Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Quantum Possibility Engine written by Guy Adams and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: The Doctor and Ace are locked up. The TARDIS is gone. Things just couldn’t get worse, could they? Of course they could. Things can always get worse — the new President of the Solar System, Josiah W Dogbolter, didn’t get where he is in life without learning that. That’s why he has a Quantum Possibility Engine. It’s a wonderful machine, creating a wonderful Solar System. And with this wonderful device, he can bring happiness and peace to all. Possibly. Either that or tear the universe to shreds, it’s hard to be sure which.

The Real McCoy: Placing McCoy’s Doctor in the role of a naughty trickster trying to wind up Narvin as much as possible really suits him. There’s always been something of the mischievous imp about him. He has copyright on sonic screwdrivers. He always has to fight for an explanation from the CIA. The Doctor is rebranded as a down and out (but pretty chipper considering) cleaner living in social housing. Narvin treats him abominably in this timeline too. I loved the interface Doctor, always ready to help in a tricky situation. McCoy is clearly having a great deal of fun playing his multiple parts. I enjoyed the Doctor and Ace coming together and deciding that they aren’t terrorists and claiming their identities. It’s nowhere near how touching I have seen it done elsewhere but it’s cute how they instinctively trust one another. Once the Doctor emerges at the climax, he sounds more commanding than ever like McCoy has been gagging to get back to some good old-fashioned Doctoring. It’s akin to Matt Smith’s climactic speech in The Pandorica Opens but with more of an emphasis on ‘oh why don’t you just fuck off.’

Narvin: Interference is his job. I don’t think we’ve had a story featuring Narvin in the main range for ages and I cannot think why since Sean Carlsen is a bloody good performer and the character spars wonderfully with whichever Doctor he happens to stumble across. He will do whatever he can to safeguard the universe. Mr Narvin always did have a superiority complex. Ultimately do we need Narvin in this story whatsoever? Not really, but he’s such fun it doesn’t really matter. Having a writer tie together various spin off characters is more fanwank from a company that forces it down your neck on a monthly basis but it’s still a really fun idea.

Aiieeeeeeee: What could possibly have possessed Mel to sell the TARDIS to Dogbolter? He contacted Mel a while ago and her debt with the Speravores was still outstanding, she was classed as a toxic debtor and placed under a judicial death sentence (what Mel?). Because she was perceived as being harboured by the Doctor and Ace there was a death sentence on all three of them. Dogbolter bought the debt and said the only way he would call off the assassins was if Mel handed over the TARDIS and the operational manual. Her interaction with Hob is delightful, mostly because Mel gets to be all bossy and nasty, it’s a side of her character that we don’t see very often (she certainly has a way with spitting out threats). I love seeing her think on her feet this much, apparently making up so much on the spot and using her intelligence. She really is the Doctor in this story. She suggests that she needs him to get out of this mess but she does really well on her own.

Oh Wicked: Did Ace really think that Mel had turned rogue? Surely, they have been travelling long enough to give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s no terrific surprise that it is Aldred who let’s the side down in the ‘playing another part’ department because she pitches it as a slightly bemused Ace and little more. McCoy genuinely embodies a new role in comparison.

Standout Performance: I’m not as massive fan of the comics as some but I did have a period where I bought all of the graphic novels and read them through avidly. I’m fully aware of what an impact Dogbolter had on the strip, a larger than life comic businessman with some very grey morals and a cigar never far from his lips. He was a funny character and one who was particularly adept at kicking off a decent plot because he had his froggy fingers in so many pies. The man of a million voices Toby Longworth provides his voice again and does a fine job of capturing the humour and dangerousness of the character, all wrapped up in a hint of the hearty aristocrat.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s no point in beating about the…Bush.’
‘Who would vote for him?’ ‘The majority. Obviously.’
‘Besides people are easy to control. Most of the time we just massage trends, beliefs, perceptions. People will believe anything you’re willing to tell them as long as you couch it in terms they are willing to accept.’ Ahem, Brexit.
‘War? But that’s so expensive!’
‘Well today really has been the most rubbish day’ – possibly my favourite Big Finish line in a few years. I howled with laughter, especially given who it came from.

Great Ideas: The entire solar system has become a closed temporal system that even a TARDIS cannot enter. Dogbolter has a control station right on the periphery of the bubble. The Speravores entire business empire is built around their ability to understand futures. Combining that with Time technology and Dogbolter has built a bubble of sealed programmable reality. You predict certain events and then ensure the most beneficial decisions occur. The solar system is now entirely under his control. When something happens that he doesn’t like he activates the machinery, rolls back time, re-runs events so they come out in his favour. It’s a closed system, border control insists that nobody is let in or out without his knowledge and permission. Everything within should be possible to control because it is being manipulated entirely from the outside. Scenes being repeated and played out again to Dogbolter’s design from within the scene itself are delightful. Once that idea has been set up Adams can have a lot of fun with it. . Dogbolter trumping the Regent at the climax proves to be a defining moment for his character, always in control, always in charge, always coming out on top.

Musical Cues: Like the other two stories in this trilogy, a mixture of some lovely new cues and Joe Kraemer’s music from Static. This is a story that needs its music on side because the plot is so insanely bombastic and silly it needs the score to support that. It’s mock drama all the way, the more melodramatic the better and it takes the mood of the piece comfortably into comic strip territory. Precisely the idea. Just listen to the music when the Doctor remembers who he is. Delightful.

Isn’t it Odd: I resisted from talking about the cliffhanger at the end of the last story because it was so discordant, so disconnected from the adventure that it polished off that it was barely worth considering as a part of that review. Mel decides to turn rogue, assault the Doctor and Ace and send the TARDIS to President Dogbolter, for a purpose that is completely baffling. I suppose it is an attempt to whet our appetites for this story but it is so entirely without context it just left me scratching my head. Remember when Klein stole the TARDIS at the end of Survival of the Fittest? That’s a riveting lead in to the final story of a trilogy. This bizarre moment of jeopardy at the climax to The Dispossessed is perfectly indicative of these 7, Mel, Ace adventures; feeling as though they are being made up as they go along. After presenting us with the brilliant idea of the locked solar system that can be manipulated by design, Adams fails to do anything truly spectacular with it, mostly resorting to some fun narrative tricks. The story is content to have fun with its ideas but I would suggest these ideas are big enough to run with over more stories, perhaps even a trilogy. It’s a shame to waste something this epic on a story that is so throwaway.

Standout Scene: If anybody wanted to know what a comic strip version of a Big Finish story might sound like then go no further than the end of episode one. With the most melodramatic cry of ‘Kill her!’, a companion who screeches at injustice and the Doctor and co popped off out of existence thanks to some ridiculous piece of equipment, it’s pitched at eleven all the way. Very season 24, in fact. Bonnie Langford has finally come full circle. Fortunately, this is directed with a lightness of touch that makes the material very knowing, and very cheeky. Gloriously Guy Adams doesn’t stretch his imagination at all with the second cliffhanger and we get to go through the same melodramatic schlock at the end of episode two. And Wayne Forester gets to camp it up to the point where he is shitting rainbows. Following that Mel gets to act like the Supremo again, practically abusing the robot, which is all for the good.

Result: Halleluiah! Let joy be uncontained! Break out the bubbly! Let’s have a party! A seventh Doctor, Ace and Mel story that doesn’t suck like an old woman who has lost her false teeth! For a start there’s almost 12 minutes before Ace appears. Okay okay…I’ll stop being facetious and get on with the review. The Quantum Possibility Engine works primarily because it is more like an episode of The Melanie Bush Adventures; where the plucky ginge takes on the scourge of the galaxy with her slightly annoying assistants, the Scots tramp and the Upper Middle Lower Before Hex, After Hex (depending on who is writing her and how Sophie Aldred chooses to play it this week) Bovver Girl. Bonnie Langford dominates and that’s fine by me because she’s as excellent as ever and she gets to do all those Doctorly things in McCoy’s absence (including stand up to the villain, outfox his henchmen and pretend to be a scoundrel) and is clearly having a ball doing so. This is a great daft run-around with lots of over the top characters, a chance to see the regulars in different roles, some tasty ideas that are applied in an enjoyable way and fusion of the many worlds of Doctor Who spinoffery. Dogbolter is a really delightful character, and expertly brought to life but it was his henchman Hob who I enjoyed the most, a robotic side man with delusions of grandeur and facing the full womanly wrath of Melanie Jane Bush. You can’t take any of this seriously but for once you’re not expected to (unlike The Dispossessed which was pitched at a similarly absurd level but was supposed to be a horror) and everybody is working to the same goal, to provide a rollicking good time with a few cheeky winks (the music is particularly on side in that regard). It’s a well-paced four parter with plenty going on and a plot that rests on terrific ideas that allows for some creative development in the latter half of the story (how certain stories replay really made me smile). There are always witty lines (‘What’s the point of having lots of lovely technology if you need several Doctorates to operate it?’) and comic reversals and while the whole thing is about as deep as a puddle, it’s so refreshing to have this TARDIS team get the chance to let their hair down like this, I’m not complaining. Think Time of the Rani, but good. Colourful, outrageous, stylish, clownish. The first story in this run that I would listen to again. One of those stories where the Doctor is practically irrelevant and it really doesn’t matter: 8/10

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Ghost Monument written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai

This story in a nutshell: Winner takes all…and the Doctor claims her Ship...

Oh Brilliant: Whittaker is finding her feet and I’m pleased to say rather quickly. I like how she doesn’t feel the need to completely dominate a scene how many Doctors of old could (particularly Hartnell, Pertwee, both Bakers and Capaldi) but take control without commanding everybody. Again, it’s very Troughton. It’s lovely to see her in a tight spot on a spaceship, tossing out insults, pulling levers and expressing her knowledge. This is the Doctor alright and never moreso than in a crisis. She’s very sure in her ability to get her friends home, which is something that has run through the series from the First Doctor with Ian and Barbara to the fifth Doctor and Tegan to the Tenth Doctor and Martha. Her mouth runs away with her in the best Tennant and Smith traditions, but with more moments of humanity and less moments of overt humour. She isn’t trying to be the funny women in every scene, despite some witty lines. A lovely mention of Venusian aikido, it appears the show isn’t abandoning the past quite as much as it suggested. I do like the idea of outthinking bullets but the message of ‘no guns’ was overstated. I liked her (very) blunt attitude towards Epzo, it’s the one occasion where she shows her teeth in this story (‘What do you care? You don’t care about anything.’). She doesn’t always have all the answers and she asks lots of questions. The Doctor is back to experiencing adventures rather than being one step ahead all the time. Goodness knows what the Timeless Child is all about, but it looks like even if this season is abandoning the usual spread of an arc across the season it is definitely championing some character arcs (which in this day and age cannot be avoided). I’m not sure about that moment of defeat at the end, it feels very uncharacteristic of this most optimistic of Doctors.

Graham: It’s the most convincingly handled set of regulars in quite some time because a great deal of thought has been given to the idea of what it would be like to find yourself in outer space after living a perfectly normal life. The Ponds and Clara shrugged their shoulders at this stuff and so there was no real sense of going on a journey with them (and besides they were far too caught up in mysteries and arcs to be accessible from the beginning). Graham is especially compelling because he’s just a normal bloke who is trapped in an impossible scenario and is trying to make the best of it. He’s the most natural and the funniest too. Bradley Walsh underplays his part beautifully whilst scoring every laugh. The initial scenes of the three of them acclimatising to spaceships and alien planets are some of the best scenes in the episode. I appreciated the scene where they all discuss whether they can trust the Doctor and simply decide, based on her actions and her character, yes they can. It’s great that there is no manufactured tension between the regulars just to make the story juicy. They all get on very well, and work together very well. It’s a lot harder to write interesting people that get along, it’s much easier to write them in unrealistic conflict. Bravo for taking that approach.

Ryan: I raised my eyes to the heavens as Ryan grabbed and had his ‘Call of Duty’ moment. It felt very out of character given he has been quite a considered young man until this point. However, his ridiculous girly screaming as it all goes horribly wrong is actually the funniest thing in the entire episode and really made me laugh out loud. It’s not exactly Joss Whedon style humour led characterisation (he has an ability to make you laugh with his characters by having them fall flat on their face) but it did warm me to him after this spectacular moment of idiocy. Huge kudos for the scene where Graham and Ryan discuss Grace, the sort of character pause that the show abandoned in the past couple of years. It’s where Chibnall’s writing is at its best too, real people discussing real feelings. He writes people far better than he writes science fiction. Ryan’s dyspraxia gets a mention again, I’m pleased this is going to be a running thread. 

Yaz: The weak link in the regulars at the moment, but through no fault of the actress. Yaz is just waiting for her episode to shine. For right now she is a perfectly serviceable, if unmemorable, member of the ensemble.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If you’re an interfere then those are excellent nose hairs.’
‘You talk about this stuff far too much. And you don’t talk about it enough.’
‘Don’t ever take them for granted.’ Wise words. 

The Good: An immediate shout out for the visual this year that are standing out much more than in previous seasons and the arresting opening sequence that is told entirely in silence with the spaceship appearing the grappling hook being revealed in the reflection of somebody’s eye is extraordinary. Doctor Who has so often been told (for budget reasons) in words so to see it leaning so heavily and creatively on visual storytelling is refreshing. The spaceship crashing onto the planet is the sort of set piece we have always dreamed of on Doctor Who but the show could never quite afford. Don’t get me wrong Doctor Who has often shown great ambition and bravery in its action set pieces but more often than not the budget conspires to a resulting dodgy model shot or a reaction shot. This looks as though it has sprung from your local cinema, it’s dizzyingly stylishly shot. I rather like the idea of human beings being irrelevant in this sector of space. Too much has been made about the indomitability of humans in the universe, it’s nice to visit somewhere where they are immaterial. Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley deserve a massive round of applause for bringing Angstrom and Epzo to life so convincingly. I haven’t seen detailed guest characters of this ilk for some time, especially ones played with such down to earth conviction and given this much screen time. These are people I can believe have lives outside of the confines of this story. And Chibnall didn’t go down the obvious route of the two of them being in love with each other, it’s just mutual love/hate friendship all the way. As much as they are merely distraction techniques, the Sniper Bots and wraiths are responsible for some decent looking set pieces. As delaying tactics go, they look pretty. It makes a lot of good sense to set the Stenza up as the new Big Bad of the season and to have one of them appear in the first episode and then to see the devastating effects of what they can do out in the universe in the second sets them up well. It’s just a shame that they were pretty underwhelming in execution. Loving the new TARDIS; it’s a little too early to make any solid judgement but its back to the more organic look of the Tennant era (which I LOVED) and the use of crystal is inspired. I especially love the new walls as you come in. Very Invasion of Time. 

The Bad: If you were excited about Art Malik’s participation you might be disappointed to discover it is little more than a cameo in two scenes that bookend the ‘plot.’ However, he’s as good as you would imagine, but in a very underwritten role. Having the TARDIS revealed as the ghost monument completely the guts the story of its emotion at the climax. The Doctor and friends should have gone along with the racers simply because it was the right thing to do, rather than because the Doctor wanted to score a win with the TARDIS. Imagine the climax had the TARDIS been revealed as the monument with no previous warning or expectation, it would have been a really climactic and satisfying scene. Instead we have to go with the Doctor thinking she has lost and the ATRDIS just appearing out of nowhere. Which doesn’t have anywhere near the same sort of emotional power (which I thought Chibnall was all about). What was the point of the flesh-eating microbes in the water if we were never going to see them in action? Chibnall is such an obvious writer at times – the introduction of the cigar is such an noticeable plot point (can anyone say Hexachromite?) that will be relevant to an escape later in the episode you can practically see a huge arrow on screen screaming IMPORTANT. Moffat was better at hiding this sort of stuff. Sniperbots and sentient wraiths are merely present to add a little tension to a story that honestly lacks any, they are distractions techniques to fill time and give the regulars something to fight to delay finding the TARDIS. Truly, they don’t amount to much in plot terms.

The Shallow Bit: We’ve been through so many title sequences since the show has come back that I’m kind of used to them swapping and changing by now. Whittaker’s is no better or worse than any of the others (except Matt Smith’s series 7 one, fuck knows what that explosion in a rainbow factory was all about); it’s more organic and amorphous and it’s pretty short. Inoffensive I would say, but not a patch on the original Christopher Eccleston one which seemed to suggest the joy of travelling the universe like no other.

Result: Lots of nice details and moments, but an uninspiring storyline. I’ll add a caveat to my previous review with regards to the series; Doctor Who is about people again but that is all it seems to be about for the moment. Challenging plot details need to be added because this was a perfectly serviceable run-around but it had a plot as light as last weeks and it lacked the excuse of having to set up the main characters. As a result, it feature a lot of very good character moments that explored the new dynamics and gave the guest actors plenty to work with but I can’t pretend at any point I was particularly surprised or engaged with what they were going through. It’s a fascinating conundrum, with Moffat I was often dazzled by his sparkling imagination but disappointed by his lack of heart. With Chibnall it seems to be the reverse problem. And heaven forbid if I praise Russell T Davies once again but he did set the benchmark when the series returned with The End of the World; a stunning little piece that married intense character beats, fun, excitement, shocks, terrific creativity and visual splendour. He knew that in the second episode that the show had to show everything that it could offer and in comparison The Ghost Monument is a little neutered. Because as entertaining as this was at times, I truly hope it isn’t all the show has to offer now. And where Moffat presented too much as a mystery (the characters, the individual stories, the arcs) with too many unanswered questions, Chibnall simply presents his ideas straight up with no ambiguity or ability to surprise. A planet that moves, a space race, a ghost monument, a missing TARDIS, deadly water, sentient cloth…these are all decent ideas that are worth building up but the Doctor and her companions merely hop from one set piece to the next with the end game something that is spelt out since the beginning. Countering that you have two brilliant guest characters, very well played and with interesting backstories. And this is an excellent chance to see the regulars gel, for Whitaker to take charge of the show through some moments of danger and for Graham, Ryan and Yaz to step into peril and still want to move on at the climax. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention how beautiful this episode looks and the lengths that the production team have gone to to ensure this show matches the expensive American imports on Netflix. Chibnall said that was his aim with the production values and they have achieved that. The cinematography is phenomenal, the direction stylish and the score refreshingly unhysterical and atmospheric. I liked The Ghost Monument, but there were moments where I was clock watching between all the decent character beats: 6/10

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Seizure written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: As if it wasn’t enough to be trapped in the labyrinth of a dying TARDIS and pursued by a ghost, the team find themselves face to face once more with the Eleven. But the Doctor has bigger things to worry about when he discovers they’re being hunted by the only creature to strike fear into the hearts of a Time Lord: The Ravenous.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor isn’t a complete bastard and if the Eleven is sending out a distress signal then it is probably for a good reason…or a trap. Either way it is worth checking out, despite the complete disinterest of his companions. He practically emotionally blackmails his companions into heling out their old foe, asking if they would genuinely leave someone to die. TARDISes and Time Lords are telepathically linked and if this had been the Doctor’s TARDIS in this much pain it probably would have broken him. He leads a bruise worthy life. I’ve heard Paul McGann play angry and weary and jolly lately, but it’s been a while since I have heard him this perturbed. He makes the atmosphere in the broken-down TARDIS work because of his nervous and distracted reaction to it. He really is worth his weight in gold, this actor.

The Eleven: Oh groan, I thought we had tied this character up and assigned him to the rubbish bin? I thought we had moved onto the much more desirable prospect of the Twelve? No, he’s back and it’s not about time and he’s still banging on at the voices in his head. Insane and capable of great violence, apparently. Why then is he presented in such a comic book way? He murdered the previous inhabitants of this TARDIS and stole the ship.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘TARDISes do love a corridor. It gives them something to do whilst they are coming up with more rooms.’

Great Ideas: The Doctor is very empathic and a dying TARDIS has a certain anxiousness in the air. As a TARDIS dies it should continue to constrict; dimensions folding in on one another, rooms shrinking, corridors shortening. Areas that they are in could simply cease to exist because when a TARDIS is in distress it tends to forget certain parts of its geography.

Isn’t it Odd: Ravenous is proving to be a very odd set of adventures indeed. As a series of standalone adventures it has delivered pretty well with six of the stories scoring above average in my book and providing everything from a reasonably diverting time to a near-perfect adventure. However, as a linked series of adventures with a running arc it is least satisfying that Big Finish has ever produced with little or nothing to join these stories together, no sign of a continuing storyline and only now, eight hours into the narrative are elements emerging that make any sense of the umbrella title of the sets. It’s certainly not the first time Big Finish has promised one thing and delivered another (Zagreus promised to a multi Doctor story, the Divergent arc promised to be good) but I could imagine if arcs were your thing that you might be bitterly disappointed by this point. The one saving grace is that the remaining stories on this box set have been extremely good in their own right, but that doesn’t quite make sense of their utter disconnect from the central storyline, which is conspicuous by its absence. I made similar complaints about Doom Coalition and it would appear that they have learnt nothing from that exercise. DC could have been condensed down into two box sets of four episodes but I’m willing to bet at this rate Ravenous (the core material of the arc) could be squeezed down into a third of it’s sixteen-hour length. The Ravenous almost couldn’t live up to expectations because we have waited so long for them to make an appearance. It’s not the culmination of a great narrative resulting in their appearance, it’s more the sigh-worthy appearance of an (underwhelming) creature that I had forgotten was relevant. It has lines like ‘my mouth is actually watering…’ and ‘I’m so hungry!’ It’s no scarier than Kroagnon or the Wire. The synopsis states that the Ravenous are the only creatures to strike fear into the hearts of a Time Lord but let’s be honest with Big Finish stretching the mythology of the Time Lords to bursting point that is quite an overstatement. There seems to be a threat that they are terrified of coming out every other month these days. And why are the Time Lords the benchmark for everything these days? The most terrifying Time Lord weapon! A foe even the Time Lords never managed to defeat! It must be so tedious having to live up to that kind of reputation. The climax just sort of…happened. The Doctor and his friends just leave. The end. Well, if only it was that easy every week. The Ravenous is defeated by the TARDIS just going.

Result: It sounds like a wonderful idea for a Doctor Who story, doesn’t it? A Decaying TARDIS, a monster stalking the Doctor and his companions around the corridors and an old enemy to fight. I can see why the producer jumped at the chance to tell this story, it seems rife for scares, drama and atmosphere. It doesn’t quite turn out that way despite the efforts of the director to make this as much of an assault of weirdness as possible. Much like the Time War material that Big Finish has put out there is a general lack of imagination when it comes to Time lord technology and how it manifests itself when it is malfunctioning. I think this could have been a really trippy, terrifying, surreal experience. I can imagine a writer like Lawrence Miles or Rob Shearman taking this concept and running with it, turning the experience into a nightmare you can barely comprehend and putting the regulars in an impossibly frightening spin of madness. Guy Adams goes for a much more straightforward, linear approach; with a ghost floating down the corridors going ‘woooooo’ (not quite but it isn’t far off) and the great titular Ravenous monster of the providing to be little more than a screeching Doctor Who monster. At this point in the set (halfway through) it is astonishing that this is the point where the arc has reared its head and that practically everything before it has been standalone. The Ravenous ultimately turn out to be a bit toothless, all talk and no balls. If you want to make a supposedly terrifying new foe make an impact then let it do something shocking. This might have been a good moment to lose either Liv or Helen, have them cut down in action just as their relationship with the Doctor and each other has reached its height. It would have made the creature far more exciting than a cheap Wire knockoff (‘Hungrrrrryyyyyy!’). I had switched off by the end, there was nothing risky happening, nothing surprising. It’s the definition of a Doctor Who run around (because that is all anybody really does) sowing seeds for future stories and the climax is so forgettable the Doctor and his friends just sort of leave. I hope the Ravenous turn out to be bit more exciting than is promised here: 4/10

Friday, 12 October 2018

Fairytale in Salzburg written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: With the Doctor and most of the population condemned to hell, Liv and Helen race against time to discover the source of all this chaos, and to find the one man who can save the people of Salzburg from eternal damnation.

Physician, Heal Thyself: 'Think of me as your guardian angel...' Bad ideas are his favourite kind, he can spin them into gold. You can’t re-write the past, he says with some degree of certainty although we know that is not always the case.The last scene is lovely, how it ties up the Doctor’s part in the story and how it turns him into a Christmas miracle. It’s lovely.
Liv Chenka: ‘Who out you in charge?’ ‘Circumstances! We don’t have time for an election!’ Even if she knows she will be gotten in the end that will never stop her from trying. What is it about Nicola Walker, who can sound so deadpan and causal in the part of Liv Chenka and yet when she is given emotional material she manages to absolutely break my heart. She did it in Absent Friends and she does so again in the climax to this tale.

Helen Sinclair: Helen has a point; how is believing in wishes that come true any more absurd than the things they usually have to deal with? In the circumstances of giant mythical demons stomping around European cities throwing people into Hell, Helen is willing to suspend her disbelief. Gambling life on a ‘might’ is business as usual. She’s just really, really smart and she proves that throughout this story.

Standout Performance: Some people have voices so rich and full of character that they were simply made for audio and Sian Phillips is one of those people. It’s a shame that she is shunted off into the framing device that holds this half of the story together because I would happily have had her as a main participant, such is the joy of luxuriating in her beautiful voice. Who the Pilgrim turns out to be is one of the loveliest moment in a story packed full of them. I guess I should have known when she was able to operate the controls of the TARDIS.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t you think if wishes could come true that the world would be a bit of a nicer place?’
‘We’re going to save the day!’
‘That’s the sound of salvation!’
‘I want my lovely, beautiful and clever friend back!’
'Nobody wants a tragedy at Christmas.'

Great Ideas: Trust John Dorney to take the story down a route that you wouldn’t expect. Anybody under the impression that Fairytale in Salzburg will pick up where Better Watch Out is going to be boggled as we head back in time to before the chaos broke out to give the entire situation more substance and explanation. We discover how the Krampus came to be, the work of a desperate woman and a mischievous wish maker, and get to see the Doctor, Liv and Helen arriving from the point of view of the guest characters. It’s a really fascinating reversal because in the first half they were the focus of this scene and this time around they are just three people in a crowd enthusing about snow and Christmas like everybody else. And why not? The Doctor is not the central figure in everybody’s lives. The TARDIS is a bit like Santa’s sack – you’d be amazed what you can fit in there.

Result: ‘They’ve got your scent!’ Atmospheric, surprising, scary and really fun, Fairytale in Salzburg brews up a magical spell. The first 15 minutes of this story are a revelation, belonging entirely to the guest the guest characters and barely featuring the Doctor, Liv and Helen and showing that this Christmas spectacular really is something a bit different. With a very strong guest cast and some mighty fine characterisation you barely notice that the regulars are missing. When they do take their part in the action their dialogue is better than it has ever been before, suggesting relationships that have grown into something quite special built on mutual trust and an education of experiences. I was dazzled as one great line hit its target after another. In the wake of so many Big Finish stories where the dialogue can be so functional, it’s lovely to have a writer presenting his script in such a witty, memorable way with lines steeped in character. The climax of the story, with the myth coming full circle and the identity of the Bishop revealed, should be ridiculously corny but it’s presented so honestly that it worked a treat for me. I feel a Christmas story deserves a touch of magic and Fairytale in Salzburg certainly doesn’t disappoint. This could have been a simple tale of good versus evil but instead it becomes a tale of salvation, of hope and of being very careful what you wish for. How it cements the future of one of the Doctor’s companions is surprising and beautifully handled. This is confidently presented tale, superbly directed by Ken Bentley and with sound design and music that compliment the story magnificently. To have a two-part story where neither part is a disappointment is a rarity and this is terrific example of promising much and then delivering something very different and paying off because of it. McGann, Walker and Morahan are a formidable team these days, sporting an effortless chemistry. I’m a little scared because when a team of regulars reach an apotheosis like this it usually means it is time to split them up before they get stale. Listen to this story as soon as you can, it’s Big Finish at its brilliant best: 10/10

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Better Watch Out written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor hopes to take Liv’s mind off recent events by treating his companions to a traditional European Christmas. But not everybody is full of the spirit of Christmas when a wave of misery follows the Krampus as they run through the streets of Salzburg.

Physician, Heal Thyself: An enthusiastic Paul McGann is the most enthusiastic that the Doctor can be but not in a Tenth Doctor and Rose ‘I want to murder them both’ kind of way. His infectious attitude drags you along with me and makes you want to be a part of the adventure. When he delights in Christmas at Salzburg and crunch of snow on the ground, I want to grab his hand, laugh, and leave big deep footprints in my wake as I explore the city. This is the Doctor of The Stones of Venice, of Other Lives. This is the 8th Doctor before he got all brooding and steeped in the Time War. And with Helen and Liv by his side this is the smiliest introduction to a Doctor Who story for an age. The Doctor has a brilliant way of choosing food in the myriad of places he visits – just choose the one with the silliest name. He flatters himself that he can be extremely helpful in almost every situation. Is this what the Doctor does now? Heading around the universe and paying the rent of those who cannot afford it? Unbelievably the Doctor describes Liv and Helen as a few of his favourite things. He’s not armed, well except for a sharp wit and a cunning mind. He’s the baddest boy of the lot and he has killed hundreds of thousands. It’s been a long time since he’s seen a gateway to Hell.

Liv Chenka: There is no Christmas on Kaldor and so Liv is brought up to speed on all the festivities. Initially she is a bot of an old Scrooge about it but she soon slips into the festive spirit. Rather wonderfully Liv tries to pick apart the Krampus myth and ask how the monster and St Nicholas decide who is naughty and nice, whether they have a list that they check between them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Very chocolate box. Very biscuity.’
‘Traditions are largely baffling if you’re not used to them.’
‘Which one of use hasn’t been bad at some point in their life? Eaten too much cake, told a white lie. I think it’s operating a zero-tolerance policy!’
‘Time to burn!’

Great Ideas: The Krampus only comes for the bad children. The lazy ones, the violent ones, the ones who tell untruths. Santa will bring you presents but the Krampus will steal you away. He steals into the dark to drag the naughty children away, taking them to Hell. This is Doctor Who’s first attempt at a Grinch style Christmas story and it immediately gets off on the right foot by turning the idea of the Krampus into a dark myth to scare children with. The story of the Krampus coming for the little girl in the middle of the night is automatically scarier than anything the TV series managed in any of their Christmas specials (except maybe the Dream Catchers from Last Christmas, but they were pretty much a bog-standard Doctor Who monster and not Christmas themed at all). Every December 5th people dress up as the Krampus and take to the streets giving nuts and sweets to the children. A monster that is behaving like the mythical Krampus rather than one from its historical origins.

Audio Landscape: The squeaking footsteps of the Krampus approaching. Brrr. The Doctor calls Christmas in Salzburg perfect and if he is referring to how it provides the sound designer with a chance to provide a stunning audio backdrop then he is not wrong. With a swelling seasonal soundtrack and lots of activity and a hive of expectation and excitement, it is the most enticing 8th Doctor audio environment for some time.

Musical Cues: A terrific score, bright and cheerful and full of Christmas cheer.

Standout Scene: ‘He rises!’ With all this talk of the Krampus throughout, I was waiting for the moment when he would finally make an appearance. Dorney saves the best to last and it’s an astonishment that something that is anticipated throughout is not a disappointment but a memorable emergence.

Result: ‘It’s time for us all to go out and meet monsters!’ Believe the hype that will surround this release, it’s a Big Finish Christmas special that delivers on it’s promise and out Noel’s the TV series by getting the atmosphere right, the imagery right and the dark thread of scary Christmas myths right. It’s a story that has a tangible sense of Christmas without ever descending into tweeness, and it uses its lightness of tone to contrast the nasty idea of the Krampus against and provide a truly memorable Christmas nasty. This story addresses my main issue with A Christmas Carol (a story that I still cannot bring myself to review because I had such an allergic reaction to its central idea that I found abominable) and turns the Doctor into a man who tries to bring some Christmas cheer to a right old Scrooge but he doesn’t do it by perverting his timeline but instead simply talking to him. If Paul McGann came a knocking a Christmas and started enthusing about festive cheer I think it would melt the heart of even the greatest sourpuss. And he gets the most wonderful reception in the wake of his celebratory exuberance. What’s the worst Halloween film of all time? To my money it’s Halloween III Season of the Witch and there is an air of that film in this in the grisly idea of the Krampus masks melting onto the flesh of the people playing monster and having them embody his spirit. Fortunately, that is where the comparisons end. How the story goes from seasonal merriment to chaotic horror is effortlessly achieved and by the end of the story you’ve got apocalyptic madness descending on Salzburg. John Dorney provided the best standalone adventures in the Doom Coalition series and he’s outdone himself here. Again, I question what the hell any of this has to do with the Ravenous (maybe this will all turn out to be a massive misdirection and that all these apparently unlinked stories have a great deal in common) but who gives a flip when you can generate as much atmosphere and chilliness as this story does. Dorney taps into a creepy angle on the traditional Christmas tale, and Ken Bentley executes this story with more verve than anything he has directed in yonks. It’s an absorbing, simple tale that takes one grand idea and runs with it and uses its time to indulge in its setting and its regulars. More please. Oh wait, there is...: 9/10

Escape from Kaldor written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Returning to a home world she’d rather forget, Liv reluctantly accompanies Helen to the grand opening of a luxury shopping mall. But when a glitch in the system sends the Robots of Death on a rampage, Liv’s past comes crashing down about her.

Physician, Heal Thyself: It’s amazing that the Doctor can hang around with so many humans and not really learn a thing. That’s not entirely fair, the Doctor has demonstrated a keen understanding of human behaviour over the years when the time is right (see his summation at the end of Vincent and the Doctor) but it seems that no matter how good his intentions, sometimes he can just get it wrong (his triple whammy of taking Ace to Gabriel Chase, to meet her mom as a baby and then back home in season 26 is quite an adept example). He’s always interested in new technology.

Liv Chenka: It’s interesting for us but weird for Liv to be brought back to Kaldor, where she belongs. It mirrors the beginning of the second Time War set where Bliss was taken for a homecoming but we have known Liv a lot longer so it’s much more involving and alienating. She doesn’t feel like she is from Kaldor, she spent most of her days looking at the stars and longing to be away. Liv has some unfinished rage towards Kit and pretty much anyone with a desire for wealth from the Founding Families stock. She lost touch with her sister years ago when Liv was barely out of college. Tula had her career to think of and wasn’t even there for their father’s funeral (she paid for it and thought that was involvement enough). The scenes between the two women feel very real, families are full of this kind of resentment and it’s very well brought to life by both actresses. Sometimes it is hard to believe that two performers who have never worked together before are siblings but I had no trouble buying Walker and Rushbrook. She’s never said sorry to her sister, and she has carried the burden of having to deal with her fathers’ death ever since he finally slipped away. Despite the fact that she hasn’t spoken to Tula in ten years, she doesn’t hate her. It hurt Dad that Tula never came back. He missed her. She was the favourite that Liv could never live up to. The backstory of Liv’s father has run through her adventures and has provided some of the most touching moments. It’s hard to believe that Liv has been a companion for 4 years now, that this is her 30th story and that she is still revealing new shades to her character. Whilst you have to credit the writers with this, Nicola Walker is a huge part of making it all count for something.

Helen Sinclair: Helen is enjoying the chance to spend some time with Liv after their recent exertions and given how many times Liv has been to London she is enjoying the chance to see where she comes from for a change. She says without apology that the Liv isn’t a friend to her but more like family. Helen is the voice of reason when the shit hits the fan.

Standout Performance: Which Paul McGann do you prefer? The lighter, more carefree one of the Doom Coalition and Ravenous series or the darker, more uptight version who is heading the Time Ware series? I listen to one and I think that is where his strengths lie and then I listen to the other and I re-evaluate. It’s fair to say he is simply a damn fine actor who is still finding interesting things to do with the Doctor after a huge manifest of audios under his belt. His scenes in Escape from Kaldor were the least interesting (because they were the least suspenseful) but by his mere presence alone he ups the interest levels and makes those scenes of exposition worth listening to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re building virtual people. You can’t do this job if you don’t have some ego.’

Great Ideas: People like being surrounded by beautiful things on Kaldor. Some parts of human nature never change, and some descendants of the Founding Families cannot see beyond their privilege. The whole angle that the Robots are simply children waiting for the right instruction is a worthy one. How the Doctor considers them a new lifeform just starting to evolve is very sweet.

Isn’t it Odd: Talk about starting off on the wrong foot; Escape from Kaldor opens with several cardinal errors. We’re partway through a story with no idea of how we got to this point, it’s a particularly unconvincing crowd scene that sounds like three or four people trying to sound like a mob and generally it is a lot of ugly noise pretending to be drama. It’s hardly a massive revelation when the Robots of Death start killing people…when, you know, they are called the Robots of Death in the synopsis. I’m not sure if ‘Purify’ is going to catch on like ‘Exterminate.’ ‘Delete’ was bad enough.

Standout Scene: A brilliant coda to the story which plays the timey-wimey card (are we still doing that?) and scores big time with a use of time travel that is satisfying, a chance for a character to grow in the blink of an eye and leaves some unanswered questions about Liv’s absence and what she has been up to. Very well done indeed.

Result: What is it about these pauses in the eighth Doctor, Liv and Helen’s adventures that are so refreshing? It was magic when it happened in Absent Friends and again in Ship in a Bottle and the opening 15 minutes of Escape to Kaldor captures that sparkle between them again when Liv and Helen get to relax and soak in each other’s company. I think it is because their adventures are often so hectic and interconnected and lacking respite that when we get the opportunity to simply spend time with them talking as regular people that you get the opportunity to realise what interesting and engaging characters they are. I’ve never heard any of the Kaldor City audios but it’s a setting that intrigued me from Robots of Death and few Chris Boucher PDAs alone, and the two Doctor Who audios that have handled these themes (Robophobia and The Sons of Kaldor) were both fairly engaging. It’s where Liv comes from, so bringing her home gives us a chance to see how much she has evolved since her debut. The inclusion of her sister was a nice touch, giving the story a more personal edge than it otherwise would have. I was impressed with how scary they managed to make the Robots on audio, with some genuine jump out of your seat moments and scenes of high drama. Big Finish rarely makes me jump anymore, and you would think on audio it would be uniquely qualified to do so. I still have zero clue what the Ravenous are all about and I don’t think we are going to find out anything significant any time soon but like with the first boxset of this series we’re getting some decent standalone adventures before the arc kicks into gear. And when those stories are as entertaining as this, who can really complain? Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a revelatory piece that will blow the mind of a Doctor Who fan into a thousand tiny pieces of amazement, it’s a well-paced, well-made throwaway story about the Robots of Death that probably should have been the beginning of the Ravenous series (and we could skipped all over the pointless Helen is missing nonsense) rather than the opening story of the second set. Enjoyable: 7/10

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Woman Who Fell to Earth written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jamie Childs

This story in a nutshell: ‘We don’t get aliens in Sheffield…’ 

Right, This Is Going to be Fun: ‘There’s a moment when you’re sure you’re about to die…and then you’re born again...’ Literally falling into the action from the sky, Whittaker’s Doctor makes an immediate impression by simply being so much fun. Whilst there are a lot of efforts to make her a little quirky, she really doesn’t need the help because she brings a cheeky, snappy energy to the part that makes your eyes draw to her and never want to leave her. Yep, that’s the Doctor alright. Davison was also ‘looking for a Doctor’ in Castrovalva, a nice touch. When half an hour ago you were a white-haired Scotsman and now you’re a beautiful blonde with nothing in your pockets I’m guessing you would be a little frazzled upstairs. I liked very much how empathetic she was to all of her new companions; whether it’s watching Ryan ride his bike, letting Graham have his moment of disbelief that she is an alien or apologising to them all for having to witness a grisly murder. There’s a gentleness to her character that doesn’t come from her gender but from her nature. Matt Smith had it too, so did Davison. When she’s asking how everybody knows each other it’s almost like the Doctor is actually selecting her new friends to travel with. Even when the Doctor is a little uncertain of who she is I was confident that Whittaker was absolutely sure she should be playing this role. She’s effortlessly confident and I love that. It’s a far cry from the first half of Capaldi’s opener where he was a raving madman. If you want to point at one scene where you say ‘yeah, that’s the Doctor’ it’s when she throws across the curtain declaring ‘this is gonna be fun!’ and sets to work assembling a sonic screwdriver from old bits of toot. The whole sequence is a delight, especially her reaction to the already malfunctioning sonic screwdriver. That’s the point where I realised just how gorgeous this Doctor was going to be. Her ‘get behind me now’ is the moment she really takes charge of her troupe, doing the Hartnell thing of confronting the alien menace head on by standing in its way. She’s a Doctor who will have a plan by the time she reaches her destination. How she undermines serious moments with irreverent humour is almost Troughtonesque, and I love how it isn’t overplayed (like so much of Matt Smith’s could be). I didn’t even need the ‘I am the Doctor’ moment, but I understand that is practically a rite of passage now. It feels very right on for the Doctor to be purchasing her new outfit from a charity shop in Sheffield. How gloriously unromantic. It’s a glorious costume too; hotchpotch yet practical, stylish and yet complete without style. It’s unique to this Doctor and she looks glorious in it. 

Ryan: Surprisingly this turns out to be Ryan’s episode more than anyone and he was the character and actor I knew the least about going in and to be honest he was the character and actor I was most impressed with leaving the episode. It’s not because he is imbued with particularly complex characterisation but what Tosin Cole does with the part is quite magnificent. He’s relatable from the off, speaking directly out of the screen to the audience, a man who isn’t afraid to talk about his feelings. I felt a bond with him immediately and there were no missteps throughout the episode that made me question that. A sweet guy with a huge heart and a love for his grandmother, he reminded me very much of my partner. The whole ‘I can’t yet ride a bike angle’ might be a little forced if it weren’t for the skill of three actors making those scenes really count. Dyspraxia is a fascinating condition that I knew little about (way to go Doctor Who, still teaching me knew things after all these years) and it means we are automatically on Ryan’s side. I think he is going to be one to watch throughout the series, not only because Cole is so damn cute (sorry but I do have blood pumping through my veins) but also because I think his condition is going to be relevant and a worthy obstacle in the future. Mickey was a loser you really wanted to prove himself, Jack was hyper confident and Rory was the dork you wanted to get the girl. I liked Ryan because he was gentle without ever losing the sense that he was a bloke. 

Yazz: Immediately authoritative but in quite a reserved way, making Yaz an officer in training is a great idea because it gives her skills that will be useful in her adventures but she still has an awful lot to learn. I love the accent, it’s great to have a more regional slant to the show. She’s somebody who thinks she is capable of more, who wants to be tested. Be careful what you ask for, Yaz.
Graham: Bradley Walsh could so easily overplay the whole ‘man trying to get his adopted grandson to accept him’ angle but instead gives a much more considered performance than even I was expecting. Weirdly since the announcement of all of the cast it was Walsh’s name that excited me the most because he strikes me as a man very akin to Catherine Tate, who is known for a particular line of entertainment who would probably surprise everybody in Doctor Who. I was not wrong. He doesn’t bring that showbiz attitude with him at all but instead grounds his character entirely in reality. He’s a reliably solid presence in the episode, a kind and serious man who is trying to understand quietly all the weird things that are going on around him. He strikes me a little bit of the typical bloke with his football scarf and love of a pint and that is exactly the sort of character we have never seen travel in the TARDIS before. It’s almost what my Dad would be like as a Doctor Who companion, except Graham is far more likeable than my Pops could ever be. His relationship with Grace anchors the episode; she’s a bit cheeky, very sweet and completely in control. Their relationship is unforced and I was waiting throughout for the inevitable loss because I knew there were only three companions in this new series and not four. His speech at Grace’s funeral is the first genuinely moving moment in Doctor Who in a long time, probably since Wilf tried to give the Doctor the gun in The End of Time. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s gonna kill us!’ ‘It could have done that already.’
‘We can evolve but still stay true to who we are’ – a really important line to all the naysayers.
‘It’s been a long time since I’ve bought women’s clothes.’ 

The Good: A huge shout out to the stunning cinematography, which is the best the show has ever scene with some stunning landscapes brought into focus and expert camerawork with a wide lens that isn’t a afraid of drinking it all in. The score is also fresh and relevant, lacking the overdone vocals or melodramatic stings of Gold and instead giving this opening episode a contemporary, down to earth feel. I think I would like a little more bombast down the line but as an episode that is trying to connect with a modern audience again, it really does its job in grounding the piece. The offscreen deaths make this perfect entertainment for all the family. Doctor Who has always excelled at graphic offscreen deaths (go watch The Greatest Show in the Galaxy for some really terrific examples) and The Woman Who Fell to Earth continues in that tradition. We don’t even need to be told how horrid the corpses are, the implication is nasty enough. The cod-Predator knock off was a little obvious until he took his mask off to show the grotesque array of teeth stuck in his head from his victims’ mouths. That was a brilliantly gruesome moment. Chibnall remembers to give his extraneous characters little moments to make them people; I particularly liked Karl from the train who just wants to get to work and feel valued. Doctor Who loves a bit of spectacle for no reason these days. There’s literally no reason at all why Karl should be a crane driver accept to provide a tasty looking set piece at the climax but fortunately it means we get to lots of fun things at crazy heights. It’s a good thing that he wasn’t a lollipop man. Imagine how exciting the denouement would have been then. Huge kudos for the character led coda, which took these characters that we have gotten to know over an hour and broke our hearts a little. I realised how much I had been made to care. Big thumbs up for the cliffhanger too. 

The Bad: The plot basically. However, I don’t feel I can be too hard at this junction because, like Rose, the plot was just there to service the characters and provide a bit of jeopardy. The idea of two alien races using Earth as a battleground is a really exciting one but we don’t get to see that reach anywhere near it’s potential here (that was done far more effectively in Doomsday). The quirky science fiction elements are just an excuse to bring these people together and see how they react to the situation. So, I’ll give Chibnall a pass, this time. But the next time he pens an episode these characters will be very well established I’m looking for something with much more substance. Grace’s murder was signposted by the writing and the direction so in the end I was waiting for that moment rather than shocked by it.

The Shallow Bit: Whittaker with her blonde Rachel cut and dishevelled clothes is a beautiful and bold statement for the show. She’s stunning.

Result: Massively enjoyable for the most part, even if it is a little thin on plot. The big shout out is for Whittaker’s Doctor, the news of which was greeted with national interest. The simple fact of the matter is that she’s a delight. Easing herself into the role confidently, effortlessly connecting the audience (well, to me, because I am the audience for the purpose of these reviews) with moments silliness and authority and assembling a bright new team to join her on her adventures. Would you just look at how much of this review I have spent talking about the characters and if there is one thing I’ve really missed in the previous 6 seasons it is relatable people whose adventures I want to share. I got a sense of the Sarah Jane Adventures at times with its focus on characters, Bradley Walsh and Predator stand in and an increased sense of fun. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense at all, there were plenty of things Doctor Who could do to learn from its CBCC sibling. The dialogue is much more functional and less stylised than we are used to; Moffat’s wit was both a strength and weakness because whilst his characters spoke pure quotes it meant that they rarely sounded natural whereas Chibnall’s dialogue is less memorable but much more realistic. I think that was Davies’ biggest strength, he could marry both things (quotability and realism). There simply isn’t much story here to speak of but is merely dressing in order to bring these characters together into a functioning unit and on those terms it does its job very well. It’s like somebody has taken a musty old cellar that is obsessed with relics (I don’t mean Capaldi but rather the obsession in the shows recent past with celebrating its continuity) and opened the windows and let in sunlight and fresh air. With a refreshing new Doctor and a warm family to travel the universe with and what looks like a serial developing, the show has gone back to its roots but brought itself bang up to date. It’s a promising approach and I’m left really excited for next weeks spectacular. The plot itself is worthy of a 7 but I’m inclined to be kinder because this lays out its characters in an engaging way (the extra time was devoted to them and the episode was all the better for it) and with some pleasing aesthetic improvements. Doctor Who is about people again: 8/10

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Rulers of the Universe written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: As shocking secrets are exposed, and a grand plan for the universe is revealed, River decides it’s time she took control of events once and for all. Out in deep space, a clandestine society faces off with an ancient and powerful alien force – but, for River, there’s an added complication. The Eighth Doctor has been caught in the middle, and she must make sure her future husband can arrive at his own destiny with all his memories – not to mention his lives - intact…

Hello Sweetie: This is as good a time as any to tackle the idea of River meeting the classic iterations of the Doctor. Is there a point to this beyond the novelty of experiencing the chemistry between Kingston and Baker (x2), Davison, McCoy and McGann because there is no good storytelling reason for it to take place? Since the Doctor can never know who River is, the writers have to constantly find creative ways for her to meet him but to have no impact on his life as herself because that happens for the first time with the tenth. And it’s a bit of a one trick pony, but with the Doctor’s making an appearance on the cover of every set it’s clearly a trick that this range will be playing over and over again. I would have far more respect for this series if River went at it alone without the need to drag on Doctor Who for inspiration. But it would seem that she is intractably linked to him and everything that happens in her life has to revolve around him. I’m not sure what that says about River as a strong female character but I don’t like it very much.

Breathless Romantic on the Verge of a Midlife Crisis: ‘You haven’t seen me angry. Not yet.’ This is the early days of the Time War for Paul McGann, probably around the time of his first or second box set set during that period. He’s angry and depressed, a far cry from the cuddly puppy he started his life as (especially in Big Finish terms). It’s not his War, it’s nothing to do with him, he simply tidies up the mess left behind when he finds it. At the moment he is keeping right out of it. He knows things are serious enough that if it ever actually touches somebody they will be begging to get out. He was never one to let people suffer so when he discovers that millions are in danger from the SporeShips he immediately sets about trying to uncover their mystery. River considers this incarnation of the Doctor young, naive and idealistic. The kind of Doctor that thinks he can run from a Time War. There are certain Doctors that River isn’t allowed to play with. The Doctor’s method of defeating his enemy here is quite ingenious. For once the climax of a Big Finish story is built around the idea of the Doctor being one step ahead and having a complete plan in place rather than him having to improvise a rather naff way of bringing the story to an end. The Doctor tells River not to get on her bad side.

Standout Performance: Without a doubt, there is incredible chemistry between Kingston and McGann. Maybe that justifies the experiment in itself. River’s Doctor was always Matt Smith but for some reason that always felt like a mother trying to seduce her sons’ friend. With Capaldi it was built on respect and with Tennant there was such a shroud of mystery so it was a one-sided chemistry. With Alex Kingston and Paul McGann, it is just sexy. Just about perfect, in fact.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You know the biggest mistake your little club ever made? Annoying a psychopath with time on her hands. And the second biggest? Involving my husband.’
‘Amateurs are the best kind of everything. They do it for the love.’
‘You’re not Gods. Just a cruel, ancient and powerful race. And you should not that in my time of life I’ve had quite enough of those.’
‘Do all the world building you want in pre-history!’

Great Ideas: A super rich Elite with a penchant for the remote control of planetary systems, calling themselves the Rulers. They want in on the Time War, they think they can exploit it somehow. Pictograms have appeared on all the planets where life has been wiped out by SporeShips. A race of people that look at entire civilisations as experiments in a petri dish. One step into the Time War and your entire civilisation might vanish out of existence. A pendant that can keep you ten nanoseconds ahead of your enemy, a Time War weapon that the Doctor has managed to procure.

Isn’t it Odd: The Doctor is as prominent as River on the cover of this set, and he’s mentioned forwardly in the synopsis for this instalment and in the marketing video. All of which goes to show that in order to generate sales Big Finish are happy to blow any surprises that this story might hold. It feels like Fitton is going for a Night of the Doctor style surprise in the pre-titles sequence with Paul McGann’s beautiful voice turning up unexpectedly but given the company has been raving about his inclusion for yonks before this was release, it feels like a waste of effort. I wondered why River never managed to find out anything definitive about the SporeShips…we were waiting for the Doctor to turn up and discover all the answers. I’m not sure that is the sort of message this range should be promoting.

Standout Scene: The moment when a very confused and intrigued Doctor asks River (under the guise of Miss Spritz) to tell him more about herself. The music swells excitingly and for a moment you have to wonder if River will spill everything just to be able to spend some time with the Doctor as herself. The last monologue is the first time the dialogue approaches anything like what Steven Moffat would have put in River's mouth.

Result: ‘The fact that you want to be part of it means that you utterly fail to understand it…and stop calling it my War!’ With the Time War making its presence felt and the Doctor playing a big part, this has an immediate advantage over its predecessors. The question is when a story features the Doctor this heavily are you listening to it as a River Song story or a Doctor Who story? I was immediately more interested in this than at any other point in the box set but it was for entirely the wrong reasons. It worries me that River hasn’t managed to successfully stand on her own two feet away from the Doctor, the first two stories in this set being exceptionally weak compared to the latter, Doctor-centric material. However, Rulers of the Universe is a gripping listen because Paul McGann is simply too good playing grumpy and much of the material is enlivened by his bad-tempered performance. This is actually much better material than McGann’s Time War set, with the backdrop of the conflict feeling much more dangerous and the inclusion of the SporeShips tying this into the larger narrative of the box set. You might think that this a pretty ambitious bit of storytelling but the best of this story is borrowed from the television series. River feels much livelier and engaging in this story, again down to the Doctor’s proximity. She feels much more like her old self because we are so used to her taking part in Doctor Who. Alex Kingston notches up the level of desperation in her voice because she is interacting with one of the real Doctors and the sparky relationship she has with McGann supersedes anything that she had with his peers. The SporeShips continue to be an interesting notion and their builders are a genuinely frightening presence. It has been a while since I have heard a Big Finish production give an alien race this level of menace. Dramatic, climactic and hectic, The Rulers of the Universe is a memorable end to a disjointed box set. I proceed cautiously, assuming that River will always work when she is paired with the Doctor but unconvinced of the point of her having her own series otherwise: 8/10

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Signs written by James Goss and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song is on the trail of the mysterious, planet-killing SporeShips. Nobody knows where they come from. Nobody knows why they are here. All they do know is that wherever the SporeShips appear, whole civilisations are reduced to mulch. But River has help. Her companion is a handsome time-travelling stranger, someone with specialist knowledge of the oddities and dangers the universe has to offer. For Mr Song has a connection to River’s future, and he would never want his wife to face those perils alone…

Hello Sweetie: The opening scene of Sign contains a ruse that seems to suggest that River is going to have some kind of alternative death to the one which was on screen. It’s a similar problem to the one that the classic Doctors have with Big Finish (and all of the televisions companions). They have already been given a beginning, middle and end in their television adventures and so Big Finish is merely filling in the gaps (and hopefully enhancing them along the way). To suggest that this is where River gets off is fruitless, it’s false tension, because we know that she is going to end up plugging herself into CAL and losing her life. A shame, because otherwise this was a pretty arresting opening. The Doctor has so many faces and she finds all of them infuriating. River is pretty annoyed to be dying. She wakes up having forgotten and then she remembers and then she wishes she had never woken up. I can imagine that is what a lot of terminally ill people go through each day. River genuinely believes this is the Doctor in her company and so we get a very intimate rendition of her boundless affection for him. Recently I found the inclusion of a plot driven brain tumour in The Dispossessed an extremely tasteless experience and especially how flippant the dialogue was about how easily it could be cured and how the revelation about it was dropped with relatively little reaction. James Goss shows how a real person would react to a terminal illness here, by having River express anger and frustration and desperation. It’s quite subtly done, which I weirdly through putting her through this terrible ordeal I felt closer to the character than ever before. I was like that with Clara too; generally, a character I couldn’t warm to but when she was put through the physical or emotional wringer (Dark Water, Last Christmas), it was easy to empathise. In the previous story River was praised for her deductive capabilities but it is in this story where she really expresses them. She considers the Doctor to be her idiot and if there is another iteration of the Doctor to get to know then there is another life to live. When her gloves come off and she confronts ‘the Doctor’, River’s nasty side emerges and Kingston is impressively frightening.

Standout Performance: Samuel West has quite a tricky job to perform here and he handles himself with great aplomb. He has to try and convince that he is an incarnation of the Doctor that we have never met before and sell that Doctor to River, a woman who knows him intimately well. I really liked that he didn’t try and make him too confident or cocky or even too eccentric. He generally convinces because he is up for anything, he’s by her side and he encourages her to do what she does best. I thought it was a rather impressive turn, and given this is a two hander it is rather important that they get the chemistry between the two characters right.

Great Ideas: The SporeShips are like doodlebugs, flying out into space and dropping onto worlds and obliterating life. They are one of the great mysteries of the cosmos….along with all the others. Nobody knows very much about them, or how long they have been at this. Are they doing all this at random? Or by design? All the worlds they have landed on are now dead it has never been spotted that the SporeShips have never ‘attacked’ a planet without life on it. None of the boring worlds. That’s not random, that’s a plan. Are the SporeShips attempting to wipe out civilisations that are getting out of control? Somewhere in the Dark Time a race glimmered into existence and they flourished and brunt brightly. But they’re time was over so quickly, it turned out that their great universe that they felt so proud of was only theirs on loan for a little while and they felt jealous. And so their last of creation was to create the SporeShips and they didn’t want anyone else to enjoy their universe. Or are the SporeShips the leftover remnants of the weapons that destroyed the last universe, or that they’ve slipped back from the end of this one. Let’s posit a race, the first people. They sowed a range of species on different planets and then stepped back and left them to develop. They’re using the spores to thin out the worlds that are developing in the wrong way.

Isn’t it Odd: As soon as this fellow pretending to be the Doctor states that maybe they should pop off and leave this population to the fate of the SporeShip – that some events are fixed points in time – I knew this could never be the real deal. The Doctor has used this excuse before but only when he was sure. To abandon people on a chance that this is a fixed point, without even trying, is not like the Doctor at all. I really liked, however, how like the Doctor he ultimately turns out to be. From a race of indolent people, a reactionary, a revolutionary.

Standout Scene: River delivering a speech about the SporeShips to the many iterations of the Doctor. It’s quite a surreal moment when you realise who the applauding audience are.

Result: It’s almost a shame that the second the Doctor gets involved in the action that the interest levels of this box set improve exponentially. I say almost because to have something worth listening to is a godsend after the first two instalments. However, I do think that this series should have had time to establish itself before introducing elements of Doctor Who into the mix because now it feels as though it has been a bit of a failure and it needs the support of big brother to make it through the finish line. Look at The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, both forging their identities before introducing the Doctor into their worlds. Whilst Signs isn’t quite what it first appears to be, it carries all of that Doctor Who baggage with it and a borrowed relationship from the TV series. A lot of the substance here is because so much groundwork has been done in the first place. Now, stop being such a pessimist, Joe and tell everybody why this one was a winner. It’s a two hander, very nicely written with some juicy dialogue, a twisty turny plot and a surprising climax. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Kingston and West and even though we know that this cannot be the Doctor (Unbound aside, Big Finish would never be given permission to start making up new Doctors) there is enough substance (the mutual respect, the flirting, the shared history) to make it feasible. If it was unconvincing then River would look stupid and that’s something that should never be allowed to happen, not in a box set that is supposed to be convincing us that she can work on audio. The SporeShips are the first great idea of the set, a genuinely intriguing mystery for River and the ‘Doctor’ to solve that has serious consequences if they don’t. There is something of the Hoothi about them but that’s a pretty fearsome foe to get your inspiration from. If the first story was your bog-standard Benny and the second was your traditional Doctor Who story, then Signs is the first tale that aspires to be something with a little more initiative. It’s also infused with a passion that the first half of the set lacked, a passion in the writing and a passion between the characters. Alex Kingston delivers a very strong performance, raising her game as the material offers her more opportunities. You can always rely on James Goss to bring something fresh to the table, and he doesn’t disappoint. It feels like a story worthy of the character: 8/10

Friday, 28 September 2018

I Went to a Marvellous Party written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song always enjoys a good party, even when she’s not entirely sure where or when the party is taking place. But the party she ends up at is one where not everything – or indeed everyone – is what it seems… Being River, it doesn’t take her too long to go exploring, and it doesn’t take her too long to get into trouble. The sort of trouble that involves manipulating other civilisations, exploitation, and of course murder. River is confident she can find the killer. But can she identify them before anyone else – or quite possibly everyone else – gets killed?

Hello Sweetie: This is exactly what I was expecting to see when I approached a River Song box set, her travelling in space (and the future) and being set in some indeterminate point in her timeline, hob-nobbing it at all the best parties. Speaking as somebody who has been manipulated her entire life by events and villains, River is appalled at the idea of a ship that is playing the game of manipulating planets as though they were a computer game. There is a mention of Melody Malone and how River has the most impressive of deductive minds. That’s some claim to make in a script that she now has to live up to.

Not Bill: Bertie makes a reappearance in this story, and it’s clear that he had full knowledge of the previous adventure before they even embarked on it. Who is this mysterious man from the future pretending to be an archaeologist from the past? For once River is the one without the answers, which is quite a refreshing reversal. His organisation comprises of the great and the good from across the galaxy. The people who really make things happen, the true rulers of the universe.

Standout Performance: Even the performances in this story lack energy. Scenes of exposition in the middle of the tale are delivered with all the excitement of somebody doing their online shopping over the telephone.

Sparkling Dialogue: Functional as hell.

Great Ideas: Manipulating economy and society development is a dangerous game. It’s a complex skill, knowing to nudge and how far. When they should discover fire or the silicon chip. How their markets should be formed. Who should win a particular election. Eliminating free will and playing God.

Audio Landscape: Bentley’s direction of the first two stories has not been to his usual standard. I didn’t get a sense of a genuine period setting in The Boundless Sea and I Went to a Marvellous party was a chance to immerse the listener in a glorious party atmosphere but it feels subdued and lacking elegance for the most part. Back when he was a newbie on the seventh Doctor trilogies his direction was the crème de la crème but of late there is a predictability and lack of focus to his work. And I’m shocked at how lackadaisical the performances are here, even Alex Kingston sounds pretty bored by events.

Isn’t it Odd: I think River needs a constant companion rather than eventually teaming up with people on these adventures. Whilst the latter does give her the chance to mix and match who she is talking to on a story by story basis, the former would give her the chance to develop some rapport with people and prevent her from talking to herself to let the audience know what is going on. There is a very good reason why the Doctor has a companion. Exposition, questions, elucidation.

Result: Somehow this is even less dynamic than The Boundless Sea, so we’ve gone from stifling a yawn to actively staring at a watch. Remember what I said about the last story being safe…well can you imagine a more careful pair of hands than Justin Richards when it comes to Doctor Who stories? This was his chance to break free of the customary mould and deliver something spectacularly imaginative. He’s written a murder mystery on a spaceship. Doctor Who has been doing that for donkey’s years. Gosh, Blakes’ 7 was doing that in it’s first season. It’s so lacking in inspiration and originality – Richards himself has written several murder mysteries in the past and much better examples than this (The Medusa Effect would be my recommendation) – that I was hoping that it was going to be some kind of ironic comment on predictability of the genre. But no, it is just a murder mystery on a space ship. Terror of the Vervoids did it better. It might have been a bit frivolous and phallic but it had a plot that was bursting with ideas, red herrings, fun characters (all of whom seemed to be guilty of something) and lots of incident. You see? I’m discussing a Doctor Who story instead of I Went to a Marvellous Party because this story is so ordinary and prosaic. River Song is a marvellous anomaly of time travel, sex and a domestic attachment to the Doctor. She’s a firework of ideas (even if occasionally misconceived) and surprises. To have her take place in a story this commonplace is like fundamentally misunderstanding what the character stands for. I couldn’t even be arsed to write about the details of the plot because they are just so mind-numbing. It would be a waste of my time. Richards, once the twist master of the novel line, fails to generate any bombshells. And this is a damn murder mystery! The best thing I can say about I Went to a Marvellous Party is that it is mercifully short, which is a blessing: 3/10

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Diary of River Song: The Boundless Sea by Jenny T Colgan and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it About: River Song has had more than enough excitement for a while. Deciding the universe – and her husband – can look after themselves, she has immersed herself in early 20th century academia, absorbed in writing archaeological theses. But when a mysterious tomb is found in a dry, distant land, excitement comes looking for River. Can Professor Song stop any more members of the expedition from dying? What deadly secrets lie buried within the crypt? And will British Consul Bertie Potts prove to be a help, or a hindrance?

I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve put off reviewing this series until the last possible moment. But it has come to a point now (four series in and with more to come) that if I don’t get on top of this there will be far too much material and I will never bother. And the truth I am genuinely interested to see what Big Finish have to say about River and how she will be handled by writers other than her creator. God bless Big Finish, they have become the retirement home of all those characters that the TV series has exhausted or simply moved on from. Whether it’s Churchill or Lady Christina or old Doctors or New Earth or River or Missy…this seems to be where all popular TV characters come to die. I know I have made the joke before but I swear it won’t be long until Big Finish tackled London Investigation’N’Detective Agency (LINDA for short). There are two ways of looking at this. Big Finish are giving these characters a whole new lease of life and a chance to breathe in a brand-new medium, offering a chance for these characters to take the lead role rather than playing sidekick to the Doctor. That’s the optimists POV. Alternatively, you might think that Big Finish are the ultimate leechers of any half popular figure from televised Doctor Who, cynically cashing in on the New Series logo and spreading the talent of their best writers thinly (and producing their most mediocre work because of it) amongst a multitude of unnecessary ranges. At the very least these new ranges could be handed to fresh writers to the company as a chance to open out their writing pool, which has become extremely insular. Do we need the further adventures of Lady Christina? Was everybody deeply fascinated about the continuing meetings between Churchill and the Doctor? My opinion lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the early spin of successes of Big Finish was the Dorian Gray series. A dark, emotional, complex series with a central protagonist who is ageless and thus the series can jump up and down his time stream, switching genres and tones. With bite sized instalments, stunning production values, a terrific central performance from Alexander Vlahos and most importantly of all script writing of a very high standard this series really stood out as a hard hitting, adult and deliciously exciting avenue for Big Finish to explore. Why are you talking about Dorian Gray when this is a review about River Song? Because River has as confused and complex a timeline as Dorian and one of things that began to emerge from the reviews that I was reading was that this series has the opportunity to dip in and out of the various moments of her life. That’s pretty exciting. It means it not only attempts to enhance the TV stories that she appeared in (and boy do some of them need it), not only does it give fresh writers the chance to tackle the character at various stages of her life but it also means the series has a chance to be unpredictable, diverse and imaginative with where it sets its stories. If you don’t like the idea of a Melody Malone adventure, hang on because Madame Kovarian is back in the next story. If you’re not keen on that idea, she’s romancing Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. Whilst Big Finish have perhaps taken the idea that River has met every Doctor to its extreme (and now with her meeting every iteration of the Master it’s like the fanwank cannot stop gushing) but you have to admire their attempts to keep this series fresh and interesting, and in how they appeal to regular Doctor Who fans whilst doing so. It kind of reminds me of another Archaeological Adventurer that Big Finish has on their books with a rich history that they can dip in and out of and in which they have in recent years added elements of Doctor Who to keep people interested.

Hello Sweetie: So why was I so reluctant to pick up this set and give it a whirl? Well, River herself mostly. I’m of the opinion (and you can shoot me down in flames like this) that River was at her best in her first story (the Library where she was a genuinely interesting portent of the future) and in her last (Husbands, where River’s timeline came full circle, she was at peace with herself and had finally come to realise that she wasn’t the be all and end all of the Doctors life). Everything in between ranged between entertaining (I enjoyed her appearances in series five on the whole, even though the continuing mystery of her identity was dragged out far too long for no decent narrative reason) to the toe curlingly awful (much of series six where the series became so obsessed with River and her timeline that the show got lost up its timey wimey rectum). Come A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler I just wanted her to go away; she was turning the series into something nonsensical, smug and overtly sexual in misogynistic way. Mostly because of River, series six is a no-go area for me. I simply cannot bring myself to watch the majority of it again. The scene where she is murdering people and the Doctor is visibly turned on by it might just be the nadir of NuWho. Forget the Moon being an egg. None of this is entirely the fault of Alex Kingston, who is a powerhouse in the role but she can only say the words that have been given and if Steven Moffat chooses to write her as a vacuous, violent, deeply self-satisfied space bitch then that is the performance that she has to give. At times I think that even Kingston lost herself a bit in the role, expressing an over confidence when a subtler interpretation might have made the character more palatable. It’s interesting that I highlight her first and last appearances as her best because I think they highlight precisely what I am talking about. In The Library the mystery of her character is raised and it is long before the series has become obsessed with the character, and in Husbands it is after the series has fallen out of love with the her. And in both Kingston is much less overt and in your face and far more reticent in the role, whilst still maintain her charisma. The question is…which way are the audios going to go?

In a bland direction, apparently. River comes highly recommended as an archaeologist. For once there is a damn good reason for River to be pushing her gender in peoples faces. If that makes it sound like I don’t like strong women, nothing could be further from the case. My point I that strong women don’t have to point out that they are strong women, they simply are strong women without any kind of label. She’s stuck in the early years of the 20th Century where women had to work damn hard to prove themselves in any kind of academic field and River simply runs rings around the lot of them (but then with her knowledge of future events, like Bernice, why wouldn’t she?). She’s had her fill of travelling and just wants peace and quiet to finish her studies (year, right). River did love her husband and she died for him for him many times. Life has been cruel to her and she can be very angry about that. You might call that revelatory dialogue but there’s nothing there that we didn’t already know.

Standout Performance: It just goes to show what good writing can bring out in an actor. I had no clue until about halfway through this story that Bertie Potts was being played by Alexander Vlahos himself, who I lauded so much praise just a few paragraphs ago. Potts is a desperately tiresome character; a sexist, arrogant man who turns on a sixpence when he opens out to River and suddenly starts treating her with respect. I would have had more respect for the man had he maintained his misogynistic ideals throughout, it would have at least have shown some consistency of character. Vlahos struggles gamely to give him some element of likeability, and fails.

Musical Cues: A huge swelling orchestra of a score…but let’s be honest River was never going to be introduced in any other way than the most dramatic way possible. In fact, the theme is rather good. It begins wistfully before gaining melodramatic momentum before bursting and suggesting a life full of fun and adventure.

Isn’t it Odd: Can you imagine anything more obvious than explaining the ability to travel the stars and the web of time through HG Wells? Or to sum it up with ‘Space is big.’

Result: I don’t know what I was expecting from a River Song series…but the last thing I was expecting was something this safe. The opening fifteen minutes are incredibly lethargic and slow to get to the point. We are introduced to a number of secondary characters, none of whom are especially relevant (let’s call them fodder) or interesting and River taking a backseat and simply hanging around and studying is hardly the most dynamic way to introduce her character. I can imagine Colgan figured the idea of River resting in a period setting would equal an atmospheric listen but there’s a lack of detail in the setting (both in the writing and the direction) that separated me from the story. I’ve always said that with any new series I will give its pilot a watch and a chance to impress in some small way. An idea, a character, a twist, a line even. Something that makes me sit back and raise and eyebrow and think ‘this is worth sticking with.’ The Boundless Sea serves as a pilot for the River Song series and whilst it certainly wasn’t incompetently told or directed, there was no point where I had one of those wow moments. For the most part my reaction was ‘meh.’ River comes up against sexism in the early 1900s. River digs about for things. River finds an unexpected treasure. River unearths deep dark secrets. River wins over her sceptics. If this was a Bernice Summerfield script I would be rolling my eyes at the tiredness of it all (Benny uncovers civilisations every other week) but as the opening punch to a brand-new spin of it is astonishing in its lack of audaciousness. And it’s lack of danger and thrills. Amazingly, I found myself longing for some of Steven Moffat’s irritating timey wimeyness to liven things up…or at least some smug one liners! The dialogue is functional rather than crisp, the characterisation was predictable rather than exciting and the plotline was mundane rather than riveting. Perhaps Big Finish just isn’t good at kick starting their ranges? I don’t think that is necessarily true (say Dalek Empire and Cyberman both opened with something pretty memorable) but the wave of new ranges lately have meant that the novelty of such things has worn off and it takes something pretty special to stand out from the crowd. And this just doesn’t cut the mustard. Ah well, things can only get better: 4/10