Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Churchill Years: The Oncoming Storm written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Late 1939. Britain faces the might of Germany. Winston Churchill serves as First Lord of the Admiralty. But Churchill soon finds himself facing a more immediate threat than the looming Nazi menace. A ‘Stone’ with the most mysterious properties is discovered in the Thames’ sands, and soon oddly spoken soldiers are creeping round London ruthlessly trying to acquire it. Who are they? Can Churchill and his new secretary Hetty Warner defeat them? And what about the man in the battered leather jacket that Hetty meets? Churchill feels sure they can rely on the Doctor to help them! Except that this Doctor seems to want to stay hidden in the shadows…

Northern Adventurer: Well well well, a way of slipping in a new story for the ninth Doctor without the presence of Christopher Eccleston. Will wonders never cease. He bursts into the story, sonic waving and brave and saving the life of Churchill's secretary. He leads away the villain, sonic screwdriver held high like the pied piper leading away a rat. The mechanical soldiers are here because the Doctor is at war. Since the Time War is something that is being openly explored now, on both television and audio, it is surprising to remember a time when it was a mythical conflict in the genesis of the new series. Something to be whispered about in awe. In many ways I would have preferred for it to stay that way but I suppose you cannot keep promising more information, building up a picture and then never follow through and reveal what actually happened. The trouble is that the imagination of collective fandom is bigger than any one writer. How can it fail to disappoint? Although the moment where they meet is triumphantly realised, there is no welcoming smile from the Doctor. He's damaged and it is immediately apparent. Keeping in step with series one, the Doctor only has a peripheral involvement in the climax of this story. It is left to Churchill to save the day. It was an intriguing approach to the new Doctor, to have him so war torn that he encourages others to help themselves because he is too afraid to take action himself. At first it made him look ineffective but once the context arrived it made perfect sense. When it comes to saving Churchill's secretary the Doctor needs to live up to his name again, after an entire incarnation of trying to forget it.

Bulldog Politician: The calm patience for what Churchill is renowned is non-existent as revealed when he barks at his staff when things are not performed with ruthless efficiency. There's talk that Churchill will be PM by the end of the war, a position that the people seem in favour of. He thinks he will be able to handle the power of the sphere because he is exceptional, always one with his ego in check. He's not entirely sure that he approves of the idea of going teetotal - I rather like how he's a man of repute but he enjoys a vice or two. He's delighted to hear that the Doctor has arrived in their hour of need...and wouldn't expect anything to the contrary. He's not as healthy as he should but that doesn't stop him jumping into action when needed. Churchill refuses to back down even in the face of a terrifying alien menace, it's the kind of bollocks he is renowned for. It's that Blitz spirit that he injected into an entire nation. Winston is not above utilizing alien technology to help fight the Nazi menace, even if it means exposing himself to it to gain a tactical advantage.

Standout Performance: Ian McNiece is a really engaging narrator, dramatic and full of life. I'd say these stories were worth devising just to discover that.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Hitler's war effort will not be resting so why should we?'
'You'll fight and you'll Winston Churchill, nothing more!'

Great Ideas: An alien sphere that has fallen to London and upon contact with one of the inhabitants plants technical information in their brain. The soldier that the Doctor is pursuing through wartime London is a rudimentary artificial intelligence. The purpose of the sphere is IA - Intelligence Augmentation. It has the ability to turn you into a demi God.

Audio Landscape: An air raid, sirens, waves lapping, seagulls, stepping in water, electric shock, footsteps on cobbled streets, the sonic screwdriver, an army vehicle on the streets of London, striking a match, birdsong, crowds, a crackling sphere of energy,

Musical Cues: Hearing the Eccleston theme tune is something of an anathema these days, albeit a very welcome one. It's not often that Doctor Who related products surprise and I truly expected this story (and series) to have a theme tune all of its own. Eccleston's era is kind of seen but not heard now in the wake of the three very popular Doctors that have come since (well two very popular Doctors and one who is at arms length with the public but gaining momentum) and so to enjoy a story set in that hugely exciting time for the show is a massive novelty.

Result: 'I will stand! I will stay! I will not move!' Slight but highly engaging in how it is presented, the opening salvo of The Churchill Years gets a thumbs up from me. I wouldn't want this to be the strongest story of the set because I started listening unconvinced that I was going to enjoy this set and thus I needed persuading about the whole Churchill approach before they started doing their best work. Fortunately that is exactly what The Oncoming Storm is, a perfectly confident piece of ephemera, a bit of fluff that allows the greatest politician this country has ever seen and a war damaged Doctor to come together and defeat an alien menace. Nothing more, nothing less. But with Ian McNiece providing sterling narration, some sturdy performances backing him up, atmospheric sound design and strong direction the whole piece crackles with self-assurance. I was helpless in it's wake. The story of the alien sphere that has the ability to turn you into a demi God of hyper intelligent proportions is neither here nor there for me, that's the sort of tenapenny Doctor Who tale that you can listen to in any range at any time. What works is the setting, the central character of Churchill and the fascinating idea of hopping from Doctor to Doctor in each story. It gives me great hope for the rest of the set. Colour me impressed, it proves that how a story is presented can absolutely take priority over the narrative. And contrary to my initial belief this is absolutely a Doctor Who story, not a Churchill story featuring the Doctor. It's all in the theme music. Bravo for pulling off what appeared to be a cash-in concept with so much audacity: 7/10

The Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Sonomancer written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: On the other side of the galaxy a mining company is exploiting the already unstable planet of Syra for every precious mineral it contains. River Song is attempting to save the native people. She needs the Doctor’s help, but she also knows he mustn’t yet discover her true identity. The final confrontation sees the Doctor once again face his enemy the Eleven in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Syra and the genocide of its inhabitants.

Physician, Heal Thyself: He's always one for trying new experiences and the Doctor is up for a ride on the 'six legs' beasts to get them from A to B. The Magician, the Spiv or the Geography teacher? Those are the three incarnations of the Doctor that River is intimately acquainted with. There is some discussion about River meeting the Doctor in the wrong order but this is kind of old hat now. I would have just gotten along with telling the story featuring both of them. Does anybody buying these CDs need the explanation? Surely they are au fait with River's rasion d'etre? The Doctor has tasted the powers of the Gift and they terrify him, they aren't something that he wants to exploit. The power to destroy worlds is not a gift.

Liv Chenka: Finally a story where Paul McGann and Nicola Walker get some substantial time together that reminds us why the Doctor and Liv are made for each other. There is something about the blending of his excitement and her deadpan humour that really gels. Liv had to save six planets before she had a go on the sonic screwdriver. Her dad used to take her climbing to the mountains around Kaldor, saying they should rely less on robots and focus on humans remembering the things they can do. Thinking that the Doctor is insane, Liv needs assuring that walking into a volcano that is being drilled full of holes is the most sensible option. She's happy to be a distraction to get the Eleven out of the way so the Doctor can investigate what he is up to. Her confrontation with the Eleven is something to behold, she really is quite scary when she wants to be.

Helen Sinclair: Unpaid hired help?

The Only Water in the Forest: This is my first experience of River Song on audio, having purchased her set but not getting around to reviewing it yet. I was very excited for Big Finish when I heard they had secured the services of Alex Kingston and were going to be continuing the adventures of River. Not because her character is a personal favourite of mine (to my mind she only truly worked as a character in her first and last stories on TV) but because it was going to generate a lot of interest and possibly a lot of dinero. She has a huge flurry of fans that could potentially sample Big Finish on the strength of River's presence, especially teaming her up with classic Doctors (which I have to admit is quite an exciting idea). Aside from the fact that New Series elements bleeding into Big Finish brings them bang up to date, it is nice to think that we will experience stories written for the character that aren't by her creator. I personally feel that Moffat became a little too obsessed with the character (series six was her absolute nadir, she was part of the DNA of the season in a very destructive way) and that less is most definitely more. One exciting appearance a year is far more anticipatory than an entire season that is saturated with her convoluted timeline. Certainly The Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead introduced her character extremely well (and could have been a thrilling one off) and The Husbands of River Song saw her functioning without the constant smugness, violence and sex that became a staple of her character. If Big Finish can focus on those two stories and how she genuinely aided those narratives without them being entirely about her we will be in excellent shape.

She's done so many things in her time but she has never done them for anything as vulgar as money. Is that true? That doesn't strike me as being completely honest...but then River doesn't strike me as being an entirely honest character either. She's always been stepped in mystery and deception. She's escaped the Storm cage, the Bloody Tower and the Marquis de Sade's private boudoir. If you think River is an entirely independent woman when she is away from the Doctor then think again, she can be heard playing her loves me/he loves me not and longing for a TARDIS. This girl never goes anywhere without her diary. River remembers some outrageous parties in the 1920s. She added a weather app and subspace communications to her vortex manipulator, she's been upgrading. For River this is set not long before The Wedding of River Song because she mentions their upcoming nuptials. Mind you weren't they married in an incredible hurry? She's vicious when she wants to be, attacking the Eleven with Venusian Martian Arts. River knows she mustn't meet the Doctor in this incarnation but she develops a fine rapport with Helen and Liv.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We have our ultimate weapon...'

Great Ideas: It's a good five minutes featuring the Eleven, Caleera and River before the Doctor and his assistants arrive. In quite and exciting way the story manages to bubble along without them, proof that these characters have been sufficiently developed to hold up a story. 

Audio Landscape: Horn blowing, screams, a detector beeping, drilling into the planet, the Players, bubbling vats.

Musical Cues: There was a gorgeous musical cue that reminded me of River's theme from The Big Bang when she was explaining how she came to be on Syra.

Isn't it Odd: In a box set that has featured some very cleanly plotted stories, The Sonomancer appears to drop you in the middle of a story and neglects to ease you in gently with a beginning. It left me scratching my head for a little while, wondering what was going on. It takes us 15 minutes before we realise that the Doctor and co are chasing seismic activity created by the Gift, that explanation is long delayed. The fact that the Eleven is so easily tricked leaves him looking a little ineffective.

Standout Scene: Did the Doctor really toss Caleera in a volcano? There would have been a time when that sort of action would have provoked some serious discussion. I guess with what the Doctor will become in his next incarnation, this is baby steps in that direction.

Result: 'The universe needs your silence!' Matt Fitton commits to an exotic alien world, not always a successful enterprise in Doctor Who but with Ken Bentley to back him up Syra comes to life like a fully established setting that will continue to thrive long after the events of this story are forgotten. To have two stories set on Earth and two set on out there locations has given this set a really miscellaneous flair, much more successfully than the first set (mostly because of the realisation). Atmospherically, I almost had a bit of a Star Wars: A New Hope vibe about the story, which was exciting for Doctor Who. River makes a decent first impression in a Doctor Who audio drama, driving the story for a certain amount of time and certainly less abrasive and self-righteous than she can be in the hands of her creator. Alex Kingston has a natural audio presence and it certainly bodes well for more appearances with other classic Doctors. It's also a firm encouragement for me to explore her box set that is sitting on my shelf. Something I have been resisting for some time. So, a decent setting and decent characters...what about the plot? Meh. Probably the weakest the set if I'm honest. The ideas are good but the journey to explore them seems a little confused and cluttered. After the very engaging second and third episodes this was a bit of a letdown in the entertainment stakes. Let me be clear, it doesn't drop the ball in the same way that the first set did but I am starting to get the unfortunate impression that as whenever the Eleven makes a reappearance in the flesh (he only appeared in flashbacks in the last story) the quality of the material takes a bit of a nose dive. The Eleven has failed to live up to his potential as a truly arresting villain with a psychological angle. Fitton set up his character so well in his introductory story, I've been waiting for another writer to truly get under his skin and see what makes him tick. But he has either been ignored entirely or treated as another raving villain, albeit one that has a number of silly voices at his disposal. Technically he could be the most chilling bad guy we have ever heard. To me though he just seems to be the villain of diminishing returns. It's not a terrible story because it has a lot of fun elements that make it worth listening to (Helen is a bit unmemorable but it is a fantastic story for Liv) but it is just a little underwhelming as a climax to this set. Caleera is dealt with and the Eleven achieves his aim but it feels more like a box ticking exercise rather than a natural extension of the stories that came before it: 6/10

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Paradox Planet written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Whilst travelling in the vortex, the TARDIS is struck by an advanced war machine - a Time Tank! Losing Romana, the Doctor and K9 pursue the Tank to Aoris, a world quite literally at war with itself. Soldiers from the future are attacking the past of their own planet - gathering resources and stealing endangered species. But the past is not without weapons of its own - leaving deadly devices ready to trigger many years ahead after their enemies have been born. Trapped at opposite ends of a temporal war, the Time Lords have two time zones to save. But who is in the right, and who in the wrong? And when history itself is against you, can anybody actually win?

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor is attempting to learn to play the fiddle but Romana thinks it sounds more like he is trying to torture a small rodent. He thinks he is very musical but he's learning to play from a book that is geared towards octopoid lifeforms. There is an especially nice chemistry between the Doctor and K.9 in this story that manages to capture the relationship between Tom Baker and John Leeson despite the fact that it is interaction between Time Lord and tin dog. A sense of two older actors loving the fact that they are recreating the roles that made them famous. Romana sees the Doctor as her companion and something of a blunderer.

Noblest of them All: In real season seventeen style, Romana is deposited into her own plotline, essentially taking on the role of the Doctor for the story. As a result she is more sophisticated and cutting than ever, assessing the situation in seconds and passing judgement on it. She never carries a gun because she finds they have very little defensive value. As a Time Lord she obeys a rule of strict non-intervention...when it suits her. Romana almost enjoys leading the past selves up the garden path, promising them time travel but instead destroying any headway they have made in that field. She's devastatingly witty and I use that description with precision, if you are caught in the wake of her wit it is a devastating experience.

Standout Performance: Tom Baker and Lalla Ward seem much more confident in this story than they have in the first two stories of this season, but then it is a much more confident script so that is hardly surprising. They both get a strong role and a good dialogue. Any story that sports Simon Rouse and Tom Chadbon has got to be worth a listen. Neither of them has a role that is as compelling as the one they played in their televised Doctor Who stories but both acquit themselves well regardless.

Great Ideas: Another craft trying to materialise in the same space as the TARDIS. After the stresses of a similar situation in The Pirate Planet you would think that the Old Girl would have some kind of safety system in place to avoid this situation now. An expeditionary force, sent back through time to fight their own ancestors - you can always count on Jonathan Morris to come up with the good, meaty concept and crazy season seventeen ideas are something of his specialty. Any alterations to the timeline could have catastrophic consequences for the future, which is why they have been ordered not to kill anyone. Of course the same does not work the other way, their ancestors don't have to worry about causing any ontological paradoxes. Being at war with your descendents is a very peculiar state of affairs. Given the right conditions, Xenox crystals can warp the fabric of space time. How do you go about fighting a war like that? Sending a bomb down a mine shaft that lays inert for 1000 years, a time capsule rigged to explode. An explosive message to the future. They know the rough location of the bunker that the enemy will live in in the future and unless they surrender, they will detonate. Preferably they would like access to time travel, to send soldiers into the future and attack their enemy outright. Waiting a 1000 years to make an impact and never knowing if it worked is hardly a swift method of genocide. How nice to see the cause and effect of the bomb, Romana in the past seeing it being activated and the Doctor in the future when it is due to take off. Unfortunately the Doctor has to deal with the situation because he is strapped to the bomb. The past selves do not want to live up to their future selves, living underground, scavenging in the ruins of a once great planet. Why do I get the impression that this is a future that they have themselves created. Sending troops back through time to gather endangered species and bringing them to the future - now there is an original conservation project. Why do I also get the impression that the mass extinction of several species was caused by the future selves. Both the past and future selves have criticisms of the other side when this conflict is probably to blame for the flaws that they see in each other. Drang has a plan to remove the pollutants from the sea and air and to restore the planet to its former glory.

Audio Landscape: The horrible musical stylings of the Doctor learning the fiddle, a time drive breaking down, a dimensional incursion, the time ship materialising, ship powering down, K.9 trundling out of the TARDIS, woodland sounds, creatures concealed in trees, cocking a gun, gunshot, a ticking bomb, the menagerie.

Musical Cues: Jamie Robertson once again captures Dudley Simpson's reliance on simple instruments in a melodramatic style. He does this and manages to make the score feel contemporary too, propelling the action forwards. Bravo.

Standout Scene: K.9 emerging from the bomb that he has laid dormant in for 1000 years is such a gloriously unexpected and funny solution to disarming it.

Result: Very season seventeen in all the best ways, The Paradox Planet is the best 4DA in some time. It captures both the feeling of a show that is running out of money (the future setting being set within a bunker underground) and one that has a universe sized imagination that is desperate to burst forth (the high concept central idea and the creative narrative turns that spill from it). I've said it before and I'll say it again, the ingenuity of Jonathan Morris seems to be limitless and he has scored another winner with his script for The Paradox Planet, a timey wimey (when did I start using that phrase so casually without disgust?) romp that skips time zones merrily and has great fun with the idea of a planet that is at war with itself in different periods of its history. It's not a story that builds to much of a climax but then there is still half the story to go, the second cliffhanger might be a doozy but it comes completely out of left field and requires a lot of explanation in Legacy of Death. It's a boldly plotted story told in very entertaining terms and whilst it probably could have been plenty more serious (it is dealing with a war after all) it aims for the comic jugular instead which suits the era perfectly. Romana takes on the Doctor's role, she's the serious one. The Doctor is mostly having fun, which again feels authentic and Tom and Lalla are on fine form and backed up by an impressive guest cast. I'm pleased they will all be back next month because I am certain there is much more to learn about these characters. The same goes for the situation, I'm sure there is a manifest of twists and turns to come, these complicated Morris stories usually do. As set up, this was extremely enjoyable and with a powerhouse of an idea behind it like that it is a 4DA that made me think more than pretty much any other: 8/10

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Gift written by Marc Platt and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: The TARDIS deposits its crew on Earth in San Francisco, 1906. There they find an actor-manager desperate to stage his definitive production of King Lear. But a real storm is headed their way when he becomes the possessor of a mysterious psychic ‘Gift’ which is hungry for power and intent on wreaking havoc and destruction. But exposure to so much psychic activity has the Doctor becoming increasingly erratic. Can he battle his demons and save the world?

Physician, Heal Thyself: Capturing something of the Night at the Proms minisode, the Doctor talks poetically (naturally given this is a Marc Platt script) about the movement of the spheres and the noise that they make. You forget that the Doctor is connected to the universe in a very special way and it is in moments like this (and that stunning scene in Rose where he talks about the turn of the Earth). I think we could do with more of these kinds of reminders. It's also very possible that the Doctor is going crazy. He's also the worst patient ever. He knows San Francisco well, he died and was reborn here. If he were to die again here but 93 years before his last regeneration...well that would be ironic. With the right haircut, the Doctor can think clearly. Is this the point where he gets his hair shorn off? Was he the Byronesque traveller up until this point? Because there is an awful lot of merchandise that suggests otherwise. He would happily burn out his mind if it meant destroying the gift and stopping Caleera.

Liv Chenka: She's perfectly prepared to stand up to a robber, not willing to be bullied or threatened. Live trapped under rubble is a claustrophobic, frightening experience. She's not used to feeling this helpless.

Helen Sinclair: Helen is feeling guilty that Caleera got into her head and preyed on her compassionate side, convincing the Doctor to let her go. For once she is the more seasoned traveller, landing in a period only 50 or so years away from her own so she knows the correct protocol and dress code.

Standout Performance: It's not an original observation to say that Paul McGann is an emotive performer and that you can tell when he is engaged with a story or not. At his best he is one of the most excitable and imminently listenable Doctors. it's impossible not to get caught up in his wake. Of recent years check out The Silver Turk to see what I mean. At his worst he can sound flat and uninterested and it usually comes at the worst possible time - when the stories are flat and uninteresting too. It's fortunate then that he seems thrilled with the material for Doom Coalition and the companions he has been paired up with. Indeed, McGann requested to work with Hattie Morahan and that can only have added to his enjoyment. He's audibly having a great ride with these stories and the result is a riveting Doctor who delights at every turn. Whether he's lusting after adventure, suffering a funny turn or simply outfoxing the latest intergalactic foe, Doom Coalition seems to be bringing out the best in McGann. And his best is very good indeed. Mind you it is weird to hear him calling somebody 'Charlie' out of context. Check out his breathless, incredible performance when he finally acquires the gift. It's the closest to madness I think the Doctor has ever got (maybe The Twin Dilemma pips it).

Great Ideas: Sam has the gift to see into the future. Although some people might call it a curse. It amplifies reality and feeds on the resonance. It can be transferred from person to person and if you are wise you will pass it on to somebody else. It's a tangible thing and it's alive and growing in San Francisco. There are links to Caleera in the city, the gift. The Earthquake in 1906 will happen anyway but Caleera plans to make it far more dramatic for her own purposes. The gift was deliberately planted here by her to test it out. It is a weapon, a psychic device that jumps from host to host, sparks into the brain and reprogrammes the mind. Designed to amplify its power like an echo chamber. It's waiting for the earthquake so it can amplify its power and shake the planet apart. Once the Whenever there is a reward to exploit there will always be someone there with their hands out, regardless of the consequences.

Audio Landscape: A horse whinnying, the TARDIS landing, trams rolling through town ringing their bells, bar atmosphere, music winding down, a dog begging, creaking rigging, rushing footsteps, rubble falling, fire raging.

Isn't it Odd: The first third of this story is something of a mystery, with plenty of things happening but very little in the way of explanation. It's a good thing the atmosphere of this piece is so electric and the performances are such fun. I have a complaint to make about Liv and Helen. Despite coming from different times and places there is something remarkably similar about the pair of them. For me, even the actresses sound quite similar. When the Doctor, Liv and Helen share scenes there is a wonderfully relaxed chemistry between them and all is good. When Liv and Helen go off on their own (as they have done a fair amount in this box set) not only do I occasionally lose track of who is who (on audio that's a bit of a problem) but I also question whether the set requires both companions. Helen was a vital part of Scenes From Her Life, it's true but I find Liv the more relatable and personable of the two of them. Bringing in an actress to appease the main star of a project might seem like a good idea on paper (and as mentioned above Paul McGann is on fire here) but in reality I wonder what we would lose if there was only one companion. Helen is nice but nice only gets you so far in storytelling. She hasn't exhibited any great personality and she doesn't have any truly distinctive features. It's not a problem having her there (as I say, she's nice and doesn't the world need a few more nice people) but I do question the need for her.

Standout Scene: Big Finish pulls off an earthquake with spectacular style.

Result: One of the delightful things about Doom Coalition as a whole is its diversity, its willingness to play about with different styles and genres. Every story feels very different to its neighbour and that contrast provides a healthy reminder of one of the main joys of Doctor Who - it's willingness to tell any kind of story. Dark Eyes might have been ambitious but each set did have a certain uniformity about it that meant if you didn't like the tone of the piece, you were kind of stuck with it for four hours. The Gift plays out like a disaster movie of sorts, with the Doctor in the unfortunate quandary of having to save the day otherwise the location where he will regenerate in 93 years time wont ever have existed. I hear that can put a serious crimp in your life. It's one of the most crisp and clear Marc Platt scripts for quite some time, clearly he has been given some notes of details to include but he manages to weave them into a gripping tale of a curse that has blighted San Francisco and has been gathering momentum for some time. All roads lead to the earthquake and when it comes it is a truly remarkable audio experience with some serious consequences for the characters. Amongst all the drama, Paul McGann is a mesmeric presence, his Doctor not being this captivating since his earliest audio adventures. How these stories are blending into each other is seamless, one plot point taking us from one independent story to another. I have a feeling David Richardson and Ken Bentley know exactly where they are taking us with Doom Coalition and that is an exciting feeling because with each story the arc is gathering real momentum. Often the journey is more exhilarating than the destination but just this once I have real confidence that this is heading somewhere spectacular. The Gift was thoroughly enjoyable and with it Doom Coalition is become the highest scorer in any Doctor Who line in some time: 8/10

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Scenes From Her Life written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Investigating the appearance of the Voord on Earth, the Doctor, Liv and Helen follow a trail which takes them to the other side of the universe. There they discover a mysterious and almost deserted gothic city lost in space and time, in which the grotesque inhabitants are conducting a vile and inhumane experiment. The Doctor and his companions must hurry to save the lives of those in danger before the experiment is a success and the unimaginable consequences become all too real.
Physician, Heal Thyself: 'He's a Doctor squared, he's like a Swiss army knife of sciences..' The Doctor seems more on a mission then ever. Fun time is over and he is back on the trail of the Eleven. Helen and Liv don't understand the vortex like the Doctor does and joining him would be inordinately rash. You know that isn't going to stop though, right? Gallifrey is so governed by law that it is practically blinded by them...why do you think he left in the first place?

Liv Chenka: A Doctor and she wont stand by and allow someone to suffer, even if they are integral part of this obscene set up. No matter what the situation is, Liv's humanity always seems to shine through very brightly. Liv practically enjoys turning the tables on Stormblood and Sepulchra, inciting revolution seems to be in her blood.

Helen Sinclair: Helen gets some useful development in this story because beyond the chemistry of the three regulars together I haven't seen any real need to keep her around. Especially when Liv performs the role of the Doctor's equal so well. There's further discussion of the casual sexism that Helen faced back home and how she was held because of her gender, even though she was much more capable than some of her male peers. There was so much wasted potential, potential that she can now fulfil in the TARDIS. With the Doctor, her strengths aren't feared, they are celebrated. How the story uses the link between Helen and Caleera as a plot point so she asks the Doctor to release her (with terrible consequences) is very smart.

Standout Performance: A Big Finish regular performer now, Jacqueline King scores one of her most memorable roles to date. Every time she appears I get a warm series four glow about me but it is her diversity and skill as an actress that always impresses me the most. Lady Sepulchra is a vile harpy, a sadistic queen of this ripped open TARDIS and King delights in taking her every vice and shoving it in your face.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'People who want to change the universe so often don't want to change it for the better.'

Great Ideas: The Doctor is investigating the destruction of the Voord homeworld where there appears to be nothing left. And there are traces of artron energy in the debris suggesting the presence of a time machine. The time winds have stripped away the outer shell of this TARDIS and what is left is the labyrinth within hanging in space. If a TARDIS crashes into the interior dimensions of a TARDIS, is that still Time Ram? Huge credit to the writer, this is a spectacularly visual notion that could probably only be done in justice on audio where your imagination fills in most of the blanks. Even a full page comic strip panel couldn't fully realise the complexity and momentousness of such a concept. Like the Time War, seeing it would probably diminish it. They try on the cover but all we get is cogs and stairwells, probably the best you can hope for in an abstract kind of way. The Doctor states that the Cloister Bell is always just that little bit too late to be of any use. There's no way of telling how strong the force field holding the citadel together is, it could fall apart at any minute. Exposure to the vortex for too long will addled even a Time Lord's brain. Caleera was seen as a threat and was kept in check and held back by her peers. She's an exceptionally gifted psychic and she was responsible for the destruction of the Voord homeworld. Clearly the Eleven is something of a charmer, he played Caleera like a fine instrument, clearly only interested in her powers.

Audio Landscape: There's a subtle hint about what the citadel is very early in the story when a TARDIS food machine can be audibly heard dispensing a drink. The draining process, the TARDIS humming, electric crackling, whipping, hypnotic suggestion, tearing away a door, the winds of the vortex rushing in.

Standout Scene: The flashbacks to Caleera's time on Gallifrey before this story takes place were vital and gather momentum throughout. They provide the answers to the truth about the situation in a staggered way, rather than having a long flashback at the beginning of the tale or at the end. It's a lovely approach, providing an exciting feeling of being guided to the truth rather than having it handed to you all at once. I thought the title might be referring to the TARDIS, rather than a character inside it. When we realise who the true culprit is in this story these flashbacks are vital to providing a strong motivation.

Result: There is a frisson about this story, a feeling of excitement. It feels different. John Dorney sites Gormanghast as one of his inspirations despite never having read it before. He was aiming for the tone of the piece, that surreal, gothic, disquieting atmosphere. I got more of a sense of The Doctor's Wife from the early scenes, disturbed characters abusing other characters, a fantastic setting and a sense that something is very amiss. Given how The Doctor's Wife is basically TARDIS porn, this was quite an apt comparison. There is also a feeling of Paradise Towers about the story, of a complex infrastructure that has been perverted and left to rot and the inhabitants coping as best as they can with the mess. I like how the focus is much more on the situation playing out rather than seeing the story all from the point of view of the Doctor and his companions. It makes the central narrative feel more important than usual, more attention grabbing. Sometimes when a story plays out and it feels as though the Doctor isn't needed (Planet of the Ood for example) it is simply the writer failing to give him a central role. This isn't the case at all here, the Doctor is a vital component. He's just not the only vital component. These Doom Coalition tales seem very suited to their hour long format too, you can feel these puzzle pieces starting to come together to form a larger picture but each segment is proving delightful in it's own right. As a full length main range adventure the punchiness of this story would be stretched out and it would lose it's strength to knock you for six. At a pacy 60 minutes, Scenes From Her Life delivers a heady mix of high concept and strong character work. Never running out of steam, effortlessly slipping the Eleven back into the mix and reminding us again of what a strong TARDIS team this is, I wanted to applaud before the end. The last ten minutes are especially dramatic: 9/10

Beachhead written by Nicholas Briggs and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: In an attempt to recharge his batteries after his confrontation with the Eleven, the Doctor takes Liv and Helen to the sleepy English seaside village of Stegmoor. But they find the village in turmoil and, to make matters worse, their arrival uncovers a mystery from the Doctor’s past which threatens the future safety of the planet. Can the Doctor prevent the Voord from invading Earth? And more importantly why have they come in the first place?
Physician, Heal Thyself: In a very similar way that important plot points were flashed up in big letters during the Trial of a Time Lord only to be dealt with later, the Doctor gets a sniff that something is prodding at the edges of space and time and chooses to ignore it. Let's keep that in mind. I really love the idea of a gentle idea travelling with two women who both support him and keep him in check. It really feels like a relationship of equals rather than the Doctor taking charge. Trust the Doctor to land the TARDIS in the path of a tidal wave. It's typical of his kind of parking. He has no qualms about revealing his true identity to Phillipa given she knows him already, he admits he is a time traveller and another version of the same man she met years ago.

Liv Chenka: Liv takes charge when the Doctor is incapacitated, given she is the more experienced traveller. She's quite adept at spotting unusual activity especially of the alien kind.

Helen Sinclair: She's coming to terms with the fact that she can get in touch with people in her life but in a different point on their lives. It's not the first time I have heard this idea being pondered (Charley certainly did) but it's still one that it relevant to somebody new time travelling.

Standout Performance: Whilst I enjoy both Liv and Helen, I find the voices of Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan quite similar sounding and it is a lot easier for me to understand who is talking when they are separated.

Great Ideas: A gay relationship in Doctor Who? Whatever next! We've moved on quite substantially from the times when a disgruntled reader might write into Doctor Who Magazine about the contemporary companion locking lips with a member of the same sex. One thing that both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have achieved is to make the idea of gay relationships something that is entirely natural within Doctor Who itself. A huge step, not necessary for the series perhaps but certainly necessary in general on television. Big Finish have never been backwards in coming forwards about homosexuality in their output either. I've heard countless references over the years, certainly in spin ranges such as Dorian Gray, Torchwood and Bernice Summerfield but within Doctor Who stories themselves. The relationship between Lilly and Matilda in Beachhead is sweet and unassuming, it adds a lovely layer to the story which would otherwise be Attack of the Voord. Although it doesn't feature enough, given they are cut off from each other for most of the story. It's dropped in as something perfectly natural and barely commented upon, just as it should be. Riding the TARDIS along the beach is a glorious idea, the Doctor, Liv and Helen facing a bumpy road as the ship is pushed turbulently into town. Another unexpected layer is the notion that we are returning to a location where the Doctor has visited in a previous life. Not a radical idea but one that gives the story some extra meaning because he has to face up to the consequences of his previous selves meddling.

Audio Landscape: Beach locations always give Big Finish plenty of opportunities for atmospherics and this is no different. Footsteps on gravel, truck, cash register, a river bursting its banks and swallowing a town, seagulls, bracing winds, water flooding into the TARDIS (Logopolis style), rain on a windscreen, cocking a gun, a helicopter screaming across the beach, rain dripping, orders over speakerphone, shots being fired.

Isn't it Odd: The Voord? Part of me says why not and part of me says why bother. They were such a dreadful, unconvincing species in The Keys of Marinus and despite Andrew Smith doing some sterling repair work on them in The Early Adventures I still cannot help but think it is a little desperate to cherry pick the real duffers from the Doctor Who menagerie. Certainly nothing is done here to convince me otherwise, there are no blinding revelations about the Voord that pushes them up the ranks. The reason the Voord are here on Earth is neither here nor there - it is the same old reason of their planet being dead and they need somewhere else to hang out. What is it about the Earth that makes it seems so viable to alien races? You would think they would check out how many times that sort of plan has been foiled and not bother. I think Big Finish should take a look at this habit of including naff old monsters just because. Recently The Wave of Destruction did something very similar. A fairly enjoyable story, taking a turn for the worse by a half assed invasion by a bottom tier monster. 'Someone or something has altered established history!' - must be Monday. 

Standout Scene: The flood at the beginning of the story was unexpected and dramatic.

Result: Short, sweet and comfy. When was the last time we enjoyed a nice traditional Doctor Who adventure with the eighth Doctor? No, I can't remember either. Beachhead might be part of a large whole but it stands alone as a nice reminder of the types of stories that the Doctor universe excels at, an Earthbound location, a few reasonably well drawn characters and an alien plot. You're not going to find your world turning upside down when you listen but in a range that has favoured big, complicated arc storytelling over smaller, more intimate tales this is a quite a refreshment. A breather, let's say. and who do you turn to when you are looking for a good, old fashioned Doctor Who romp? Briggs is perfectly suited to this kind of story and delivers a really nice script with lots of opportunities for atmospherics. I always think he sees a story through a directors eye, even if this is one of the rare times when he is not taking on that job himself. Ken Bentley is the in-house director these days and he does a confident job with this. The plot is slight (so much so that the villains of the piece barely appear) and so the atmosphere and performances carry us through. Sometimes it is nice to just kick back and let Doctor Who give you a glorious massage without having to tax your brain too much...Beachhead is like your first round of therapy in a spa. I felt very comfortable listening to it. For once the fact that this is easy and unchallenging is a Godsend. Enjoy it while it lasts: 7/10

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The War Doctor

Only the Monstrous - The Innocent: '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

Full Review Here:

Only the Monstrous - The Thousand Worlds: 'This has an unpleasantly familiar ring to it!' John Hurt, Jacqueline Pearce, Carolyn can't argue with the kind of talent that Big Finish are booking these days. I only wish they were given a more ambitious narrative to play about in. Bizarrely this feels like the opening instalment again, like The Innocent wasn't needed at all. It introduces us all to the key players in the first scene and works out to be the first part of a two part story. Whilst it gives the story a chance to breathe and take in the scenery it means that there is little in the way of pace to this story. What's disappointing is how familiar it all is. A dollop of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, a dash of The Stolen Earth and Dalek Empire overseeing the whole thing. I have to admit this isn't quite the Time War I was expecting the Doctor to be fighting. Whilst Moffat boiled it down to a game of cowboys and Indians in The Day of the Doctor, there were scattered references throughout the Davies era that suggested this was a War fought in a multitude of times, dimensions and twisted realms. Where rules of time and space were broken and perverted. I'm not saying this isn't dramatically pitched but it certainly is a little mundane. Drills and monoliths and engines of destruction. Been there, done that. If you are going to suggest that things got so bad that the entire planet Gallifrey had to be wiped from the face of existence for the greater good then you have to provide inescapable evidence as to precisely why. And we're nowhere near that yet. While it plays out along predictable lines, The Thousand Worlds does at least have a humdinger of a cliffhanger that propels us into the final part. I'm looking forward to new writers tackling the second box set though. This isn't brave and bold as a Kang should be: 5/10

Full Review Here:

Only the Monstrous - The Heart of the Battle: The box set could have been re-branded The Story of Keska rather than Only the Monstrous because it charts the development of that planet from one story to the next with far more clarity than it does it's characters. I take back what I said in my previous review about the opening story being irrelevant, this is very much a three part story where part one introduces Keska and it's local problems, part two visits the planet years later under Dalek rule and part three charts how the planet takes its place in the great Time War. It's bloated and full clich├ęs along the way but the journey has at least been going somewhere. The Heart of the Battle has some enormous ideas at its heart, ones that have the potential make some very exciting storytelling. However those ideas need to be explored through its characters and in engaging scenarios...what happens here is the big concepts are dumped on the audience in one enormous gulp of exposition. You want to know what has been happening in this box set? Well prepare yourself for fifteen minutes worth of explanation! The answers should emerge naturally from the narrative, rather than being dumped upon it. This whole set could have done with an edit to ensure that the conclusion felt like a natural extension of events rather than a lecture explaining what it has all been about. I really like Nick Briggs as both a writer and a person, I think he has talent and he is a very good ambassador for Big Finish. Lately though his efforts are being hampered by the fact that his finite talent is being stretched in too many directions. His fingers are in so many pies that only his thumbs are left to use the keyboard. Creatures of Beauty is what I always come back to because it is the yardstick to which I compare the rest of his work to. That was his ultimate achievement and it came at a time when he wasn't encumbered with stories to write for two dozen ranges. Only the Monstrous isn't a disaster. If you have never heard a Big Finish story before this would be an exciting place to jump in because of Hurt's involvement and the added thrill of the Time War. But for seasoned audio listeners there is little that is new here...and that is rather what was promised. I can tell you without doubt that the second set will be more enticing - Dorney, Fitton and a new writer. Tasty. The Heart of the Battle gets a thumbs up for a truly mind-boggling and devastating Dalek plan. It's just a shame it couldn't be less of a lecture and more of a drama. A point removed for the pointless suggested murder at the climax. She'll be back. Just call her Molly O'Sullivan the Second: 5/10

Infernal Devices - Legion of the Lost: The trouble with the Time War is that has had such a momentous build up over seven seasons of televised Who that unless it was something pretty bloody spectacular and dazzlingly creative it couldn't help but feel like the creators were making a lot of fuss about nothing. When we finally got to see the Time War in The Day of the Doctor it lacked the temporal insanity that Russell T Davies seemed to imply throughout his tenure and became a game of cowboys and Indians in space en masse. There was a lack of imagination but it was so well realised that it really didn't matter. When Big Finish announced that they had secured John Hurt and were going to produce Time War audios I was hoping that it would be a chance to redress the balance, creatively speaking. Nicholas Briggs' first set was largely unmemorable and treading over previous glories, not at all what I was hoping but kind of what I was expecting. It seems that Infernal Devices is going to be much more in the vein of what was promised; high concept ideas, desperate measures and a universe that has gone to hell. But not quite yet... John Dorney has scored the bum deal of this box set, being the one responsible for putting all the pieces in place for the others to capitalise on. He introduces two very juicy ideas; the Technomancers and the idea of resurrecting an army of dead Gallifreyans but because he has to add some substance to both notions there isn't a great deal of time to indulge in a plot. Much of Legion of the Lost reminded me of the Gallifrey series, an awful lot of waffle and very little in the way of pace or set pieces. Fortunately it is decent waffle, the dialogue a huge improvement on Only the Monstrous. The first and last ten minutes are the best of the story, sufficiently dramatic to keep my interest but aside from the concepts I did get a little bored in the middle. Legion of the Lost promises interesting times ahead. And, oh yeah, John Hurt is in it. So you've got to listen to it anyway: 6/10

Infernal Devices - A Thing of Guile: What might have been nice at this juncture would have been something akin to the DS9 episode Waltz. A character examination of both the War Doctor and Ollistra, one as a prisoner and the other as the orchestrator of his fate set amidst the background of a war that they are both a vital part of. This story even starts in a very similar fashion to that particular Star Trek episode. Instead we get a traditional Doctor Who run-around with more talk of how much more deadly dangerous things are now that the Time War is in progress and how the consequences of everything have a profound impact on the universe at large. I'm starting to think it might be hyperbole. The trouble is by continually setting stories within this immense conflict it means the stories are rather constricted by it. There is no variety. Each week we're facing another terrifying super weapon or damaged civilisation. There isn't really the space for small, intimate tales or a focus on the people who are affected by the Time War. And that's a shame because without that human interest it can easily become all pomp and circumstance, sound and fury. Don't get me wrong, A Thing of Guile is a perfectly serviceable adventure and will happily pass an hour. It's brilliantly produced and is bolstered by superb performances by Hurt and Pearce. But ultimately it's not really about anything and doesn't really add much to the overall picture of the Time War, not in the way something much smaller and characterful would have.  It's time to play about inside the biggest conflict this 50 year old show has ever presented and what happens here...the Doctor fights a giant worm. Hurt wont be starring in these audios forever and it hardly feels like the best use of his time in the studio. You'll find that this is one of my more empty reviews because there was little of substance to get hold of an discuss. Head to an asteroid in search of a super weapon. Dance about with a giant worm for ten minutes. Find a Dalek experiment. Stop it. Without any character work to hang this on it has little impact. It feels like a Nick Briggs on autopilot script rather than the work of a newcomer to Big Finish. Nothing impressive: 5/10

The Neverwhen: 'Sticks and stones against Daleks! They wont stand a chance!' On the one hand it is astonishing that it has taken six stories for a writer to remember that this is a Time War and not just a linear cowboys versus Indians shoot em up in space. On the other hand Matt Fitton takes the idea of messing about with time a runs with it at such a sprint that it almost makes up for the fact that nobody else has bothered. Time is a malleable thing in The Neverwhen, it can be bent and warped and reshaped. The people trapped on this world are at its mercy and the War, the environment and even the people themselves are shifting, evolving, regressing. It's a terrific notion and one that gives the story a vivid hook. The script is very dramatic too with some space for its characters and debate but plenty of action as well. It's easily the most finely balanced and piquant of the Time War stories to date. Despite the fact that they were both a little too safe for my tastes it was almost worth working my way through the first two instalments of this box set so the elements could be in place for this knockout at the climax to pick them up and play with them in such a creative way. It's a great story for the Doctor too, this damaged incarnation trying to find himself again inside this isolated conflict. How the story convinces us that this wont be possible and then hands the Doctor a satisfying day after all is quite marvellous. There really isn't much to criticise here, if every story was as bold and dazzling as this we would be in very good shape indeed. Let's just say that the bar has been raised high now and all subsequent releases have a yardstick to which they will be judged by. The Neverwhen caps of the second War Doctor to box set in exemplary style, easily the finest story yet by some distance: 9/10

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Neverwhen written by Matt Fitton and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: On an isolated world ravaged by battle, time itself has become a weapon, laying waste to all who live and die there. Arms and technology are in a state of flux – and it seems that everlasting war is their only option. The arrival of one battered Type Forty TARDIS inside this nightmare offers hope to the combatants trapped within. But when he discovers the truth, the horrors of the Neverwhen will shock even the War Doctor…

Damaged Goods: He insists he is no longer the Doctor but Ollistra knows that he will be true to himself and behave as the Doctor always has. He was a prisoner and makes the decision to not mention the truth about the leash around his neck. The Neverwhen is a close to Hell as the Doctor has seen in this entire war. Isn't it marvellous that he is so completely hoodwinked in this story? I think that is what sells the twist. The Doctor has such a vast intelligence but when push comes to shove he will always fight for the humans that are suffering. In this case he just didn't realise what those humanoids really were. Quantum flux equations was the one paper the Doctor achieved an A star in...on the third attempt. The Doctor thinks that Ollistra is insane to release such a terrifying weapon onto the universe that could have such devastating consequences for so many other worlds. The Time Lords are so desperate they aren't even considering the consequences. Is the Doctor naive to think he can play God and try and change a whole way of life for a race that has been bred for warfare and inflected by the biggest war of all? Probably but that isn't going to stop him from trying. For the Doctor, the Neverwhen was practically a haven inside the War, a bubble where he could behave like his old self and save the day once more. He's forgotten that these days he needs to find the most pragmatic of solutions. Turning a weapon that alters time against itself so it never existed in the first place is a devilishly smart fix to the problem. He is the Doctor after all.

Standout Performance: Because of her work in BUGS and Silent Witness and her appearance in Doctor Who last season, Jaye Griffithis' voice is an extremely recognisable one for me. She's an actress I do admire, although I have known her to give quite a stiff performance at times. On form, she's superb and she's really on form throughout The Neverwhen.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I thought you were dead!' 'And the latest temporal distortion brought me back...' Reality is starting warp around this conflict, Time is literally hiccupping people back into existence, changing their pasts so they never died.
'War is our landscape. It is the air we breathe. The meat we eat. It is how we exist.'

Great Ideas: I love the line 'we're down to bullets', technology being diminished piece by piece in this conflict until the Time Lords are left fighting with projectile weapons. Temporal phasing causes the artillery to shift in time, grenades becoming plasma bombs in the wink of an eye. Finally somebody has remembered that this is supposed to be a Time War. I was a little taken aback when I thought about the very notion of a War Council on Gallifrey - this is a species that defined its very existence on non-interference and prosecuted the Doctor for breaking that law. But now with a council of war, the planet is spreading its poisonous influence across the whole of universe, dragging countless planets and races into their conflict. The Neverwhen Flux was a weapon created by Time Lord scientists at the very edges of temporal understanding. It was deployed in the midst of a huge assault on a world that was a strategic objective in the early days of the Time War. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers amassed on the planet and they detonated the device from orbit and everybody was sealed in together, Time Lord and Dalek. There was endless temporal flux, random and unpredictable. They fight with weapons that constant transmute and transform. It's not just weapons that mutate but physiology too. They cannot call on the help of the Sisterhood to help them regenerate, it is simply a rewriting of their DNA to a vastly different state. This is not an entirely original idea in Doctor Who - Paul Leonard's The Last Resort in the EDA range dealt with similarly shifting realities (in a very different context mind) but it is handled in a far more comprehensible and less experimental way here. It's much more entertainingly presented and is far simpler to grasp as a concept as a result. Ollistra sees the Neverwhen as an opportunity to achieve resurrection using Gallifreyan technology without having to resort to the preposterous extremes of magic. She plans to fire the Neverwhen Flux at Skaro and turn the world into a battlefield with Time, twisting it into a hideous mess of past, present and future. Ensuring that Daleks never get this Time War off the ground.

Audio Landscape: Shouts on the battlefield, static, a smoking TARDIS, telephone ringing, explosions, sonic screwdriver, a battlefield transmuting so the weapons mutate from clubs and spears to nuclear missiles, Special Weapons Dalek, the ticking weapon.

Isn't it Odd: Am I the only one who is bored with the constant 'Don't call me the Doctor' repetition? When he's behaving like the Doctor, emoting like the Doctor, solving problems like the Doctor and caring for the innocents like the Doctor then he is the Doctor. It's a constant reminder because television continuity demands that he refuses the name of the Doctor. I would have had him claim the name until the end of the audios and then have he behave in such an appalling way that he renounces it before The Day of the Doctor. It would spare us this endless discourse about his name.

Standout Scene: Oh very clever, very clever. An awesome twist and even reading reviews knowing that a twist was coming I still didn't suspect that the Doctor had not allied himself with the Time Lords but humanoid Kaleds. It's pitched perfectly and the pay off when it comes is a terrific moment. I was on tenterhooks. Maybe this story should have been called 'The Wrong Side.'

Result: 'Sticks and stones against Daleks! They wont stand a chance!' On the one hand it is astonishing that it has taken six stories for a writer to remember that this is a Time War and not just a linear cowboys versus Indians shoot em up in space. On the other hand Matt Fitton takes the idea of messing about with time a runs with it at such a sprint that it almost makes up for the fact that nobody else has bothered. Time is a malleable thing in The Neverwhen, it can be bent and warped and reshaped. The people trapped on this world are at its mercy and the War, the environment and even the people themselves are shifting, evolving, regressing. It's a terrific notion and one that gives the story a vivid hook. The script is very dramatic too with some space for its characters and debate but plenty of action as well. It's easily the most finely balanced and piquant of the Time War stories to date. Despite the fact that they were both a little too safe for my tastes it was almost worth working my way through the first two instalments of this box set so the elements could be in place for this knockout at the climax to pick them up and play with them in such a creative way. It's a great story for the Doctor too, this damaged incarnation trying to find himself again inside this isolated conflict. How the story convinces us that this wont be possible and then hands the Doctor a satisfying day after all is quite marvellous. There really isn't much to criticise here, if every story was as bold and dazzling as this we would be in very good shape indeed. Let's just say that the bar has been raised high now and all subsequent releases have a yardstick to which they will be judged by. The Neverwhen caps of the second War Doctor to box set in exemplary style, easily the finest story yet by some distance: 9/10

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Early Adventures

The Yes Men : 'The robots don't want to fight you! They just want you to be nicer!' And therein lies the problem... An unusual tale, both for the season four crew and because it comes from the pen of Simon Guerrier. The Yes Men flaunts an interesting premise and an intriguing location...a far cry from the comic strip fun that this crew experienced throughout much of their time together. And yet it fails to do anything particularly interesting with these ideas, despite some arresting imagery and that does surprise me because if there is an author that can get to the heart of a good idea and explore it in surprising ways then Guerrier is usually your man. It feels like the extended length of the Early Adventures is working against him rather than for him, the extra time taken up with extended dialogue scenes that fail to be about anything. Sometimes brevity forces a writer to get to the nub of the matter with much greater clarity. As a murder mystery it fails to grip (although there is one great surprise in the middle of the tale) because there is relatively little human interest. Agatha Christie understood that only too tell a riveting murder mystery you have to put psychology at the heart of the story and that is a difficult thing to do in a tale populated by automatons. Compensating for some faults are the season four TARDIS crew, entertaining by their very nature and well captured by Guerrier. Ultimately there are two forms of revolution in this story (a political one and a class one) but they are both done with such politeness that the excitement levels are somewhere around a lecture on plumbing or advanced paint drying. It isn't a massacre that caused mass population control, it was really good accountancy. That sort of thing. Lisa Bowerman directs but if her name wasn't on the cover I would question that fact because it lacks the urgency I have come to expect from her. The Yes Men isn't appalling, it passes the time but I can't pretend at any point (except at the midway point) that I was eager to continue. Sad but true, this would have made an excellent companion chronicle told from Ben's point of view but the extended length and full cast nature affords too much scope. Scope it does not fulfil: 5/10

Full Review Here:

The Forsaken: 'It's only a matter of time...' I have been doing volunteer work with various organisation for the past five years. One of those was Age Concern Eastbourne and in their befriending programme I found myself in the company of a fascinating man called Jack who was a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore in the Second World War. If I had a strong reaction to this tale it is because Jack recounted in some detail the horrors that he suffered during that period, even giving me his autobiography to read. It is a rich and emotional historical furrow for Doctor Who to mine. It was a genuinely horrific time and to set a Troughton adventure during that period is quite a brave affair - his era was far more interested in entertaining than educating and this is the kind of raw reminder of human history that was contained to the Hartnell era. Whilst this story doesn't go into graphic detail about the atrocities that occurred (it is still Doctor Who after all), I listened on edge in a way that somebody who hasn't experienced the torture of the experience through another might not. Richards does something surprising with the regulars, he keeps them together for a great deal of the story. That impressed me because it must be much more tempting to split them up and handle their own thread in the story. It reminds me of just how engaging this foursome are. Lisa Bowerman is such a strong director with acres of experience at bringing historical adventures to life (Jago & Litefoot) and this had a touch of one of my favourite audios stories about it, A Thousand Tiny Wings (also directed by Bowerman). There is an air of disquiet to the story, a feeling that the enemy could set upon the characters at any minute. That enemy turned out to be a science fiction concept rather than an historical one but it was a creepy, if derivative, threat all the same. I enjoyed the shorter episodes too, very in keeping with the Troughton era. The atmospherics and character compensate for the fact that the story is actually rather thin and barely justifies half the length. But this is hardly the only story from 60s and 70s Who that commits this crime and the realisation and strong cast truly pick up the slack. The whole dilemma of Ben's father being present is bafflingly ignored...I'm not entirely sure why it was included given it's irrelevance to the story. A shame as whilst this is a strong story for Ben anyway (Elliot Chapman is superb), it could have been a lot more personal. But I wont quibble because if you compare this to Richards other recent contribution (The Wave of Destruction) The Forsaken is loaded with riches. I listened to this story on a Sunday afternoon and it feels like the perfect time to enjoy an atmospheric and enjoyable slice of Who: 7/10

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The Black Hole: Given the great engine of storytelling that Big Finish has generated there is naturally a selection of sub genres that have emerged in Doctor Who audio drama. And naturally there are some that I am drawn to and others that I aren't. I adore historical adventures that immerse you in the setting but I'm less keen on shallow action adventure stories that feel like soundtracks of adventures rather than adventures that were created for audio in the first place. One sub genre I am very keen in is the high concept stories, the science fiction tales that deal with complex ideas that get my mind racing. Stories such as Brotherhood of the Daleks. The Black Hole is another successful high concept tale that revels in the chance to promote big ideas ahead of your typical run-around. The less substantial stories require an immersive soundscape to prop up the narrative and fill in the gaps of interest but the more abundant stories take my mind for a walk and I barely notice the sound design. It's a continuity lovers dream too but it just goes to show that revelling in the shows history doesn't have to be to the detriment of the story (check out Last of the Cybermen to see how that sort of thing can go very wrong). In partiuclar is the return of a popular character, that gives the latter half of the story a real boost at exactly the point where a story of this length would begin to lag. It might not be entirely realistic in historical terms but I really like how Jamie and Victoria are not represented as being unable to grasp the sophisticated notions in play, that they have a grasp of the discipline once it is explained to them and they ask intelligent questions. Just because they are scientifically ignorant it doesn't mean they aren't creative or bright. I thought the narration worked extremely well with this release, too. There is no reason why an actor who isn't playing a part in the story shouldn't guide us through the story and when that person is David Warner the light he shines on the detail of the narrative is very bright indeed. I often praise Jonny Morris and John Dorney to the high heavens (and justifiably so, their work is excellent) but it is often to the detriment of Simon Guerrier who I genuinely believe to be one of the most consistently excellent Big Finish writers. He's written countless scripts now, bursting with interest, great dialogue, an exceptional understanding of character and with an eye for wrapping up his stories satisfactorily. The Black Hole is another notch on his belt. He's an awesome talent. This is intelligent and constantly developing itself, a very giving release: 8/10

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The Isos Network: A Cybership escaping from the fleets destruction at the end of The Invasion, an deserted alien world with a missing colony, a military battalion forcing it's way into orbit...The Isos Network certainly kicks open in vivid style. The Isos Network isn't going to win any points for innovation (surprise surprise) because it is essentially a coda to The Invasion and adds little lustre to the story it is piggybacking off of. What it does dish up, however, is a authentic slice of 60s Who complete with spine tingling sound effects, a glorious score and lots of plot elements that feel right at home in a Troughton SF tale. There's no point where the plot will surprise you but with a cover like that were you really expecting anything other than pure nostalgia? So I suppose the question there a place for stories like this? Stories which serve as nothing but to give fans the giddy joy of listening to something that sounds like it has emerged from the era they love, an extended audio love letter to the past? I guess so. But Big Finish have opted for this approach an awful lot in recent years, especially with the advent of the 4DAs and I would therefore suggest that a range with the length and breadth of possibilities as the Early Adventures (even more than the Companion Chronicles) plumps for a more original, daring approach. Saying that...I rather enjoyed this. When you favour the sound design and music over the plot and characterisation things can't be that grand but if you accept it on those terms this passes a few hours rather amiably. I thought the narration worked really well in this story more than other although I have heard some comment that it was too mannered and prevalent, it added plenty of detail and pace to the story and switching between Hines and Padbury (both superb) kept things ticking over very nicely. Even saying that it loses impetus with each successive episode; excitement in episode one, claustrophobia in episode three, action adventure in episode three and a typically easy wrap up after a run-around in episode four. It's the sort of story that exists just to exist that I wish I didn't like and if it hadn't been as brilliantly made as it is I probably wouldn't have...but I have to say I was fair entertained throughout. A true indication of the plots worth is that I really didn't need to finish this in order to find out how this story ended, it was kind of obvious: 6/10

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