us all what she is made of. The hatred she flings at Matthew Waterhouse in the opening scenes is a thing to behold. Amy has emerged as the dominant figure in this episode and Ellyne is more than up to the task of taking control of the story. I hope Amy doesn't leave town. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Amy Cunningham is no more. Amy Jennings? She fights back!'
'I hope you know how to use the loo.'
'I used to live as a Goddess and now I skulk down here like a rat.'

Great Ideas: It's a dangerous game but if Kate can investigate and prove that Melody was killed by a vampire then she can clear her name and public scandal and expose the truth to the world. It would make her career and salvage her reputation. It's a perilous gamble but one I can understand that she would think is worth taking. There is a quick flashback t Beyond the Grave, a superb full length Dark Shadows audio that is well worth checking out as a standalone adventure. Imagine if you were touched by magic and transformed from a baby to an adult where the world is still all new to you. How would you cope with the sudden expectations? Imagine being able to experience everything that wasn't available to you as a baby for the first time? Poor Harry is left holding the baby...who just happens to be a fully grown man now. Angelique was abandoned by Barnabas Collins, the man that she loved and left to rot in a miserable town. Mercy doesn't come easy to her anymore. See, the idea of becoming a witch is probably a very enticing prospect for Amy but when Angelique is your only example of how this lifestyle ends up it would suddenly lose its shine for me. What precisely is Quentin's secret?

Isn't it Odd: How sad that Andrew Cunningham has met his maker. I was loving Matthew Waterhouse's contribution to this serial.

Result: 'There will be another attack tonight...' Time for some real substance. Until now Bloodlust has been chugging along the train line setting up the journey and slowly unveiling the secrets that everybody is hiding on board. This is the point where we really get in touch with everybody's feelings on what is happening and where the ladies about town make their move. With Amy, Angelique and Maggie Evans you have a trio of very strong female characters. It's a very satisfying piece of the puzzle because all the melodrama and surprises is worth nothing unless the characters are behaving to it in a natural and interesting manner. This is the first episode scripted by Joe Lidster and you can tell, he juggles up the threads very confidently and ensures that everybody gets some screen time and development. With the characters aflame, the narrative flying and the big question of the identity of Melody's killer becoming more and more enticing this is the most engaging episode yet. I was hooked throughout: 9/10

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Bloodlust Episode Four written by Alan Flanagan, Will Howells & Joe Lidster and directed by Ursula Burton & David Darlington

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

Andrew Cunningham: A control freak and a misogynist, Andrew convinces Amy that she doesn't want to have a night out so he can head out and have a game cards with the lads. He patronisingly calls her a 'good girl' and stops shy of patting her on the head. The more they build this arsehole up for a fall, the more delicious it is going to be when it happens. He is so deluded that he thinks he can control a spirit like Angelique, offering her the less than flattering terms of doing what he wants or else. I bet he was the little boy in the playground that reflected the sun through magnifying glasses and burnt ants alive. If he wants spells that will make him the big man about town then he has to earn it the hard way. Andrew knows his wife's secrets, her dabbling in the paranormal before she met him. It might be borrowed knowledge but he has rummaged through her books and acquired a little dark power of his own. Enough for it to go to his head, certainly. Like a lot of relationships there is an awful lot unsaid or fabricated and just as Amy has left her supernatural past a blank, it appears Andrew has been stacking up the lies to his wife too (specifically about his redundancy money). This is a marriage that is starting to unravel, where both parties have their secrets.

Angelique: The spirit in the cave has lived centuries. She has loved, lost and loved again, transcending time and space and death. She has known great darkness and great power and there is little that can surprise or frighten her now. It appears like a charitable act when she releases Andrew but I am certain his torment has only just begun.

Standout Performance: Matthew Waterhouse continues to impress, he's attacking this material with the sort of passion you don't expect in audio drama. Andrew is a piece of work and then some and Waterhouse isn't afraid to make him as despicable as possible. They say villains are the most enjoyable roles and he is living up to that maxim with relish.

Great Ideas: Nobody knew Melody Devereaux so who would kill a complete stranger? A random attack? A maniac? Maybe somebody was visiting that did know her? Her husband is practically a choir boy and doesn't seem capable. How do you proceed with a case when you have absolutely no leads whatsoever? When you have been through all the probable causes of exsanguination do you then turn to the supernatural as a possibility? We finally get to participate in one of Maggie Evans' late night congregations but her endgame is far from clear. 

Audio Landscape: A thriving pub atmosphere, doors opening and closing, hands clapping, telephone ring, Angelique's screams, flames crackling. 

Result: I'm starting to really fall in love with Matthew Waterhouse's deliciously twisted turn as Andrew Cunningham. There is simply nothing remotely likable about this man and the tides are gathering about his head. The games between Andrew and Angelique are the highlight of this episode, his insane notion that he has the power to harm her and the way she playfully lets him believe that he has conquered her. I have so many questions about both of these characters that have yet to be answered but there is still a long way to go yet. I want to know what Maggie Evans is planning, I want to know who killed Melody and I want to know why Angelique let Andrew all good soap operas the treads are trickling through the serial, gathering momentum, teasing us with anticipation. The cliffhanger ending to this story was completely unexpected - where do we go from here? It feels like in Collinsport, anything could happen and that is an exciting feeling: 8/10

The Romance of Crime written by Gareth Roberts, adapted by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Romana and K9 to the Rock of Judgement; a court, prison and place of execution built into a rocket-powered asteroid. When involved in an investigation by the system's finest lawman, they find they must seek answers to some disturbing questions.

Teeth and Curls: 'Me? Wear your face? Not on your Nelly!' So daft and so smart, the Doctor of the 17th season is simply a joy to be around. He'll trick you into thinking that he is as mad as a hatter and no threat at all and then when your guard is down he will make his move and destroy the foundations of your dastardly plan so they are irreversibly damaged. He's sly, madly intelligent and very funny. He's the ultimate Doctor. According to K.9, the Doctor is 2.9% more likely to need assistance when leaving the TARDIS. I can well believe that. The Doctor is so used to people suspecting him of whatever sabotage/murder/fill in your own word that when Spiggot offers him in automatic cover story he is momentarily befuddled. He's soon in investigative mode, excited by the challenge to walk around unquestioned. When he can't read he can sure read an awful lot (remember when he flicked through that novel in City of Death?). If there is one thing he hates it is a lot of guards jogging somewhere together in unison - that suggests something's afoot. Strangely enough I find the fourth Doctor of his latter seasons far more easy to take seriously when he declares that something terrifying is afoot because his warnings are a slap in the face after all the comedy. He jolts you back to reality with a shock unlike the moodier fourth Doctor of the Hinchcliffe years who was pretty much a walking black cloud. The Doctor calls himself a willing amateur but I'll bet a Talmar to a toffee he runs rings around Spiggot. He talks about the horror of immortality as though it is something that he himself would not want to experience. Xais can see right through him, talking like an idiot when it is clear that he is not. Romana wonders whether the Doctor enjoys being interrogated, he has made it an occupational occurrence.

Aristocratic Adventurer: I can't think of anything more joyful than reuniting the fourth Doctor and Romana II (if not Tom Baker and Lalla Ward if rumours about them recording their dialogue separately are true) and them having further adventures in the season seventeen mould. The Graeme Williams era is one of my favourites in the shows original run for so many reasons but high up on that list is the incredible relationship between these two and the chemistry between the two leads. I was not on the same page as JNT at all when he wanted to tear apart this trio to bring in Adric, Tegan and Nyssa claiming that it had all gotten a bit smart. What he did was to underestimate the audience whereas Williams treated them with respect and assumed we would be able to keep up with two dazzling Time Lords at the height of their powers, rattling around the universe, desperately in love and having jolly scrapes. Despite the budgetary restrictions, it was a very happy time for the show. Big Finish manage to tap into that beautifully and the first scene featuring the Doctor and Romana playing games in the console room (the Doctor losing terribly, of course) took right back to the holiday spirit of season seventeen. When they land it means there is twice the brains figuring out where they are...although the Doctor is far too busy being facetious to truly help out and it is mostly left to Romana to do the deductive work. Very season seventeen. She's described as having pert lips, a noble brow and milk-white which the Doctor objects. Well of course he does, he's head over heels for her. She's resigned to the fact that they are always in danger. Romana gets lumbered with Stokes as her unwitting companion in the latter episodes, a fawning imbecile that she nonetheless takes it upon herself to look after. His bumbling nature and her razor sharp wit makes for a very enjoyable combination. Romana takes objection to the Doctor stating that he is the only person who can stop Xais. How nice to hear Romana acknowledge the influence the Doctor has had on her life.

Standout Performance: Given that she has just been cast as the sixth Doctor's latest audio companion now is a good time to listen out for Miranda Raison's turn as Margot. Not an easy role to play, a character having a nervous breakdown in a Doctor Who story because the urge is to overdo it (especially given the tone of the era) but Raison offers a sympathetic and twitchy turn, a character that it is awkward to be around because you're not quite sure how she is going to react. To her undoubted amusement, she gets to chew the scenery outrageously as Xais too. Of interest is also Michael Troughton, an actor with a very discernable lineage. Clearly the note he received was to play down the role of Menlove Stokes because he hits so many subtleties as he is climbing the walls, raving about his death art and accusing the entire universe of being jealous of his talent. 'You are several degrees closer to cretinessness than I had previously credited!'  Lalla Ward delights, especially when she gets all bossy and maniacal which gets me all hard and soft at the same time. Oo-er.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Don't worry, I'd imagine you've induced several nervous breakdowns in your time' 'Oh really? How kind of you to say so.'
'Either he's too clever by half or he's very, very stupid.'
'Child prodigy. I never liked early achievers.'
'From the look of these scene of crime photos the devastation does seem total. The cost of that damage must run into pennies!'
(Upon seeing K.9) 'This is your weapon? Do you expect the Nisbitt's to die laughing?'
'We're all going to die!'
'I'd rather be scattered into the ether than have my spleen squeezed until it pops by a gang of psychopaths! Farewell my angel, I wish your sanity was equal to your attractiveness! Doctor, you're as mad as you appear!' - I could pretty much quote everything Stokes says. 
'Crime isn't what it was. It's rather lost it's romance.'

Great Ideas: An asteroid housing The Rock of Judgement, not only a court but also where they doll out judgement to the very worst criminals. Most people here are very dangerous and very keen to get out but a few million miles of vacuum makes for a pretty strong deterrent to escape. The recreation area is set up for the workers with suppressants available to endure such long spells off planet.  Like Shada, this is a dark backdrop for a comic story, resulting in some very black comedy. It would be so easy to present a silly location with daft aliens and lots of crazy happenings but the fact that the atmosphere of the asteroid is one of darkness adds an extra layer of substance to the story. Stokes is the in-house artist and has devoted himself to capturing the souls of the criminals that will meet their end, a rather macabre affair suited to his creepy personality. The security system on the asteroid is degrading, somebody is sabotaging it deliberately and Spiggot has been sent in to investigate. He's your bog standard gumshoe, married to the job and having lost his kids as a result. He thinks he's the central character in his own noir thriller, the dope. Xais killed over 2000 people in 2 years, all before her nineteenth birthday. I bet Romana will have a field day psycho-analysing that one. I'd blame the parents. Her particular talent was crushing people where they stood. Xais saw the family killed, destroyed the man that murdered them, stole a ship and escaped. She went on a revenge attack spree on Five, buildings, people, random attacks. She can splat somebody to the state of a stepped on watermelon just by looking at them. An expert in computers and bomb making, pretty much a genius. Tying together the Stokes and Xais threads, he cast a mask out of helicon of her face, an artistic endeavour which could very well tear a hole in this corner of the universe. What a shame that they appear on the cover because the Ogrons would have been a terrific surprise (it's still a great moment for how big Tommy B pronounces their entrance so spectacularly). Appropriately Big Finish have afforded some of the more engaging alien races that are only featured in Doctor Who once or twice a chance to expand upon their original appearance. In their attempt to give every story a sequel there isn't that many species that haven't had a second airing and they usually (despite my protestations of late) benefit from the extra attention. The Draconians (Paper Cuts) the Wirrn (Wirrn Dawn, Wirrn Isle) and the Zygons (a superb pair of 8DAs, Zygon Hunt) in particular. You can hardly argue with the success of the Ogrons. Visually they were spectacular and their lack of intelligence made them the perfect comic foil (they clashed hilariously with Roger Delgado's Master and have a similar culture clash with the Spiggot's in this story) and yet after Frontier in Space the show chose to ignore them as it passed on to new creative hands. I'm pleased to see them get a fresh appearance in The Romance of Crime and they translate to audio extremely well. Once the Ogrons struck fear throughout the universe but now they have become the butt of every joke in the human Empire. Cleverly the story chooses to introduce a new set of characters in it's second half (albeit ones who are set up in the first) to keep the story ticking over. Somebody had to be Xais' contact at The Rock of Judgement and it comes as no great surprise that it is Pyrepoint (given he has mostly been a background character). He used her as a walking weapon, to kill anybody that gets in his way and she used him to satisfy her hatred of humanity. They were going to mine an enormous quantity of Helicon together but she was arrested and so they devised a plan to have Stokes create the mask in her image and release some of her power into liquid Helicon.

Audio Landscape: Heavy breathing, footsteps, chatter, bar atmosphere, the computer exploding, bullets bouncing, Ogron blasters, force field, pouring tea, hissing gas, horrible squishing sounds as Xais does her business.

Musical Cues: A pleasing mixture of authentic Dudley Simpson and a more modern day pace, The Romance of the Crime took me back to the Halcyon days of 1979 but Howard Carter still provided the sorts of thrills and spills I would expect from a main range soundtrack. I loved the cute noirish touches when Spiggot was indulging in some detective-based clichés and get ready to clap your hands in delight as the tension ramps up at the end of episode three and Carter attacks the piano.

Isn't it Odd: I have been less than complimentary about Big Finish's obsession with nostalgia of late in their Doctor Who ranges and their unwillingness to forge ahead with anything original. This is a note to say that the novel adaptations get a reprieve on the grounds that their very existence is to capture the glories of the past, that was the entire raison detre of the Missing Adventures. But do you know what is odd?  Within that remit of trying to so successfully emulate season seventeen both Gareth Roberts (and John Dorney who adapted this) have managed to create something that is packed full of great ideas, wonderful dialogue and enjoyable characters. It so far surpasses tripe such as Eldrad Must Die!, Revenge of the Swarm and Mistfall that a comparison is barely worth making. Maybe that is because the mid seventies was an era of invention and creation and to produce something this engaging is a given (although the 4DAs would seem to counter that argument). Maybe it is because the Missing Adventures were better at creating original stories within their remit to capture the glories of the past?

Standout Scene: The thought of an Ogron failing to dock a ship airlock to airlock made me laugh like a loon. Every time I think about it it does the same trick.

Result: A glorious evocation of season seventeen complete with pleasing science fiction ideas, a sinister setting, vibrant characters, sharp dialogue and an attempt to make the Doctor Who universe a crazier and more exciting one. I can remember being less than impressed with The Romance of Crime when it first came out in paperback, the fact that it so perfectly replicated the style of season seventeen was a definite plus but the story felt as though it lacked any substance. How different it feels on audio, ticking all of my boxes and then some by providing a rollicking good time, giving the actors a chance to strut their stuff and juggling enough threads to keep the whole thing moving fluidly for it's entire length. There's far more of note than I thought at the time and it took a dramatisation to make me realise that. The cast of characters brings a smile to my face just to think of them; two knockabout Time Lords at the height of their powers, an officious administrator, a madly eccentric and pusillanimous artist, an insane, histrionic villain with a penchant for squashing people to death with a thought, a detective who adores indulging in all the clichés and two lively thugs with Ogrons in tow. With actors of the quality of Miranda Raison, Michael Troughton and Marcus Garvey bringing them to life it is a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company, bringing the pacy adventure together with the passion of a cast who are having a blissful time. We've flirted with stories that flirt with the idea of bringing together Tom Baker and Lalla Ward before (the madly enjoyable Babblesphere and a handful of lesser agreeable companion chronicles) but this is the real deal and I don't give a damn whether they attended the same recording or not, it's still a delight to hear the two characters knock against one another. It's one of my favourite Doctor/companion partnerships and Gareth Roberts (and John Dorney) understand precisely how to get the best out of them. After listening to The Romance of Crime I am gagging to hear The English Way of Death and The Well Mannered War and it has made me even more excited for the fifth season of 4DAs. If all Doctor Who was as pleasurable as this, we'd never get anything else done: 9/10

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Dark Shadows: Bloodlust Episode Three written by Alan Flanagan, Will Howells & Joe Lidster and directed by Ursula Burton & David Darlington

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

Andrew Cunningham: What a piece of work this guy is turning out to be, controlling his family with an iron fist and expecting them to jump to his every whim. It was pointed out to me on the blog how apparent it is that the one actor who was always chided for his portrayal in the 80s (Waterhouse) is now giving a far more powerful and passionate performance than his cohorts at the time (check out Mistfall and you will hear Davison, Fielding, Sutton and Strickson sleepwalking their way through the tale). Like Bonnie Langford on audio, it just goes to show that the passage of time can sometimes be very kind on an actor. Andrew is not going to be reporting on any of the juicy stuff until he has familiarised himself with Collinsport. He's vicious when he cannot get his own way, insulting and violent and he wants something from Angelique Bouchard. And now his son knows precisely why they have come to Collinsport...and has initiated a relationship with the seductive witch.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Maggie Evans is beginning to gather her troops...'
'I will string pieces of his soul across the universe!'
'The greatest tragedy is for a parent to outlive his child.'

Great Ideas: Amy and Mike went to college together, in the same class studying the same 'subject matter' at Salem University. Salem is historically famous for one thing...could we be seeing an element of witchcraft turning up in Collinsport? Ed Griffin has been heard talking to his dead wife in the shadows. The investigation into Melody's death is in full swing now, everybody is a suspect, nobody is exempt. Harry Cunningham has started doing work experience for Kate Ripperton. The manifestation of Angelique was terribly exciting for those of us who know her back story. She is a witch, confined to the cave and stripped of her place in the world all because of Maggie Evans. Clearly Andrew has not come to Collinsport on a whim. The cave at the base of Widow's Hill is screaming with the cries of lost women who threw themselves to their deaths. Michael is resolved to stay in Collinsport and find out whoever or whatever murdered Melody...a decision he will no doubt learn to regret.

Audio Landscape: Alarm clock, drill, mine workings, baby gurgling, rain pattering, crinkled newspaper.

Musical Cues: There was a time when I grew a little tired of David Darlington's scores. Never because he wasn't very good but after a long stint working on the main range it felt as if he was a little exhausted. He hopped across to Gallifrey where I he gave that series a very distinctive musical style and has now transferred across to Dark Shadows with similar ease, taking up directing duties. as well. That certainly seems to be where his talent lies, he has an aptitude for creating a sinister atmosphere that is almost second to none in Big Finish. And whilst Bloodlust has yet to dip its toes into the inky red waters that some of Dark Shadows audios do, it is brewing up a ominous spell all of its own.  His music for this story is inspired too, with snatches of what sounds like the apoplectic choir that brought us Children of the Stones but similarly inspired by Twin Peaks. Never underestimate the power of music in an audio drama, it can make or break it.

Result: 'There's nothing wrong with being different...' Now things are really moving. Despite the large cast, this piece of the puzzle belongs to Andrew Cunningham and his motive for coming to Collinsport in the first place. An arrogant foolish opportunist, he's a really nasty piece of work and as such it is an absolute delight to listen to him dig a hole and get in over his head. I think bad things are coming for the character and I cannot wait. The murder mystery angle begins to take dominance too and it is starting to feel that anybody could be responsible. With the supernatural pumping through the residents of Collinsport like blood, who knows who can be trusted? Hints of Maggie Evans being an important player are very intriguing too and something that would be very welcome because Kathryn Leigh-Scott is such a delight to listen to. Like a locomotive that has already chugged away from it's starting point, we are really gathering steam now: 8/10

Monday, 19 January 2015

Dark Shadows: Bloodlust Episode Two written by Alan Flanagan, Will Howells & Joseph Lidster and directed by Ursula Burton & David Darlington

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

Amy Cunningham: Amy was finishing up her studies in Salem and keeping Carolyn on the straight and narrow and eventually she managed to snatch a position at the British library. A year or so later she was taking a beginners Spanish class and Andrew walked in and it was love at first sight. Andrew's first wife bolted and left him with a six year old and a mortgage that would make your eyes bleed.

Standout Performance: Scott Haran's voice is so distinctive from his role as Tom Clarke in Wizards vs. Aliens that I had a little trouble distinguishing him from that role at first. I guess that is the trouble that any actor has when they have played a popular role for a long time. Matthew Waterhouse doesn't have the same problem since his voice has noticeably matured since his stint as Adric and he plays Andrew Cunningham with something approximating his own natural voice as opposed to the lilting, child-like tone of Adric in the Doctor Who audios.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'This is's never the wind.'

Great Ideas: Melody Devereux's body was entirely drained of blood...I'm sure I am not the only person to make the obvious connection.

Audio Landscape: Car screeching off the road, screaming baby, rain lashing, a car rushing past, doorbell, smashing glass, whispering voices.

Isn't it Odd: It might have been naive of me but I was expecting a Twin Peaks style investigation into the murder of Melody Devereux to kick start from the beginning of the second instalment. I was a little confused when another set of newcomers came to town because it feels like a replay of the events of episode one.

Result: 'Remember me?' On par with episode one, this episode feels lacking in some respects because it feels a little like a retread with new characters heading to Collinsport but there are enough hints of excitement for the rest of the story to keep the interest levels high. Bloodlust features a large cast for an audio drama (especially for Big Finish) and is adhering to the rules of a soap opera to tease the answers out each week and never offer too much, too early. As such this is playing out much like a current American serial style TV show, you have to wait to be completely satisfied and take in the manifest of subplots and hope that they all tie together satisfactorily in the end. We've found our way back to the cave, there is an intriguing link between the Devereux and Cunningham plots, a Beyond the Grave presenter is introduced and the murder investigation is underway...there is an awful lot going on and plenty to sink its claws into you. Less introductions next time and more embellishments of the characters already introduced and we will be in fine shape: 7/10

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dark Shadows: Bloodlust - Episode One

What's it about: Some describe it as the town at the edge of the world. When Melody and Michael Devereux come to Collinsport on their honeymoon, they don't know the secrets that are hidden behind closed doors. But those secrets will be unearthed when an innocent is viciously murdered. Collinsport will be a town divided. One woman's rise to power will lead to further death and destruction. Families will be ripped apart. Blood will be spilt. And the dark forces that wait in the shadows will wait no more. For in Collinsport, death is never the end...

Newcomers to Town: Melody Devereux, once a lost and lonely child. She never knew her parents, they died in a car accident when she was very young and was brought up by the head of an Orphanage, Mrs Rosenthal.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I just relaxed and let the forces guide my hand...' - Melody on how they happened to choose Collinsport. Those forces probably brought them here for a sinister reason...
'It hit her hard when I died...'

Great Ideas: You know there is trouble ahead for Melody when she steps off the train at Collinsport and declares the town the perfect place to relax - not only because the story is called Bloodlust and it is a Dark Shadows story but because that follows the convention of all horror stories where the innocent visitors wax lyrical about an apparently idyllic scene. Like Snowflake, the first episode of Bloodlust features two newcomers coming to Collinsport. It gives newcomers a chance to enter this world with them and meet all the regulars, a smart move on the part of the creators who might wish to attract a new audience. What's lovely is that the audience overhears little snippets of sinister subplots going on, spoken in gossip at the local tavern, along with Melody and Michael, ramping up the suspicion that all is not what it appears to be in the town. As soon as you hear 'don't go out after dark' you should know precisely what genre you have wandered in to. The newlyweds learn about the Collins', described as founding the town and pretty much owning it, scuttling about Collinwood like cockroaches. What a charming image. I have a feeling we are going to build up to a trip to Collinwood as the serial progresses, with the Collins' taking a central role in the story.

Musical Cues: David Darlington taps into the excellent children's TV serial Children of the Stones for his music, an eerie, unearthly choral soundtrack that is bound to set your teeth on edge. He probably hasn't seen it but it does have a similarly ghoulish atmosphere.

Result: 'Take my advice...honeymoon somewhere else!' Collinsport is a town with secret, that is my abiding impression of the first episode of Bloodlust. They are hiding in every shadow, whispering on the breeze, rolling in with the sea...everybody is keeping something and it is going to be our pleasure to watch them creep into the light over the next thirteen episodes. Wisely, Joe Lidster and his creative team choose to introduce new characters to the town and allows us to meet everybody afresh. It gives this serial a very fresh 'new beginning' feel and the soap opera nature of the show gives it the same kind of impetus and hook as classic Doctor Who, each episode closing on a cliffhanger designed to lure you back next week. I could see fans of Dark Shadows finding this a little bit of a time filler insofar as it is introducing elements that they recognise but once the introduction to the setting is out of the way the juicy stuff can get going...and that has already begun in the second half of this episode. The first murder has already occurred and any one of this sinister lot could have been involved. Roll on episode two: 7/10

Snowflake written by Joseph Lidster and directed by David Darlington

What's it about: “It's this town. It's Collinsport. It's broken." Victor Frost, a private investigator, is visiting Collinsport to find out whether the people there believe in ghosts. After meeting many of the townsfolk, he's in no doubt that they do. But will he survive to tell his tale?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Death is coming to Collinsport. An innocent die and we will all suffer. Blood will have blood.'

Great Ideas: An ideal jumping on point for beginners Snowflake is precisely what newbies to the Dark Shadows range need to listen to in order to deliver the basics of the series so they can delve into further parts of this critically acclaimed series. What a truly bizarre assignment for a detective to be given? To be sent to a coastal town in America and find out if the people there believe in ghosts. Collinsport is described as a place where time has stood still because it is afraid to move forwards. Like a school a night; waiting, frozen. Stories of vampires, werewolves and ghosts run through the town like writing through a stick of rock but none of them can be substantiated. There have been so many unexplained deaths and disappearances that you cannot help but put your faith in some of them. Widows hill gets its name from the fact that over the years women have thrown themselves from it. Lidster paints a very forbidding picture of the location, the worst place to take your vacation but the best place to tell a scary story in. In the cave at the base of Widows Hill lies secrets...Snowflake is waiting for you.

Audio Landscape: Rain lashing on the window, wind howling, screams howling, rumbling thunder, whispering voices...

Result: This couldn't have come along at a more opportune time. My husband and I went out for a meal with a friend last night and then came home to watch a horror movie that turned out to be the worst film that any of us had ever seen (a million kisses if you can guess what it was). My friend said that we would have been better off turning the lights out and telling each other ghost stories...and I pointed out that I did have a story that we could listen to, one that kick started the latest Dark Shadows range. And so we listened on... Needless to say it was a massive improvement on the movie and we were all left intrigued because this isn't so much a horror story in its own right but a prelude to the Bloodlust serial that Big Finish are about to embark on. It promises dark and twisted events in a freaky location, a story that not only fans of the range can enjoy but anybody can embark on. There isn't much substance to this release because that isn't it's purpose...but it manages to pack in some real atmosphere in a short amount of time. The Dark Shadows range is one of the best ranges at the present for atmosphere, innovation and fresh talent and this is your chance to jump on board. Snowflake is a freebie too so snatch it up: 8/10

Community: Introduction to Film

What's it about: Jeff learns how to seize the day....

Ensemble: Another great episode for Jeff who we come to realise cannot behave in a spontaneous fashion (and therefore fails to impress Mr Whitman) because everything about him is image-driven and pre-planned. It's even more apparent when he tries to seize the day by enacting a number of life changing events. The guy who appears to be the loosest member of the ensemble and appears to run through life like liquid is in fact the most uptight and regimented. Go figure. Jeff is putting some serious work into trying to impress Whitman and prove that he can live life to the full...but the simple answer is to truly achieve that you don't have to put any effort in at all. I love how this show explores Shirley as a loving Christian (with all the warmth and forgiveness that comes with that) but also staunchly intolerant at times of any other perspective. It's her imperfections that make her so interesting. Britta learns an important lesson about involving herself in other peoples lives in this episode, how thinking you know what is best for other people can sometimes be damaging (I have heard a very persuasive argument elsewhere that passive left wing enforcement is actually more frightening than a forceful right wing dictatorship - telling everybody what is best for them with a smile is far more insidious). Britta involves herself in the Nadir family machinations, paying for Abed to take a film course that his father expressly forbade. Gobi has always had to break into Abed's fantasy world and now he has a camera between them recording everything. Britta thinks she has been kind to Abed but she has made Gobi's job as a parent ten times harder. One of the joys of any ensemble show is the mix and match approach. How you take a group of diverse characters and stick any two of them together and get very different results each time. One of the least used double acts on this show - Troy and Pierce - gets it's inaugural outing in this episode as the older statesman of the group teach the youngest how to assert himself with a sneeze. It's hardly the most thrilling of subplots but bringing together these two still produces something rather unique and enjoyable.

Introducing: Eustice Whitman - an eccentric (which seems to be the employment requirement at Greendale) teacher who runs what appears to be the ultimate blow off class (which naturally attracts Jeff). He'll get you to throw away your textbook, stand on your table and burst into moments of exclamatory love. He doesn't care who you seize the day and live your life in the now as long as you do. That pretty much makes him Jeff's nemesis because he is somebody that he cannot impress. The sad truth of the matter is, no matter how appealing it might be to seize the day as many times as possible, Whitman's lifestyle simply isn't sustainable. Unless you wanted to be certified ('I want a birthday cake!').

Great Gags: 'All media is western propaganda that negatively stereotypes Arabs' 'Then he should see Aladdin. Jaffa was a badass!'
Pierce thinking that Shirley and Troy are mother and son is both hilarious and horrifically racist.

Funniest Moment: This was the point that I realised that this show could literally make anything funny, even a girly sneeze. Poor Troy.

End Tag: Abed, Troy and Jeff indulge in a bit of crumping. Which is basically dancing like you are standing on an electrified carpet. So exactly how I dance normally.

Tonal Shift: The Abed storyline walks a fine line between being very funny and achingly poignant to anybody who has had difficulties with their parents (yes) and disconnecting fantasy and reality (yes too). We learn that Britta and Jeff are both estranged from their fathers and that neither of them are particularly suited to playing that role, especially with Abed (who joyously is pretty much unmanageable). The piece de resistance of Introduction to Film comes at the climax where Abed shows his assembled group of parents the film that he has been making. With a heavy heart we realise how Abed sees the world (everybody running out on him and blaming him), Gobi realises how he has treated his son and Jeff and Britta learn something profound about how being a parent isn't the walk in the park they imagined it to be. Considering the film is pretty sloppily put together it generates an astonishing response from the audience. Suddenly Community goes from being a show that entertains to one that really makes you feel.

Result: The most confident episode yet, despite the nonsensical subplot about Troy and his girly sneeze. You've got two superb plotlines running side by side; Jeff attempting to learn how to be spontaneous and discovering the heartache that lies in Abed's family history. It's quite daring to open up your characters this early in the run and show what makes them hurt but it pushes Community to another level of comedy, one that has the ability to say very profound things about its characters. I'm making this all sound very serious but the Whitman plotline ('I have to plan in advance how to live in the moment!') is laugh out loud funny in parts. Jeff is really rather rubbish at letting fate take care of things and taking risks despite his image screaming that is his lifestyle choice. He's outwardly so relaxed but he's the one person in the room who has plotted his entire day. McHale plays both sides of his character with ease and it is clear that he is far more complex than he first appeared in the Pilot. Plus he gets his first snog from Britta. Engaging, heartbreaking and chucklesome, Introduction to Film highlights Community at it's best: 9/10

Friday, 16 January 2015

Mistfall written by Andrew Smith and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Drawn off-course, the TARDIS passes through a CVE into a closed universe – a hugely improbable event with a tragically obvious cause. In order to escape inescapable E-Space, the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are forced to venture in the wilds of planet Alzarius. But they're not the only unwanted visitors to this strange world. A Starliner has landed, captained by Decider Merrion – but why would Merrion risk rousing the Planet that Slept, and the monsters in its marshes? Mistfall is coming. The Marshmen are coming. But while Nyssa and Turlough find themselves caught in the open, in the hands of fanatics who model themselves on the legendary Outlers, the Doctor and Tegan discover that the supposedly secure Starliner affords them no protection from monsters both within and without...

An English Gentleman: I cannot think of a single time when I have had nothing at all to say about the Doctor in a Big Finish release. Nothing at all.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa is very excited (but nervous) about seeing her daughter for the first time in 25 years and looking almost exactly the same age as her. How will she possibly react when confronted with a mother who has not only not aged a day but appeared to have discovered the fountain of youth.

Standout Performance: Peter Davison sounds bored. Jemma Redgrave sounds bored. Mark Strickson sounds bored. It's quite a shock after three releases headed by the passionate performances by Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant.

Great Ideas: It is plausible that Adric left the programmed co-ordinates in the TARDIS during Earthshock since we did see him tinkering with the console. It's unlikely that the ship would just decide to take them their on a whim but it has a grain of truth to it at least.  The Starliner left Alzarius 300 years ago, the Deciders finally plucking up the courage to make a choice. It travelled for a long time looking for somewhere suitable to find a new home before eventually happening upon the Haragee world. They made great friends with the indigenous population, established themselves and cultivated and introduced technology to a world that knew nothing about it. They were a simple people and the Alzarians made it their world, trampling over their natural way of life. Rather originally they called their acquired world New Alzarius. How inspiring. Now that is the environmentalists view of the situation, bringing to mind the hippy ethics of The Green Death. Fem is a Marsh(wo)man that has been evolved into an intelligent, reasoning creature. Improved or perverted, you decide? Two years ago there was a natural disaster, a tidal wave that threatened to wipe out one of the major cities. Decider Meriem made the decision to block the estuary and prevent the destruction of the wave from destroying their habitat. It was diverted towards Haragee land and the wall of water swept through and slaughtered hundreds.  Forgive me but wouldn't it be better to dramatise these events rather than simply regurgitate what happened in great gulps of exposition? Had this event taken place it would have been the most exciting feature.

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS screaming as it enters the CVE, jungle sounds, a growling truck, Marshmen slopping out of the mud, bubbling vats, growling Marshmen, a crackling spider.

Musical Cues: Perhaps it is a thing that you can only enter a CV to Paddy Kingsland sounding music because the synthetic music that piped through my earphones was remarkably authentic. For a moment I felt as though I was listening to an audio soundtrack to Full Circle. This is one occasion where I question using the same style of music because with all the familiar plot elements and the identical music it feels as though Mistfall is a little embarrassed to stand on its own two feet and that it actually wants to be Full Circle. Like an obsessive who isn't really happy with who they are and so mimics somebody else, Mistfall's score is startlingly reminiscent of Paddy Russell's work whilst not quite tapping into the same originality and excitement that the show was expressing at the time. And that is simply because it isn't 1980 and the show hasn't just kicked out its in-house composer in favour of the radiophonic workshop. This is 2015, anything is possible with the soundtrack and to slave so close to the original lacks any novelty. Fairs music isn't poor by any means but it is uninspiring.

Isn't it Odd: Surely the TARDIS wouldn't be tricked a second time into thinking that it has landed in the lowlands of Outer Gallifrey. I realise the planet inhabits the same spot spatially in E-Space as Gallifrey does in N-Space but she's savvy enough to point out to the Doctor where they really are. Mistfall reminds me frighteningly of Revenge of the Swarm last year, a story with a first episode that plays out precisely like the story it is aping to the point where you can predict every single scene. TARDIS goes through CVE, lands on (New) Alzarius, regulars discover Alzarians, dangerous experiments taking place with Marshmen, strange ecological things afoot...I could write this in my sleep and for Andrew Smith this is a disappointment, offering up self plagiarism of Terrance Dicks proportions. When there are so many exciting stories to be told I cannot understand what the point of so slavishly copying your own work is about. I was a little bit excited (not 'oh my God I want to make love to the writer' excited, more like 'oh that was a new kind of fart' excited) when the story showed a glimmer of innovation with the forced evolution of Fem but that was immediately followed by a scene with Marsh spiders bursting forth and all my goodwill vanished. And that was followed by the beginning of Mistfall (although if that hadn't occurred the title would be quite misleading...) and knives being drawn in the console. I'm being blinded by inventiveness. 'Live up to your name and decide!' Ho hum.

Result: A fourth Doctor story that deals with the Exillons followed by a fifth Doctor story on I starting to notice a trend here? Add that to two fourth Doctor releases that are audio productions of two books and you have four stories released in January that have very few original elements to them. Is this a mission statement of Big Finish now? Not 'we love stories' but 'we love appealing to your sense of nostalgia.' I wouldn't mind so much if there was a pleasing mixture of nostalgia and originality but the latter seems to have shrivelled up as died completely in favour of the former (the last three main range releases dealt with the fallout from Mindwarp, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and served as a sequel to both Mark and Time and of the Rani). Remember when the main range was spanking new and every release was a pleasure to listen to because it offered something fresh and interesting that hadn't been tried before or torn from a previously televised story? There is no reason why we can't return to those days but the creative minds behind the main range need to get over this obsession with Doctor Who of old and forge ahead with something unique of their own. What truly shocked me about Mistfall was the misuse of the regulars. Here you have four unique, very distinctive individuals who each bring something quite special to the party (check out The Emerald Tiger). And yet none of them display an iota of personality throughout this tale, nothing that makes them stand out or gives a reason why these particular characters were chosen for this particular story. They all behaved in a general way, how anybody might in this scenario. That's shockingly hard to achieve with the companions from the 80s. I think I might have even tolerated the argumentative Tegan of old over the bland alternative that stumbles through Mistfall. Ken Bentley's direction is uninspiring but that is hardly a surprise since he has been in the in-house main range director for yonks now. Remember when he delivered A Death in the Family? The actors sound half asleep with nobody bringing any life to proceedings. And the story ambles from one dreary plot turn to another. There is no part of this story that feels passionate, alive, willing to risk. It's as slumbersome and lacking in zest as I think I have ever seen an audio dip. I had no desire to listen to the last episode and forced myself through it. Andrew Smith wrote the stunning Lost Story The First Sontarans and played on my every expectation and confounded it. When I saw this story advertised that was exactly what I was expecting here but it was a false hope. No such luck. When Full Circle was transmitted it was an exciting time for Doctor Who, a bold new era of the show. Mistfall emerges from a creatively fallow period where trading on old successes is very much the order of the day. Enough now. No more Eldrad, Nucleus or Marshmen. If you love stories so much, start thinking of some new ones: 2/10

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Exxilons written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Planet E9874 supports a developing civilisation known as the Tarl. The peaceful, technologically advanced Locoyuns are helping the Tarl develop rudimentary technology. What could be more innocent than that? When the Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive, they find the delicate balance in the relationship between the two cultures reaching an unexpected crisis point. The spears are flying and the threat of all-out war is in the air. The Doctor must use all his guile to tread a careful path with Tarl leader Ergu, while Leela and K9 discover an ancient power of unimaginable strength which threatens to tear the minds out of its victims.

Teeth and Curls: An immediate, engaging rapport between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson bourne out of two previous seasons in the studio together. There is a generally uplifting feel to their scenes together that is the actors' chemistry bleeding into the recording booth. The Doctor suggests that interfering with the development of indigenous species is highly unethical but Leela points out that he does that every other week. One rule for one and one rule for the other, he knows what he is doing apparently. I always like it when Tom Baker plays against type and the fourth Doctor is gentle an understanding rather than simply wisecracking his way through a story. It worked wonderfully in The Creature from the Pit when he had to try and communicate with the creature (regardless of the difficulties in the realisation of the creature) and it also works rather charmingly in this story when he tries to have a conversation with the less developed natives. He isn't patronising but brings his idiom down to their level so they can converse. 

Noble Savage: Louise Jameson gets to play the screaming heroine in a way that Leela rarely is...but only because Leela is tortured to an extreme level by the city. Beyond that there is nothing to justify her involvement. Any companion could have slipped into this role.

Standout Performance: It is far from her most impressive performance in a Big Finish production (simply because she isn't even given surface characterisation, Calura is constructed out of pure cardboard) but I have to say I found her unrecognisable with an American accent. Hugh Ross scowls and growls his way through the story, again not an in inspired role as written, but certainly a passionate one.

Great Ideas: The first point where I was properly surprised by The Exxilons was at the cliffhanger. I genuinely believed that the story was leading in the direction of the reveal of the city as the work of the grunting savages and not the humanoids that the Doctor and Leela have teamed up with. That was the last time it surprised me too.

Audio Landscape: I have wonder with this range if the creators sit back and think which Doctor Who stories offer up the best opportunity for a gripping audio landscape first and whether the story actually needs telling second. Death to the Daleks is rife with wonderful sounds that can be nabbed for The Exxilons and Nick Briggs adds some exotic and alien additions of his own. Switching off the critical part of my brain that looks at the construction of the story and merely focussing on the aural atmosphere, this story is first rate. Running footsteps, an arrow screaming through the air, TARDIS bleeps and blurts, K.9's nose laser, a ship landing, the atmosphere of the planet, grunting, beating chests, chanting crowds, banging drums, unsheathing Leela's knife, the city beacon reaching out and screaming, crackling fire.

Musical Cues: Alistair Lock, let me count the ways I love thee. The Exxilons has a gorgeous musical score, a hybrid of the faux Dudley Simpson music that the range excels at mixed with the more controversial saxaphone and glockenspiel madness that Carey Blyton favoured in his infamous Death to the Daleks score. The result is a fusion of the two eras, which is exactly what this story is aiming for.

Isn't it Odd: Whilst the marketing boys go to town with the promise of a sequel to Death to the Daleks (or at least elements of it) I think it would have been quite a nice shock had this been billed as a standalone story with no familiar elements and the Exillons introduced as a surprise. I would still complain that this range is using too many elements of the past but it would at least be doing something engaging with the re-use of old ideas. Instead we are in the know and are waiting for the Doctor and Leela to catch up. With dialogue like 'This your metal thing everywhere man?' from a grunting native you can imagine how demanding this story gets. Wouldn't this have been a good excuse to explore the city some more and get under its skin? It is described as a living creature in Death to the Daleks so surely there is a fascinating psychological to be explored rather than simply focussing on the construction of another city on a primitive planet? 

Result: A love letter to Death to the Daleks might not be on anybody's wish list but I'm not surprised that it exists given the 4DAs penchant for nostalgia trips and Nicholas Briggs waxing lyrical about this serial on the DVD release (while not the best story he admits it is the quintessential Doctor Who story). Bearing in mind it comes after Zygon Hunt, which was a love letter to Terror of the Zygons with a parody score it does tend to suggest that this range is sticking with the same formula that has plagued it from the beginning: imitation not innovation (with a few rare exceptions). If you lower expectations (a hard job given the strength of the recent Gareth Roberts fourth Doctor novels that have been released), this really isn't terrible. The Exxilons has the brio and confidence of a season opener and is fast paced, well performed and blessed with a stunning Alistair Lock score that fuses too eras together beautifully. You cannot have failed to have noticed that I have spent more time in the sections above discussing the stunning sound design rather than the lacklustre storytelling and there is a very good reason for that. This isn't going to challenge you (unless you are really very simple) but it will provide you with a warm glow of Doctor Who gone by and pass an hour amiably. I should be more critical of a story that is this well made but lacking so much ambition (it is devoid of it) but I kind of enjoyed it on its own terms. There were no surprises, everybody behaved as I predicted they would and the story dodged several attempts to give the city or the Exxilons greater meaning...but as a Doctor vs. baddies it trotted along nicely enough. I think it helps that I am a big fan of Death to the Daleks and am on the same page as Nicholas Briggs with how enjoyable the story is. It's easy enough to blow a kiss to a story as popular as Terror of the Zygons because it has many supporters but to get people in the mood to watch Terry Nation's Exxilon based adventure is really rather impressive. Easy to listen to, never inspiring: 5/10

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Community: Spanish 101

What's it about: Introducing the insane Spanish tutor and revealing that Jeff might just have a heart...

Ensemble: Britta continues to reject Jeff's advances and point out to everybody else that he doesn't give a damn about them. To that end she puts Annie and Shirley on the path of activism with amusing results. I love how this episode highlights the spiky relationship between the youngest and oldest women in the study group, it is a pairing that gets a lot of focus in the first couple of years but is almost completely abandoned after season three. Cute, but selfish and narcissistic to the point of self delusion - that is how Britta sums Jeff up and it is a pretty accurate description of him. This episode shows how he can so easily manipulate his newfound friends and put himself in a position of power and Britta manages to expose that and make him realise that is how he has lived his entire life. It is his first step on the path to (trying) to become a better person. By the end of this episode he does something that would have been inconceivable at the beginning, he embarrasses himself publicly to make Pierce feel better. Chevy Chase continues to impress because rather than dominate the show as I imagined he would he slips into the ensemble with consummate ease and plays the role rather subtly, revealing Pierce's insecurities and making him far more likable than he could have been as a result. Britta would 'rather keep it real than be likable' according to Annie, a fun statement but with Jacobs in the role you cannot help but like her despite her willingness to turn everything into a sound bite. It's interesting that she cannot handle her friends approach to protesting though, simply being nice to people seems to get the point across that bad things are happening in the world far more effectively than any of her violent protests in the past. Go figure. Pierce points out that Britta's name sounds like a water filter, I'm glad somebody did.

Meta: Abed mentions how each of the Dean's announcements make it feel like the opening scene of a TV show, which is handy because that is the opening scene of this TV show. Get used to this kind of reference to the tropes that make up television, they get wittier and more extreme as the show progresses. 'Hey Abed, real stories they don't have understand that TV and reality are different, right?' Do you know I don't think he does an he's probably in a much more interesting world for it. Abed compliments Jeff on a 'good entrance.'

Introducing: 'And I don't want to have any conversations about what a mysterious, inscrutable man I am...' Senior Chang, one of the most grotesque characters ever to appear on TV and somebody whom the creators of this show will completely re-invent from season to season to the point where he is also the most flexible and hardest to define. Season one Chang is a psychopathic Spanish tutor who knows very little about the subject and gets off on the fear of his students of him. God bless Ken Cheong who never holds back and plays every scene to the hilt. I have rarely seen a performer who is willing to risk so much to commit to such an insane role.

Great Gags: 'Whoever is growing a small patch of cannabis behind the gymnasium, congratulations, you have won a cruise. Report to security to claim your tickets.'
'I want to protest the hell out of something!' - thus revealing that some people enjoy reacting to things, even if they don't understand them at all. And later: 'You sound like Guatemala!'

Funniest Moment: The presentation that Jeff and Pierce perform for the Spanish class that seems to consist of appalling racist stereotypes, flag waving, mime, robots, dramatic performance and warfare with silly string (it takes place in a montage and so we'll never quite understand the sheer breadth of their vision). They are awarded and F and F minus. Britta: 'That is one of the worst things I have ever seen.'

End tag: Troy and Abed sing a Spanish rap. And it's really catchy. I already want to hang with these guys. 

Result: Community strikes the feel good jugular again. Giving more time to the regulars that didn't get a shot in the pilot (especially Shirley, Annie and Pierce), this show continues to juggle up an ensemble better than any I have seen in a long time. Spanish 101 is not going to feature on anybody's top ten list (despite the wonderful introductory scene for Chang) but it continues to explore the characters gently whilst still providing a great time. Whether it is Pierce's appallingly un-PC comments, Annie and Shirley's efforts to make the world a better place by simply being nice or Jeff's ability to humiliate himself to the extreme to prove he can be a good friend this is a show that continue to make me smile. What's astonishing is that there isn't a character that I don't like (even a little bit) and that has never happened before. Once you have watched a number of these episodes you want to exist in this world and surround yourself with these people: 8/10