Monday, 17 August 2015

The Last Adventure: The Brink of Death written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and Mel must face the final confrontation with the Valeyard - and the Doctor must make the ultimate sacrifice...

Softer Six: 'I hope the footprint I leave will be light, but apposite...' We enter his final adventure with the Doctor in full heroic flow, beaming in to rescue his companion and performing a death defying stunt to get them out of danger. The beauty of improvising is that sometimes things can go right. He's back at the same location that his darkest hours took place - back on the CIA Trial ship and he is genuinely haunted by the prospect. It's easy to see why Genesta might think that the Doctor is dead, a Time Lord echo left swimming about in the Matrix. Otherwise why would he be trapped in there? Genesta reminds him of himself, a youngster who slipped away from life on Gallifrey to pastures new and funnily enough they both ended up on Earth. Before he takes his final bow the sixth Doctor gets to do what he does best, butt heads with the Time Lords (I wish he would head butt one of them) and points out their hypocrisy (loudly). Somebody has to do it. He's willing to take his complaint all the way to the High Council where I wish he would recapture some of that season 22 attitude, brandish a weapon and force them to get off their arses and act against the Valeyard. There's a tenseness running through this story as the Doctor's time bleeds away each time he leaves the Matrix. It's not quite the 24 ticking clock but it does reminds us that his eleventh hour is approaching. Would the Doctor do anything to stop the Valeyard? Even break the Laws of Time? Ultimately when the time comes for the big climax the Doctor is alone with no friends and his greatest foe taunting him. And he's still defiant. When it comes to it, the Doctor is willing to murder himself to save the Time Lords - those perfidious, interfering, morally questionable meddlers. The sixth Doctor is the only Doctor to have the nuts to (metaphorically speaking) put a gun to his own head and pull the trigger in order to do the right thing. What a fucking guy.

Computer Programmer: Always a pleasure to hear Bonnie Langford back in the role of Mel and its a pleasing double hit given she is currently enjoying a three story stint with Sylvester McCoy over in the main range at the moment. A much criticised character on TV, Mel has truly come into her own on audio in the hands of writers that are willing to take risks with her and an actress who can look back at how she used to play the part and temper her excitable excesses. The net result: a maligned character that people are often begging for more of. What a turnaround. It's unexpectedly enjoyable to hear the Valeyard and Mel off having adventures together, a surprise given it is reminiscent of He Jests at Scars (brrr boils just broke out all over my body writing that). When a seer threatens to tell Mel secrets about the Doctor that she doesn't know she starts to question just how well she does know him.

Standout Performance: Colin Baker, of course. Perhaps they deliberately gave Michael Jayston such a starring role in Stage Fright so that Baker could own his last adventure. What a masterful turn from the most consistently excellent Big Finish Doctor. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I will stop you even if it is the last thing I do!'
'He's a diminished, shrunken parody of me!' So much for Colin Baker to get his teeth into...

Great Ideas: The climax of this adventure is set up in the first couple of minutes. Somebody has been aiming radiation bolts at the TARDIS from the Lakertyan system. Now I wonder what Dynasty reject with mad hair, a nose stud and hands that rarely stray from her hips that could be? Genesta is a great character, immediately likeable and down to Earth. She's a demolition expert from the Capitol here to destroy the derelict Trial ship and instantly that is an arresting setting. Genesta did a field trip to a planet called Earth when she was very young and was afflicted with a Yorkshire and colourful slang terms as a result. The ultimate Matrix tinkerer (you know leather fetish, retarded lexicographer) has been at it again, adjusting the facts so that the sixth incarnation of the Doctor is reborn in his image. Was the Valeyard created by a Black Ops weapons department of the Time Lords? As a weapon? With the sum total of all Time Lord knowledge. The Valeyard has inserted something into the symbiotic nuclei of the Doctor's TARDIS, the Nafemos. He rescued them from the moon of Plestinius and they have been feeding off the Doctor's mind ever since the Valeyard left them in there all those years ago. Through the symbiotic nuclei of the Doctor's TARDIS the Nathemos have a direct link to the Matrix, they are transmitting mental impulses of the Valeyard directly into the Matrix. Just as he replaced the Doctor he wants to replace every living Time Lord, perhaps even Rassilon himself. He wants to fashion the destiny of the Time Lords in his own image. That batshit darker version of the Doctor is probably the one who gave the Master the idea in The End of Time.

Audio Landscape: Crickets, a skimmer out of power, the Doctor and Mel screaming as the ejector blasts from the skimmer, a bazaar atmosphere, whispering voices.

Musical Cues: Howard Carter, let me count the ways I love thee. I'm so often used to him providing robust backup for the Jago & Litefoot range that it is rare for me to lavish praise on him in a Doctor Who release. They need to toss him over to the main range where he would no doubt work his magic there too. His music and post-production throughout this box set has been nothing short of phenomenal, conjuring a myriad of locations atmospherically and switching styles musically like he has barely broken a sweat. Listen to the wistful, brooding music when the Doctor first spots the Valeyard in The Brink of Death, capturing the moment in a way that took my breath away.

Isn't it Odd: Mel has to be involved because she was there at the end of The Ultimate Foe and she was there at the start of Time and the Rani but it feels like she is more of an afterthought than a necessary requirement. She's usurped by Genesta and I think I would object more strongly if Liz White wasn't as stunning as she is in the role.

Standout Scene: Was the Valeyard Genesta from the very beginning? He asks if it matters which is probably the most evil thing he has ever contemplated. The Doctor has grown close to her, enjoys her company, has relied on her. He wants to take her on adventures when this is all over. It's a murder that has impact because the Doctor had grown to like her. And so had I.

Result: 'It's far from being all over...' I find it extremely apt that the sixth Doctor should sacrifice his life in order to save the Time Lords. If you watch throughout his televised era they are built up as ultimate villains of that point in his life - placing him on Telos in Attack of the Cybermen, framed for the massacre on Space Station Chimera, setting up a farce of a Trial to cover up their mistreatment of the Earth and doing a deal with the Devil to keep it all hush hush. They have become an intolerable, corrupt menace in his life. But they are still his people. And ultimately no matter what damage they have done, no matter how much they have mistreated him, he is still the Doctor and he will do anything - even if that means resorting to bending the Laws of Time and murdering his foe - to save them. That's the actions of a hero. To do what he knows is right even if every fibre of his being is begging him to do otherwise. The Brink of Death wasn't what I was expecting at all. Perhaps I have been tainted by the saccharine regeneration stories on the TV (which have grown steadily sicklier until I physically wanted throw up all over the console in The Time of the Doctor) but I was expecting more of the same. Nick Briggs doesn't take that route. Instead he goes for a more disquieting, high concept affair. More Logopolis than The End of Time. Rightly he places the Doctor centre stage and affords Colin Baker the chance to show a whole range of emotions from moral outrage to terrorising fear right the through to blazing heroism at the climax. He must have been delighted when he read the script and he delivers a pitch perfect performance. Throughout there is a feeling of time catching up with the Doctor; his ship is stripped of him, his companion, his allies and finally even his time. It's that unsettling tone of despair that makes the final ten minutes so riveting with the sixth Doctor rising from the nightmare scenario he is in and making the ultimate sacrifice. Is this is climactic as Lucie Miller/To The Death? In a very different way, yes it is. It touches on the best of the character and gives him the chance to go out kicking and screaming and sticking one finger at the odds. Which is just how he exploded into life. I'm not sure if the first half an hour wasn't a little too quiet for a finale but Briggs more than makes up for it come the climax. An epic Masterplan foiled by an intimate sacrifice: 9/10

The Last Adventure: Stage Fright written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and Flip visit Victorian London, where investigators Jago and Litefoot explore theatrical performances that have echoes through the Doctor's past lives...

Softer Six: The Doctor is trying to offer Flip a little history and culture, like a father trying to get his child into history. Because his latest companion is from 21st Century Earth he is willing to make pop culture references but it clearly pains him to do so. The Doctor tends to bring a fresh perspective to a grisly murder. In a multitude of realities there must be some where the Doctor did succumb to his darker impulses. A wardrobe featuring hundreds and hundreds of the Doctor's coat? He's mocking the Doctor, as good as waiting outside the TARDIS and squirting a water flower in his face. If it is emotions that the Valeyard is feeding on, can you imagine an incarnation of the Doctor that was more suited for the larder? It suddenly makes sense of the Doctor's erratic behaviour during his Trial. The Valeyard was deliberately providing him with as much fuel for the fire as possible to set him off like a powder keg. The more he emotes, the more it nourishes his nemesis. It will make me watch season 23 in a whole new light. All the Valeyard understands is corruption and degradation of everything the Doctor holds dear. He threatens to tell the Doctor what becomes of Flip. Stage Fright reaches a fine conclusion about why the Doctor will always best the Valeyard. Because he has friends to support him. If that sounds remarkably twee then don't worry, it's played out in an uplifting, can't get the smile off my face way. He ponders what he must do that makes the Valeyard (who is essentially the Doctor) hate himself so much. The Doctor knows the Valeyard will find him when he is ready.

Flipping Heck: 'Lad! Oi whiskers, d'you wanna wear that pie?' I think the best way to describe the reaction to Flip has been mixed. She's appeared in eight adventures in total, only two more than Mel did on the television, and it looks like after the cliffhanger of Scavenger and the reveal of what happened to her in The Widow's Assassin her story has been pretty much tied up. That's not to say that further adventures cannot be written, it would seem that some time passed between the end of her first trilogy (Wirrn Isle) and the beginning of her second (Antidote to Oblivion). This is not a companion in the mould of Evelyn Smythe who took the sixth Doctor on a journey of discovery, she's more like a companion of old. A mate, somebody to tag along on adventures and bring some danger and derring do with her. Whilst that might be underselling her slightly, Flip's biggest salvation comes in the form of Lisa Greenwood who plays her with infectious enthusiasm and brings a bit of street cred to the sixth Doctor's tenure. The relationship between her and Sixie is more akin to that of a father and child than I have seen in Doctor Who, the age gap between Colin Baker and Lisa Greenwood is a factor but so is the fact that Flip is so reckless and like a frustrated parent the Doctor is often heard berating her for it. I thought they were a fun combination and I would have welcomed some more adventures but ultimately I'm not entirely sure where Flip could have taken us if there wasn't that much of her character to explore beyond 'street wise.' However her inclusion in this set is very welcome since we are covering a lot of ground in Sixie's Big Finish tenure. Flip recalling her trip to the London Dungeon is hilarious, it is exactly that sort of (sorry) flippant remark that made her so funny. She has no hankering to tread the boards herself, it isn't really her thing after the year three talent show where she got terrible stage fright. The Doctor is surprised, he didn't think she was afraid of anything. Somehow Flip manages to boil down the enormous concept of the Valeyard down to a single pop culture reference: he's Darth Vader. The Doctor, if he turned to the Dark Side. When it comes to calming the Doctor down, Flip provides some really terrible entertainment to shake him out of his rage.

Theatrical Fellow: You would think that Jago & Litefoot would be synonymous with Tom Baker's fourth Doctor but after paring the dynamic duo with Sixie for a series of their own range and then two trips in the TARDIS with him too the man with the rainbow coloured coat has taken the lead with them. Jago's pockets are ladened with coins at the moment and it is having a transformative effect on his character. Described by the Valeyard as providing effusively entertaining and eruditely epigrammatic introductions to his stage shows. Jago considers the plot of Planet of the Spiders 'a bit far fetched.'

Posh Professor: Just as the Doctor adopts a parental role towards Flip, Litefoot often has to assume that role for Jago who is a man of extremes and needs them tempered on occasion. He receives the highest of accolades from the Doctor; there is no ailment so serious and no death too macabre that the good Professor Litefoot cannot diagnose. The Doctor and Litefoot spend more time around death than is healthy for any soul.

Standout Performance: Jayston finally gets the chance to swish his cloak again and give the audio performance of a lifetime. I'm not sure how he is going to top what he achieves here in The Brink of Death. In the latter half of Stage Fright I would go as far as to say we've not heard such masterful villainy in many a year.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'My society is divided between various houses. It follows you all the way through the Academy' 'What like Hufflepuff and Slitheren?' '...I suppose.'
'These scenes are all echoes of how I died.'
'You can maketh yourself whatever the heck you wanteth!'

Great Ideas: Why is the Valeyard staging the Doctor's deaths on stage in Victorian London and then claiming the lives of the other actors? The Palace Theatre has been closed all month, paid for upfront by a mysterious benefactor. A vanity project, perhaps? The Valeyard is trying to get the Doctor's attention by killing his victims and carting them off to the morgue dressed as friends of his. Litefoot has the concept of regeneration explained to him in detail by the Doctor and an explanation of who the Valeyard is...the foreshadowing begins. The Valeyard has been bleeding these kids of their life force to prolong his own obscene existence.

Audio Landscape: Rats, cobbled streets, pub atmosphere, ruffled paper, doorbell, a tiny explosion pipped by an enormous one.

Isn't it Odd: It seems that the Valeyard has taken a leaf out the Master's school of pseudonyms. He's calling himself Mr Yardvale, a name so tough to crack it might just take the Doctor to the end of time to decipher its meaning and uncover his foe. Although to be fair to Matt Fitton, the Valeyard is rather trying to get the Doctor's attention so perhaps that was the idea.

Standout Scene: The staging of the climax of The War Games by the Valeyard with Flip as Zoe. Impulsively fun.

Result: 'Our courtroom confrontations were pure ambrosia for me!' The sixth Doctor, Flip, Jago & Litefoot might not be your first choice of top trump team but the chemistry that exudes between them is ridiculously addictive. Sixie all piss and vinegar, Flip with boundless enthusiasm and wit, Jago dropping alliteration bombs and describing everything to the hilt and Litefoot keeping everyone in check and attempting to solve some grisly murders. I don't exaggerate when I say this is the best Flip has ever been and it makes me quite sad that we wont see her in the near future since Lisa Greenwood has really found her groove. Her earthiness fits in very well in the Victorian London setting. However Michael Jayston steals the show from under everybody's feet in Stage Fright, the Valeyard re-enacting the Doctor's deaths in his own, twisted, theatrical ways. Jayston is allowed to step out of the shadows and lock horns with the Doctor head on and it's a healthy reminder of the fantastic rivalry that was brewed between him and Colin Baker in Trial of a Time Lord (say what you will about it, the acting was frequently astonishing) before their real tussle in the sixth Doctor's curtain call. It seems very appropriate that in a box set that not only celebrates the sixth Doctor's life but also his entire life to that point, that certain pivotal moments of his life should be played out in his penultimate story. If you can call this a celebration, it is a dark one where the death of the Doctor is championed and his forthcoming regeneration is foreshadowed in a dramatic and creative way. I also really like how the one major criticism about the sixth Doctor - his emotional attitude - is worked into the plot with such class. It could be his downfall. We've had an unnerving horror cum high concept jigsaw, an outer space morality tale and a theatrical delight so far in the Last Adventure box set...what on Earth are they saving for the climax? Without featuring the pivotal companions of the sixth Doctor (Peri & Evelyn without a doubt) we have been treated to a fine celebration of his audio era; complex storylines (the Charley arc), wonderful friends (Flip, Jago & Litefoot) and a fascinating future (Constance) with all shades of the sixth Doctor on display. Add in the Valeyard and it feels remarkably comprehensive. We've had some it's time to die. Stage Fright skipped by in a heartbeat and provided some magical entertainment. I was pretty much hooked throughout: 9/10

The Last Adventure: The Red House written by Alan Barnes and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and Charlotte Pollard arrive on a world that is populated by werewolves...

Softer Six: Listen to how Colin Baker adjusts his performance in this story, despite the seriousness of the situation it is a more light-hearted adventure and he tip toes through the tale like a colourful pixie who is enjoying every second of it. The Doctor mentioned Beau Brumell in The Twin Dilemma but he confirms their friendship in this story. The Doctor hanging out with the King of the Dandy's - sounds about right! He's a wily old devil, staging his reveal of the watch to make it appear as if he is trying to hypnotise the werewolves when in fact he's after a shaft daylight to reflect back at them. You've got to keep your eye on this one. He flatters himself that he is a little more quick witted than the average policeman. Charley declares him a blithering blundering meddling idiot. Yeah, sometimes. Just saving two lives is never going to be enough for the Doctor, even if it is the only option.

Edwardian Adventuress: Will wonders never cease? I genuinely thought we had seen the end of Charley Pollard after her brief flirtation with her own series. I most certainly never expected to enjoy another adventure with her and Sixie. It was an engaging partnership during a time when the main range was being re-invigorated by the team of Briggs and Barnes and the trilogy format was about to slot into place. Charley had skipped from the eighth Doctor adventures with all that knowledge of his future and she could not share any of her wisdom with the sixth Doctor. Her mystery had to remain an identity to him. Not since Turlough climbed aboard the TARDIS and tried to kill him has there been a companion as sneaky and elusive as this and it made for a really interesting dynamic. What made matters worse was that we always knew this was going to be a short term arrangement. There was never going to be a long string of stories for this pair because there was only so many ways that the mystery that lingers between them could be maintained. Which was a crying shame because the chemistry between Colin Baker and India Fisher was sublime. I never thought any other companion would capture the same magic with Sixie that Maggie Stables' Evelyn did but this was just as strong but in a hugely different way. They sparked off each other beautifully. And should this be the last time that Charley ever appears in a Big Finish adventure (and let's be honest she has had an incredible number of tales) then I'm pleased it is Alan Barnes that is writing it. He charted her progress from her very first appearance in the main range to the last. I think he understands her character better than anyone. Charley trips up as soon as she leaves the TARDIS, mentioning Vortisaurs. When she describes the houses as 'hoverly' she is definitely showing her class. He states her occupation as 'Edwardian adventuress' but states it should be Georgian really (but it conjures up the wrong image that she is going for). Fiery and feisty as ever, Charley lets rip when it appears her humanity is going be extracted. Charley is an experienced enough time traveller to know when are offered a god deal to escape and if that means only two people can be saved then so be it. I like this practical, slightly cold side to her that emerge in the tail end of her time in the main range.

Standout Performance: A story where most of the characters are lupine requires an awful lot of salt gargling to keep the throat fresh after all that growling. Jayston's reaction to Fisher's melodrama made me laugh out loud. Jayston is relishing his role in this story and the Valeyard develops a great rapport with Charley. Both hiding themselves from the Doctor. But he's given plenty of things to say and do here and he plays the silky menace to the hilt.

Great Ideas: A curfew bell at dawn? What happens in the day to ensure that the people only come out at night? A planet of werewolves of course. This is precisely the sort of fairytale adventure I would expect Charlotte Pollard to wind up in (she is very much Alice through the looking glass) - a place where fairytales tip on their axis and the 'monsters' in the storybooks become the people. It's a precarious situation where the Doctor and Charley are in danger of being gnawed on by friend or foe alike. On this planet wolves become like people in the daylight, a trippy subversion of the usual werewolf myth and a nicely played moment. The Red House is a police station manned by werewolves. It's so often the norm in these stories for the humans to be attempting to suppress their wolf-like nature but Barnes continues the subversion, on this world it is the wolf that is embraced and humanity that is outlawed. Except for a rebellious faction that want to choose for themselves to experience humanity. It was 200 years ago when the colony ship touched down on the mainland bringing the people of Earth to this world. The planet was ripe for colonisation, Earth-like and verdant but it wasn't uninhabited. Packs of predatory dog-like creatures roamed its plains. Savage, cannibalistic beasts that the colonist set about exterminating. The dogs bit back and passed on a virus catalysed by moonlight - lycanthrope. How would the colonist cope with their own kind infected with a virus that turns them into werewolves every eight days? They were dumped on an island far away from the mainland, something of a leper colony. With each successive generation the wolverine side took more of a hold. When the population realised what had happened on the island, extermination leapt back to the top of the agenda. Paignton was tasked with attempting to restore the population on the island, to try and isolate the wolf element and exterminate it. Hopefully that would leave them with a perfectly normal, human population. Oh how very naive. The Doctor is right, nuclear annihilation is a very human response.

Audio Landscape: Village bell ringing, screaming in the distance, ferocious branches snagging on the Doctor's coat, night sounds in the forest, a laboratory, screams of pain, crackling fire, a werewolf transformation, doors being bashed in.

Musical Cues: It's time for a Charlotte Pollard hunt and the Carter unleashes the drums as the werewolves pursue her through the forest.

Isn't it Odd: Urgo's super hip 60s themed dialogue gets a little tiresome after a while. Although it is worth it to hear Colin Baker say 'Run like the wind, man!'

Standout Scene: It hadn't even occurred to be that Valeyard would know both the sixth and eighth Doctor's history and precisely where Charlotte Pollard fits into both of their lives. I got chills when he spelt out precisely who she was and the secret she was keeping from her current travelling companion. Oh my, this was such a fantastic run of stories for Sixie and Charley laced with a really exciting arc. I miss those days of the main range so much and this just reminds me why.

Result: I seem to spend so much time lamenting Barnes' contributions lately and forget that he has delivered sterling work time and again across various ranges. There is no finer writer of Charley Pollard, for example, and for her to return his presence in this set is a must. The Red House is a much lighter affair than The End of the Line but if I'm honest things could hardly have gotten darker without losing the spirit of Doctor Who. Gothic horror might be a default setting for the series but it is constantly evoked because it works so well and here we have a sinister fairytale unfolding complete with slavering werewolves, mad scientists and a brutal regime to bring down. It's another excellently devised and memorable setting that Barnes gives a robust backstory for (even if that is delivered in a massive gulp of exposition). Beyond the sixth Doctor/Charley combination which always works a treat, what really impressed was the subversions made to the usual werewolf tales. They are the victims in this piece and in every way humanity is treated as the enemy, whether that is the colonists on the mainland or the beating heart inside the lupine population. The presence of the Valeyard is very welcome and he is given material that is far more suited to Jayston's icy cold delivery than either He Jests at Scars (just writing that brings me out in hives) and The Trial of the Valeyard. He was often the moustache twirling villain in Trial of a Time Lord but he works so much better as a sinister background presence, slowly pulling together the threads of his Masterplan (as yet unknown). The story races towards an exciting climax and the plot (unlike the first story in the set) remain pleasantly self contained. Barnes has written a pacy, enjoyable tale and I expect it is the most standalone of the set. I really wish the sixth Doctor was still travelling with Charley: 7/10

The Last Adventure: The End of the Line by Simon Barnard & Paul Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor and his latest companion Constance investigate a commuter train that has lost its way...

Softer Six: This is it then, the beginning of the end for Sixie. Colin Baker has made some waves in the world of Doctor Who recently with his controversial interview in Doctor Who magazine and inflammatory tweets about a Radio Times article. It is true that his Doctor is not always held in high regard by the majority of fandom and that his era is often pointed at as a low point for the show. It's not a view that I share, I was a huge fan of Sixie even before he enjoyed his phenomenal renaissance with Big Finish but the way his character flourished on audio on reinforced what I already though about the character. Strong, determined, ruthlessly intelligent, emotional and a little bit crazy. The Doctor. And Colin has been a firm supporter of the show ever since his sacking and never given less than 100% of what has been asked of him. Regardless of recent events, I'm one of the biggest supporters of Sixie and Colin and this box set gets me very excited indeed. After Sixie's ignominious exit on the show it is time for one of the most colourful and exciting Doctor's to have his final story revealed. Just how will Big Finish bring his story to a close? He's taking charge in his immutable way, stepping into the aftermath of a crisis and investigating the circumstances. Being lost is just a state of mind, the Doctor finds that whichever direction he follows something always turns up. His sense of direction might be eccentric but it's never concentric. Even if Jack is lying and he is a danger to them, the Doctor cannot take the chance that somebody might be harmed either way. He can't stand bureaucratic bafflegab and takes every opportunity to mock it. All this talk of alternative universes leads the Doctor to discuss darker versions of yourself and his own unique take on that idea in the Valeyard. We're taking steps towards that finale. He diagnoses the Master as utterly mad for wanting to control all realities but then we all knew he was nutty as squirrel shit, right?. Despite everything, despite their rivalry and hatred for one another...the Master needs the Doctor's help. 'Forget you, Mrs Clarke? Never!' he laments as he agrees to help his foe in order for his friend to survive. There are some planets where the Doctor's coat is considered the epitome of understatement.

Constant Companion: Leave it to Big Finish to bring the release of this box set forwards and shoehorn an adventure with Constance in before her introductory story is even upon us. It's a bizarre marketing strategy because it effectively renders her opening story moot and she could just be slipped into his adventures like Mel was, unceremoniously. Despite this little piece of timey wimey (sigh) magic, I have to say I am mightily excited about the introduction of this character. Miranda Raison is a very accomplished actress and looks like she belongs with Colin Baker on the covers and the character spec for Constance just screams of potential - a member of the Women's Royal Navy Service, icy cold and intelligent, brave and uncompromising. Somebody that comes with all the skills to cope with the Doctor's adventures but hasn't experienced the horrors of the universe yet. How does she fare in her 'first' adventure? Rather well as it goes. Constance is not afraid to make a dig or two at the sixth Doctor or to stand up to him, which is an entry requirement if you are going to be one of his companions. Her clipped, plummy tones and go to attitude are very appealing, similar to but very different from Charley Pollard because Constance is an adult (and a professional). She prefers to be called Mrs Clarke. The Doctor isn't afraid to let her go off into a dangerous situation and to leave her in charge of peoples lives. He clearly has a great deal of faith in her. Constance is smart enough to get her head around the idea of alternative universes and the implications for their situation here but is also willing to admit that there is more to the idea than she is able to comprehend. I'm looking forward to hearing more from her and that is all I can ask.

Standout Performance: This is an ensemble piece and they all acquit themselves beautifully. There wasn't one performance out of place. Especially the two grandiose villains sparring at the climax.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'To lose one Dave might be considered a misfortune but to lose three...'
'Let the other yous pay the price...'
'That's enough to rewrite the textbook on megalomania!'

Great Ideas: A train that gets lost in the fog and is discovered by the Doctor and Constance, with blood slick on the door. You wouldn't catch me going inside. The sun has failed to show up and time has stopped. A train station with platforms that keep multiplying at random. The ingredients for this story are very Sapphire and Steel and it conjures up a similar feeling of disquiet and claustrophobia that the best of their adventures did. A feeling of danger, of wrongness. How can there be multiple versions of the same person being killed over and over? Kettering Junction is not just a railway interchange, it is a dimensional interchange and it's breaking down. Parallel universes are not supposed to meet but here they are bleeding into one another. A multifarious multiverse of possibilities, as the Doctor puts it. If the Doctor doesn't put a stop to it soon there will be an infinite number of trains arriving with an infinite number of passengers to be killed. They will have run out of space before the convergence reaches infinity. Some of the alternative realities will be very nice places, others will be darker, rotten. Alice's realisation that she has always played the good girl when there have been alternative versions of her out there her were enjoying their lives and letting themselves go is a very dark moment. It's a dangerous path for your thoughts to go down. Why can't I be more like them? If they got away with it then why can't I? I can do what I of consequences. What a terrifying notion it is to consider the idea of multiple versions of the same person and a primary timeline where only one should exist. Where all the others are expendable. Fodder. Ripe for murder because they are alternatives. Is there something in the fog that is driving everybody mad? The Parallel Sect are a mythical race of dimensional pioneers that traversed reality the way mere mortals cross the streets. The created a Reality Web, threading through the whole of infinity of parallel universes. An awe-inspiring notion. Imagine being able to negotiate such a web, to hop from one reality to another, from one universe to another. New management has moved in to take of the Parallel Sect, a figurehead who haunts the Doctor from his past. Can you guess who it is? Nope, it isn't the Valeyard. Very cleverly the writers have managed to slip in another returning villain right under the noses of the audience. Imagine the Master being handed the Reality Web, being able to stride dimensions and nip and tuck to his will. Spreading misery and despair in a billion realities. Platforms leading off in all directions, impossible to look at, let alone navigate. Passengers killing one another as they go mad with the absurdity and clarity of what has befallen them.

Audio Landscape: Footsteps on gravel, a train racing along the track, the sound of that weapon revealing the presence of you know who..., a knock on the door (amazing how scary that can be), a scream in the distance.

Musical Cues: Sinister and brooding for the most part, Howard Carter has been at this game too long now to deliver anything but excellence. He knows precisely the point where to stop too and let the silence do its work.

Isn't it Odd: Striding from the intimate to the epic might seem a little

Standout Scene: I haven't been chilled to the bone quite so much by an audio than when Hilary revealed that she killed Dave and why. It's remarkably creepy because the speech she is given to say attempts to justify her actions before the payoff of revealing what she has done. It's grounded in character and it's convincing and that is why it's so terrifying. 'I enjoyed killing who wants to be next?'

Result: Creepy, thick with atmosphere and bolstered by fine performances, The End of the Line kicks off the Last Adventure set in real style.  At points this reminded me of Midnight; frightened, irrational characters trapped in a terrifying situation and it enjoys a similar feeling of fraughtness and claustrophobia. It has the added element of weirdness that I would usually associate with Sapphire and Steel; an unknowable menace hiding in the shadows, a dark and dank setting that isn't playing by the rules and some quirky twists that take you by surprise. It's populated with some vivid characters too who are superlatively brought to life by the cast. Doctor Who has explored the alternative universe concept in novels (oh boy did it overplay it in novels), in comic strip form and on the TV. Big Finish has even had a stab at it too in it's Unbound series. But I have never seen it handled quite like this before in such a disquieting, psychologically probing manner. It's a unique approach and I love that. I'm often surprised that when a series scales back the storytelling to just a few characters in a confined setting that you often get the most extraordinary results. The End of the Line confirms that assertion for its first two thirds before exploding into high concept heaven for the finale, opening out on a scale grander than perhaps any other Doctor Who story. The groundwork has been set for this epic. If you were hoping that Big Finish were going to pull out all the stops for Colin Baker's swansong then by the standards of this first story it looks like you might be very happy indeed: 9/10

Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Warehouse written by Mike Tucker and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What's it about: The Doctor and Mel land in what appears to be an orbiting warehouse, a delivery facility with a dangerously erratic computer. Whilst Mel is helping with repairs, the Doctor begins to realise that not everything in the warehouse is as it seems. Why do no goods ever seem to leave the shelves? Why are the staff so obsessed with the stocktake? And who is the mysterious Supervisor? On the planet below, the Doctor discovers that the computer might be the least of their problems – and that they should be more concerned with the spacestation's mould and vermin...

The Real McCoy: Having unlimited space in the TARDIS can be a burden at times because it means there are an unlimited number of things you can keep and an unlimited number of places you can put them. He probably has one of everything but doesn't have a single clue where he put it. Tucker has managed to capture that untroubled seventh Doctor from season 24, the one who is flitting around the universe like a raving lunatic, hair, hat and attitude carefree. The seventh Doctor seems to be exactly the sort of character who would have a ton of shortbread bulging out of his pockets. I never realised how amusing the seventh Doctor could be when he is sarcastic. His 'hello, we're the Gods you've been worshipping' was very funny. When the Doctor bares his teeth at the horror of the sacrifices, you really pay attention. McCoy has rolled this many rrrrrrs in years and each one sounds like a death threat. If he had Godlike powers then he wouldn't keep landing himself in situations like this.

Computer Programmer: Again, it isn't hard to accurately capture Mel in season 24. Just imagine somebody who has taken half a dozen Pro Plus, spent four hours in the gym and is setting off to support every cause known to mankind. She's bubbly, enthusiastic and almost unbearably twee. Fortunately we have Bonnie Langford to bring her to life with the benefit of hindsight being a wonderful thing and she tempers some of the worst excesses of Tucker's writing. Mel is given plenty to do and her skills her vital to the plot (if she can find the on switch then the planet is doomed) but I wouldn't necessarily say she is written for intelligently. Giving a character a substantial role and giving them knowledgeable and perceptive things to say are two very different things.

Standout Performance: McCoy! McCoy! McCoy! I'm so excited to say it that I had write it three times. Let joy be uncontained.

Dreadful Dialogue: 'Oh rats! Sorry, not the best choice of curse in the circumstances...'
'You shall not find me wanting in points!'
'It's time to rid this warehouse of its mould!'
'A mould that can think!'

Great Ideas: 'What about the shops on the high street?' 'They'll become something of a novelty, I'm afraid.' The Doctor, unfortunately, hits the nail on the button. How long will it take before the process is finished and they are completely defunct? The warehouse is operated automatically but there are clones on hand to complete the stock take. I guess there are some things that a machine simply cannot do. There was a viral outbreak and the warehouse was sent into orbit to stockpile supplies away from the contamination. Unless the rats were incredibly smart to cause damage to non-essential systems and thus not put their lives in jeopardy (when Mel suggested it I thought this was going to turn out to be a sequel to Rat Trap) then the damage has been caused by an extraneous force. Shopping lists of orders placed with the Gods for a warehouse hanging in the sky with unimaginable bounty. A fungus practically wiped out an entire world but by the time the survivors emerged they had been cut off from the supplies set up into orbit. The rats are built up to be the monsters of the piece and turn out to be nothing of the sort. And the supervisor turns out to be a big lump of mould. Which is quite novel.

Audio Landscape: Crickets in grass, conveyor belt system, screeching rats.

Musical Cues: Since episode seems to consist of revealing physical detail about the warehouse and little else ('ooh those shelves are dusty!' and 'we're on a conveyor belt, Mel!') it comes down to the unconquerable team of Fox and Yason to make all this travelogue much more mysterious and exciting that it might otherwise be. To their credit they succeed. The Warehouse becomes a secretive, enigmatic location in their hands. Come the final episode, the pair have ramped up the excitement levels to factor ten with a score that suggests something terribly exciting is going on (when in reality a few million parcels are going to be delivered). They are a real asset to this story.

Isn't it Odd: Much like Paradise Towers, much like Spaceport Fear (more to the point), this is a concept based location. This time round it is the idea of a warehouse that has spun out of control and created its own society with customs and rules and it's own unique get my drift. However with Tucker this is all surface detail, there is no real sense that this is a society that has genuinely evolved and people have grown up within it. Instead it feels like a location that has been specifically set up to tell a Doctor Who story within it. 'Should that be such a bad thing?' I hear you ask. Well yes, I think we should be aiming higher. And if messrs Platt, Morris, Dorney, Guerrier can create fully functioning, detailed worlds that exist well before and long after the adventure is over then I don't see why Tucker can't too. It won't take anybody five minutes to realise that the inspiration for this happens to be an Amazon style operation and the imagination doesn't seem to stretch much further than that. When you break the ingenious code (the catalogue = the bible) you'll see the sort of sophistication we are dealing with. Unpretentious it might be, but the first episode is almost entirely textbook Doctor Who staging with a cliffhanger that failed to make me clench my buttocks. Was it my imagination or did the clone names (so and so F, so and so A) recall The Happiness Patrol? Which in itself is another artificial world based around a bizarre premise. A primitive culture being influenced and worshipping a piece of technology apes The Face of Evil too. A wonder-drug that wiped out a civilisation...add Gridlock to the shopping list. Sentient rats...wasn't the same script editor responsible for Rat Trap? The villain of the piece exclaims: 'At last, after 350 years!' He even sounds like Kane at the end of Dragonfire. My biggest problem with this story is that as influenced by immense warehouse distributors such as Amazon is ripe for some commerce themed lampooning and a commentary on mass consumerism. I can only imagine the substance, humour and observations Jonny Morris would have sifted from this setting. Tucker instead writes this with absolute seriousness and the setting, beyond a little graceless dialogue, is exact what it says on the tin. If you spent the last however many years worshipping a church in the sky that housed your Gods would you really find yourself throwing all those ideals away in half an hour and choosing to sacrifice yourself to destroy it? Jean alters her life choices on a sixpence and it isn't remotely believable. To kill your God is a massive choice but it feels like a quirk of plot.

Standout Scene: The stock take has been going on for 350 years (that juicy bit of knowledge would have been a better cliffhanger than any of the examples chosen for this story). The clones on board the warehouse are being revered as religious figures (another intriguing reveal that would have been a good point to pause the action...oh you get the idea).

Result: A 350 year wait for your order? That's about average for Amazon, isn't it? The Warehouse is written by Mike Tucker (author of The Genocide Machine, Dust Breeding and The Bellotron Incident) and without pushing his face into the mud too deeply it was never going to sparkle like the best of Big Finish. He's a meat and potatoes writer, understanding the basics of a Doctor Who story without ever trying to push the boundaries or dig too deep. I knew from experience this was never going to rock my world. However he has the backup of some of the most reliable hands at Big Finish's disposal; Barnaby Edwards directing, Fox and Yason handling the score and the irresistible team of McCoy and Langford helming the story. It's not quite polishing a turd (because the script is actually quite lively in parts) but it is like a wobbly singer being supported by a stunning back up troupe, keeping the audience transfixed and distracted from the deficiencies (in this case it is the stilted dialogue and clich├ęd storyline). McCoy, in particular, is like an excitable puppy desperate to be petted and recalling the addictive enthusiasm that he brought to the role in his first season. It's rare for me to say that McCoy is the best about a production so mark this day in your diary. Barnaby Edwards too deserves huge kudos, he's such a magician he might just convince you that the last episode is the most exciting thing you've ever heard. My big question about The Warehouse is that since we have Paradise Towers telling essentially the same story in 1987 (Tucker reveals his inspiration was this story in the extras) and in recent years Spaceport Fear doing an excellent job of picking up it's ideas and doing something fun with we really need a third roll of the dice that isn't quite as strong as the previous two? What you get here is a beautifully produced Doctor Who run-around. We're 202 releases into the main range and we've ditched the obscene amount of continuity that was weighing down the seventh Doctor adventures. Shouldn't we be setting our sights a little higher? I think the big question I have to ask about a story like The Warehouse is have we run out of fresh Doctor Who stories to tell? Has every plot twist been revealed, every character been written, every setting been created? Has the huge engine of storytelling known as Doctor Who played out every scenario so that all forthcoming stories are just an element of that story plus a pinch of that story with a healthy twist of that story? Or is it just the nostalgia driven Big Finish adventures that succumb to this curse? I don't think so. I think it depends on the imagination of the writer. Recently we have enjoyed The Entropy Plague and We Are the Daleks, both of which took an individual approach. In that case I have to blame the writer rather than the formula of the series on the lack of originality on display here. If you have a few hours to kill and need something to help pass the time whilst you browse Amazon and place a few orders (see what I did there?) then this is serviceable but it is in no way an essential purchase. For an audio drama it doesn't help that not one line of this script rises above the everyday. The antithesis of season 24 which was imaginative and original but often executed appallingly, The Warehouse is handsomely produced but a more nuts and bolts collection of old Who stories I have yet to experience. And I've not long heard Last of the Cybermen: 5/10

From Out of the Rain written by PJ Hammond and directed by Jonathan Fox Bassett

This story in a nutshell: The circus is coming to town...via theatre.

Hunky Hero: Hammond is the one writer that really likes to drive home the fact that Jack has lived through the entire 20th Century, it seems to be an idea that really excites him as it features in both of his episodes. Shots of him in his skimpy underwear working in a circus as the man who cannot die are divine, fully justifying the idea. It is in these glimpses of Jack's past that he is at his most interesting in the show. I could have easily forseen an entire season of adventures that jettisoned the usual Torchwood formula (it is a show that thrives on unexpected format changes) and followed Jack throughout different events in the 20th Century. You could take in all kinds of historical incident, visit different parts of the world and comment on how things developed over a century. If not a season, it would have made a cracking two part story. At least once Children of Earth came along Jack's past wasn't jettisoned, there are important plot implications in both next season and Miracle Day that link back to his waltz through the last century. Jack remembers his time with the circus wistfully, recalling travelling from town to town and trying to find paying customers the right way. A nomad existence, but a memorable one.

Jack's Crew: The one beat of continuity that strikes in From Out of the Rain is the mention of Owen's death. The Ghostmaker attempts to steal his breath only to discover that he has none in him.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Their days were numbered. Cinema may have saved their images but they killed off the travelling shows. Killed them.'
'He's part of this freak show' 'Some things never change.'
'What are you? There's not a breath in your poor, sad body...'
'What worries me is all those long lost pieces of film, tucked away in dusty cellars. The Night Travellers could still be there. Somewhere...'

The Good: PJ Hammond's two episodes are both so tonally different from the rest of Torchwood's content that they truly stand as something rather special. Small Worlds mixed the perverse with the fairytale to create an uncomfortable and yet strangely lyrical episode. The opening scenes of From Out of the Rain feature an exciting but creepy night time circus (complete with very creepy clowns enticing the punters in) that somehow vanishes into thin air. It is an atmospheric and enticing lure into the episode. I love the idea of Hammond writing from Torchwood, bringing his spate of clever and unusual ideas with him and creating something that is completely unique. Hammond's horror (which stretches right back to the superlativeSapphire and Steel) is conceptual and breeds in the mind the more you think about it, being far more subtle than the Torchwood norm. My one disappointment with Children of Earth (and it is probably my only disappointment) is that the season was condensed and it meant the loss of writers such as Hammond and Joe Lidster (and strangely Chris Chibnall) who had proven themselves to be reliable in the second season. How creepy are the shots of the Ghostmaker appearing on the celluloid? The idea of creepy circus folk stepping old of film and haunting the real world is pure Sapphire and Steel. It feels as if the director is completely in tune with the writer and is trying his damndest to fill the screen with as many unique, memorable and striking images as possible. Even the shot of Ianto, Gwen and Owen walking through sheets of rain towards the Electro have a beauty to them. You can see precisely how Hammond might have pitched this idea to Davies; a sinister ghoul dressed in a top hat and tails roaming the streets of Cardiff with an insane mermaid, preying on the public. It's freakish and distinctive, reminding me strongly of the Gentlemen from Buffy (the sinister undertaker gliding through the dark with his creeping, crawling assistant at his heels). They even steal the breath of their victims in a similar way that the Gentleman captured peoples voices. The major difference is how they are played, the Gentlemen were silent grinning cadavers who exhibited personality in how they interacted so politely with each other. The Ghostmaker is being played by Julian Bleach, the go to guy for freaks and waifs in Doctor Who, SJA and Torchwood and he exudes a calm and gentle menace in the way he delivers his dialogue and stares you out with his hypnotic eyes. Bleach is one of those fearless performers who throws himself into everything that he does, no matter how bat shit crazy that role might be. I really admire that. The mermaid has her victims secreted away in the changing rooms of the local swimming baths, a bizarre notion that works because it is so well played and shot. Similarities with Buffy's Hush continue afoot with the notion that breaking the flask will release the breath of the Ghostmaker's victims just as smashing the Gentleman's box released the voices of their muted victims. I love how the climax is staged as a piece of theatre, the owners of the Electro lined up as brain dead audience members to witness the remainder of the circus troupe marching from the screen into reality. It's a hugely atypical Torchwood climax that works because it suggests greater horror to come if the circus isn't stopped rather than agonising over a person decision of one of the regulars. They have to work together as a team to stop them, which has been the case an awful lot in season two and very refreshing. Plus the imagery is marvellous once again, grotesque characters stepping from black and white cine film into Technicolor reality. The circus troupe dissolving into over exposed film, the breaths escaping the flask, Ianto hearing the remaining breath that they managed to save...PJ Hammond packs this episode full of wonderful notions that the director picks up and runs with. I like the fact that only one person survives, it means that they posed a genuine threat but the team can take some solace that they managed to save one child. It could possibly be twee but its rather poignant (especially Ianto's reaction to the breath).

The Bad: How amusing that the climax features Ianto running a relay with the flask.

Result: Cinema killed the travelling show... A rarity, an almost entirely plot driven episode of Torchwood which isn't interested in the personal lives of its regular cast. From Out of the Rain is so atypical for this show that I initially found it hard to get a grasp on but it has aged beautifully as one of the finer examples of how dissimilar Torchwood could be to any other show on television. It is written by PJ Hammond and he has brought all manner of ghoulish ideas and imagery with him and the slower pace allows for a greater sense of atmosphere and chills. It's unique and I love it for that. Season two has seen both the actors and the characters on Torchwood gelling into a fine ensemble and it is with the final stretch of four episodes that you can see how that character repair is really starting to pay off. Technically From Out of the Rain could be an episode of any show because it is completely stand alone and doesn't obsess with any of the characters but a quirky plot of it's own. But that is a massive strength because it thrives on the strength of its excellent storytelling, imagery and ideas. And it shows how solidly the Torchwood team can work together now. For some this might be a little too gentle and unassuming, especially if you are looking to Torchwood for schlocky b-movie goodness (there is plenty of that elsewhere). The truth is that this show is often criticised for being so far out there that it alienated its audience (I am usually the first in line to make that point) but the result of a show that is willing to try anything is that whilst it has its failures, it can also strike upon episodes that are strikingly original and unforgettable. From Out of the Rain is one such example: 9/10

Friday, 14 August 2015

Return to Telos written and directed by Nick Briggs

What's it about: The Doctor reveals to Leela that they’re heading for the planet Telos. And K9 has new masters... On Telos, in the past, the Second Doctor and Jamie are exploring the ‘tomb of the Cybermen’. Meanwhile, the Cyber-Controller and Cyber-Planner consolidate their plans. Spare parts from Krelos are being used to construct a mighty Cyber army. The Doctor must be captured. Out of control, the TARDIS tumbles down a chasm and the Doctor and Leela find themselves caught up in full-scale planetary invasion.

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor knows it is bad to go to Telos because he has been there before. Baker sounds like he as lost faith in the script during the early scenes, he is running on autopilot.

Noble Savage: There is little for Leela to do in this adventure but to follow the Doctor's scarf threads and ask a lot of questions. It isn't the most responsible take on her character because aside from a few lines she could be swap with just about any other companion and you wouldn't even notice.

Standout Performance: At points it sounds like Tom Baker is trying to out-robot the Cybermen with a performance that is wholly monotonous. I think any actor would struggle with some of these lines.

Dreadful Dialogue: 'My tribe has a proverb. If too many season the pot, the food is spoiled.'

Great Ideas: The reason they travelled forward in time and missed the attack on Krelos was because K.9 was under Cyber Control. The Cybermen made them move forward in time. They have interfered with the flow of history and it is the Doctor's job to put it right. Way to spell out the plot in a clunky exposition scene. Dangerous alien technology has infiltrated Krelos and it is about cause a terrible catastrophe.

Audio Landscape: The TARDIS flying through space, falling from a great height and crashing into the mountain, filleting fish, explosions, car sirens,

Musical Cues: I'll give Jamie Robertson his due, he has managed to successfully emulate the weird sounds that permeated the Tombs of Telos and accurately sampled the voices of both the Cybermen and the Cyber Planner. Return to Telos feels very authentic on a production level. Why anybody would want to listen to something that sounds like Stephen Hawking versus the talking clock is beyond me though. Convincing it may be but it is also something of an assault on the ears.

Isn't it Odd: The wrench from Krelos to Telos is utterly jarring, because of the title and the monsters of this story we are expected to accept the leap into Doctor Who history but no explanation is forthcoming immediately and there is no natural lead in from one story to the other. It's an inharmonious dumping of the listener into Tomb of the Cybermen. 'What's the matter Cyber dog? Are the Cybermen scared of time travel?' - some lines should never make it to the recording booths. Please bear in mind that these scripts have to go through a writer, script editor, director and actor. I think that exposes the problem when one person fulfils all of those roles. I've discussed this ranges obsession with recapturing nostalgia until I am blue in the face (and until you are probably a little bored of me bringing it up) and whilst this is a chance to do something a little bit out of the ordinary (literally walking straight into a classic Doctor Who adventure reminding me strongly of the DS9 Trials and Tribbe-ations) it is going to take a writer of immense magnitude to pull off this premise and say something a different about the story it is intruding upon and fail to leave a blight on it. Essentially though, it is just the same thing. The 4DAs trading cutting edge storytelling for another wank over past glories. Halfway through the first episode, when you might expect to be immersed in an exciting adventure featuring the Doctor and the Cybermen we seemed to be obsessing over fresh fish suppers. Is it my imagination or did a fish supper cause the catastrophe on Krelos? And the link between Krelos and Telos is the fact that they are in neighbouring systems! Personally I think the disaster on Krelos should have been dealt with in the previous story, the one with oodles of time to spare on long dialogue scenes between the Doctor and Leela. It's really hard to give much of a damn about the fate of Krelos because we have only met a couple of characters from that world and certainly not enough depth to care about their existence. The end of episode one is trying to capture the cataclysmic moment the Cybermen came to Krelos and destroyed their world. Instead it sounds like a lot of god awful noise shredding my brain into a million fibres. The are a million exquisite ways that K.9 could have been taken over by the Cybermen but Jamie having brought Cyber-particles into the TARDIS from his adventure on Telos which have laid dormant until now...well, it defies belief. Is Briggs trying to boil this down to it's simplest possible level?  It's time to save the day with the particulate vacuum cleaner! A vacuum cleaner that hoovers up Cyber-particles! Halfway through the second episode I was starting to wonder where precisely this story could fit into Tomb of the Cybermen (given it is a pretty busy story to start with) and Briggs throws in a perfunctory moment where the two stories can sync up (when Haydon asks what the weapons testing room is for). I'm not in the least bit convinced.

Standout Scene: A beat of character at the climax as the Doctor and Leela share a moment under the stars. Three seasons down, not a great deal said about their relationship and the same writers churning out the same sort of dialogue. Time to give Lalla Ward a shot, I think. This kind of material is a waste of Louise Jameson's talents.

Result: How terribly odd. The Fate of Krelos seemed to operate under the rule of exploring character with very little plot to hang it on. Return to Telos works the other way around, it spews out great lumps of plot but forgets to make the story about the characters and is an empty experience as a result. Can Briggs not marry the two and produce something spectacular? Even if he had taken the characters on an intensely personal journey in this adventure it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference - Telos seems determined to infuriate at every possible turn. This is so unutterably terrible on every level I don't even know where to begin. Is this the only story where a fish supper can spell catastrophe for a planet, where Jamie leaving his skiddy kilts around the console room can cause the possession of K.9 and where a vacuum cleaner can wind up saving the day? To say a writer seems to have made this up as they go along might seem a ridiculous statement - of course they do! But this feels as though it has been knocked together in a couple of hours with relatively little thought going into the process. If you're expecting an almighty clash between this story and Tomb of the Cybermen then you are going to walk away mightily disappointed, the Doctor and Leela don't make it into the story until the climax and even then they tiptoe through it as though embarrassed to be there. What could have been a fun clash between the second Doctor and Jamie and the fourth Doctor and Leela turns out to be nothing of the kind and there is a dearth of Cyber-action too. I don't understand the point of a story like this where it dodges possibilities at every turn and instead focuses on inane technobabble and talk of catastrophic consequences without ever putting across a clear understanding what they are. Does Return to Telos bring anything extra to the table that enhances Tomb of the Cybermen or is this just another relentless exercise in pointless nostalgia, a chance to slap the Cybermen on the cover and sell a few more copies? What do you think? When did I get so damn cynical about these things? Enough talk about bloody fishing: 2/10

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Nightmare Man written by Joe Lidster and directed by Joss Agnew

This story in a nutshell: Luke’s leaving the series but he’s being plagued by nightmares…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: When did our Sarah Jane become such a convincing mother? She stands outside waiting for Luke’s results with a mixture of anticipation and sadness. Her ‘apart from that’ when Luke lists all the terrifying things that happened when he first joined Park Vale is very funny. Turns out she is a dreadful cook and nearly sets the kitchen on fire making scrambled eggs! The scene between Luke and Sarah in the car where he asks if she is going to miss him is absolutely gorgeous, it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. Both Elisabeth Sladen and Tommy Knight pour their heart into that moment and it is beautifully scored. I defy anybody who has been on either side of someone leaving home, be it parent of child, not to be moved. Amazing that a show that is geared at children can produce moments of such powerful honesty. For years it was just Sarah Jane and K.9 and Luke gave her something real to live for. She is terrified of him leaving because it feels as if she is losing him but that wont stop her letting him go out there and having the best life that he can. Have I ever loved the character more? Lis Sladen clearly had a ball playing the older, senile Sarah Jane and she milks it for every laugh she can get. The Nightmare Man tried to manipulate Sarah by poking fun at her nightmares about the horrors she has seen, about the Doctor never coming back for her and Luke leaving her forever but this just makes her stronger and more determined to fight back. Can you think of a better gift to send Luke off to Uni with but K.9?

Sarah’s Gang: Amazing to think that four years Luke was a squeaky voiced little boy in a white robe and now his balls and voice have dropped, he’s developed a sense of style and he is old enough to be heading off to university. Watching the character (and the actor) grow has been one of the highlights of this series. In a story that sees Luke depart the series for a break it is nice that he provides the voice over for the opening scenes of the series. His quiet ‘I’m clever’ when talking to his mum about taking his A-Levels early is almost apologetic. His nightmares are very telling, showing his mother laughing at his fears of leaving and saying that he wasn’t really her son and she’ll be rid of him soon. Worse he fears he will be replaced when he leaves. He almost breaks down when he has a nightmare about Clyde tearing up a drawing of the two of them. You should want to crawl away and die at the punch of syrup in Luke’s final speech to the Nightmare Man but Tommy Knight has come a long way as an actor and (just about) sells it.

Rani is such a realist, she understands that Luke has got to meet knew people and see knew things if she is jealous that he gets to do it a year before she does. Her dream sequences in the BBC news studio are terrifying because it is something so instantly recognisable and yet feels totally off kilter. Rani’s worst nightmare comes in her dream of being a reporter leading her to having to expose Sarah Jane and her world saving antics. Rani insists that Sarah Jane has given her a better life but gets a real slap in the face, being told to grow up and if she wants to be a journalist she has to stop worrying about people’s feelings. Her admission that she is envious of him heading off into the big wide world before her but for him not to think for one second that she isn’t pleased for him makes me love Rani that little bit more.

Clyde suggests that he is trying to help Luke adjust to his friends not being around but you can see that underneath his bluster he is hurting a lot. Love the sexual tension between Clyde and Rani which will only develop as the season continues – you just want to scream at them to acknowledge their feelings for each other! There’s a wonderfully awkward moment between Clyde and Luke at the party where they both want to admit how much they are going to miss each other but have to cover up with posturing. Clyde’s nightmares see him serving burgers in a dead end restaurant being criticised for never being as smart as Luke.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oooh! Did someone say aliens?’
‘You can’t say my name…you can’t tell anyone about me…’
‘Its time…go to sleep…’
‘Remember the sentient concrete disguised as the Chiswick flyover?’
‘Well what do you need Mr Smith? I have stuff here from planets across the universe! You just tell me what you need!’ ‘I need a USB lead, Sarah Jane.’
‘Bad dog!’
‘You’re going back into your nightmares forever. Night night children…’
‘Goodbye Mr Smith. You were adequate company…’ ‘You could always contact me if you need me’ ‘I knew you would miss me.’

The Good Stuff: The structure of this story is awesome, showing the stages in Luke’s life that has lead to this moment where he is leaving for University. What a brilliant reminder of how this show mixes the domestic life of Sarah and her insane role saving the Earth where Luke drops a bombshell about his future as they are handcuffed to an explosive! That is the best gunging of exploding Slitheen ever – look at K.9, he’s absolutely covered! I really like how the show handles Luke going off to university in so many different ways with Sarah Jane terrified that she is losing her son, Rani happy for her friend but quietly jealous and Clyde ignoring him because he feels as if someone else in his life is walking away and Luke himself frightened of what the future might bring. Its astonishing how well defined these characters are now that one idea can perpetuate such a excellent character development. Luke’s nightmare sequences are filmed with a sense of wrongness about them, just an arms throw from reality but with some twisted camera angles that really disorient you. The triple loser sign is hilarious! Once again the Sarah Jane Adventures goes for the jugular with its villain and Julian Bleach is perfectly cast as the very creepy Nightmare Man. Painted up like a twisted black and white clown and skipping through Luke’s nightmares with a sense of twisted humour and quiet menace, he is one of the best original villains we’ve seen in years. It’s so well done that beyond a seconds thought that this is ‘Freddie Krueger for CBBC’ you soon forget the similarities because the character drama gives this an edge. Joe Lidster seems to be the only writer who remembers Maria and mentions her in every script he wrote for the series. The cliffhanger deserves a round of applause; it’s really creepy and reminded me strongly of Sapphire and Steel (anything that can do that gets my vote). How brilliant is it that the first thing the Nightmare Man does when he is set free is spin on a swivel chair? There is something of the Child Catcher about the Nightmare Man as he creeps amongst the sleeping. Can you imagine anything more freaky than watching the television and the newsreader talking directly to you, and worse pulling you inside? That is the spookiest BBC newsreader ever. I always get a chill of that Harry Potter-esque wonder of the ordinary colliding with the magical when the Nightmare Man skips out into an everyday street and sends his sends his glowing tendrils into so many homes to invade their dreams and turn them into nightmares. As ever this series is sporting some unforgettable imagery. I love it when Mr Smith asks tentatively how K.9 is…aww! I honestly cannot think of a single ending to an episode that has given me goosebumps simply by being so cheerfully optimistic about the future.

The Bad Stuff: My one complaint is that Luke couldn’t leave without one more love in with his friends. I don’t want to say cringe inducing but it verges towards it slightly.

The Shallow Bit: I love Sarah Jane in a waistcoat, she looks so stylish! Rani looks gorgeous in her golden hat when she is dancing.

Result: I cannot believe this is aimed at children because considering the time slot and audience The Nightmare Man is exquisitely written with some very raw emotion and scary scenes. This kicked off a near flawless season of the Sarah Jane Adventures that really saw the show coming of age and producing stories that were as good as and (dare I say it) better than the Doctor Who being screened the same year. Our dreams are something we still don’t quite understand so something that can pervert and menace them is pretty terrifying and Joe Lidster and Joss Agnew really tap into that sense of disturbing unreality when you fall asleep. Whilst I cannot praise Julian Bleach enough for conjuring up a delicately menacing creation in the Nightmare Man what really impresses is the strength of the character work between the four regulars. Lidster shows how far we have come and forces the series to move on offering hope for the future. Luke’s departure might just bring a tear to your eye before this story finishes and Sladen, Knight, Mohindra and Anthony have gelled into an awesome ensemble. I have to mention Sam Watts, the musician for the series, who has provided four years worth of memorable and emotive music and truly excels himself here. A confident piece of drama, addictively watchable and a consistently superb show: 10/10

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Gift written by Rupert Laight and directed by Alice Troughton

This story in a nutshell: Never look a gift horse in the mouth...especially when it is from the Blathereen.

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: Like The Curse of Peladon where the Doctor was mistrustful of the Ice Warriors because he had only encountered their aggressive side before, Sarah Jane is initially mistrustful of the Blathereen and their apparent good intentions. When aliens from a particular planet have tried to murder over and over again it is perfectly natural to build up a prejudice against them.  Sarah is suspicious until the Rakweed is produced and she is seduced by the idea of curing the world of poverty and doing some lasting good for the planet. She isn't too bothered about the fame this gift would bring her but the good she could do for the world. She is a genuinely altruistic individual, a rarity in science fiction. Mind you she learnt from the best. I'm pleased that her paranoia keeps her cautious though, wondering if she has been tainted by alien attacks into think that every charitable act has a darker meaning. If she had simply accepted the Rakweed without comment I would start questioning whether she was fit to protect the planet. She's been a reporter creating the news for so long that Sarah is a little afraid of making the Rakweed public and becoming front page news herself. When she realises that the Rakweed is dangerous she has a few cutting words for Mr Smith. For Sarah Jane this is two pronged attack; the possibility of losing her son and the planet she has sworn to protect. When her sons life is in danger, Sarah Jane means business and she takes up arms against the Blathereen (okay it is only loaded with vinegar but it would have the same effect on the creatures as a bullet would on a human). As is often the case Sarah tries to give her foes a chance to redeem themselves but true to their nature they press on and have to be dealt with. And this story has a particularly messy solution. And yet she still apologises and thinks there should have been a better way to end this. The final grinning shot of Elizabeth Sladen made me blink away tears...she looks absolutely beautiful.

Sarah's Gang: Rani is the one who soothes Sarah Jane's concerns and convinces her that the Blathereen coming to dinner might be fun. Clyde, as ever, displays hidden talents. Let's get him signed up to Masterchef if he can lay on a banquet that satisfies an alien delegation. What isn't surprising is Clyde trying to sneak K.9 into school to help him with his exam, against the dogs will. There is a real effort to give Luke some development before he takes a sabbatical from the series. In his last three stories before his presence on the show is reduced we experience his first proper argument with Sarah Jane (Mona Lisa's Revenge), his first illness (the Gift) and his first nightmares (The Nightmare Man). Note the gorgeous chemistry between Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony. That is just going to get more potent next year. Kudos to Tommy Knight too, who truly convinces that he is on the brink of death as the infected Luke.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We absolutely adore foreign food!'
'Shepherds are a delicacy on this world?'
'We might not be able to use text books but nobody said anything about a super intelligent robot from the year 5000.'
'Small as Earth is it is still a useful plot of land.'
'Disintegration successful' 'You don't say.'

The Good: Talk about hitting the ground running... The Pharos Institute is a staple of this series at this point, first appearing in the season one finale and being utilised right up until the season five debut. Isn't it wonderful how this episode initially convinces you that this is going to be another Slitheen pantomime? Cue audible groans from a certain portion of the audience that can't stomach an alien with problems with their gaseous odours. It quickly evolves into something quite different that just happens to involve characters in the Slitheen costumes, Laight subverting your expectations by having the Blathereen turn up and save Sarah Jane and her friends. How nice for this show to continue to take elements of Doctor Who and give them extra layers of back story. I realise that most of the time the reason for this is because the costumes are available from Doctor Who and it is an economical way of ensuring an alien presence in the show but it has the brilliant side effect of inducing excitement from Doctor Who fans who enjoy the appearances of the Sontarans, Judoon and Slitheen. The Sarah Jane Adventures has managed to take all of these races and given them additional depth. Especially the Slitheen/Blathereen, a race that is built for a child friendly programme and that have appeared in more episodes of this series than in the parent show they sprung from. I really enjoyed them in Aliens of London/World War Three and Boom Town but I have to say the race has been utilised far more successfully in this series where they can run with the more juvenile aspects without apology. Their method of trying to turn the planet into cash is catchy and it is rare to come across such a cheeky race (most of them are played for scares) that just happen to murder people in their wake. The long shot of the baby Slitheen running an entire length of corridor is gorgeous, brilliantly unapologetic. This is how this species should have been treated all along, not packaged as the latest big bad but as characters in their own right. It is amazing how much more palatable they are as a result. Mind you thanks to some rehearsal, the costumes have been perfected at this point and look striking and convincing on screen. Not only that but the series has managed to attract names as impressive as Simon Callow and Miriam Margoyles to play Tree and Leaf, outstanding actors of a calibre that you would not expect to find doing voiceover work for a programme on CBBC. It is their vocal talents that make the perfect finishing touches on these characters and what allows us to be fooled into a false sense of security as to their intentions. The idea of Slitheen bounty hunters from Raxicoribophalibatorious is an engaging one, and I would have enjoyed subsequent appearances had this turned out to be a genuine offer of help from Tree and Leaf.  The first episode of The Gift is a complete change of pace for an SJA story, focussing on comedy and character drama and leaving the scares for the last five minutes. It is hard to tell how much of what they tell Sarah and her friends about their planet is true but there is some intriguing back story about Raxacoricofallapatorious. Apparently the planet had quite the reputation before the Slitheen bribed their way into power and spoilt things. What the Blathereen are offering is an end to poverty with a plant that can grow in the harshest of conditions. It's a world shaping gift that would fundamentally change things on Earth forever. Would it cause the planet to be even more overpopulated? Would current societies in the grip of hunger become a powerful presence? Would our perception of the Third World change forever? How wonderful that this show can get me thinking in such a a story about big baby faced aliens offering a present of a flower. Between them, Rupert Laight and Alice Troughton manage to turn the Rakweed (on screen little more than an inoffensive flower) into a frightening prospect, foreign pollen spitting into the atmosphere and causing mass multiplication and infecting the human race with a poison. Watch out for the glorious POV shots of pollen heading off to do their dirty work, we ride on the back of the spores as they exit the attic and soar out into the world. The swelling music, the spread of flowers, Luke's hideous rash...the story takes a turn on the dark side. Isn't it bizarre how this show takes hold of the more childish aspects of Doctor Who (the Slitheen, K.9) and makes them work? I love Rani's assertion that K.9 makes a 'right racket!' Have you heard him on those outtakes of old 70s Doctor Who stories? You might think that the make up for an alien plague on a children's programme might err on the side of caution but SJA goes all out to show how unpleasant it is. Luke is sweaty, pale and covered nasty swellings and blotches. For once Mr Smith's fanfare is appreciated and I clapped when his screen slid away to reveal his air conditioning unit to deal with the Rakweed spores. Very nicely done. Listen to the screaming sounds of the flowers as they begin seeding on Earth, like fingers running up your spine. Using the Earth as a fertile ground for their harvest of Rakweed is a brand new kind of threat to the planet and I thought I had heard them all by now. Sarah's parting shot, to exacerbate the Rakweed in the Slitheen-Blathereen's stomach and cause them to explode, is both well thought through and enjoyably messy. The reaction to the glooping has to be seen to be believed. I bet that was incredible fun to shoot.

The Bad: Was it my imagination or did Darren Mullet play his part as though he had just wandered on the set by mistake? Clyde's sneaky tactics to pass his test with K.9 amuses but I felt that it ate a little too much screen time in the second episode. I had some pretty abrasive teachers at school but Miss Jerome is in a league of her own. Mind you she does get her comeuppance as the Rakweed leaves its blotchy marks on her (a great shock moment). The news report that shows the infection has spread to other parts of London and I could have done with more of that sort of thing because this plague really feels at times as though it is restricted to one school and one attic. Luke's infection clears up in seconds...hmm.

The Shallow Bit: How Tommy Knight has matured. From archetype in a smock to a stylish teen in the latest gear, he has come a long way in three short seasons.

Result: 'We are sure our Rakweed will change your planet forever...' Guess who's coming to dinner? A delightful season finale that manages to successfully hoodwink the audience into thinking it isn't going to be the usual end of the world escapade...before pulling the Rakweed out of the bag. The first episode is my favourite, jettisoning the tension and concentrating on some lovely comedy and character work as the Blathereen come to tea. Alice Troughton deserves a great deal of kudos for managing to realise both the playful and the serious aspects of Laight's script, pulling off everything from a farcical dinner sequence to a mini plague in London. Troughton's direction is somewhat overlooked and it is worth noting her contribution to The Sarah Jane Adventures, bringing to life some of the most atmospheric stories (Eye of the Gorgon, The Mad Woman in the Attic, The Eternity Trap) and never once letting the show descend into a pantomime. A shame that this would be her last contribution to the show but it is a nice adventure to go out on, one that allows her to show how versatile a director she is. In comparison to the unique tone of the episode one, the conclusion plays along similar lines to any other contagion story (albeit toned down a little for the target audience) but I have to give the actors credit for convincing about the severity of the epidemic. Another example of the high standard of this show, The Gift is not the best SJA series finale (The Lost Boy & Goodbye, Sarah Jan Smith take those honours) but it is filled to bursting with memorable scenes, great dialogue, fantastic character interaction and some well achieved scares. All told it is rather wonderful: 8/10