Thursday, 31 December 2015

Only the Monstrous: The Innocent written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

Tempted Back: It's been a while I know! To be honest I haven't felt much like writing Big Finish reviews lately...not only because I have been spectacularly busy getting married and preparing for my trip to Colombia...but because I attended a convention recently where a former Big Finish employer recognised me and went out of his way to make me feel uncomfortable, making jibes about the nastier side of fandom and hack blogs (whilst looking directly at me in the audience). I heard him discussing the blog in the foyer in a negative light - fair enough. It's not to everybody's tastes. It's something that I am used to. You cannot please everybody all the time and I have had some pretty damning things thrown at me, both by people who create these stories and those who enjoy them. I've developed a pretty thick skin. But after the convention I thought to myself what is the point of this if you are just annoying the creators of this stuff? And for a while I thought I would just pause, enjoy the crazy things that were going on in life and then come back to it later. But I have really missed reviewing the Big Finish stuff and I have come to the conclusion that this is just my opinion and been contacted by enough people in the last month to realise that there people out there who genuinely seek it out. So my thick skin is back in place, my honesty is locked in place and I'm ready to go. I can understand somebody reacting against a negative review or two, privately. Publicly it seems quite sly. I wont be attending conventions again but I will continue doing what I enjoy. I haven't written this to make a point of a contributor to Big Finish but simply to explain why I have been absent for so long. Hack blog it may be, but it's my hack blog and it gives me great pleasure to continue to enjoy (or not) Big Finish stories.

What's it about: As the Daleks mass their time fleet for a final assault on Gallifrey, something ancient is waiting for them at Omega One. And a sacrifice must be made. Arch-manipulator and Time Lord strategist, Cardinal Ollistra receives shock news of the Doctor’s death. Meanwhile, on the planet Keska, a parochial war has returned to plague a peaceful civilisation after decades of tranquillity. But how can such a war have any connection with the great Time War which, at any one moment in the whole of eternity, could threaten to tear the universe apart? If only the Doctor were still alive.

Damaged: What a coup for Big Finish. I mean the New Series licence is one hell of a coup anyway and will probably see the company in business for many years to come (I imagine the revenue from these box sets will soar). To book a name like John Hurt and to be able to continue to explore his backstory after his single appearance in the TV series - when this was advertised I thought 'they've got it made.' He's a actor of rare gravitas and status and a huge figure in the cult world, I can imagine there are all kinds of crowds that would want to seek this set out. No pressure, Nick. Topping that with the revelation that the Doctor is dead is the next best thing and it provides a decent gasp before the title music - although I already sussed that they were talking about the eighth Doctor taking his life in Night of the Doctor. He's a dangerous man, that's clear from the outset. He states that he is ready to die because he has seen too much of the War already but it is not made clear if that is really the case or just his tag line to clear the Time Lords out so he can do a better job of saving the day. Dangerous but still likeable, Hurt's Doctor might have seen some terrible things but he hasn't committed his ultimate atrocity yet. He's still redeemable. The universe would be a far more dangerous place without him. The Doctor is paranoid that the War is following him everywhere to the point where he is genuinely surprised to land somewhere that hasn't been touched by the fighting. It's worrying that this Doctor comes armed with so much knowledge of warfare tactics, he can reel them off without batting an eyelid. He's clearly seen a great deal of conflict. What he lacks is the humanity to spare peoples feelings, he simply states what is happening without a care for the populace he might be terrifying. 'It's standard genocidal procedure...' The Doctor will help on Keska because he wasn't forced, a rarity these days. He doesn't state his name anymore, perhaps because he doesn't think he deserves it. But when he is done on Keska he is reminded that he is a good man, something he has forgotten. The only reward he wants for his assistance is peace and quiet and no mention of his name. The Doctor thinks his part in this conflict is to do the unthinkable to bring it to a conclusion. What he has forgotten is that he always used to do that anyway but by ingenious means that saved as many lives as possible. Now the War has escalated he doesn't factor in the lives, just the consequences. He describes himself as a monster. I don't know what he has done...but he is being too harsh on himself. Monsters don't feel remorse. You want to see a monster then check out Capaldi in The Girl Who Died - playing God and justifying it to himself.

Standout Performance: I want to wax lyrical about John Hurt whose performance it goes without saying is exceptional but the performer I want to focus on is Jacqueline Pearce. The ultimate pulp villainess, Pearce brings a wonderful presence to every story that she takes part in. Servalan both terrified and turned on the audience in equal measure and Chesseneye was cut from the same cloth in the delightful dual Doctor epic The Two Doctors and she chewed the scenery with gorgeous abandon in The Fearmonger for Big Finish. I'm pleased to see an actress of such abundance secure such a pivotal role in what is possibly the most important range that Big Finish are bringing out now. Her gravelly tones give me chills.  

Sparkling Dialogue: 'What is war if not the embodiment of hypocrisy?'

Great Ideas: Opening on the final assault on Gallifrey is quite a bold statement to make right at the beginning of this range but if you are trying to get peoples attention then I guess this is the way to do it. It certainly doesn't get much bigger than this. The Time Lords haven't beaten the Daleks by any means but they did have a breathing space in which to lick their wounds and try and fight back. They use compassion as a weapon, utilising the people from the planets that are caught up in this war as a shield against further attacks. Let's give them some credit, when it comes to psychological warfare they are the masters.

Audio Landscape: If you're going to hand an epic soundscape like this to anybody then Howard Carter is probably the first name I would pull out of a hat. He's proven himself time and again both with intimate stories and ones with massive scope and he really doesn't disappoint. Dalek fleet screaming into view, Daleks screaming in unison, a Dalek succumbing the pressures and time contraction of the Time Destructor, birds flying and singing, the TARDIS hissing with steam, trickling water, alarms going off, mass extermination blasts, the Doctor's twinkly headaches, lapping waves.

Musical Cues: Ooh I like the theme tune, another Howard Carter thumbs up. Bombastic, dramatic, a little bit scary...just like the War Doctor. It has the music hall feel of the TV Movie and the energy of Murray Gold's original theme so it bridges the gap between them nicely.

Isn't it Odd: After the initial scenes were in place setting up the major players in this box set the story moves to the planet Keska and things get a lot more predictable. It is a standard Doctor Who story of a man turning up on a world in conflict and chipping in to help them. I was tapping my foot waiting for the moment when Keska was linked to the Time War, it was inevitable given that is precisely where this story is leading. To pretend otherwise was practically pointless but Briggs has a go anyway. I might not have mentioned Bennus in this review...there is a reason for that. She isn't a particularly memorable character. Beth Chalmers, again? They are going to have to start using a voice synthesizer soon to disguise the fact that she turns up in everything. Reliable she might be but surely there are an awful lot of actors who would enjoy audio work that haven't had the opportunity because she is being invited back every other day. She's played a companion for goodness sakes. You cannot expose the actress so publicly and then expect fans of this stuff to not recognise her in every other story.  I'm not entirely sure what happened on the boat between Rejoice (bizarre name) and the Doctor on the boat. But having a paddy doesn't make you a monster.

Standout Scene: If you are going to use the ultimate Doctor Who weapon against the Daleks then you could do no better than to seek out the Time Destructor from The Daleks' Masterplan. You can keep your Reality Bombs and Plague Planets, this is still the most awe-inspiringly devastating piece of hardware the show has ever produced.

Result: 'I'm steeped in the blood of it all...' Opening stories usually fall into two categories and both of them can be made to work very well; the stories that set up the rest of the set and the stories that work as individual narratives in their own right. The Innocent is very much the former but it covers a lot of ground in its hour and introduces a lot of elements that have a great deal of potential. The Innocent was a safe way of launching the series by introducing the War Doctor in a traditional Doctor Who adventure on an alien world where he steps in and saves the day...wasn't the whole point of this series that we got away from that sort of thing and explored the War to end all Wars? Well I guess there is still time for that and the sole purpose of this introductory tale is to push the War Doctor to the fore and show us what he is made of. Actually he's rather sweet, albeit with a cold edge. Those reviewers who have found that a disappointment should go an watch The Day of the Doctor again. He was rather sweet with a cold edge in that too so this is entirely consistent with what we have seen. If there is a fault with the expectations of this character it is Steven Moffat's for suggesting the War Doctor was some kind of terrible monster in The Name of the Doctor and then failing to deliver on that promise in Day. John Hurt has a voice that was made for audio and I shut my eyes and drank in his lines, as unsophisticated as they were at times. Jacqueline Pearce doesn't get a major slice of the action here but listening to her rant on is divinity itself. I can't wait until she steps out of the limelight. I had fears that this would be a carbon copy of Dalek Empire (which perhaps wouldn't be a bad thing given it is still Briggs' greatest achievement) but despite some attempts at world building (or should that be War building) this lacked the cold tone, the sprawling narrative and the morally ambiguous characters of the popular series. I think this is going to turn out to be something very special indeed, certainly with Hurt on board with that voice that drips like honey it is always going to be worth a listen. The Innocent would blow your mind away but it does what it needs to do, it has a fine soundscape and the performances are gorgeous: 6/10


Vane said...

Very happy to have you back! I suppose all reviewers who make public their opinions on a blog in Internet are bound to suffer some abuse from those people who doesn't agree with their opinions... If the people making those stories feel uncomfortable because of online reviews...well not every story will please everyone and they should be mature enough not to have a paddy because of a bad review and make nasty comments about your blog.
As for this box set, I was hoping something more original and daring when writing for the War Doctor and the Time War. More stuff related with Time itself used as a weapon between the Daleks and Time Lords. Something like the stuff of nightmares that RTD envisaged. Just get a creative writer like Jonathan Morris and give him some juicy timey wimey stuff.

Vane said...

Damn, I don't know what has happened with my comment, seems its been lost. Well just happy to have you back and please don't let some immature people affect you. Immature because If some writer or so have a paddy because of a bad review...well, not every story will please everyone, will it? I have seen very destructive comments on forums about stories but your reviews are well constructed, you may or may not agree with a critic but every review is wonderfully detailed.

This box set, I was expecting something more ambitious, more original with the Time War and the War Doctor, not just generic Briggs Dalek stories. I have enjoyed the Box Set and Hurt and Pierce are wonderful but I would love to hear the stuff of nightmares that RTD hinted when he imagined the Time War in the first place. I mean, the 10th Doctor was terrified of his own people in The end of Time, after spending this whole incarnation moaning about them. I'd love to see more groundbreaking original stories with future releases in the War Doctor range

TheTillmanator said...

Long time reader here and I intend to get around to the War Doctor audios, so I just read the Tempted Back and Result sections so I wouldn't spoil too much for myself. I just want to say you're easily one of my favorite Doctor Who reviewers. I may not always agree with you, (You hated Hell Bent, I loved it) but that's the fun part for me. I can formulate my own opinions, but I like seeing what others think. A lot of your reviews have made me see stories from a different perspective, and when our opinions do line up it's a joy to read my feelings translated perfectly onto my computer screen.

Perhaps this former Big Finish employer should realize that you've helped newcomers like me ease into navigating the initially overwhelming Doctor Who expanded universe. You're a big part of why Big Finish has gotten as much money from me as they have. And for that you have my thanks. Welcome back!

Urlance Woolsbane said...

You're doing the audios again! Yay! :D

Shame on whomever that was at the convention! I'm not overly familiar with the nastier side of fandom, but you're certainly not part of it. And you might not write as well as Phil Sandifer, but you're no hack. You've got a wonderfully engaging, personable style that's not exactly ten-a-penny. That you hit a nerve like that is strong proof of your skill, if you ask me.

Long may your reviews continue!

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for your comments. Although I have to be honest I have no desire to write like Phil Sandifer. As thoughtful as his reviews can be it takes quite a lot of effort to shove that much of your PhD down your audiences throat. My choice is to write in a simpler, more accessible style. I have tried to read his reviews before but my eyes drop out of each paragraph long before they are over because they are overwritten. I'm not criticising. It's his style and it suits him. But please don't think I would ever want to emulate him.

Otherwise, you've been so kind. Too kind. Thank you.

Hack writer (and proud)

CvilleTed said...

Your blog and viewpoints are great - typically spot-on. Keep it up!

Ed Azad said...

To the yin must come the yang, I read Phil Sandifer voraciously, but his ball-washing of the franchise (and disdain for virtually every sci-fi property apart from DW) does rankle after awhile. I probably wouldn't have the stomach to continue after getting heckled by a producer! So good on you for continue to stick your balls out there on the internet.

Anonymous said...

I find Phil Sandifer a bit pedantic and can't bring myself to finish his reviews. I very much prefer this blog, thank you very much

Matthew Goodacre said...

Don't usually comment on your blog even though I've been an avid reader for the last year, but you are personally my favourite reviewer, for doctor who or star trek. I find your style well structure and unique with analysis of the main characters separate to you're good/bad points giving it focus. And I always look forward to the shallow bit which never fails to make me chuckle. That guy from big finish can bugger off. Here's to a great 2016 for you and the blog.

GJH said...

Just adding my admiration for your reviews. I'm a pretty casual Big Finish listener and use your reviews as a guide to which ones to buy. Invariably your critical perspective is pretty accurate. As for your style: it's very engaging and reads as being written by someone who actually enjoys the stories. Look forward to more reviews from you in2016.

Marty Martinez said...

Also a long time reader, first time poster here, just writing to say that I too truly appreciate your blog/reviews/writing. Thank you!