Wednesday, 18 July 2018

In the Garden of Death written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: In a prison camp like no other, the Most Dangerous Man in the Universe is held in isolation. The rest of the inmates have no memory of who they were or what they might have done. No memory even of their captors. Until the interrogations begin.

Physician, Heal Thyself: With no memories and no idea of who they really are, the Doctor and Bliss find themselves trapped on a garden planet and imprisoned. He wonders if he is the evillest man in the universe given he is the only one in a high security prison.

Bless Bliss: With each instalment I’m getting to like Bliss a little more whilst still acknowledging she is nowhere near approaching the companion greats. I think Thakrar has started to adjust to delivering her dialogue on audio (that you can be subtle and not everything has to be pitched at a melodramatic level) and the character is settling in to a rhythm. Here with her memory taken, Bliss is the most humane with have seen her. Vulnerable and caring, I hope she continues in that vein even with her memory back. She likes to solve things. Everything and everyone she looks at she starts deconstructing and analysing.

The Twelve:
The only character that is really different from their persona in the previous story, Julia McKenzie is less kindly old woman and far more assertive and condemning as the Twelve with memory loss. It’s still a far cry from the overdone villainy of the Eleven, thank goodness. A paranoid old lady or someone with exceptionally good instincts? The inhibitor is damaged and she struggles with the voices in her head. She doesn’t want anybody else to think she is mad.

Standout Performance: Victor McGuire’s voice is unmistakable. I was happily listening away and I kept getting images of Gary’s mate from Goodnight Sweetheart, a show I hadn’t thought about for years. It’s not a bad thing, having an unmistakable voice. He gives a good turn here in a likeable role. Why is McKenzie so much better at doing the ‘voices in the head’ acting than Mark Bonner?

Great Ideas:
Personal memory dampeners focused on an individual sense of self; that’s the explanation given for the memory loss. A quirk of technobabble, of course. There’s purely biological defences on this planet because the prisoners could turn the technology into weapons.

Audio Landscape: The transmat sound effect from The Five Doctors. I’m such a geek.

Isn’t it Odd: There are very few original ideas in this story, or even original takes on old ideas. Because theses stories are released in box sets rather than individually I think it is fair to come to expect some kind of narrative thread to run through the four stories but as far as I can tell this is three very separate, distinct stories with the Time War looming angrily in the background. I may have bemoaned in the Doom Coalition sets that the arc trod on the individual instalments but there was no denying that the penultimate episodes of each set left you gagging for more as the latest threat to the universe was unveiled. There’s none of that here. I wandered out of the third story going ‘what was the point of all that then?’

Standout Scene: Given the emphasis of this story is very much on the Twelve, especially in the last scene, perhaps this box set was mis labelled as ‘Doctor Who.’ The cover is abysmal.

Result: To lose your memory once because of a great Time War smacks of carelessness. To lose it twice for exactly the same reason smacks of plagiarism. I’m joking of course but given the eighth Doctor Adventures (the books) played about with the idea of the Doctor losing his memory because of a great conflict between the Time Lords and their enemy and flogged it to death (very successfully in my eyes) you would think this was something that the audios would avoid. Aha. The memory wipe mystery plays out amiably enough, but it’s the sort of thing that every show has had a stab at and unless it’s going to be played for all out comedy or all out drama it is just your regulars fumbling around in the dark until somebody switches the light on again. There’s no revelatory reason for the Doctor, Bliss or The Twelve to lose their memories. When they get them back it isn’t like a flood of unfortunate memories overwhelm them in a devastatingly emotional moment. And having their minds wiped isn’t part of some creative scheme. It just sort of happens and ten it’s rectified. An early scene suggests that this might be an impressive interrogatory story between a Dalek and the Doctor. I had visions of scenes like those between the Dalek and the Doctor from the series one episode Dalek or something reminiscent of Dalek Empire when Susan Mendez was under the spotlight. Unfortunately, In the Garden of Death ducks away from a good psychological battle to focus on its cliched amnesia plot. There is some good stuff in here too; the Twelve is given an interesting new spin as an amnesiac and struggling to control voices that she doesn’t understand, I really liked the idea of a prison planet with biological defences and Bliss gets her best airing yet, interesting that that should be when she has no knowledge of who she was. Perhaps a sign that she was a fundamentally flawed character and needs a bit of a reboot. McGann seems a little subdued, because he doesn’t really have much to hang his performance on. He’s an empty shell of a Doctor for no real reason and what can he do with that? Overall this isn’t the most enthralling of stories, but it’s still a cut above the worst of the last Time War boxset. It just smacks of time filler when it should have had a little more momentum given it leads into the finale: 6/10

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Hour of the Cybermen written by Andrew Smith and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Answering a call from UNIT, the Doctor arrives in London to find the streets deserted, apart from looters in possession of a valuable commodity - water. Britain is suffering an extreme and bizarre drought. The cause is suspected to be extra-terrestrial. The discovery of a signal being transmitted into space, and of a spacecraft whose crew are desiccated corpses, provides a possible answer. But the true enemy is an old foe of the Doctor’s. The Cybermen have been patient, setting their plans in place over a number of years. As the final stage is implemented, in the darkest hour, the Doctor must identify who among his allies he can trust. Not everyone wanted the Doctor called, even a month after the operation.

Softer Six: This is probably the sort of story we needed during season 22, a familiar sort of tale where the Doctor is called back by UNIT, welcomed and recognised. Whilst there was a shit ton of continuity in the Colin Baker, his was such a shockingly different and in your face Doctor it might have taken something as comfortingly familiar as this to help the audience to warm to him. Once again, I’m enjoying Sixie travelling on his ow. He’s the one incarnation that I would trust to have a monstrous enough ego to find it effortless to travel with himself. Should the Doctor be enhancing spectrometry software and progressing the Earth’s technology ahead of its time? Hypnotism isn’t a trait that the Doctor gets behind much these days (and if he did it would be the sonic screwdriver that did all the work) but it was always an endearing trait of the classic Doctors, as highlighted here. For once I had no clue how the Doctor was going to get the Earth out of this particular problem because the ransom that the Cybermen hold humanity to is airtight. Any attempt to intervene with their attempt to murder the people of England, then the peoples of the world will suffer the same fate. The Doctor refuses condemn a man for turning to the Cybermen to take away his pain, especially when he has been through such a trauma. It’s thoughtful characterisation of a Doctor who can occasionally be very heartless. Dealing with a heartbroken man who wants betray humanity gives the Doctor a chance to restate his faith in human emotions, but a more powerful and less florid way than he did in Earthshock (eating a well-prepared meal, indeed). It’s gorgeous when the Doctor and Cyberleader finally get to interact, it gives Sixie a chance to let rip with some cutting remarks and insults. He even gets a moment where he can be a right clever clogs as he turns the tables on the Cybermen.

Standout Performance: There was a genuine buzz about David Banks as the Cyberleader returning that I just couldn’t get my head around at the time it was announced. I thought, because the voice is treated surely an actor can play this part. Then while listening to this audio I was absolutely blown away at the amount of menace that Banks brings to the role and just how nice it is to have a Big Finish play where Nick Briggs isn’t having a monopoly on all the alien voices. Banks brings gravitas to the role, which really made this audio stand out from the other recent Cybermen attempts. And as ever the Cyber Lieutenant is a bit rubbish, like Bloodaxe to Irongron, he’s in complete awe of his superior.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘That gun is all flash and no bang I’m afraid.’
‘Removing emotion isn’t only a strength! It’s a kindness!’
‘They will relinquish all their fears when they become like us’ isn’t a great line in itself but coming from Banks it is a gripping promise.

Great Ideas: This isn’t a story that wants to keep you waiting to get involved. Like Invasion of the Dinosaurs (which the Doctor references), the Doctor arrives in a deserted London only to find UNIT troops rounding people up. It’s strange how the UNIT stories are being spread over the year rather than being told sequentially but it does give this new team a chance to establish themselves. In the 80s the Brigadier turned up in Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors and Battlefield and so if you think of this like that then the approach makes sense. Perhaps the idea is to make their appearances a treat rather than a chore. It also means that you can surprise people with developments, such as the death of Daniel’s family. Imagine England where water is a rare commodity and it is being sold on the black market to those who can afford it. A drought without any obvious cause and being targeted in one geographical location. Because of modern day techniques they are having bottled water shipped in but it’s not enough to meet demand. Britain is having a taste of third world thirst. Cerberus is UNITs new line of self defence against alien incursions. A network of alien satellites that orbit the Earth as an early warning system against the incursion of alien craft in Earth space. UNIT has its own astronauts now and use of American shuttles to deploy them to the satellites. This is a pretty exciting development for the organisation, one I would have loved to have seen in the eighties. A spaceship in orbit of the Earth filled with desiccated copses. It makes perfect sense to explore Cyber-conversion in a Colin Baker story, continuing the grisly work of Attack of the Cybermen. I always thought it was a crying shame that the classic series never capitalised on that in Silver Nemesis now the nastier aspects of conversion had been brought to light. The human body is 60% water and the Cybermen have a weapon that can evaporate every drop. They are exploiting a physical weakness this time around rather than an emotional one. The Varidians came to Earth to take revenge upon the Cybermen – they attacked their world and kidnapped tens of thousands of people! You have a character who has suffered a massive emotional shock and he finds the idea of the Cybermen taking away that grief a relief. Is that understandable or a betrayal? Plenty to think about. The trouble with having powerful satellites in orbit of the Earth is what if the alien life they are scanning for take control of them and use them for their own purposes? 200,000 Cybermen is enough to subdue the people of the Earth if they have the dehydration weapon. That will subdue, waiting for the Cybermen to mop up. Even 1% of the Earth’s population would be a significant boost to the Cybermen’s numbers, to spread their menace further out into the galaxy. One of the Cybermen’s most effective strengths is that they are patient. They will wait years for a plan to fall into place. When a slow protracted death by dehydration is the alternative, the Cybermen are banking on humanity taking the logic decision to walk into their conversion chambers.

Audio Landscape: The Cyber shuttle coming in to land at the end of episode one is beautifully done. It sounds genuinely epic.

Musical Cues: There’s a phenomenally foreboding score for the Cybermen this time around, that makes their arrival in the story a moment to remember. Steve Foxon is often imaginative in his use of music and this is no exception, I loved the heavy percussion and discordant stings during the Cybermen scenes. It really stressed that something quite inhuman was going on. Parts of this score feel as though they have leapt straight out of the mid-eighties whilst never feeling like a rip off. Bravo.

Standout Scene: There’s a fantastic moment in episode two where we are exposed to the sort of atrocities that the Cybermen commit when the Doctor isn’t around to stop them. Their abuse of Varidia and the mass conversion of their people is powerfully depicted. The cliff-hangers for episode two and three are something a bit special too. I don’t want to spoil any surprises. I don’t care if one nicks its moment from Resurrection of the Daleks because all the set up that has gone into making that moment stick is extraordinary. A great twist.

Result: ‘We rely upon the vulnerability of the human condition…’ An intriguing and riveting Cyberman story and one that plays out a little like The Flood from DWM (they’ve taken away the rain this time rather than infusing it with emotion) but with so many fun extra details it makes for a substantial and hugely enjoyable experience in its own right. I’m not the biggest fan of the metal meanies but even I have to admit that when they are presented well they are just about the most terrifying foe that the Doctor can face. The combined talents of several people ensure that this is a memorable spin for the walking cadavers from Mondas. Andrew Smith has written a terrific script that allows the Cybermen to prey on a weakness of humanity in an insidious way. I also loved how he exposed some of the Cyber atrocities that happen off screen away from the Doctor, it helps to give them an epic sense of threat. David Banks makes a startling return as the Cyberleader, all gravelly menace and aggressive threat. Steve Foxon ensures this is a truly immersive audio experience with some truly memorable sound effects and a terrifically robust score for the Cybermen. And the rest of the cast treat them with appropriate caution and fear that really sells the idea of their menace. A few examples aside (Spare Parts, The Harvest), I can’t think when I’ve enjoyed the Cybermen more on audio. Reunited with his old foes, Sixie is defiant, ruthless and smart. All his best qualities. Smith’s no-nonsense writing fits him like a glove. It’s not a story that is quick to reach its apex which allows for some fine suspense but when things finally blow we’re afforded some fantastic cliff-hangers and the discovery that I’ve come to care so much about the characters introduced in The Helliax Rift came as a complete surprise. Jamie Anderson is proving to be a real hotshot new director and how he assembles this piece really is avant garde. The plot is familiar, but the presentation is simply too gripping to miss out on. This isn’t a case of ‘just another return of the Cybermen’, they’ve made their reappearance into an event. I think Big Finish captures the best of the Cybermen in a way that eludes most of the TV series (although even they can have an off day like Sword of Orion and Last of the Cybermen) and they truly capitalise on the horrors of what these creatures represent. As classic Who as you can get, whilst still being brilliant listening: 8/10

Monday, 16 July 2018

Planet of the Ogrons written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: Avoiding the Time War, the Doctor and Bliss are found by an old acquaintance: the latest incarnation of a criminal mastermind the Doctor knows of old. But unlike her predecessors, the Twelve has a handle on her previous selves’ unruly minds. There is a mystery to solve involving the Doctor’s TARDIS and its unusual occupant – and answers will be found on the Planet of the Ogrons.

Physician, Heal Thyself: Planet of the Ogrons puts the Doctor in the same situation as the third Doctor in The Curse of Peladon, meeting up with an old foe but in a apparently kinder new guise. McGann is much gentler a performer than Pertwee so he plays the suspicion less obviously, but there is an element of once bitten, twice shy to the Doctor here that I rather enjoyed exploring. Is somebody capable of this much change? It’s possible. Does the universe usually work in his favour that way? Not on your life. Half the fun of this story is to see if he is right or not. I like the idea that because of both the Time War and the paradox that fuelled the original story, the Doctor’s recollection of Day of the Daleks is hazy.

Bless Bliss: Bliss doesn’t expect judgemental behaviour from the Doctor. There’s a nice conversation between Bliss and Ogron Doctor (couldn’t they have thought up a better name for him than that?) about faith and we learn that she is an atheist. It’s the best scene for Bliss yet, not over stressed or melodramatic. Just two people learning about each other.

The Twelve: The Doctor declares The Twelve as one of the most dangerous villains in the universe but then he usually says that about all his long-term foes so I’m not sure it’s worth just nodding and smiling at him and perhaps taking them at face value. It looks like everybody is turning into women these days, a new take on regeneration promoted by the New Series and taken up by Big Finish. I’m not surprised, regeneration whilst still being a brilliant concept is also one that has been exhausted by various mediums and so I’m not surprised that a fresh spin on the idea is being capitalised on. And having an actress of the calibre of Julia McKenzie playing The Twelve is always going to be good news. I was never that keen on the Eleven as a character because I felt he devolved far too often into pantomime villainy and ranting and so to bring McKenzie as a complete contrast (but with all the weight of the history that the Doctor has with the previous incarnation of this character) gives the character an engaging new lease of life. I mean, who doesn’t love a kind old lady? What’s not to trust? She has a neural inhibitor, which means she has full control over her other selves who were getting far too unruly for their own good. They are locked away where they can’t do any harm. Eight was the exception to prove the rule, sweet and calm. Her previous selves might have been maniacs but they had plenty of skills and the Time Lords wanted to utilise those skills in their war effort. There’s not a prison, a cell or a surgical table that can hold her.

Standout Performance: How fun was McKenzie’s take on the various personalities of the Twelve? She’s such a skilled performer that she managed to give each personality a very distinct voice. You can distort his voice all you like, you simply cannot disguise Nicholas Briggs. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where somebody else should get to play with the Daleks and their offshoots. His voice is far too easily recognisable now after so much exposure in countless roles.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You called a Lord President of Gallifrey, Fred?’
‘You are an insult to the Dalek race!’
‘Base go boom!’

Great Ideas: The opening raises a lot of questions: what has happened to turn the Doctor into an Ogron? I thought it was only Star Trek that did that sort of thing, turning their regulars into species they aren’t native to. Regeneration can throw up some unexpected surprises, but the Doctor has never heard of a Time Lord shifting species during the change. Is it possible to protect troops from the effects of temporal fallout? Ogrons are a blunt weapon, hired muscle, what would the Daleks want to do with them? Because the Daleks are altering their timeline (and the Doctor’s) there are several versions of events that occurred in previous stories. That’s almost a default excuse now if continuity is handled erroneously. The Daleks are dangerous but they’re not suicidal. They weight up the details and the risks in changing the timelines and only nip and tuck if it is in their favour and the consequences aren’t too severe. The Hybrid is a manifest of other races lumped together and bundled into a Dalek casing. It goes against the Daleks creed of racial purity; they loathe him and fear him in equal measure. But he gets results. If only Steven Moffat could have had an endgame of this variety during his arc for series nine. This is precisely the sort of Hybrid that would have made for a great climactic showdown in Hell Bent. It’s a fascinatingly grisly concept. The creatures that the Ogrons feared were supposed to rock creatures. That didn’t quite translate on screen (more like a spongy orange duvet creature).

Audio Landscape: Lots if Dalek sound effects again to get the heart racing – alarms, the control room heartbeat, the sound of the doors opening from the original Dalek story, the Daleks cutting through a door.

Musical Cues: I really enjoyed the tribal music that kicked in when the Doctor and co hit the Planet of the Ogrons. The insane banging of drums is a new sound for the audios. Nicely done.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m really not sure about the cover redesign for these eighth Doctor Time War stories. I get that Big Finish might want to promote the actors involved with the production but there seems to be too much emphasis on photoshopping publicity stills of the cast against a CGI background that illustrates detail about the story. The result is a rather awkward fusion of the two. I don’t think covers for audios have been this awkward since the early days (remember Land of the Dead and Shadow of the Scourge).

Standout Scene: The death of a major character at the climax is tonally bizarre. Three regeneration scenes are referenced so it feels like a parody and like it is supposed to be played for laughs, but nobody told Rakhee Thakrar who is playing it very much for real. If it was supposed to be funny, I think the gags got lost in translation.

Result: Barry Letts once wrote a Blakes’ 7 audio play and in order to research how it could be achieve he was given several fan productions to listen to, which he said were so full of continuity and knowing references that a casual member of the audience wouldn’t have a clue what is going on. Admittedly his play wasn’t any good either, but that’s by the by. I think the same criticism could be levelled at Planet of the Ogrons, which is an enjoyable instalment for any long-term fan clued up on Dalek history, Day of the Daleks, Frontier in Space, Doom Coalition and various other stories but anybody who might dip their toes into Big Finish as a way of experiencing Doctor Who audio drama without that weight of knowledge would be completely lost. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely down to your own personal opinion. I liked it because it tied together lots of continuity in an engaging way and introduced some fresh ideas that worked extremely well (the Hybrid is a particularly fun, grisly idea). I might bemoan the fact that Big Finish relies on the shows continuity too much to drive sales but even I have to admit that they have done a great service to certain elements of the series that didn’t have a chance to explored in much more detail. The Ogrons are one such detail, and being so fond of them on television I was delighted to hear that they were pencilled in for an appearance. I never suspect we would get such an authentically melodramatic (and very classic Who) title and it does promise a deeper understanding of the race that has do far been underutilised. We get to explore their culture a little more and there is some effort to get inside the mind of these creatures, and to explore their own unique dialogue. The eighth Doctor can’t seem to get away from the Eleven (she goes by The Twelve now) and this is another element from the past which has been pleasingly innovated. McKenzie is a triumph in the role, in no way playing the part as a dotty old woman but as an incisive Time Lady that has come to straight jacket and silence her past selves. She has lovely chemistry with Paul McGann. Because of its very familiar elements this feels far more like classic Who than the Time War inspired post 2005 version and that might have contributed to my enjoyment factor somewhat. This is fanwank of the highest order, depending on your mileage for that sort of thing. This was innovating, so I’m on board: 7/10

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Eighth Doctor: Time War Vol. 2: The Lords of Terror written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: When the Doctor takes Bliss to her home colony, they discover that the Time War has got there first. Bliss finds her world altered beyond recognition, and the population working to serve new masters. No dissent is allowed. The Daleks are coming. The planet must be ready to fight them.

Physician, Heal Thyself: I think the Doctor is often reluctant to take his companions home because he is scared that they might leave him. That stretches right back to his first companions, Ian and Barbara. If the Doctor wants to know what has been going on on any particular planet he just asks the people who are running from guards. The Doctor condemns this society from the off, refusing to accept a civilisation that treats its people like slaves and that uses fear and brutality to keep them in line. The Doctor is often at his best when he gets to butt heads with his own people (Hartnell and the Monk, Troughton and the War Chief and all the others with the Master with a special mention for the sixth Doctor in Trial of a Time Lord) and McGann has the added fury of the Doctor’s reaction to the Time War to add fuel to his fire. He struggled gamely to generate interest in the first set despite his extreme efforts but when it is revealed what Carvil has done, I was fully on the Doctor’s side and way McGann spat the dialogue out left me with no illusions of the Doctor’s extreme hatred for this kind of twisted manipulation. It’s great stuff. The Doctor knows that if he doesn’t make a stand on this planet then it will become a blueprint for a Time lord Empire so terrible and utterly devoid of mercy.

Bless Bliss: Jonathan Morris is an extremely safe pair of hands when it comes to fleshing out companions since he has turned his hand to pretty much any and every companion in the shows entire run successfully. Bliss desperately needs some backstory and substance after her almost invisible presence in the first box set and Morris does the sensible thing of taking her back to her planet and seeing the impact of the Time War on her home. It’s a great shorthand to see where she has come from, what sort of family, who her friends are, etc before letting her loose in the universe with the Doctor. Of course, this is usually done in a companion’s introductory story but the first Time War box set was spending far too much time trying to be clever and mired in wartime clichés to focus on anything important like characterisation. Let’s call this a much-needed repair job. Her home city is Capitol city, Deralobia, and she has family waiting for her back there. He takes her home one month after they left. After discovering the footprint the Daleks have left on her world, Bliss won’t listen to the Doctor anymore, she’s determined to find her family. Her house completely demolished and she fears that her family is dead. The Doctor delivers a cold blow that her family might never have been born in this version of history, the Time War has a habit of swallowing up little details like that. Does that make her an orphan of the Time War? Bliss gets a wonderful moment where she gets to confront Carvil over the fate of her world. I’m not sure Thakrar sells the moment, but I appreciate it being there all the same. It’s precisely the sort of moment that Nyssa didn’t get in the eighties every time she came face to face with her father’s murderer. To have not included would have been quite the omission. If a time storm blows across the surface of her home world it will mean that nothing will ever live there again. Is she ready to face that? The ending where Bliss gets to confront the Doctor over what his people have done is powerful, but again I’m not entirely sure the acting is up to scratch.

Standout Performance: I don’t know what to make of Rakee Thakrar because she’s clearly an actress of some talent (many a well-respected actor has made their mark in a soap opera) and yet she plays the part of Bliss as though she is still treading the cracked paving of Albert Square. It’s such a naturalistic performance and I don’t mean that in a good way because it’s naturalistic in the way that she’s crossing dimensions and hopping planets but reacting to it in such blasé fashion you might think she’s nipping from the Queen Vic to the market. Maybe I just need to get used to the style. There’s something very new series about having a modern-day outlook on these adventures, and it’s something that has worked to Big Finish’s advantage with characters like Flip. However, Bliss is supposed to be from outer space in the far future so I’m not sure why she sounds quite so contemporary.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Indoctrination through crowd psychology. Somebody’s been reading Orwell.’
‘You think choosing the lesser evil excuses evil.’

Great Ideas: Bliss’ home world has been attacked by the Daleks; they attacked the cities, positioned the air and polluted the seas. It’s expedient for the population to believe that they are under constant threat and so the government make it so. In truth the Daleks attacked 20 years ago and haven’t been back since. Turning the people into a slave race through propaganda and you can get them to build you a huge rocket. Carvil came to Deralobia for the specific intention of turning it into a war machine. You have to feel sorry for a planet that has been duped into thinking it had a devastating attack by the Daleks 20 years ago…now having to suffer an attack by the Daleks! Because the Time Lords are symbiotically linked to their TARDISes, they will self-destruct if their operators are murdered. So those pesky Daleks better watch out if they feel like nipping a Time Lord with an exterminating blast.

Audio Landscape: The sound of gunfire terrifies when you realise that anybody is fair game. The sound designer makes no secret of the fact that these bullets will tear their victims apart. Hooray for the Cushing movie sound effects that play during the control room scenes.

Musical Cues: I still adore the War Doctor theme tune. I do a crazy little dance when the staccato drums start banging. Let’s hope the second season lives up to this twisted version of the regular Doctor Who theme tune.

Isn’t it Odd: Notice how a few Daleks dance about unobtrusively on the covers whilst the actors taking part in this story take centre stage. At this point in the various Time War releases the Daleks’ are no long any kind of draw, and their quiet inclusion on the cover feels like tokenism to their continued presence. Am I really complaining because the Daleks feature in a Time War release? No, I’m bemoaning the fact that Big Finish had flogged the Daleks to death BEFORE they started playing about with New Series continuity. Having characters chant ‘Death to the Daleks!’ in defiance of the oncoming taskforce is not only familiar, those exact words have already been chanting several times over and it was even the title of a previous releases. What else is there to say about these creatures that hasn’t already been said a million times over? ‘Given we are at war, certain moral compromises are an unfortunate necessity…’ – it’s unoriginal dialogue like that that hung around the neck of the first series. Even the Doctor states that it all sounds very rehearsed.

Standout Scene: There’s a glorious moment where we venture out onto the planets surface and it is revealed that there are other city domes, all building their own rockets. A fleet is in the making, one that has been constructed through fear attacks that never happened.

Result: ‘Then they would know that their protector was a puppet with a Time Lord pulling the strings…’ Trust Jonathan Morris to give the Time War a dash of emotion so the audience can actually feel something about the bibbly bobbly slimey blimey events that are taking place. It was something that was irritating me like a rotten tooth in the first box set – the lack of feeling for anything that was happening which made it feel like a bunch of hoary war clichés that was impossible to give a damn about. From the off Morris takes a strong character approach to the Time War, showing its impact on the Doctor’s new companion Bliss which has the twofold strength of handed her a personality for the first time and making this world one that I can connect with emotionally. It’s not just another casualty in the Time War, another number, it’s the world that gave the Doctor his latest friend and it has been raped and twisted by the Daleks. I love the idea that the problem (the Daleks attacking) and the solution (the revolution and their rocket) are already set up when the Doctor arrives. This feels like a dangerous world, a bit like Earth in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where people behave in abominable ways because they are scared of the Daleks. The approach is really intriguing, it shows the emotional reaction to an attack rather than focusing on the attack itself. The twist is a brilliant one, that nothing is quite what it seems from the point of view of the people and that the Time Lords have behaved abominably badly, which is usually the most interesting thing that any writer can do with them. What’s interesting is that there isn’t really an original idea in this story; the Time Lords are usually right bastards during this era, people have reacted badly to threat of the Daleks before and the Doctor has fought against the twisted schemes of his own people countless times. And yet to take such a psychological approach to the Time War it feels like we are ploughing fresh furrows because it gives the Doctor something meaty to rail against and a moral attitude backed up by fire. The resulting scenes where he vows to bring this torrid affair to an end feel fully justified and for a time I couldn’t tell where this story was going to end. That’s a really nice feeling. So is the fact that the Time Lord responsible for all this given a solid character motive for his actions. Is there dramatic mileage in the Time War? Before I listened to this story I would have said it was doubtful, so I’m very pleased to have been proven wrong. Thank goodness for Jonathan Morris. For once the Daleks attacking is a moment of delicious irony: 9/10

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Satan Pit written by Matt Jones and directed by James Hawes


This story in a nutshell: ‘The Pit is Open and I am free…’ 

Mockney Dude: What is the objection to the Doctor and Rose really liking each other? That does seem to be the big problem that people have with this combination of characters, that they are really rather fond of each other to the exclusion of all others. It does make them a little selfish and a little blind to the people around them and it does make them appear unbearable smug at times because they are so deliriously happy together. But that’s people in love. And I think that is the big issue. That the Doctor should never fall in love, and god forbid it is with a young girl from Earth. Well guess what, shit happens. Planets get destroyed, guilt gets heavy and then pretty chavs walk into lives and turn them upside down. You genuinely feel the connection between the Doctor and Rose in this episode probably more so than in any other story this season except the climax because the stakes are so high and the danger feels so real. There’s no real time for them to make moon eyes at each other because they are constantly on the run. And yet that connection is stressed because they are scared that they will never get to see each other again, perhaps never get the chance to say how they feel. When the story keeps them busy, Tennant and Piper can really shine together because they both get a great deal to do and their desperate need to get back to and protect one another really sells the feeling they have. The Doctor knows he’s getting old because his instincts are to retreat. You can see the positive approach that the tenth Doctor takes having a real impact as he smooths everybody’s brow after they have taken a psychological beating from the Beast. Leaving the Doctor out of the action was a sound idea because it forces him to have a multifaceted dialogue with a guest character and his scenes with Ida are beautifully written. He’s forced to think about his opinion rather than just react to situations (as he has a wont to do in the new series) and it presents a considerate, thoughtful man rather than the manic geek in space that we have seen up until now. Tennant’s best moments throughout his run would be more thoughtful, conversation scenes like this (his heart-breaking conversation with Joan at the end of The Family of Blood, the scene when he catches up with Jack in Utopia, most of Midnight, the gut wrenching moment when he tells Adelaide she is going to die in The Waters of Mars). These are the moments where Tennant is forced to prove his talent, which he has in spades. When the Doctor is asked outright what he believes in, what he has faith in all he can give are ambiguous answers. Perhaps he doesn’t know anymore. He comes frighteningly close to asking Ida to tell Rose he loves her. It’s a moment where I caught my breath. The scenes of the Doctor reasoning the history and the backstory of the Beast from the facts he has to hand really allow his intelligence to shine through. It reminds me of the scenes between the Creature and the fourth Doctor in Creature from the Pit. Except there are no blowing of protuberances this time. Which is odd, given this is the new series and a gag about blow jobs is just around the corner. When the Doctor has given up hope, along pops the TARDIS. Is that the her he was talking about that he believed in?

Chavvy Chick: I really like faltering the moment that Rose stresses for the Doctor to tell her that the Devil doesn’t really exist. When he’s silent, she asks again. Piper underplays the moment and you can see the fear in Rose’s eyes when he cannot take all the monsters away. Sometimes they real and you have to deal with them. Rose is brave enough to put her life in danger to protect other people nowadays. Her travels in the TARDIS have really changed her. When everybody else has given up, Rose is encouraging them to think their way out of this impossible situation. We haven’t seen this kind of writing for her character since the previous season. She’s a ruthlessly efficient organiser and gets everybody doing what they do best. I can see this Rose taking an important position on Pete’s world. Billie Piper does some of her best acting when she is desperate and struggling; when she was sent home in the TARDIS in The Parting of the Ways, struggling against the wall that separated her and the Doctor in Doomsday and here where she is forced onto the rocket and away from the Doctor for good. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I don’t want to die on my own.’
‘That’s why I keep travelling. To be proved wrong.’
‘The stuff of legend…’

The Good: Like a really good Terry Nation script, the previous episode piled peril on top of peril so the situation seemed calamitous and so if the threat to the base destabilising was handled with reasonable swiftness then there is still the problem of the homicidal Ood and the possessed Toby to keep the pace running furiously. It’s an absurdly busy and exciting opening to the episode, there are very few Doctor Who stories that kick start with this much forward momentum. That dirty, grungy base still impresses me after all these years. Unlike many Doctor Who locations this one really feels lived in. Who doesn’t have that mad little voice in your head saying jump over the edge of a cliff? It’s a wonderful expression of fulfilling the need to experience, to dare, to venture into the unknown. This really was a time when Doctor Who could make comments on wonderful moments of human existence like that. This is a story that dares to explore psychological horror in quite a profound way, the Beast terrifying his victims by preying on their worst psychological fears. I love how each taunt reveals a new shade about each character, effortlessly adding layers. The Doctor is the killer of his own kind, Zachary being terrified of Command, Mr Jefferson haunted by the eyes of his wife, Ida still running from daddy, Danny the little boy who lied, Toby the virgin and Rose the lost girl who will die in battle very soon. It capitalises on previous continuity, it offers glimpses into the future and it offers tantalising pockets of backstory for these characters that suggest a life outside of this story. It’s fantastic writing. How delightful to see the return of the old-fashioned ventilation shaft – no wonder so many classic fans have a fondness for this story! The Doctor descending into darkness is an exceptional visual, he is literally venturing into the unknown. In the midst of all this drama there are still small moments of levity – I love how everybody is admiring everybody’s arses as the crawl down the ventilation shaft – we’re definitely not in classic Who anymore! Cor Sarah Jane, lovely buns you’ve got there! Bugger off Harry! There’s a moment when the Ood turn the corner and its spaghetti shakes like a rabid dog’s jaws hunting its prey. They are such an original design. Self-sacrifice is tenapenny in action adventure…so why does Mr Jefferson’s sacrifice feel genuinely upsetting? I think it is because he has been presented as imperfect character with a shady past just trying to do his best. You’re rooting for him because he feels like a real person. That deft bit of editing where Toby reveals himself to be still be possessed to the Ood before screaming for help from his comrades is priceless. I love the idea of a prison which is in itself a trap. If the prisoner escapes, the gravity field collapses and the planet falls into the black hole and kills him. It makes sense of so much of the story to this point. Toby’s rage in the shuttle as the Beast possesses him for the last time is a genuinely unsettling moment of horror for children watching this show. It is and adult behaving in a horrifically unpredictable manner. I love the manic energy of the scene and how it never let’s up until Toby is out that window and flying in the dead of space.

The Bad: Maybe the CGI Devil lacks subtlety…but by God it looks fantastic. I just can’t imagine this snarling beast with Gabriel Woolf’s silky intelligence nestled inside.

The Shallow Bit:
Toby Zed might be a slightly blading geek…but I would.

Result: A terrific second part to a near flawless two-part serial, The Satan Pit has a few minor faults that hold it back from perfection (that still goes to Human Nature/The Family of Blood) but if I were to point at a story in the early days of Doctor that ticks all of my boxes, this would be very high on the list. It’s almost the perfect fusion of classic Who (base under siege, ventilation shafts, monsters, suspense and slower scenes that allow for some complex dialogue) and NuWho (a stylish production, pacy action, emotional drama, complex characterisation). Maybe it’s just me and I am completely biased but I cannot think of a large cast like this in the Moffat era where the characters feel this real. There is just something about the interaction between them, the chemistry, the information we are given and how they react to the situation that just sells them completely as a group of desperate people trying to get out of this situation alive. When these people lose their lives it really means something. It’s superbly cast, and that is just one aspect of a genuinely impressive production that feels like it has had more time than usual lavished upon it. Even Murray Gold’s score feels less like a collection of emotive themes and geared perfectly towards the atmosphere and the action. An overly hyped relationship by the audience at large and a overly criticised relationship amongst fandom, the Doctor and Rose get magnificent treatment here. They are separated for much of the story and work extremely well within their own storylines but there is always that longing feeling of worry for each other’s safety that permeates every scene. And given the dire situation they are in it is perfectly natural and believable. The moment they are reunited at the climax I was punching the air for them, such was the efforts they had to go through to find one another again. And with the lingering threat of Rose’s death it is a reunion with a bite. It’s some of the best characterisation they had all year and they are given excellent dialogue to speak. I wish Doctor Who could bring together all facets of a production (writing, direction, acting, music, editing, lightning) this synchronously more often than it does these days but for those of you who disparage the new series against the classic version might want to check out this story. It’s doing so many things well to please both sets of fans and that is a very hard task to pull off. Taken as a whole this is one of the strongest entries in the past ten seasons, a bedtime horror story told with intelligence and directed with style: 9/10

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Age of Sutekh written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The world has changed. And the evil Osiran Sutekh is returning. As blood sacrifices and worship boost the strength of the God of War, servicer robots walk the streets, killing those who have not converted. Leela is working with the homeless population of the city, while the Doctor co-operates with the police. A brutal battle is ready to begin. And if the Doctor and his friends fail, everyone in the galaxy will perish.

Teeth and Curls: Nothing to report. Which seems unbelievable given how full this section was in the last review. The physical fight between Leela and Sutekh is beyond lame.

Noble Savage: Leela’s assertion that the homeless are for once the fortunate of Drummond is a good one. The physical fight between Leela and Sutekh is beyond lame.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He does sound a bit needy.’
‘I am the Doctor and I bring my gift of life to all humanity!’
‘I am enjoying the view, horse face!’

Great Ideas: This is now the world of Sutekh and however decadent, however ornate, it is now a world of Death. The Osirins were able to use their minds to propel themselves through time and space. At his peak, Sutekh was able to wipe out entire civilisations just by thinking about it. Sutekh has used the combined minds of everyone who has used Renonet, millions of people all linked with his as the focus. The power of that is inconceivable. His aim is the death of all life in the universe because as an insecure child he sees it as a threat to his dominance.

Isn’t It Odd: I really like Sutekh as a villain, it’s not often that the Doctor comes up against something as powerful as a living God (unlike Star Trek where that sort of thing happens every second week). However, I’m not sure belittling the character as much as they do here really does his street cred any good at all. In Pyramids of Mars he was treated as something that was to be feared at all times, even by the Doctor, which made him scarier than even during the scenes in his tomb. But by comparing him to an insecure child and making crack jokes at his expense, he comes across as little more than a petulant child that is desperate for a bit of attention. When he starts banging on about the gaping joy of emptiness that he will leave behind I was starting to wonder about the paucity of a villain that wants to get rid of everything just because it might threaten him. The trick with this character is to distract the audience enough with scares so that a light is not shone too brightly on the chief protagonist and his hoary out dreams of ultimate destruction. The Age of Sutekh seems to go out of its way to do that and Sutekh seems like a hammy old bad guy, desperate to impress as a result. Showing him in a state of weakness so soon after building his New Osiris was a mistake. It was time at that point to see what the character can do, not show him struggling to maintain control. It’s very odd to have the mummies appear in an audio given that the key factor of their success was that they were silent bringers of death. Silent enemies are pretty hard to bring to life on audio and just having characters screaming ‘they’re like mummies, run!’ doesn’t quite have the same impact. Wouldn’t it have been better to focus more on the mind control aspect of Sutekh’s power rather than turning this into an action adventure standoff between the people of Drummond and the Mummies? Turning Sutekh into an audio villain means you need to be more creative than just describing mummy attacks and using sound effects of their destruction. Did Guy Adams learn nothing from the last of The Last of the Time Lords and The Lie of the Land? Having a climax of a story that features an entire population slaved to technology that results in their brainwashing and then using that technology to help said victims overthrow their masters just doesn’t work as a satisfying conclusion to a tale. It’s too obvious and a little twee. The climax relies on the stolen moments of happiness from people that we have never gotten the chance to know in any great depth. As such it was a little lost on me. If it had been the Doctor and Leela remembering happy memories of each other, that might have made this much more affecting. Grrr it's irritating that the debate that began in the previous story is brought up again here in the last scene only to brushed aside with a 'it's very hard to stay annoyed with you, Doctor, I'm hungry!' Is there no attempt to follow through on some kind of tension or fascinating moral debate in this range?

Standout Scene: Sutekh’s influence over people is revealed quite vividly when he forces a crowd of people to literally fall on their swords. What is this, Game of Thrones?

Result: As I said in my previous review…if you’re looking for a standoff between the Doctor and Sutekh then you might be disappointed. I’m not sure what the was of bringing back what many consider to be the ultimate villain in Doctor Who canon only to belittle and weaken him so considerably. It means he’s a far less effective bad guy here; meek, enfeebled and pretty much described as a child desperate for attention. Nothing like the terrifying God from Pyramids of Mars who left the Doctor screaming and writhing with fear. Even Gabriel Woolf’s performance seems chattier and less controlled. It depends what you prefer when Big Finish bring back old monsters and villains from the past (every other releaser then), for them to innovate them and do something fresh or to give you more of the same. The key is to innovate for the better, to reveal new shades to their villainy. I don’t think it should ever be denigrate a particular character. Leela talks about judging a man by the quality of his enemies and in Pyramids of Mars you could see the Doctor at the top of his game, in The Age of Sutekh he barely breaks a sweat. It’s much more the typical action fare that Big Finish plumps for too, a thin approach to storytelling rather than an intellectual one. I didn’t think this was going to turn into Leela convincing the homeless of Drummond to overthrow their dictator because that seems like the most simplistic approach the story could have taken. What happened to all that decent characterisation that was in the previous instalment? The Doctor and Leela could have been Doctor/companion combination in this. Any Doctor can wave a sonic screwdriver and be glib and any companion can rouse the underdog to attack. And the idea of using silent mummies as a monster on audio? Sheesh! The cliff-hanger gave me hope that this might turn into something quite unusual with the Doctor in the position of a God and being able to influence people. I thought it might tie in to the concept at the heart of Kill the Doctor! but that was never the case. Instead it features the Doctor and co dressing up as mummies and a technobabble fuelled ending. And once again Sutekh only gets to stretch his legs for a few minutes before being defeated! I’m sure it isn’t the case but this script feels as though it was made up as it went along and after setting up something momentous that the writer didn’t have a clue about how to deliver it. The result is a huge disappointment and another instance where you have to wonder if it might have been best to keep an old villain on the shelf rather than dusting them down and giving them another airing. The 4DA curse strikes again: 4/10 

Kill the Doctor! written by Guy Adams and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: The TARDIS crew arrive on the planet Drummond, an Earth colony in the far future where everybody uses handheld computers from morning to night. Rania Chuma is the mastermind behind Rene.net, the datastream network that tells you everything you need to know. Anyone who’s anyone uses Rene.net. But ever since Rania was young she’s heard a voice in her head. That voice is the key to Rene.net’s success. And it’s a voice the Doctor might find familiar. Whilst Leela chases a thief, the Doctor looks into the planet’s datastream and something evil looks back. A subliminal command flashes through Rene.net to Drummond’s entire population: ‘Kill the Doctor’. When the entire planet is against you, where can you possibly hide?

Teeth and Curls: Tom is great in this but remember in the first couple of season where he was completely let off the leash and left to play the Doctor pretty much as Tom Baker? There’s an element of that to Kill the Doctor! He’s completely off the wall in how he chooses to play some reactions, in a way that the Doctor never was even when Tom was playing the role. The Doctor likes junk shops, charity shops, tea shops and books shops but that is the only kind of shopping he really likes. I think we would get along splendidly on a shopping trip in that case. He hates people smiling at you when they don’t mean it. Leela knows that the day will never be boring with the Doctor around, no matter what he thinks of where they have visited. The Doctor uses his clothes to announce his personality to the world (the sixth Doctor even more so). He’s sent K.9 off to play in the TARDIS park, even though he isn’t sure if one actually exists but K.9 made no bones about searching for it. Cheeky beggar. He topples dictators, saves planets, basket weaves…it’s a busy life. His dress sense has been remarked upon across the universe…so he’s appalled when the device tells him it is 89% unsuitable. They’ve almost broken a record on Drummond; Leela vanishes within 2 minutes and he’s threatened with death within 10. Saving societies is not something he sets out to do (not at this stage anyway…come The Happiness Patrol), he just sort of falls into it and doesn’t want Leela telling people that he is like a one shop God that can sort out all of their problems. There are homeless people everywhere and he doesn’t like it but he can’t start revolutionaries everywhere because a society is financially top heavy. It’s all he would ever do! You can’t go around the universe changing everything you don’t like. Oh boy we better hope he doesn’t wind up meeting the seventh Doctor. That’s practically his raison d’etre. Watch as the Doctor causes wonton destruction and then admires his ability to throw a spanner in the works. Only Troughton was more of an anarchist, I would say (mind you Hartnell had his moments too).

Noble Savage: Style should be individual, says the Doctor and Leela certainly lives up to that. She wears what she likes (the sort of attire that would drive the Dads wild at 5.45pm on a Saturday) and is proud of it. Guy Adams allows Leela to reason so intelligently and sum up an entire civilisation when she meets a homeless person who is stealing food (‘a tribe is only as strong as its weakest member’). I love how she justifies theft (‘that man was too stupid to catch you’) and condemns a society that has forgotten how to care for everybody. Leela picks up her own stray, just as the Doctor does. Kendra is a innocent woman from the streets and her new companion. Leela even talks about the Doctor about joining them in the TARDIS. Leela thinks a hover bike is better than the TARDIS because at least you can point it in a direction and let it go.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It means they’re fashion victims’ ‘Fashion kills?’
‘Why do they all stare at the little machines in their hands?’ – one of my favourite lines in a Big Finish audio in ages. Yes, why do we?

Great Ideas: Gadgets can play havoc with species’ development. They distract people, they stop people from being social, they cause accidents and they mean that people stop trying in the real world because the virtual world of your device is so much more exciting. On this planet it is a digital helping hand that tells you what clothes you should be wearing, what movies you should be watching and who you should be voting for. It’s a digital brain to replace your own. If this is a thinly disguised attack on mobile phones and social media it isn’t exactly a subtle one, but it is one that is needed. It would only take someone truly irresponsible on a phone net or on the internet to do a lot of damage to a lot of people. I wonder if that would make us sit up from out phones and pay attention to what is going on around us. In a period of the show where people losing their minds to alien intelligences was rife, this is the ultimate expression. The evil intelligence at the heart of this society can manipulate the minds of everybody who has used one of the handheld computers to turn on the Doctor and try and kill him. It’s a really fun idea that would have been nice to have seen realised. Think of it like the Pink Panther movie where poor Inspector Closseau was besieged by assassins at every turn. This time they are just ordinary civilians but in some ways that is more frightening. Once Sutekh could crush whole worlds with the power of his mind alone, but now he needs technology to force people to do his will.

Audio Landscape: How lovely to have the TARDIS arrive on such a busy, bustling world. It feels fully realised from the moment the Doctor and Leela step outside the TARDIS. We can’t see it but the mention of futuristic Egyptian design, gold plating and shopping outlets plus the sound of hover cars really sets the imagination firing. Adams (and Robertson) really show how to create a vivid setting in practically no time at all, without over describing everything.

Musical Cues: Pachelbel’s Canon, one of my favourite pieces of music, plays at the beginning of one scene.

Standout Scene: Sutekh’s return is so anti-climactic I can only assume that that was a deliberate decision. Since Big Finish seems to rely on the advertisement of it’s big returning villains and monsters I am assuming that everybody knew that he was going to be in this before they bought it. Certainly, they made a big splash about the ‘return of Sutekh!’ in their news feed. And since Sutekh has (fairly) recently made a return in the Bernice Summerfield range it is hardly as big a coup as it might have been. Instead of building up to a big revelation that he already knows people have prior knowledge of, Guy Adams instead chooses to take another approach and make his return as quiet, but as intelligently done as possible/. I admire that. Oh, and he’s on the cover.

Result: If you’re going into Kill the Doctor! looking for a momentous reunion between the Doctor and Sutekh you might be bitterly disappointed. This is all appetite whetting for the second half of the story. What you get instead is something more cherishable than another awesome villain from the 70s turning up in a 4DA, a healthy character examination of both the Doctor and Leela. Adams has a deft grasp of both of them and as they explore this fascinating society we get to see both of their thought processes (he’s all frivolity, banter and one liners and she’s study, examination and condemnation) and it culminates in a beautiful scene where their ideologies put them on opposing sides of a moral argument. Why can’t the Doctor decide what is right or wrong and knock about the universe making changes for the better? Leela’s response to his answer to that question is both childish and perfectly understandable and I really like it when these two butt heads in this fashion. It brings out the best in both of them when they are on edge (the Doctor is suddenly ruthlessly intelligent and reasoned and Leela emotional and vulnerable). Colour me impressed. Drummond is one of those fully realised worlds that turns up on audio, a perfect synthesis of what the writer describes and the sound designer conjures up. I felt as though I was immersed in a real society; one with history, class levels, a sense of architecture and technology all of its own. It’s fascinating to see that Sutekh has gotten with the times, using technology to reach into the minds of his followers and directing them to murder. There is a touching sense of impotence about the God on this revisit that made him a little more complex; he’s still capable of terrible things but he’s reliant on a certain knowledge to get it done. With Nicholas Briggs to direct this moves along at a fair lick and with something as fun as an entire society attempting to kill the Doctor he gets to have a lot of fun with the mass zombie crowds. Even the cliffhanger isn’t the usual duff moment of jeopardy but the apotheosis of Sutekh’s plan, promising much for the next two episodes. I’d love it to live up this: 8/10

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Bad Penny written by Dan Starkey and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: In the 1970s, hotelier Ron Tulip is having a difficult time. Many of his customers seem to be absconding without payment. The few who remain complain of strange noises and terrible sleep. And to top it all he’s just been summoned to the VIP suite... which is something of a problem as he didn’t even realise the hotel had one. When turbulence in time takes the TARDIS off course, the Doctor and Leela find themselves visiting the same establishment and in the middle of a temporal paradox and a terrible plan. Because that’s the thing about the Cross-Keys hotel. You can check in... but you can never leave.

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor talks eloquently about the Great Exhibition, a glorious spectacle for Leela and he to enjoy. I don’t think he actually gets there until his eighth incarnation in Other Lives (and that’s a story well worth checking out). He has been known to tickle the ivories now and again but mostly he plays the fool. Posing as (a well-informed) public health inspector. He dashes into the Ship and cries ‘hello my dear old TARDIS!’

Noble Savage: How nice to hear Leela talking about her home planet again. There have been so many audios stories with her now it is starting to feel as though she has always travelled with the Doctor. It’s a glorious opening scene for the two travellers with a natural chemistry, reminiscences, excitement at their destination and Leela impressing the Doctor with how she reasons things out. Starkey writes them both very well, there is a felling that they have adjusted to travelling together. Leela is mistaken for a hippy – someone spreading peace and love! He really doesn’t know her very well at all.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I faded away…and just as I was about to say something fascinating!’
‘A coherent conversation in the centre of a temporal anomaly can be rather tricky for the average human brain. Cause and effect don’t always see eye to eye…in fact sometimes they’re not even on speaking terms.’

Great Ideas: K.9 has a touch of digital distemper but its nothing that a thorough reboot wont cure. A tear in the fabric of space time stretching around 200 years from the 19th Century. A tear can become an anomaly, which can become a paradox. And they are always bad news. Imagine looking in a mirror and your reflection taking a few seconds to respond to your actions? There is a conversation in an intersection between two parallel timelines that puts the Doctor and Tulip at the heart of a temporal anomaly. The Doctor was talking to a much younger version of Tulip one minute and a much older version the next. The hotel is shifting in time, dragging in elements from different time streams. Mainly people but parts of the building too. The bad penny is a coin from the 21st Century that currently exists in the 19th and it dragged Edwin forward in time. The human mind is not equipped to figure out such a complex temporal nexus. Lord Tulip built this Empire, this reality. I love how he is essentially both the villain and the hero of this piece. When timelines start dancing together, people from different realities can interact. It can get very confusing. Tulip used foreknowledge that he remembered giving to himself in the past to make investments in the future – he’s so cheeky reminds me of the Meddling Monk. As such the anomaly fed on itself and became a paradox.

Musical Cues: I really enjoyed the music in this story, it felt a little different from the rest of the season. Robertson is a reliable composer but he has something of a house style with the 4th Doctor adventures now, which I have come to predict. A bit like Dudley Simpson during the 4th Doctor’s extended stint on television. This story has all the dramatic cues I would expect and all the pace and excitement but there were a few comedic and musical hall cues that made this stand out.

Standout Scene: The whole story is told at such a pace, with such enthusiasm and elegance, it’s hard to find one scene that stands out. It is one of those stories that just works very well as a whole.

Result: Hugely enjoyable. Because I waited to listen to this series as a whole rather than in two parts I don’t think I have ever listened to so many classic Doctor Who audios back to back, certainly not since I started the blog eight years ago. What is standing out more than anything (aside from my scores which started out positively but seem to be sliding) is varying styles and tones that are being trialled this year. We’ve had everything from existential angst to kisses to the past to B Movie invasions to a historical dressed up as science fiction. It’s been an eclectic bunch for sure but one that stresses the diversity of the range. Here again is something completely different. Listening to the trailer I thought I was in for a knockabout comedy a bit like How to Make a Killing in Time Travel recently but aside from some heightened characters in an extreme situation, this is played pretty straight for the most part. Starkey has written a terrific script with some very witty and arresting dialogue and his characters jump into life memorably. Whilst taking its inspiration from The God Complex, featuring as its predecessor does a hotel that nobody can escape from, but it’s played very differently in The Bad Penny. Starkey doesn’t keep all the information at arm’s length like Dorney did in his portmanteau two parter earlier this series, or try and deceive you like Justin Richards did, or even explain everything in extreme detail as is Andrew Smith’s habit. He’s got the balance just right at keeping you informed of what’s happening and the ideas in play, whilst still letting them surprise and delight you. Listen to Tom Baker and Louise Jameson in this story. Not only are they given some sunny exchanges but their natural chemistry that has developed over the past seven series spills effusively into the story, whilst they both remain perfectly in character. Whilst I love it when these two characters clash (their ideologies seem naturally predisposed to do so at times), I don’t think they ever reached this level of positive communication on television (aside from their first three stories together) and it is glorious to see Big Finish realising the potential of a truly dynamic Doctor/companion partnership. Amusing temporal and spatial jiggery pokery (see Mr Moffat it doesn’t have to be all smugness – waits as several people comment at that dig), kooky characters, fun music and a feeling that this a chance to let rip and have some real fun before the two-part finale. This is like The Unicorn and the Wasp of this season, in tone. More from Starkey please: 8/10

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Shadow of London written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS materialises in the backstreets of London in the 1940s. Whilst K9 entertains himself in the time ship's library, the Doctor takes Leela for a walk in the streets. But England’s capital is oddly quiet. There are no cars and very few pedestrians... whilst those people they do meet appear really quite English indeed. And all the while they are monitored by cameras feeding images into a secret control room. Something strange is happening in the city. Traitors are running wild... and nothing and no-one are quite as they seem.

Teeth and Curls: How wonderful that one of the most anarchic of Doctors can adopt the guise of an upper-class toff so convincingly. He’s read PG Wodehouse and recognises that this place has been affected by his works. It’s almost like an interpretation of his works. Shame he wasn’t so lucid during The Auntie Matter. He was too busy getting off on the madness of that adventure. This is the first script of the season that seems to indulge Tom Baker and his penchant for adding extra layers of eccentricity to his character…but when the Doctor and Leela spend the first 15 minutes wandering about looking for a plot it has to be filled in with something. Baker’s natural scene stealing ability is tailor made for that.

Noble Savage: Leela remembers London as a busy bustling place, not this deserted landscape. She seems wary, looking around all the time.

Great Ideas: London is practically deserted; Big Ben isn’t chiming and there isn’t a pigeon to be seen. Why clear out everybody and leave only half a dozen? The truth when it comes is much more interesting than we have been led to believe; the fake London has been created in Germany in the last month of the Second World War. It’s a training ground, a fake London where they can train Nazi soldiers to infiltrate the Capital City and win the War. Hitler’s last gambit to try and bring Britain down. The creature is a genetic manipulation, an incredibly crude obscenity that has been altered thanks to the experiments in the concentration camps. Implants added and its humanity stripped away.

Audio Landscape: There’s something so trite about having a creature appear on audio that is just a snarling beast and having your characters jog on away from it. It is the literal interpretation of a Doctor Who soundtrack with the pictures missing. At this point this is not an audio that is doing anything exciting with language or exploring a dazzling new soundscape. It’s people reacting to a nonsensical threat that we can’t see. Why would I be interested in that? It turns up again at the climax to episode one, simply to provide a cliff-hanger.

Isn’t It Odd: Let’s not beat around the bush: in this story the Doctor commits murder on a creature that has already been tortured beyond belief. His solution to the problem is to put the poor thing down like a dog. And his method is to have it burnt to death! Whilst I might expect something of this nature from the sixth Doctor (he’d probably douse it with petrol whilst cackling manically) or perhaps the eighth (at his most morally wounded), it doesn’t sit at all well with the fourth Doctor who was usually much cleverer and far less sledgehammer than this. Your reaction to the climax will probably depend on how acceptable that you find this act. It’s stated that the creature is in terrible pain and dying anyway, but this feels like a cavalier response to that rather than trying to do the best by the poor man. Very odd, but at least Justin Richards is continually thinking outside the box on this one. Even if it is so far outside the box that it is mischaracterised. He calls it a mercy killing.

Standout Scene: Remember that scene outside the Dalek saucer in the Dalek Invasion of the Earth with the fake façade of English houses set up as a useful backdrop to try and create a setting within London? That’s what I could see when the Doctor and Leela talk about a fake London with the front of the houses appearing to be real but with absolutely nothing behind them. I would have loved to have seen this visualised on screen, it would have been a fourth wall defining moment.

Result: There’s a definite vibe of The Android Invasion about the opening episode of The Shadow of London; the Doctor and his companion landing in a location that is a massive mystery in itself. A recognisable but deserted, oppressive and mysterious location for them to puzzle out. The Doctor even namechecks the story. Because it was such a domestic setting, I felt echoes of Memory Lane too. And since it’s London, Invasion of the Dinosaurs too! There’s an artificiality about the story from the very beginning with the Doctor and Leela continually pointing out all the things that are wrong with this interpretation of London. They start to sound a bit like one of my reviews, pointing out all the inaccuracies and the sources that the writer is paying homage to. There’s something that’s quite clever about that. For once this is a Justin Richards script that isn’t content to rest on the shows past laurels but actually conjure up a bit of atmosphere and mystery. I’d come to recognise his opus in the same vein as Terrance Dicks’ later work, often self-plagiarising, constructing stories out of Doctor Who clichés and going for nostalgia at every turn rather than creating something truly original or startling. By creating a paper London with an edge that the Doctor and Leela can walk off, Justin Richards has presented his most vivid imagery in years. If there’s a problem here it is the direction, which is a little lethargic and unengaging and it’s become clear that Nicholas Briggs has left the building for the second half of the series 7 boxset. Perhaps Ken Bentley was trying to stress the affectedness of the setting by not putting into place all the immersive sounds that would have made 1940s Britain come alive but the result is a story without much audio atmosphere. Coupled with some flat performances from the guest performers and you have a pretty sluggish piece. I would expect a Justin Richards story to be ultra-traditional and to have its socks pulled up by a strong production but the reverse seems to be true here. The answer to what is happening is genuinely impressive because the story will have you believing that this some kind of science fiction artifice for the purposes of some alien scheme or another but instead it goes down a completely different, historical route. I liked how it played on expectations like that. It doesn’t have the chutzpah to follow up on it’s revelation with anything deeper than a cursory explanation, which is a shame because this could have led to some serious examination of wartime tactics and lengths people would go to win. It could have had some historical impact, like the show used to in its early years. ‘We can worry about the ethics and morality later!’ says one character. Why? I thought. That would be so much more interesting. The Shadow of London lacks substance beyond it’s location and the creature depicted on the cover and a few surprising subversions, and it fails to provide as chilling or as memorable an audio experience too because of its lacklustre direction: 5/10

The Demon Rises written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: A killer has been uncovered, but the mystery is far from solved. The Doctor, Leela, K9 and their friends are on the run, pursued from all sides. All the clues point to one place - but getting there alive may prove impossible. Something horrific is happening on Chaldera… and it has been happening for longer than anyone could possibly have realised. Now every life on the planet is at stake. Bar one. The dark secret at the heart of this world is about to be revealed.

Teeth and Curls: Maybe his encounter with Mr Shift is what gave the Doctor the idea to flush the Master out in Logopolis. The Doctor condemns the President for his actions but the criticism lacks foundation because the Doctor hasn’t had a scene with him before this and has learnt very little about him. Neither has the audience. The Doctor gets very uncharacteristically nasty at one point (‘Control yourself…or do I have to get K.9 to stun you?’). I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more of his teeth like this, a bit like his outrageous rant in The Pirate Planet or his denunciation of the Deciders in Full Circle. The Doctor has no compunction in telling Chaldera that it has no right to continue procreating until all life in the universe is consumed. He speaks for the validity of the lives of everybody else this monstrosity will devour. It’s an interesting debate and one that I wish the story had more time to explore. Had The Mind Runners not spent its entire running time pretending to be a completely different story we might have gotten to this discussion a little quicker and been able to have Genesis of the Daleks level of moral debate. The Doctor does what he does best, start a revolution.

Noble Savage: Trust Louise Jameson to tap into something as extraordinary as suggesting that actors are doing a form of mind running when they performing and taking on a new persona. They are taking hold of a character that the writer has created and fill their mind with their own thoughts and feelings on that particular person. It’s a fascinating notion. ‘A man on water is invisible in rain…a man on water can pass between locked doors…’ You see, that Leela procedural drama is being set up even as we speak.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Pritchard together again!’

Standout Performance: Hurrah for Andy Secombe who imbues Mr Shift with a camp menace that sets him out from the rest of the cast, who are playing their parts with absolute earnestness. I'm glad he makes it out of this story to live another day.

Great Ideas: It's suggested that K.9 has quite a bite. I love it when he gets the chance to do a spot of acting (think The Armageddon Factor) and his turn as one of the Digitals is very enjoyable. If you can alter your atomic state like Mr Shift you would be practically indestructible. His experiments weaken the molecular bonds within him leaving his individual particles without cohesion. Every part of him was torn apart, including his mind. That makes Mr Shift one of the more threatening of psychopaths that the Doctor has encountered. It takes an enormous strength of will to make himself coherent…but since he can control his own atoms he can literally do anything he wants, be anything he wants, get anywhere he wants. The notion of the President betraying his own people and clearing off while they are forced to stay and suffer sounds pretty accurate in today’s political climate. The fact that his betrayal is paid in kind is very satisfying. Chaldera started off as one original settlement, which right where they built the rocket. The people didn’t build the city of Chaldera, the city built the people. The Founders were grown in incubators. Chaldera grew to dominate by absorbing every other settlement on the planet. Absorbing and consuming. Chaldera is a living carnivore of unusual malignancy. The Night Mind is Chaldera itself.

Standout Scene: The twist that reveals what happened to the people that built the rocket who have gone missing is worth waiting for. It’s a disgusting notion, and one which is that features in a memorably grisly sequence because the Doctor and Leela experience the horror of it first hand (see, show don’t tell).

Result: I have never known a Doctor Who story that started off running in one direction and ended up double backing on itself and starting a completely different race. From where we begin to where we end…the two simply aren’t reconcilable. From a Blade Runner-esque crime drama to b movie attack of the blob, it’s certainly not a Doctor Who story you can predict. Murder, a missing scientist, mind crime, a sentient puddle, digital nasties, a rocket construction, a malignant entity…the last time I felt there was such a shopping list of ideas I was being dazzled by Steven Moffat’s Forest of the Dead. It’s worrying that John Dorney is script editing this range and yet seems incapable her of bringing all these ideas together coherently. He’s a proven talent, but all the same this script is like a circus juggler throwing lots of lovely notions in the air but with no idea how to catch them all satisfactorily. I think it’s the characters that are a big part of the problem. I’ve always said that the characters are the way for the audience to experience the story. That’s why I can always enjoy a Russell T Davies era story, almost without exception, because no matter how bad the plot is, the characterisation was often very relatable and engaging. However, I never felt kinship with anybody from Chaledra; they fret and threaten and squabble but that ability to empathise with people from another world is completely absent. As a result, I was listening to a lot of this story omnisciently rather than experiencing it intimately. Which is a damn shame because the strengths in part two were even more apparent than part one; some genuinely disturbing moments, Leela completely out of place in a SF procedural drama and yet proving her worth and then some, the addition of a political angle that sketches in a little more of this world, the application of the ideas introduced in The Mind Runners in some imaginative ways. Chaldera is a vivid world and Nicholas Briggs and Jamie Robertson (always a terrific combination) have given it life on audio in an immersive way (I especially love the persistent rain). It’s a story that demands you pay attention, which will lose a third of the audience already for those of you who prefer an audio story that simply washes over you (I don’t mean that as a criticism, just that focus on the details are important. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a murder mystery, a disaster tale (the rocket building), a clash of the titans (the Doctor versus Chaldera), a social commentary (bored youths seeking entertainment in mind running) or a moral debate (the food chain argument)…it winds up being all of those things. Just because you have the extra time in a four-part story, it doesn’t mean you have to exploit quite this much to the full. Intelligently grounded in smart ideas, The Demon Rises is as frustratingly disjointed as it’s predecessor but containing too much that is novel for this range to write off. I’ve never experienced an audio quite like it, where I cannot entirely praise or condemn: 6/10

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Mind Runners written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: It used to be fun, Mind Running. Hopping into the heads of total strangers to see what they saw, feel what they felt. But one by one the Mind Runners are dying in a wave of suicides. And no-one on the planet Chaldera knows why. The Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive in the city that covers all of this dying world as it prepares to evacuate its people, and they immediately find themselves involved in a mystery. Who or what is responsible for the wave of death? Is it the motorised cult known as the Digitals? The enigmatic Mr Shift? Or did all the victims attempt to run the Night Mind, the demonic consciousness of legend that is so twisted and evil that it drives mad all who touch it? The TARDIS crew are about to find out.

Teeth and Curls: It’s another story where there isn’t a scene inside the TARDIS, starting as it does with the Doctor and Leela arriving and talking when they leave the Ship. There has been a concerted effort with this new season to skip to the point and cut out all the waffle that has plagued this line of stories. It’s very welcome because the stories feel a lot more solid and urgent because of it. Mind, this is the first adventure in the boxset not to jump straight to the plot but to have the Doctor regale Leela with some information about their landing and you do need a little of that. He talks romantically of New York, speaking of Big Yellow Taxis, glorious eccentrics and colourful characters. Perhaps he means Morton Dill. Hubris detected in the Doctor, according to K.9. The Doctor tries to convince Leela and K.9 that they are in New York to the point of obstinacy and until the facts are so lacking in his favour that he surrenders. He gets childishly excited at the idea of a rocket being built. He wonders what the point of asking ‘friend or foe’ is when answering foe would be terribly counterproductive.

Noble Savage: A viewscreen is a great window high above. Leela wonders whether New York is filled with the Big Apple that the Doctor mentioned. I love how she reasons things, they can be amusing observations but they are always intelligently analysed. If Leela wished somebody dead they would be dead, she would not talk about it first. The way Leela convinces Taraneh to let her pursue the mind runner makes me think that she would make a good lawyer (she’s so good at reasoning logically), albeit a very honest, incorrupt one. Given their effective (if abrasive) partnership here, I think there is a SF cop drama out there featuring Leela and Taraneh. She was a savage from an unnamed world, her partner was a hardened cop with no time for the mind runners. Together, they combine instinct and procedural skill to become one of the greatest crime fighting duo Chaldera has ever known.

Great Ideas: A dramatic first scene that ends in Mr Shift accosting his victim and apparently murdering them by pushing them both from a great height. The Mind Runners are considered punks, a bunch of bored 20-year olds dossing about. The city of Chaldera is the entire planet. Independent settlements developed, one became dominant, borders clashed, wars were fought and weakest settlements became part of the stronger ones making them even more dominant and eventually they form a single unit. The Doctor explains the logical history of a planet in this condition in one fell swoop. A rocket to take an entire population of a planet away is quite an inefficient option for a world with power problems. Teleportation experiments were looking promising until the man who instigated the experiments thought he would make the ideal test subject for the first run. Vital services are allocated the power on this world, but there is no entertainment, which means there are a lot of disaffected young people looking to spice up their lives. Mind running isn’t possession, it’s like hitching a lift inside somebody’s head. Once there you feel what they feel and see what they see. The Night Mind is a dangerous rumour that is circulating, because of you enter the demons head you might just lose yours. It’s a dark myth to scare the youth of Chaldera. The Digitals are a cult that believe flesh is weak and so they digitise their minds and personalities and upload them to computer databases. Insane computer monitors on wheels.

Audio Landscape: Bless the sound designers at Big Finish, even K.9 is perfectly identifiable as being powered by the clunking, painfully loud motor of season 15. What is up with the modified voices for the people of Chaldera? You know when an audio file is corrupted and sounds tinny and gravelly? It sounds a little bit like that. It’s not that it’s a poor creative choice, just a distracting one. I guess it does stress that this is an alien world, but it isn’t until I hear the voices of Tom Baker and Louise Jameson that I remembered that this wasn’t a tainted file, but an artistic device.

Isn’t It Odd: There was a massive disconnect between the two stories that are being told in The Mind Runners in the first 15 minutes of this story. You’ve got the Doctor and Leela exploring this new world and guest characters mind running in a clandestine location. As this is a four-part story overall it’s fine that the dots aren’t joined immediately, but you have one half the of plot where everything is explained in detail (the Doctor and Leela) and one half of the plot where none of the pertinent facts about the characters or the act of mind running are explained. As such I felt completely in the dark as to what was going on there. Eventually the two plots intersect and everything makes sense but for some considerable time I was listening to scenes and didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was going on. I don’t think that should ever be the case, especially if it dampens my enjoyment. In true Matthew J Elliot style the entire situation is elucidated in an extended dialogue scene between the Doctor, Leela and Taraneh. I’m not sure so much should be dumped on you in one whack rather than allowing the audience to experience any of these ideas through the regulars. It’s far more impactful to have the characters involved in the concepts than to merely have them explained. It’s a clinical rather than emotion approach.

Result: Another story that would have felt completely out of place in the seventies, which is precisely the approach I feel the 4DAs should be taking right now. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some problems with The Mind Runners (the detached approach to storytelling really made this a hard one to break into) but what I really took away from it was it’s slick worldbuilding and modern tone. The ideas it flaunts feel contemporary because they are presented in such a throwaway fashion. Mind running is a given on this world and you either get with the programme or you get lost. It means there is an element of distrust to the story, that you can’t ever trust that the person you are talking to hasn’t been hijacked. It’s nice to have a story where the Doctor, Leela and K.9 remain together for the most part and work as a team, this rarely seemed to be the case in season 15. The Doctor and Leela are both characterised very well but I would expect nothing less of John Dorney. It’s odd for him to create such a vivid world but to have it encapsulated by so few people. There is an epic backdrop to The Mind Runners which never truly felt that way because it’s such an intimately small cast. I really wanted to feel the desperation of the people of Chaldera, and to experience the excitement at the building of the rocket. What works really well is the feeling oppression and underhandedness; this is a world of criminal activity, of illegal mind jumps, murder and youth crime. Whoever said there was a feeling of Blade Runner about this story was perfectly accurate, but more in its content than its tone. Paradoxically, I feel that the script could do with John Dorney (script editor of this season) to give it the once over to iron out its fair amount problems, however since he is the author of this piece he’s on the inside looking out rather than on the outside examining within. I would have made the characters a little more likeable and the ideas a little more reachable. John Dorney has written some of the most powerfully emotional material that Big Finish has produced, so I can only imagine that the antiseptic tone was a deliberate choice. I feel like there is a terrifically involving version of The Mind Runners just over the yardarm but what we’ve got is being filtered through a cold, uninviting lens. A shame, because as I said there is much to recommend about this story. I’m conflicted: 6/10