Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Blood Furnace written by Eddie Robson and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Ace and Mel to a recently reopened shipyard in Merseyside. It's 1991, the hardest of times - but now they're shipbuilding once again, thanks to the yard's new owners, the Dark Alloy Corporation. A miracle of job creation - but is it too good to be true? While the Doctor and Ace go in search of an alien assassin at loose in the yard, Stuart Dale, discoverer of the near-magical Dark Alloy material, has an extraordinary proposition to make to his old college friend, Mel. But who is the Corporation’s mysterious client? Who does she really represent? And what's the secret of the Blood Furnace? Seeking answers, the Doctor and friends are about to find themselves in very deep water…

The Real McCoy: Ace’s Uncle and a bit of a shipping enthusiast, according to Mel and the way McCoy is playing the Doctor (like a drunken old uncle who bumbles from one scenario to another) these days he might as well be! Listen to the scene at the end of episode one where the Doctor explains what has happened to Ace – McCoy literally sounds as if he has just been handed the script and has had one Scotch Whiskey too many. It’s inexcusably bad. The Doctor gets off a sly dig at the Dominators that made me chuckle, so I suppose he isn’t all bad. He’s never heard of the Orgium though and wonders if their boast to conquer half the galaxy is just hyperbole.

Oh Wicked: Ace discovers they are in Merseyside and sates categorically that nothing interesting is going to happen here. One, that’s not the way a decent companion should behave – I remember when she used to bounce out of the TARDIS looking for danger in every shadow. Has she become the latest version of Tegan? Two, this is where Hex was from. You would think that this would warrant some conversation about their former companion who, in the day, claimed to have a massive impact on their lives. The last time they were here was Afterlife, where they picked up Thomas, Hex’s alter ego. This all seems to have been flushed down the tube to create the ‘season 25’ vibe that these stories with Mel have been aiming for.

Aieeeeeeee: Finally after five stories with this team somebody has decided to shine the spotlight on Mel. You have to question the logic of bringing this team together if not to reveal new facets of their character or to highlight them against one another. Instead it seems to have been an amusing ‘what if Mel and Ace had kept travelling together?’ exercise with very little thought behind why that would be entertaining, amusing or revealing. It’s proven to be none of the above, just a little stale. Ace has regressed to being a child, the Doctor seems to have lost his chess playing skills and Mel, whilst good with a computer, is about as bland as she was during her time in the TV series. They aren’t complimenting each other and it is very frustrating because all three characters have proven to work very well on audio. So it’s nice to see a little character building take place. If it’s riveting enough it might begin to justify this wonky set up. Mel meets up with her old boyfriend from college who has done rather well for himself since they split up, creating a new steel alloy and making a ton of money. It’s a promising start that looks set to tell us a little about Mel before she met the Doctor. Trouble is, there isn’t very much chemistry between Bonnie Langford and Todd Heppenstall, they play the scenes like two people who have never met before. I realise that meeting an ex can be awkward, but there has to be some of that spark there that proves this was a couple in the first place. Stuart was offered a job in the Middle East after he graduated and Mel was happy in Pease Pottage…and long-distance relationships are awkward. When Mel decides to take Stuart’s offer of a job and stay on Earth it feels very sloppily written and played, not a patch on her original leaving scene in Dragonfire. It’s almost as if the story is willing us to believe she will be back in the TARDIS at the end of the story. It fails to be touching or revelatory, just something that happened. I realise that Mel is supposed to be a computer whizz and a bit square, but she has also always been portrayed as being highly emotional, occasionally hysterical (especially on TV). So why is her interaction with Stuart so cold and unfeeling? Why does she sound less than impressed when offered a great job? Has she had an unmade story between her TV stint and now where she met the Cybermen and had an emotional inhibitor inserted in her heart? And how about the reason why Mel chooses not to stay behind at the end? 'I'm happy doing what I do.' Wow, that's probing stuff.

Standout Performance: Julie Graham is a formidable talent and brings all the gusto and gumption that she can to the role of Carolyn. It’s not her fault that she is saddled with an unconvincing and underwritten character. Remember when she got to eat the scenery (and practically everything else) as Ruby White in The Sarah Jane Adventures? That was how to write a really tasty part for this charismatic actress.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I once met a Sontaran called Harold!’

Great Ideas: The Orgium have control over matter that no other race has ever achieved. The conquered half a galaxy. They’re an old, old civilisation, geared towards war. Yadda yadda yadda. There’s so many old, old civilisations geared towards war out there I’m surprised there are any inhabitable worlds left in the universe. Their technology isn’t anything that we would recognise as technology. Stuart and his company have been building a spaceship all this time, which is news to him. The Orgium want to conquer races that develop in ways that offend their culture – it’s an overly simplistic view of xenophobia but at least they do have a reasonable motive. With the Orgium virus, every piece of equipment with an electronic circuit could be destroyed. Imagine if the story had started with that happening and dealt with the fallout of a world without technology?

Isn’t it Odd: Nothing much else is happening in The Blood Furnace so an exploding console will have to do. It is linked to the plot, but as a secondary jeopardy that is explained much later, which means this feels like a very arbitrary moment of peril. After all we need a moment of false jeopardy, don’t we? I really love the idea of a race of beings that can manipulate space time with language, it’s an intriguing notion and one that has potential for some imaginative scripting. A shame then that Doctor Who has already explored the concept as well as it is every going to be in The Shakespeare Code with the Carrionites and that the ability manifests itself here with poor Julie Graham being forced to get her tongue around some bizarre alien language which fails to have any impact on me intellectually. The English language is a beautiful thing and this was a chance to indulge in some witty and imaginative wordplay…instead Robson opts for making the villain sound like she is making up a bizarre language. The Orgium’s attempt to conquer the Earth is over before it even began because the development of digital technology so fast that the planet will be intolerable to them within a matter of years. Hence the destruction of the worlds technology. But since we know that the digital age raced onwards because of stories set in the future (I very much doubt that The Blood Furnace will be responsible for wiping from existence every Doctor Who story set post 1990s on Earth…if it was, how embarrassing for those stories), this entire invasion tale has been a big fat waste of time. Technically the Doctor didn’t have to do anything at all.

Seriously, who is listening to these stories from the production team after they are complete? This is the second trilogy featuring this trio and a third has been commissioned already. Sometimes it is time to cut your losses and admit that something isn’t working out. I’m sure Sylv, Bonnie and Aldred all enjoy working together but that’s not really a reason enough when these plodding, characterless stories are the result. For me I’ve rated this run of stories since A Life of Crime 4, 5, 2, 5, 4…so unless The Silurian Candidate turns out to be an absolute masterpiece of epic proportions (reviews have suggested otherwise, but you never know) it will be my least enjoyed consecutive run of stories for one set of regulars since the trilogies began. I realise this is entirely subjective and that there may be a wealth of people out there loving this stuff, but the reviews from reviewers I trust (not the ones that are plastered all over the Big Finish pages, the entries chosen from sources who seem to think every release is a masterpiece) suggest I am not alone in my criticism.

Result: After a cosmic heist in space, a historical, a quirky SF sequel and an oddball drama, this was a chance for the seventh Doctor, Mel and Ace to enjoy an urban setting and a touch of realism. After the New Adventures and some of the better 7th Doctor audios (the Fearmonger, the Harvest, Damaged Goods) you would expect that he would take to a down to Earth setting like a duck to water, a chance to get personal with the guest cast and indulge in some gritty storytelling. The Blood Furnace delivers none of this, and my expectations went sadly unmet. I’m having a love/hate relationship with Ken Bentley at the moment, and it’s possibly because he is now the most prolific Big Finish director of them all (with well over 50 stories under his belt). I find his work varies depending on the quality of the script, so in the recent Doom Coalition series which he tackled he was handed a huge epic, full of incredible set pieces and really winning individual stories. He directed the life out of them, and the result was a polished, engaging, exciting must listen. In the same breath he has directed the first six 7/Mel/Ace stories and with scripts that have been a little half-hearted, the resulting direction has been too. It doesn’t seem to be a problem with Barnaby Edwards or newbies Jamie Anderson and Helen Goldwyn. They all have the ability to inject life into even the most underwhelming of scripts. The Blood Furnace feels tired from the outset, like the director knows he’s seen all this before. The setting is reasonably well developed in the script but I don’t think that was translated with any vitality in the final piece. The soundscape is adequate, but I never felt as though I could shut my eyes and whisk myself away into this story because it was struggle to visualise what was happening. I struggled with the casting of Todd Heppenstall too, playing an old flame of Mel’s but lacking any of that spark with Bonnie Langford that would have made this work (check out The Waters of Amsterdam to see how this thing can be made to sing). Ace is given a reasonable role, but she’s the only one of the regulars I could really believe in. The aliens are a cheap Carrionite rip off, with nothing to differentiate them from a handful of other Doctor Who aliens and the only truly distinguishing feature is Julie Graham, who struggles gamely with an blandly written villainous role. Worst of all is Sylvester McCoy, the most dangerous of the Big Finish Doctor’s because he can swing anywhere between purring menace and toe-curling hysterics. This is clearly a script that he hasn’t studied in any great depth and he wanders through the story sounding a little lost and a little drunk, despite the Doctor supposedly putting lots of little plans in place. He sounds at sea in his own series. It’s the ambivalence that a story like The Blood Furnace drives out of me that reminds me why I struggled to return to main range to get reviewing again. It serves no real purpose, it’s a story that is just there: 4/10

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Static written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Deep in the heart of nowhere, near a place called Abbey Marston, there’s a caravan site. The perfect place to get away from it all. Close by, there’s a stone circle they used for human sacrifice in olden times. A little further afield, there’s an old RAF research station, where they did hushhush things in the War. There’s only one rule: the use of radios, cassette recorders and portable televisions is strictly forbidden. People come here to get away from it all, you see. No-one wants to hear the noise. No-one wants to hear the voices in the static… No-one wants to hear the ghosts.

Softer Six: Much of interest to discuss about the sixth Doctor in this story, how his character has developed and where he could go after the events of this story. It seems Colin Baker cannot really get a break, either he’s too acerbic and violent on television or he’s too cuddly and toothless on audio. I don’t think either is especially true – he could certainly be very charming on television (remember him brandishing flowers for Janet in Terror of the Vervoids) and I can recall many times where he has been far from amiable on audio (his rant about the Seriphia galaxy in The Apocalypse Element, his tension with Charley, the return of his spikier persona in The Wrong Doctors, his lack of any remorse in murdering the Valeyard in The Last Adventure). But even Colin Baker admits there is a gulf between his television persona and his Big Finish one. It’s a swing very much in his favour in my book but there have been some occasions lately where it seems he has lost that dangerous edge that made him so exciting a character in the first place in favour of becoming an old smoothy-pants with the ladies he keeps company lately. The Behemoth put that Doctor left of centre, but The Middle then saw a welcome return of the morally righteous and confrontational sixth Doctor of old, and now Static introduces something quite different, quite unlike a sixth Doctor we have ever seen before. One who is a little cold, a little calculating and a little desperate. After being such a sociable fellow, it’s like a cup of ice water being thrown in your face. Percy recognises the Doctor immediately, setting in motion this journey for the sixth Doctor. When the Doctor sees danger signs, it is practically a welcome mat for him. I love how he pieces together the mystery so concisely, taking each element of the story (the mist, the stone circle, the manor, the return of the dead, the Static) and piecing it all together (with a few false but plausible guesses along the way). His anger at the Static is palpable, disgusted that they are hijacking the bodies of the dead being returned to life. It isn’t a moral objection (like The Unquiet Dead) but more a simple abhorrence of the idea itself. He’s rarely had to face anything this ghoulish. Morris puts the Doctor in the horrible position of arriving on the scene just a few seconds too late to save Constance. This isn’t like Adric’s death which was set up so the Doctor couldn’t interfere, the sixth Doctor is simply too late to save his companion by a handful of heartbeats. She’s in this situation because he brought her in the TARDIS and he sent her to destroy the radios. She’s complicit, but he’s responsible. What an awful burden. And we get see this play out in real time with Constance still alive and struggling to breathe, die, and then a moment later the Doctor bursts in. It’s horrible. He’s angry at Percy for leaving her but he knows that this is his fault because she didn’t want to let him down. It transpires that the Doctor is responsible for Marston Manor being hushed up, and he’s also responsible for Percy’s unbearable situation. The Doctor orders him to stay, puts the weight of the Static’s possible return on his shoulders, informs him that he cannot see his family ever again. We know Percy is in this position because he is an old man when the Doctor meets him, we know he has to be put in this position to ensure everything stays that way. But it doesn’t make what the Doctor is commanding him to do any less callous or calculating. It’s an abominable ask of anybody, if anything the Doctor should have agreed to do it himself. Instead he turns a promising young officer into a twisted and frightened old man, trapped in a hellish void. It might be life after death, but it might as well be his own personal hell. The most disturbing thing? The Doctor’s insistence that he will contact Percy’s friends and family and tell them that he is dead. When they could go to the stone circle and spend time with him, he denies the man that comfort. Colin Baker plays the scene gently, but that somehow that makes it worse. The Doctor is responsible for Constance’s ID being on Percy in the future…did he do that because he simply couldn’t bear the idea of losing her like this? Because he knew Flip would remember her and bring her back? Would he put her through the horror of having to host the Static simply because her death isn’t something he wants on his conscience? So many interesting questions. If the Doctor was in control of his faculties when hosting the Static then he puts Flip through an emotional nightmare, the thought of sending Constance back to her death, to save the day. That’s almost seventh Doctor in approach. He gets off a little lightly at the climax given all the above. Because he manages to save the day and defeat the Static that seems to be enough to skip over all the choices he made along the way. The Static is still inside his mind, buzzing away. If we never hear about this again can we assume that it is there throughout all of his subsequent regenerations lives? Perhaps that is why his next incarnation is such a manipulative little beggar, why the 8th Doctor becomes the War Doctor, why the 9th Doctor was so condemning, the 10th so arrogant… There’s a suggestion that Percy thanked the Doctor for those extra years of life. Colin Baker doesn’t even sound convinced when he says the lines and part of me thinks that the Doctor made this up to smooth over his actions. Why would he thank him for such a terrible existence?

Constant Companion: It’s been on the cards for a while now that Constance has wanted to leave the Doctor, and she’s not making any secret of it anymore when they land and it isn’t where she belongs. Static toys with that idea in the cruellest possible way, the companion wanting to leave, getting within a hairs breath of achieving it and then when satisfied that she is as close as she will ever be, Constance dies in horrific circumstances. Jonathan Morris toys with that old trope spectacularly, and I was quite aghast at how punishing the story is on Constance. I’ve always liked her, ever since her Mel-like appearance out of order in The Last Adventure. Miranda Raison has always been very much in charge of the character, refusing to make her too cute and cuddly, always respecting the Doctor and being a very practical presence in her stories. At times Constance has been icier than the Doctor, but it’s true she has thawed a little, especially since the revelations about her husband. With the introduction of Flip, there’s been a feeling of the three characters locking into place in a very satisfying way and chance would have it the stories have all been of a superior nature too. How can we let go of this character now she has matured into such a strong presence in the audios?

Meeting Percy is also an unnerving experience for Constance, it’s the first step in the road to her death. He knows what happens to her and looks at her as if she has no right to exist. She respects the Doctor’s advice and thinks Flip should too. She wishes he would stop finding excuses for not taking them home, though. It feels like her life is on hold and she wants to resume it. Flip thinks he just finds it hard saying goodbye and so takes the scenic route home. Constance coming through the fog, recovering from smoke inhalation, is a truly frightening moment. We know how she is going to die, now we have to endure the agony of waiting for it to happen. She’s very straight with the Doctor about wanting to stay now she is as close to her time as he has ever managed to take her, but much gentler than, say Tegan, who used to simply berate the man for failing to get her exactly where she wanted to be. She considers lying low and getting a job and waiting to pick up things when she reaches the moment she left with the Doctor. It’s an understandable dilemma. Life with the Doctor is exciting but it isn’t stable and you can’t grow roots. It’s just chasing from one location to another. If you want a life, stability, loved ones, a family, it simply isn’t an option (as proven by Amy and Rory who were the closest to having a domestic life in the TARDIS but simply couldn’t enjoy it because of the nature of their life with the Doctor). Constance isn’t cruel in wanting to leave, she just wants to return to a life she was perfectly happy with and there is nothing wrong with that. She won’t hear that woman aren’t capable of a little action and sends Percy away to get the job done herself. It’s her downfall as the Static know that she is trying to prevent their arrival and take action against her. The Doctor sends Constance’s original body back to the fire to die with the Static inside her. The Constance we know and love has died. The duplicate might have her mind placed inside her, but this is not the woman who left with the Doctor in Bletchley Park. It’s remarkably similar to what happened with Fitz in the EDAs. Let’s see if the idea is dealt with in a similar way (mostly ignored, occasionally potently brought up) or if it will become a focus of their next trilogy of adventures.

Flippin’ Heck: I’m so pleased that so many of her detractors seem to have come around with Flip. I’ve always liked her and have considered her perfect companion fodder for the sixth Doctor (the reckless teen to his cautious old man) and Lisa Greenwood has always (despite some calling her accent irksome) delivered sparkling, enthusiastic performances. It’s her ability to talk to talk to people that is her greatest strength, to get close to the ‘little’ people in these adventures and give them some heart. That’s a vitally important role, one which is much underrated, because it takes these science fiction stories to a new a level where you genuinely care about the characters. Flip dives in head first and has a wild charm, thrusting out a hand to say hello regardless of who she is addressing. It’s true that the writers are treating the character more responsibly these days, which could be down to Constance’s presence, and they are giving her a more active presence in the stories. Morris created the character and so I would expect good things from him and he doesn’t disappoint, this is possibly her best story yet. Not because she exhibits any great knowledge or ingenuity, but because she smartly, humanely uncovers important elements of the mystery and because she has a personal stake in the story by the end that sees her protective streak emerge. When Joanna is clearly upset Flip tells the Doctor and Constance to leave it to her, that’s her strength. She doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean and is glad to volunteer to stay whilst the Doctor and Constance head back in time to the RAF base at its height and investigate. Brave, as well as impulsive. Flip did a first aid course with St Johns Ambulance…I bet she never thought it would be applied to a comatose victim covered in biological glue. I loved how funny Flip can be, even in a desperate, dangerous situation. Her desperation to save Constance from being returned to her death is palpable, desperate. It’s an emotional high for Lisa Greenwood.

Standout Performance: Doctor Who always used to offer guest artists a reason to chomp at the bit for a part in the show, a chance to play something completely different to the norm on television and audio. Static hands David Graham a superb character in the form of Percy Till, who goes on the same journey as David Suchet’s character in Knock Knock, from a scary old man to a much more sympathetic figure. I would say this is handled much more effectively because there is a much riskier story behind the character. Graham gets to scare the pants off you before tearing your heart out and he does it all with absolute conviction. It’s a great part.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s something about this place that means the dead don’t stay dead…’
‘You’re deliberately sending them back to their deaths!’ ‘That’s war. They’ve been granted a stay of execution. An hour’s living on borrowed time.’
‘Anyone who is brought back carries us within them.’
‘That gives you no right to use human beings as living lifeboats!’
‘We are also armed. And the dead outnumber the living.’
‘Oh Constance. Never giving up. Never giving in. Never give in.’
‘I did as you said, Doctor. I stayed.’

Great Ideas: The cover and teaser are the best in an age, both fantastically scary. The opening teaser is unforgettable, with Constance screaming for help in the ever present static. I can’t think of a main range story that has opened on such an arresting moment of drama in quite some years. The script makes it very clear and the story reaffirms this at the climax, Static opens with a companion’s death taking place. Talk about throwing you in the deep end. Congratulations to Jonathan Morris for creating the creepiest location in a Doctor Who story for a while, the desolate caravan park shrouded in mist, cut off from the world. It’s the last place in the universe that anybody would want to end up, especially with the owner, the sadistically creepy Percy Till to watch over you. The rule of no communications devices or radios disturbing the other guests is a classic horror movie motif…and I was just waiting for the first time that rule was broken to see what the consequences would be. Morris employs the Russell T Davies rule of introducing characters but not giving you their entire story, but merely a hint of their backstory that opens up a world of possibility for them beyond this story (Joanna and Andy are here to ‘work things out’ but it is never explained why). We know that Joanna’s sister is dead, but not the exact details around it and there is reference to a year of her hating herself and giving him hell that we can only imagine after the event. Abbey Marston Manor was the position of a top-secret RAF project that nobody knew about except the high ups in the war office. Television static isn’t just static but cosmic noise, the afterglow of the Big Bang. People being plucked out of time at the exact moment of their death. Within the perimeter of the caravan park, time is at a standstill. There is no past or future, only the here and now and the return of the dead. Can you imagine if this place went public? The chance for people to bring back their dead relatives. It would be a media circus, a religious nightmare and a chance for the very rich to exploit a service with devastating consequences. But that’s a story for another day. The mist is a psychological barrier, to stop people from leaving, a quarantine barrier. The stone circle was constructed to harness the properties of the area, to bring back the dead. The source of the effect is ancient, buried in the Earth since before the dawn of mankind. The stones are just a marker. If the dead can’t go anywhere, can’t walk out of the perimeter, what is the point of bringing them back beyond the act of being with them again? Until the dead are sent back to the point of their death, the nowhere place that returns the dead remains outside time. What an ask…for someone to have to choose to return to the moment of their death. At RAF Marston, the WRENS pick up calls from the dead in their radio receivers and then harnessing the power in the area to bring them back from the dead. It seems very plausible to me that the military would exploit such a power to talk dead soldiers and try and learn from their mistakes. Anything for a tactical advantage. The cocoons in the trees are embryos and the liquid is amniotic fluid, clones. Exact duplicates. The purpose of this place is to bring people back from the dead, to give them a new body and then to return them back to their correct time and place to die. A way of cheating death itself, the original dying (meaning no temporal disturbances) but a duplicate created with all their living memories. For what purpose? The Static have no bodies of their own and they need to use others to gain entry to the world. When the dead return to life they travel through their domain and they hitch a ride. The altars are a resurrection machine, the minds of the dead planted into the clone bodies grown. Once the duplicate body is destroyed, the original is sent back to where it came from, and the Static dies with them.

Audio Landscape: Now this is a story where you can very much discuss the audio landscape because writer Jonathan Morris, director Jamie Anderson and sound designers Joe Kraemer & Josh Arakelian are all working beautifully in sync to haunt you from the opening scene. Static is a disturbing noise that I’m surprised Big Finish haven’t exploited before, it fills your ears with an unpleasant scratchy whine and it’s easy to imagine an alien presence lurking inside. The rain is ever present in the first few scenes, trapping the characters in the location that seals their fate. After two hours in a strange, dreamlike setting, the shift to the RAF base is welcome and makes for a vivid shift in atmosphere. Suddenly its marching boots, planes roaring overhead and orders being shouted. A good sound designer can instantly conjure up images of the setting and this works perfectly. As depicted on the cover, the cocoons hold the dead in a nasty, viscous liquid. Listen as they slither out and slop to the floor. The sizzle of the live wires as Constance destroys the radios is disturbingly apparent, and my heart was in my mouth because I knew that her death was approaching.

Musical Cues: It feels like a while since I have spoken about music in a Doctor Who release because I take it as a given that it is going to be competent in every release. It’s only when it is particularly good or bad that I feel the need to comment. Count this very much in the former category, with Joe Kraemer providing a highly atmospheric, ever present but not dominating horror score. I especially liked the vocals when Andy showed Joanna the TV screen, that was remarkably effective.

Standout Scene: Never before has a ringing phone had such consequence in Doctor Who, or been such a foreboding presence. Not even when the Brigadier was waiting for a call back on the missile strike in The invasion of the Doctor receiving the call from the empty child on the TARDIS phone. Not even the calls from the dead in Absent Friends, which is the nearest comparison. The ringing phone in Static is literally a call from somebody who has died, and somebody who will stumble through the mist from the point of their death if you pick up. Dare you see which of your nearest and dearest has died…and face them seconds after their death? When Flip gets a call from Constance, we know this story cannot end well. The end of episode two gave me goose bumps, I wasn’t sure entirely what was happening at this point but the return of over 20 men from the dead being greeted with military efficiency just felt completely wrong in the best of dramatic ways. I was rivetted. That, and Constance’s death and the Doctor’s reaction, which is simply the most disturbing the main range has dared to be in such a long time.

Result: Genuinely disturbing to listen to, Static features Jonathan Morris at his riskiest and most dramatic. I wasn’t sure how I would take to a story that is trying to be as ‘scary as The Chimes of Midnight’ because that seems like a ridiculous claim and no place for a writer to start, asking for immediate comparisons with a Doctor Who classic. Kudos to Jonathan Morris then for brewing up a story that really set my teeth on edge, a story that deals with the thorny subject of people dying and being brought back to life in a horrific way. Death is a regular occurrence in Doctor Who, it’s tenapenny, but the best stories are those that make you feel those murders and the emotional impact on the other characters. Static seizes your throat in that respect and doesn’t release it until you are gasping for air. Starting with the guest characters but spreading to the regulars, death is like a shadow that cloaks the story and whilst the idea of undoing those murders might seem like a cop-out, that proves to be even more disturbing option. When it’s the better option that you died I agony, that’s terrifying. I really like how the process of people returning from the dead is built so firmly into the story, that it is so well established and shown as something to fear. It feels in no way a cheat, but the point of the story. Morris really could have taught Moffat a thing or two. Episodes one, two and three are pure atmosphere and set up and masterfully done. If episode four takes a dive into more conventional Doctor Who territory (because the first three are anything but, there has never been a Doctor Who story that has felt quite this disquieting before) then it saves some the biggest twists and most frightening moments to level things out. Something has to be said for Jonathan Morris, who has been churning out fantastic Big Finish scripts for many years and is showing zero signs of a lack of imagination or coasting. Static is one of his most vivid adventures. Kudos as well to the director and sound designers for making this such a nightmarish experience. It's a story that throws an unflattering light on the amiable sixth Doctor, that does unspeakable things to one of his companions and a story that leaves you with much to discuss in its aftermath, moreso than any main range adventure for years. Packed with nightmarish images, creepy concepts and a disquieting atmosphere of death, Static continues the excellent work for this team of regulars. This made me think, it made me feel, it frightened me and it left me buzzing with excitement in the way only the best of Doctor Who can. A terrific trilogy of adventures, the sixth Doctor adventures are once again the trail blazers for this range: 10/10

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Middle written by Chris Chapman and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: It’s L/Wren Mrs Constance Clarke’s birthday - and Flip is determined to make it an anniversary to remember. The futuristic colony of Formicia, where the pampered populace pass their days in endless leisure, seems the perfect place for a ‘Wren Party’. But all is not as it seems. Looking down from the Middle, the skyscraping tower that ascends as far as the colony ceiling, Formicia’s overseers can see that the Doctor doesn’t fit in - and it’s not just his coat that makes him conspicuous... “The End is the Beginning,” say the propaganda-like posters all over Formicia. Because to be part of this perfect society comes at a price. And the Doctor's already in arrears.

Softer Six: Quite inadvertently, the Doctor has a small family around him again. If there is something that the first two stories in this trilogy have promoted it is how well these three characters work when they are in the vicinity of each other. The Doctor has a smart 30 something to bounce off and a street wise teenager to tame, Constance benefits from the Doctor’s attention and respect and Flip brings out both admiration and frustration for her energy and riskiness. The two women indulge in a sisterly relationship, the type we haven’t seen work since Peri and Erimem, and that comes with a lot of affection and more than a little culture clash. A bit of an Earth-spotter, this one. Flip makes a good joke at the Doctor’s age, that he decides how old he is on a daily basis. That would explain the discrepancies over the years. He’s lived nearly a millennium, fought innumerable intergalactic tyrants, liberated countless worlds and civilisations – and he’s never once felt the slightest inclination to receive a robot massage. Finally, something completely original said by the Doctor! A man of staggering exhibitionism, the Doctor’s coat consists of no less than seventy-sex individual colour tones. The Doctor is too old for system calibrations, apparently, so ‘over seventy’ will, have to do. He’s all for the empowerment of the elderly. The inside of the Doctor’s head is not the sort of place a machine should pry for stimulus because there are very few straight lines in there. The fate of being turned into a mechanised weapon is the last thing the Doctor would want. As a contentious objector to violence, the Doctor accepts his label as a coward. The Doctor makes the statement that the elderly population of Formicia’s lives are worth just as much as everybody else’s. He might as well be pointing out of the audio to those listening about the elderly people in their lives. I hope one day we meet the mountain mauler of Montana since the Doctor name drops him so much. Flip knows that the Doctor would be a rubbish soldier.

Flippin’ Heck: Flip seems to be high on the idea of travelling with the Doctor again and enters this story with bundles of enthusiasm. Flip has so much energy that she makes Constance feel old, and the Doctor wholeheartedly agrees. She thinks the Doctor is a lot of things (including ‘obvious’, which you can take to mean whatever you want) but he is definitely not a coward. Flip is described as having a voice that goes right through you…I’m sure there are a few listeners out there who feel that way! She gets a glorious monologue in the last episode where she gets to recount the various adventures she has had with the Doctor and you realise just how long she has touched his life for and how many memorable moments there have been. Crashing microlights, Daleks at Waterloo, being killed by a Porcian, jumping into orbit towards the Earth…Chapman even manages to retroactively alter Flip’s first step into the TARDIS and explain why she was so nonchalant about it. They’ve really taken a lot of time to get this character right lately and the results are paying off in spades. She’s still Flip at heart; exasperating, enthusiastic and risky but she’s well motivated, very likable and resourceful with it. As a part of this trio, she’s shining.

Constant Companion: Constance prefers not to make a fuss about her birthday, and she doesn’t expect her 35th to be any different. Even a spot of deadly peril would be better than celebrating her birthday, Flip style. The Middle reminds Constance of Bletchley, all the busy worker bees milling about. It’s almost like she has come home. When Constance cried ‘your daughter…and my Phillipa!’ you get a real the sense of parental care that Constance feels for her. I love how Constance can affect elements from the Beginning and the End from the Middle, sending a message to the Doctor and saving Flip from the Drone. She’s in the position that most Doctor Who companions can only dream of, with an overview of the whole adventure and a position to have a positive influence on events. She puts York in a compromising position so he has to help her, I like that occasionally callous streak in her that comes out when the situation calls for it (remember when she stabbed a Dalek mutant with a screwdriver?). Having already heard Static and being well aware of Constance’s fate in that story I found her admission that she was looking forward to her later years, being looked after after having done her bit, all the more touching.

Standout Performance: The Middleman is such a marvellously nasty and officious character I found it practically impossible to reconcile with the fact that he is being played by Brian from Spaced. Mark Heap is an extremely versatile performer and I’ve seen him crop up in all kinds of shows and films in scene stealing bit parts but his turn in The Middle genuinely impressed me. Had you simply told me it was him, I wouldn’t have believed you. Such was the gravitas and brutality he brought to his voice. The Middleman is the most memorably nasty villain I recall in a Doctor Who audio for some time, and he butts heads gloriously with Colin Baker. Also take note of Sheila Reid’s incredible performance, especially when Janayia is doing everything in her power to stop herself from shooting her daughter. Looked at objectively it is a blatantly absurd situation for somebody to find themselves in but Reid makes the moment so painful to listen to.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Happy Birthday and welcome to the End!’
‘I’ve never seen such public debauchery!’ ‘Just you wait for VE DAY…’
‘Is this what I think it is? Some kind of euthanasia program? Murdering the elders, so the young can visit the spa?’ – this line cuts to the heart of the story and opens a lot of questions for discussion.
'Growing old does not make you expendable. But somebody round here obviously sees it that way.’
‘The war to end all wars’ ‘That type of war rarely keeps its word.’
‘It’s like Dad’s Army meets the Terminator!’
‘Death is coming to you…’

Great Ideas: Formicia has a heavily recycled atmosphere, but it’s been flavoured with lemon sherbets to make it that little more tolerable. An Earth colony, judging by the architecture, with a roof, making this place subterranean. There’s an element of Bad Wolf to this story with the promise that people are dying in horrible ways when in fact they are being transported elsewhere and put to a different purpose. I won’t criticise The Middle for that though because it takes that idea and plants it right into the heart of the story and keeps developing and evolving it. The drones remind the Doctor of an oculoid tracker. I have no reason to bring that up aside from the fact that I happen to love the oculoid tracker from Planet of Evil. When you turn 35 you end up in the Middle, the glass tower that overlooks all the fun, the centre of government where all the jobs are performed that keep Formicia going. The End isn’t a euthanasia programme but a recruitment one, building an army of mech-suited geriatrics! It’s rather wonderful how the elderly of this world, once feeling useless and forgotten by society, are excited and energised about being put to good use again, suited up and sent to war. It’s utterly surreal how they live a regular existence inside the suits, including romance. The suits draw power from experiences and so the elderly are the best candidates. As a way of ensuring that the young aren’t sent to war and perpetuate the next generation, it kind of works. The more you’ve lived, the stronger you are. Our whole civilisation looks up to you with unfathomable respect, says the Middleman of the elderly. The Middle holds up a mirror to a society that prefers to quietly forget about the elderly, to shunt them off to one side when they are physically and mentally infirmed. I did a two-year volunteer stint befriending with Age Concern and it appalled me how little contact the families of the people I looked after had with them, how these people with wonderful life experiences and terrific tall tales had to say but nobody was willing to listen to them or give them the time to feel valued. Everybody was too busy getting on with their own lives to notice them. I’m not going to turn this into an anti-ageist diatribe, Esther Ranzen has already done that for me. But I was impressed with how penetrating the dialogue in this story was, by pointing out how much the elderly can offer in experience and knowledge, it highlights how much British society neglects to capitalise on such a commodity. If you refuse to fight in the End, an execution drone is sent out to kill a loved one in your portfolio. There’s an incentive for you. Three generations back, the Kronvos invasion force gathered on the surface and attacked and a million young men and women were enlisted, fought and died. A bomb was considered the final solution and it left the surface of Formicia uninhabitable, which is what drove them underground. They almost curled up and died there and then because the population of young people had all but been wiped out…until a solution was found to allow the elderly to fight the battles of the young. It’s a warped solution, but it meant survival. The experiment that the Middleman was running began with the question ‘what use are the old?’ There never was a war, the Kronvos never existed, the people of Formicia just needed to think they had lost a generation for motivational reasons. Formicia is one of forty research spheres buried in the crust of the planet. Forty new model worlds. We live in an expanding universe, with an expanding population. But sooner or later every civilisation comes to the same crunch: more and more people, sharing ever-fewer resources… shortages that can bring about total societal collapse, if you doesn’t manage your affairs with care. Create the right conditions, and you can remake society any way you want. Democratic, autocratic, oligarchic, gerontocratic. The possibilities are endless. In the case of Formicia, the experiment was to see if they could create a totally expendable, but totally willing warrior class. It’s a last-minute explanation that makes perfect sense of everything we have seen so far, without making a fallacy of the twists that have unfolded throughout the story. The trade off with having the truth revealed so late is that there isn’t time for the Doctor to solve all of this planets problems and so he leaves it in the hands of Janaiya, with enough force behind her to make the management board listen to her demands. Whether she manages to liberate the other 39 spheres is left to your imagination. I imagine the fight goes on…

Audio Landscape: It’s a story where the sound effects are used to drive fear into the listener. We’ve heard a heart monitor many times in Doctor Who audios (there’s probably a fan out there who can tell you just how many times) but rarely has it come with such suspense, once we’ve clocked on to the idea that death is arranged and every beep is counting down towards a deliberate death. The flatlining whine that comes next could be heard competing with my heartbeat. The wind blows to show the Doctor, Constance and Flip have landed at a great height. Whatever does happen to the old men and women who are bumped off, it sounds remarkably painful. The execution drone spitting out bullets reminded me of one of the better elements of Dark Angel. I remember thinking that the mech-suits sounded a little comical when they were first introduced but by the last episode when they have become instruments of death they really come into their own.

Isn’t it Odd: The implication that these mechanised geriatrics are somehow performing sexual acts with their suits simply does not bear thinking about! I would have ended episode two one scene earlier: having Mark Heap end an episode by declaring ‘the End!’ would have been perfect.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three pivots the plot once again, with the Doctor proving that the war that the elderly have been fighting has been a massive con and they have, in fact, been fighting holograms. It was an experiment, to see if the perfect society could be structured. The Doctor, by blundering in and exposing all the lies; the euthanasia and the war, has rendered the entire exercise pointless. And thus the Middleman wants the entire slate wiped clean to try once again, but first he has to wipe everyone out…and he has a mechanised army under his control that can do just that. It’s a wonderful cliff-hanger, dramatic and terrifying and Heap plays his angry indifference to perfection.

Result: A story that keeps on giving, The Middle is the most substantial main range adventure in some considerable years. It takes its premise and continues to twist and evolve it until the final episode; offering surprises, laughs, scares and a refreshing dollop of moral outrage along the way. The first episode is a terrific instalment in its own right, an ideal scene setter that dumps the Doctor, Flip and Constance in an environment where they are instantly in danger because of their age – something they cannot talk their way out of. It’s a perfect way of separating the three characters and allowing them to explore different aspects of this society, when the setting is structured to isolate them. There’s an emotional heart to all of this that raises it above simply being a good science fiction story (which it is); the discussion of the elderly and the desperation to stave off obsolescence, the fear of being euthanised for the good of society, the idea of being permanently cut off from your family with only one heartfelt communication a year, the anger of the exploitation of this society for capital gain, the agony of trying resist killing somebody you love…and more importantly the strength of the relationship between the Doctor, Flip and Constance and what this story has to say about their bond. The plot has been thought through in painstaking detail and it unfolds like an onion, with each episode giving more insight into the situation and ensuring that the unusual premise makes perfect sense. I wouldn’t call 2017 a renaissance year for the main range because we have had to suffer a dreadful Seven/Mel/Ace trilogy and an average fifth Doctor trilogy, but with some gems littered in the experimental two-part adventures, Time in Office and a sterling sixth Doctor trilogy, it has certainly seen a marked improvement on the past couple of years. The Middle proves there is serious life in this format yet, fresh stories to be told and the sort of clever and involving plot to be reached for that can reach two hours without flagging. If you’re looking for cool ideas this one has a terrifying Orwellian society, assassin drones, horned monsters on the rampage and mechanised suits that dish out death at your every negative thought. If you want standout performances, Jamie Anderson has compiled an impressive cast featuring Mark Heap and Sheila Reid delivering nourishing goods. If you’re looking for an immersive tale then close your eyes and let Jamie Robertson whisk you off to a frighteningly convincing Earth colony that is slowly torn apart. And if you’re looking for an audio that delivers amusing, incisive and intelligent dialogue then you won’t walk away short changed. And to top it all off you’ve got a fantastic regular team all exploited to their fullest, too. I’m more than happy to doll out full marks when the story justifies it, and The Middle proves a surprising hit (the cover, title and trailer didn’t inspire much confidence) that delivers everything I want from an exceptional Doctor Who story: 10/10

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Haunting of Malkin Place written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Whilst on the way to visit the town where Henry James lived, a chance encounter with a spiritualist on a train sends the Doctor and Romana on the trail of a ghost. It's the most convincing case of haunting he's ever heard of, he tells them. And so, on their arrival, does it appear to be. Things go bump in the night at Malkin Place. The voice of a crying child. Birds bursting into flight. Strange movements in a seance. The Doctor is determined there must be a rational explanation. But is science always the answer to everything?

Teeth and Curls: He loves the chill up the spine of a horror story and Tom Baker has the sort of voice that would bring a ghost story to life with fervent ghoulishness. Bumping along in the time vortex is fun enough but there’s nothing like roaring along in a steam train. A man after my own heart! He’s insulted! The Doctor has been called many things in his life…but never neat! The Doctor wrongly assumes that Talbot is a fraudster, taking money from the victims of his psychic powers but he’s given a reminder that not everybody in the universe is out for themselves. When Talbot calls him a very rude man, I giggled. One can only be right nearly all the time.

Aristocratic Adventurer: Romana is reading Henry James in a venerable old Victorian town house…a wonderful position to be in. So why does she sound so crabby? Somebody needs to remind Lalla Ward that she doesn’t have to let her disdain for working with Tom Baker spill over into her performances because Romana has gone from being one of the most vivid companions on audio to being the least enjoyable to spend time with. I jest, of course, because Ward has delivered some beautiful performances alongside (or edited into) Baker in the Missing Adventures range (and even The Paradox Planet and Legacy of Death in this range) but it is true that she just sounds so disinterested and fed up all the time. It’s a remarkably unlikable turn in what was an extremely amiable era when it came to the regulars. Romana hates the inexplicable nature of a horror story, she prefers the inexplicable being explained. Because she likes the idea of a rational theory behind everything, Romana is mistaken for a psychic de-bunker!

Great Ideas: Talk about cutting to the chase…there’s the announcement of a death and a haunting in the first scene! If there’s one person the Doctor trusts absolutely, it’s himself and having left a note in Tarzan telling him to not go up into the attic, he insists that that is what they do. Maurice came forward in time from 1917 making the future press back on to the house. A time vacuum in 1917 trying to suck Maurice back. The spirits aren’t ghosts from the past but from the future, normal children pulled back from the future. Out of place, pulled into a secondary time zone. Maurice opened the vortex by accident, a combination of his psychic terror and a damaged temporal device and possibly chancing upon a weak point in time. Maurice came to Malkin Place because of his connection with his twin, arriving just as she suffered the loss of their father.

Audio Landscape: I haven’t bothered with the audio landscape part of my reviews for the past handful because it does seem rather redundant, in hindsight, to list a bunch of noises that feature in a story. It only took me several hundred releases to catch on to the fact (that’s pretty good going for me) and so I’ve decided to only use it where necessary, when the story is placing a particular emphasis on sound or atmosphere. Malkin Place is for all intents and purposes a ghost story (as the title suggests) and so efforts are made here to get under the listeners skin and provide some scares. Let’s see how successful they were… There’s a heart in mouth moment when the Doctor suggests that where they are going is going to be peaceful and we cut to violently loud war scenes. That made me jump. There are the usual goings on you would expect in a ghost story; a child laughing, a sinister voice, a cold wind running through a séance, knocking on the table, a ticking clock, the house tearing itself apart, a demonic hat stand…and truth be told it’s all very well done. I would expect it to be well done, Big Finish must have a vast catalogue of sounds in their prolific range of stories and the experience to get it just right now. Jamie Robertson raises the game of Malkin Place considerably, taking a bog-standard horror story and turning it into something that goes bump in the night. I’d suggest for extra enjoyment you listen in the dark with headphones on.

Musical Cues: When the sting of the seasons 18 title music cuts in at the cliff-hanger, it just feels wrong. Rarely has the title music been so discordant with the style of story that is being played out. Season 18 has a definitive feel to it and it has nothing to do with trad Doctor Who haunted house mysteries.

Isn’t It Odd:
Can you imagine a season eighteen story starting with the Doctor and Romana having set up in Baker street and enjoying the thrills of Victorian England by steam train? It sounds delightful, but we’re in completely the wrong era of the show. Whilst the explanation behind the haunting is vaguely imaginative, you have to jump through a number of loopholes for it to be plausible (‘possibly chancing upon a weak point in time’). Why do explanations in horror stories always dispel the tension so? I think some ambiguity might be in order but then it wouldn’t be much of a Doctor Who story. It’s like Hide in the new series, tense until you realise a love story is playing out. Listen got it right, refusing to give you the explanations and thus maintaining the suspense.

Standout Scene: The twist about Maurice is touchingly played, but in reality there had to be some emotional beat in the story eventually. Until that point Malkin Place lacks anything but basic characterisation. It’s this revelation that pushes the story above average, there is usually a twist of sorts in a good horror. A man out of time is still a haunting, I guess.

Result: The Doctor and Romana heading to a haunted house in Romney Marsh; him looking forward to some good old-fashioned spooks and her ready to find a rational explanation for everything. Sounds rather fun! A shame then that there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in supernatural movies before; creepy noises, unnatural happenings, a séance, characters in deadly danger…and since this is Doctor Who it explains everything with a scientific rationale that makes repeated listenings unfortunate. It’s pretty tricky to criticise something for providing what the genre expects, but I could predict, beat for beat, where this story was going. Not the details, but the structure and where the twists would be placed. I’m not sure why it is the fourth Doctor adventures that seem to get stuck with these basic premises and inoffensive action, I would put it down to the length of the tale but it has never been the case of the eighth Doctor range. Perhaps ‘traditional’ leads the creators of these particular tales to mean ‘simple’, which doesn’t have to be the case. The Haunting of Malkin Place benefits from some very slick direction from Nick Briggs and atmospheric sound design from Jamie Robertson but in reality there isn’t much more here than a handful of pleasant characters pulling apart a Scooby Doo mystery. I would have enjoyed something a little more graphic or psychologically disturbing, Static in the main range has proven that audio Who still has the balls to truly disquiet its audience but this was all parlour tricks and no real horror. It’s enjoyable, and the performances (Lalla Ward aside, who is a right grumpy puss throughout) help but this isn’t one of those 4DAs that proves the exception to the (shallow) norm. Inessential, but a smooth listen: 6/10

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Ship in a Bottle written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor, Liv and Helen are hurtling into a future that has been utterly destroyed, trapped inside a shuttle with no possible means of escape. But with the lives of everyone in the universe in the balance, they've got to find one. And soon. When the stakes are this high, you can't just give up. Or can you?

Physician, Heal Thyself: There’s been many a time when his survival has been dependant on a piece of fruit. He’s usually very good at spotting psychopaths so he’s astonished that he has missed all the signs in Padrac. The counters Helen and Liv’s accusations of abandonment with being insulted that they would run off with the Eleven, and how they could ever think that it was him. He is extremely rude to Helen when she was only trying to help and I feel that his apology is completely justified. The Doctor is in guilt mode once again, feeling as though everything is his fault. Ever since the Eleven escaped from Gallifrey he has been trying to hold back the tide of events but can see now that everything he has done since that day has helped Padrac with his plans. He looks back it his previous incarnation and sees nothing but hubris, the great manipulator and the master of chess but nowadays he feels as though he could barely win a game of snakes and ladders with his opponents. Just because he has managed to muddle through everything so far it doesn’t mean he always will. What he needs is for Liv and Helen to give a bloody good slap (metaphorical, of course) and to give him something to fight for again. The last time the Doctor was this without hope was when he lost Lucie and Alex at the end of series four. Live calls him fatalistic, and she’s not wrong. The Doctor is trying to prepare his companions for the worst, that there maybe nothing they can do to prevent the future dying, that they might not be able to save anybody this time. He’s prepared to go forward with only keeping the memory of those people they met in the future (when it still existed) alive, saving them in hat small way.

Liv Chenka: Liv finally gets the chance to tell the Doctor how angry she is that he abandoned them to swan off with River, despite the urgency of the situation. Since he abandoned her she has been attacked, knocked unconscious and now she is hurtling into a future that doesn’t exist. She very much holds him accountable for what has happened to her. She makes him insist that he will never do it again, and to admit that they are a team and they work better that way. It’s an astonishing scene that really drives home the connection between these people and how much it hurts when that connection is broken. I loved Liv’s sheer determination in refusing to give up and accept the situation. When even the Doctor is without hope, she fights and fights. She considers it is her duty to go back and save the future and everybody that was once alive, there isn’t a choice. As a Med-Tec, she’s seen people die, told grieving relative that there is nothing that can be done…she’s had plenty of life experience before she met the Doctor. She doesn’t give up until every option is exhausted…and the she keeps on trying.

Helen Sinclair: Helen is written very smartly in this adventure, asking some very pertinent questions and trying to remain positive in an impossible situation. It’s one of her best ever showings. Sometimes she feels redundant next to the Doctor and Liv, but Liv tells her she has more than proven herself already. The Doctor is the best man that Helen has ever known and she knows he will get them out of this, it might be blind faith but she has no doubt in her mind. There’s a beautiful moment when Helen comforts Liv with the knowledge that sometimes it is okay to let go of hope, recalling the death of her grandmother. It’s terribly sweet for her to use such a personal memory to make things easier for her friend.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We’re still travelling into a murdered future, only now we’re travelling into it gently.’
‘The universe is destroyed and its because of me.’
‘Believing is the first step in healing. Moving on.’

Great Ideas: I’m a bit on the fence about bottle episodes; sometimes they are beautifully done and give the regulars characters a real chance to shine without any outside interference from guest characters or moving to new locations beyond the normal sets. I particularly like bottle shows that primarily feature two characters and the time is used to explore that relationship in some depth (DS9’s Duet and Waltz are great examples). Other times they can be the most remarkably contrived situations in order for the show to save money. Clip shows are particularly loathsome (check out TNG’s Shades of Grey). To do a bottle show on audio is a ballsy thing given that there is an unlimited budget in the imagination and that the only justifiable reason to cut back so much is to give the characters a chance to breathe. Which Dorney succeeds in doing admirably here, given the regulars were somewhat at sea in the previous box set in such a violent and all-consuming narrative. This reminds me a little of the Stargate episode Unending, which also had the regulars in an impossible situation out of time and dealt with how they coped with the idea of never being able to escape. Except for Doctor Who a bottle show (well referenced in the title) is a rarity, and thus should be enjoyed as a novelty too. Outside the shuttle is dead space, Padrac has destroyed the future of the universe. Every single creature for the end of time has been destroyed. The Doctor, Live and Helen are trapped nowhere for an eternity. Let’s give John Dorney and Matt Fitton a round of applause for manipulating events so the fourth Doom Coalition set starts on such an ominous and memorable note. Padrac has been working with the Sonomancer and the Eleven and the Clocksmith…he’s been a busy boy. Helen asks a very good question; if the universe has been destroyed and the Doctor always says they cannot change what has happened…doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done? The Doctor counters with the argument that since they have already been to the future and know it exists it suggests that this is the aberrant timeline. If you’re stuck in the middle of an ocean (the non-future) how do you get back to shore? You ride a wave (time winds in the vortex). Riding a shockwave back in time through the vortex. There is only one way to do that…blowing up the boat.

Isn’t it Odd: You do have to wonder why Padrac went to all the length of trapping the Doctor and his companions in the non-future when he could have just killed them. I guess that’s a Time Lord justice for you, shove them aside somewhere alive rather than getting his hands bloody.

Standout Scene: ‘Doctor, we’ve made our choice…’ After all the tension in this story you might think that things have been damaged beyond repair for this team. When it comes to the Doctor’s insane plan of escape, his two companions don’t doubt him for a moment. Ship in a Bottle has strengthened the faith they have in each other, not weakened it.

Result: Like the beginning of the previous set, this is an intimate character drama that kicks things off in memorable style. The one thing the Doctor, Liv and Helen have plenty of now is time and it is a chance for the three of them to have it out. After the tidal wave of plot from the previous three stories it is a huge relief to cut things back to just the three regulars and to deal with their reactions to everything that has been going on. John Dorney is scripting, and he isn’t afraid to push these characters into asking tough questions. What I found interesting was how much it exposed about the strength of the eighth Doctor, Liv and Helen as individual characters because this was the sort of economic storytelling that would reveal whether they were hollow or fully rounded people. A lesser set of regulars would flag in this type of story. Pleasingly, they all have solid reasons for being angry and frustrated with one another and it never once feels as though the tension is manufactured. Not only that it shines a new light on how much they need each other and how effective they work together. Doom Coalition might ultimately be another Doctor Who epic to end all epics, but it has brought together a wonderful TARDIS team. I’m so pleased that the personal consequences of this story are being dealt with (because they are so often ignored in Doctor Who) and that meaty acting opportunities are being handed out to the performers. The ‘escape the non-future’ plot is reasonable, but it’s the dialogue and performances that shine here. I felt this was getting back to what audio drama can really achieve; intimacy, emotion and meaning. The last ten minutes in particular are hugely uplifting and exciting, with a memorably ambiguous final scene. A huge thumbs up to Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan for tackling such a challenging script so skilfully. What a team: 9/10

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Time in Office written by Eddie Robson and directed by Helen Goldwyn

What’s it about: The Doctor's adventures in time and space are over. The Time Lords have recalled him to Gallifrey – but what he faces on his home planet is worse than any trial. Following the disappearance of President Borusa, the High Council condemned him to the highest office - and he can't evade his responsibilities a nanosecond longer... So all hail the Lord High President! All hail President Doctor! Rassilon save him. This time, there's really no escape.

An English Gentleman: He only accepted the Presidency in order to give the Time Lords the slip and get away from Gallifrey…of course High Office wasn’t on his list of career choices! It did feel like something of a missed a missed opportunity to duck out of a chance to see how the Doctor coped with the presidency that he accepted. Like much of the early eighties, it ducks the interesting possibilities for character development (see also Nyssa confronting the Master about her father’s death, Adric going through any kind of grief process about his brother, exploring Tegan failing to cope back on Earth before re-joining the TARDIS and the fallout of the suggestions between Pei and her stepfather). It would have been very satisfying to have had a story set on Gallifrey with the Doctor struggling to cope with being grounded on the planet he always longs to escape. Eric Saward’s loss is Big Finish’s gain, because this is the most delicious concept driven story in an age. Marvellously, since all of this was set up in The Five Doctors all Eddie Robson has to do is drag the Doctor’s ass back to Gallifrey and the story can begin. He likes to think he’s an amenable sort of chap, especially compared to his recent incarnations. The Doctor attended the Academy and describes it as a decidedly mixed experience. He’s a cheeky one, undermining the social order of Gallifrey in his first act and forcing the elite class to work harder and giving the lower classes fresh opportunities. It’s his chance to iron out the issues he has with his home planet. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to cross some things off his list. ‘We can be home in time for tea and scones!’ – you see now why I give the fifth Doctor his title heading. It’s a little tricky when you have been at this time and space travelling lark as long as the Doctor and then you take up the mantle of Presidency, it means you may very well wind up causing a diplomatic incident when one of your previous adventures comes back to bit you in the ass. Apparently, the TARDIS is not as complicated to pilot as the Doctor lets on, he just likes to do all the driving himself. As a boy the Doctor never could resist bringing strange creatures home with him (that’s not a very nice way to describe Leela, mind). The Doctor returning to the Academy is an idea that holds some dramatic weight, but this isn’t really the story to explore that. Time of Office is much more interested in pointing out what a naughty little boy he was. Tegan and Leela have a good laugh at the Doctor when he performs a catwalk wearing the robes, sash and staff of Rassilon. Bling bling. Hearing the Doctor say ‘hello, old fella’ to his new TARDIS is just plain weird and Davison plays the line with the right amount of uncertainty.

Mouth on Legs: ‘I’m not worried, I’m cross!’ which is her default setting. Tegan nearly goes the way of Jamie and Zoe, her memory of her time with the Doctor excised. It would have been ever more gutting for me because it would have meant that we endured those three seasons with her, and only the audience would be saddled with the memory of it. Tegan implies that her time away from the Doctor wasn’t the best of years and so when the Time Lords are looking to excise her memory, she asks them not to bother letting her keep that one. Ambassador Tegan? I suppose it’s better than saddling some poor Gallifreyan with her hand in marriage. She takes her role seriously and it’s really amusing to watch her, well researched, know just as much about certain Gallifreyan rituals as the Doctor. If she was made president of Earth she would close the gender pay gap, revise aboriginal land rights and force her cousin Scott to admit he had a thing with her cousin that summer. Nice to know she has her priorities straight. She does start to get a little bored on Gallifrey and accepts a date with Scandrius. She doesn’t realise that involves stealing a TARDIS and heading out to a bar somewhere in the universe but it’s nice when a guy makes an effort to impress. Tegan realises on her date that she doesn’t want to gallivant around the universe with a tribute act but the real thing. Do you know I fear that might be the first time I have heard Tegan fight passionately for the idea of travelling with the Doctor? How refreshing. Although, somewhat amusingly, the next trip would turn out to be her last.

Noble Savage: From a lost human colony on a distant jungle planet, it’s as concise a description of Leela’s origins as I can remember. During the mopping up of the Death Zone on Gallifrey, Leela brought down the Raston Warrior Robot and has its head mounted on the wall in her kitchen. That nearly made me spit out my coffee. In a fit of pique, Leela attempts to tender her resignation and completely forgets that she doesn’t have a job. When the Doctor gives Leela carte blanche to destroy the controls of his new TARDIS you can hear her screaming and causing havoc for the rest of the scene! It’s like a rabid dog has been let off the leash.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Is this the water feature of Rassilon?’
‘You can’t be called President Doctor!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s two titles!’
‘But the people who disagree with me on this are idiots’ – the template for the rigid visioned Doctor Who fan
‘Gallifrey is ready to follow you, Doctor!’

Great Ideas: Nice to see that there are news anchors, even on Gallifrey, that attempt to manufacture conflict between the people they interview simply to make a good bit of telly. Truthfully there is a gap where the Doctor and Tegan can have an adventure on their own between stories so Eddie Robson shoves his tale into the journey they take in Frontios to drop of the Gravis. If that’s how we can do this sort of thing now there are all kinds of diversions and side stories that could be placed. Big Finish need never stop churning out stories within stories. Mind, the continuity reference at the beginning of the story feels very Eric Saward (enforced by JNT, as is implied). Chancellor Flavia retired because people blamed her for bungling the succession. Borusa’s reputation was too powerful for the people to be told the truth about his betrayal, so it was quietly side-lined. The Black Files (anything official and Gallifreyan deserves capitals, don’t you think?) officially un-exist and you can only by visiting an office at the heart of an asteroid in a pocket dimension, which is the only surviving remnant of a redundant timeline. Typical over complicated Time Lord bureaucracy. You get the sense that the Doctor is taking the piss in spectacular style when he coins a battle TARDIS a ‘WARDIS.’ The Doctor ‘accidentally’ left his room in temporal stasis and so it is still present for his trip to the Academy, a small piece of his past perfectly preserved. Gallifrey fully understands harnessing the power of block transfer computations to erect great structures in no time at all. Imagine all the pomp and circumstance that goes with opening a spanking new Capitol building on Gallifrey? Fluid sculptures are a terrific idea, monuments that shift from regeneration to regeneration of important Time Lords worth commemorating. The Citadel shifts between a building and a humanoid machine – just imagine how that could visualised today? A living TARDIS posing as a building that gets up amongst the cities of Gallifrey. Astonishing. Vorena is offering the Doctor the power to do what he does best, to spread his personal brand of interference throughout the universe but with all the power of the Time Lords behind him in a sentient TARDIS. I’m not sure ideas like that should be dealt with in ten minutes, but it’s still a insanely ambitious notion.

Isn’t it Odd: There is an argument that could be made about wasting so many potentially dramatic ideas on a romp…but I can’t be bothered this time because I simply had too much fun with this one.

Standout Scene: I was wetting myself in the first episode as Crex tries to outfox the Doctor who outfoxes him, so he has a second plan in place, which his own organisation outfoxes. It’s twist and counter twist all the way in a farcical scene that tickles and delights. The reveal that the entire Capitol building is a TARDIS is a doozy of a revelation, too.

Result: What would have happened if the Doctor had been forced back to Gallifrey after The Five Doctors and expected to fulfil his role as Lord President? Eddie Robson has a blast with the idea, using the umbrella theme of a year on Gallifrey to tell four stories that tackle the idea. It’s the best anthology release yet because it isn’t really an anthology at all, more a serial with loosely shaped mini stories buried within. It’s a good thing, because I’m not sure any of these stories would have held up as adventures in their own right but hung on the eclectic framework of the Doctor in charge, Tegan as Ambassador of Earth and Leela as their protector and guide, the whole piece comes together as deliriously entertaining. Add in more great lines than I could recount, some very pleasant character work, zesty ideas and some terrific direction that gives the whole story a light touch and a sense of occasion, you have a Doctor Who set on Gallifrey that I can finally hold up and recommend. Bravo. This isn’t much like the Gallifrey series that Big Finish has been putting out for donkey’s years now, which at its best mixed high concept science fiction with political drama to riveting effect. Eddie Robson is interested in mining the fun out of ‘the Doctor running Gallifrey’ and not deal with any meditative angle on the idea (thank goodness he has Tegan and her catty commentary on everything to provide such a wonderfully human perspective then). And why not? There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment, especially when it is as pleasurable as this release. Another shout out for Janet Fielding as Tegan, an actress I have never rated that much because of her struggles in the series in the eighties with a role that was inconsistently defined and one note. In Time in Office Tegan is funny, warm, smart and extremely engaging company. I can’t think of another character within the Doctor Who universe that I have take such a 180 with. Another bravo, both for Eddie Robson and Big Finish. I would compare this release favourably with The One Doctor, Ringpullworld and Robson’s own Situation Vacant, a story that isn’t looking to probe deep but one that delights for it’s entire running time, and leaves you with a huge smile on your face. It’s good to remember that Doctor Who can simply offer a bloody good time: 9/10

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Contingency Club written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: London, 1864 - where any gentleman befitting the title ‘gentleman’ belongs to a gentlemen’s club: The Reform, The Athenaeum, The Carlton, The Garrick… and, of course, The Contingency. Newly established in St James’, The Contingency has quickly become the most exclusive enclave in town. A refuge for men of politics, men of science, men of letters. A place to escape. A place to think. A place to be free. The first rule of the Contingency is to behave like a gentleman. The second is to pay no heed to its oddly identical servants. Or to the horror in its cellars. Or to the existence of the secret gallery on its upper floor… Rules that the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan are all about to break.

An English Gentleman: It’s fascinating that the team of the fifth Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa should work together so well on audio given that they are literally a bunch of oddballs thrown together with no particular plan. All this clever-cleverness in the TARDIS, cries JNT, let’s bring in some kids. I know a cheeky artful dodger type, but with a maths degree. Wait, that cute little girl on Traken was rather lovely, let’s add her to the mix. How about a really mouthy Australian with an obsession with Heathrow airport? And for good measure let’s throw in that charming fella from All Creatures, barely out of the cradle and shove him in some cricket gear. Looking at these four characters objectively they are utterly disparate and have no right appearing in the same TV show together at all, let alone functioning as the audience identification figures. On screen the actors are often awkward in the barely fleshed out characters and there is no real sense of developing relationships or a decent motive of why they travel together. It’s kind of just because they’re stuck together. And yet for a large section of fandom they sum up a particular period of Doctor Who (let’s call it TARD-Enders) and their coming together marks a pivotal point, where Tom Baker left the show and there was a seasons worth of grace as the audience checked out the ‘dynamic’ new team. When it appeared that both Matthew Waterhouse and Janet Fielding wouldn’t return to Doctor Who on audio is was long feared (or possibly rejoiced) that this team would never get to enjoy the same sort of renaissance as the sixth Doctor and Peri and the seventh Doctor and Mel (it’s funny how only the 80s companions need some kind of renaissance, isn’t it?). Until one fateful day the stars aligned and all the cattiness apparent on the DVD commentaries between Davison, Waterhouse, Fielding and Sutton transferred to the Big Finish studios for the Fifth Doctor Boxset (featuring Psychodrome and Iterations of I). Horror of horrors, the team was back together. I was agog when I heard the results; the only time in memory when I have given 10/10 to an entire boxset, a pair of stories that plays to every one of their strengths, a relaxed set of performances (that can only come from a lifetime of these actors forging relationships at conventions) and a longing for further stories with these characters. And here we are; the first trilogy for the fifth Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa. What does this have to do with The Contingency Club? Like The Star Men before it, the writer captures a distinctive voice for each of them and pairs them off in very entertaining ways. These aren’t characters that work together naturally, I explained that upthread, you have to put some work into capitalising on their individual strengths and weaknesses and Mulryne has done a fine job of that. The story here is okay, but his work with the regulars is exceptional. It’s another winner for this team, which so far has not dropped the ball once.

Hilariously the Doctor states that they have tried and failed to get to Heathrow once too often, hopefully putting an end to that bloody airport being mentioned in every season 19 Big Finish story. Even more joyfully he wonders if there is some influence that is deliberately keeping them away. You can hear Gary Russell writing the proposal for that continuity gap as I type. Sometimes he feels his three companions could all do with a headmaster and he tries to fill that role, but the fact that he looks younger than his oldest companion works against him.

Maths Nerd: ‘Some teenager you are!’ cries Tegan, baulking at the idea that Adric never enjoyed music when he was a teenager, instead choosing the symphony of numbers. I bet he never played with himself, either. He’s trying to fit in with these meddlesome girls but he can’t seem to grasp their language, especially when they refuse to accept how superior his intellect is.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan’s Walkman dates her wonderfully, especially how proud she is of it. She gets off her best cutting remark about the TARDIS yet, comparing it unfavourably to a personal stereo. A gentleman’s club that refuses women admittance being ruled by a Queen…imagine Tegan’s delight. Setting explosives next to Tegan is a fruitless exercise, she detonates with far more ferocity than any dynamite ever could.

Alien Orphan: The Miss ‘OfTraken’ is peddled out again, but it’s still faintly amusing.

Standout Performance: What has happened to me? I just love Janet Fielding’s Tegan these days. Fielding isn’t fighting a caricature, as she often was on television but embracing a character, and playing it warmth and humour. Fielding has become one of my favourite Big Finish performers. She made me laugh out loud twice in several minutes in the first episode. I never, ever laughed at Tegan on the television. I was too busy trying to think of ways to dismember her. Lorelei King’s performance is interesting because she gives the Red Queen all the ham and hokey of a Doctor Who villain, and yet she turns out to be anything but. It’s rather misleading to be expect a climactic showdown with a character who has been behaving like she’s going to tear down the universe as an amusing after party game only to be told that she’s just a regular Josephine enjoying a spot of entertainment. She even has lines like ‘The end game is in motion!’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh dear me, no! A club is a place secure from women!’ is a line spoken to Tegan. Someone should have warned him…

Great Ideas: The Contingency Club is newly established in London but has quickly become the most exclusive enclave. Men of learning are flocking there and the other clubs in town are losing their most respected members to new venue. It takes Nyssa two episodes to figure out the identical Edwards are clones (even Adric takes the mickey that she felt the need to spell it out). I enjoyed the discussion of the Underground, which grounds the story in a particular time period, and the scene where Adric reacts at how primitive the building of the tunnels is. The Club is much bigger on the outside, its hiding a club within the club, a hidden chamber where the Red Queen hides. She’s plotting to put explosives underneath key points in London in order to force Queen Victoria to kneel before her. It’s one big chess game with the Red Queen trying to take the White Queen. That’s quite a fun notion, but I don’t think the story is anywhere near tightly plotted enough to justify the reveal. The Contingency family are a race of game players who have played on several worlds in their time. The wager here was that the game could not be won without superior technology, hence the steampunk tech that was featured in the story.

Isn’t it Odd:
After listening to episode one, would you choose to listen to more of this story if it featured a less engaging set of regulars? Me neither. It’s the opposite of The Star Men which practically packed the events of a two-hour story into half an hour, literally nothing happens in episode one beyond the Doctor and friends reaching the Club in the title. In storytelling terms, this is an opening instalment that is entirely lacking in interest. Simply because there is no story come the first cliff-hanger. The first piece of truly useful information about the plot comes 34 minutes into the story where the Doctor is finally given some information about the Club. In New Series terms, that information would be offered in the first five minutes of the story. I know classic Who could be quite ponderous at times but it was always good at setting up the story before the running around. Having the characters dash about without notion of where they are or what is going on is a little unusual, to say the least. At the end of episode two where all the Edwards start waking up, it’s sold as a moment of jeopardy but there is no reason for us to consider it so because they haven’t acted dangerously. The story makes an assumption that they are dangerous simply because they are the one science fiction element in an otherwise ordinary story. Isn’t the Toymaker the ultimate Doctor Who villain who plays games? Did anybody think that Tegan's tape player wouldn't play some part in the climax?

Result: Like the Star Men, I want to like this more than I did. Immediately it has two elements going for it; four well defined regulars and atmospheric direction by Barnaby Edwards. Ultimately that was all it had going for it and by the time I had finished I wondered why I had committed two hours of my life to this tale when it had a plot that would barely fill one. If you enjoy endless scenes of the Doctor and companions being split up, running around and getting excitable as they piece together a very thin mystery, knock yourself out. That might sound like the recipe for many a Doctor Who story but in most cases I couldn’t excise the first 50% without doing a great deal of harm to the story. You could easily do that with The Contingency Club. The Contingency Club is a collection of pleasurable ideas (the Russian Doll Club setting, the surreal nature of the Edwards clones, the game that is being played out) that I think would have made a cracking new series adventure but stretched out to the length of a classic Who it struggles to find enough substance to justify its length. Fortunately, we have the fifth Doctor (a gentleman for a gentleman’s club), Tegan (good humoured, even when facing the sexism of the time), Adric (offering a brilliantly bitchy commentary on everything) and Nyssa (whose biology skills are put to good use) to help pass the time. They are a lot fun to be around, and salvage a lot of the aimlessness. Peter Davison and Janet Fielding, in particular, are great. There was a chance to explore class, sexism, politics and all manner of significant topics within the setting of a gentleman’s club but this Doctor Who adventures ducks any chance of shades of grey and settles on being an entertaining romp and nothing more. I like entertaining romps, but when you have a locale that offers so much more it does feel a little wasteful. I didn’t even get much of a sense of the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club, not like the cover suggests we would. Phantasmagoria did a much better job of that. Fun, entirely throwaway, protracted filler: 6/10

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Crucible of Souls written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The date has been set. The trap has been sprung. A life has been taken and a maniac is on the loose. With the TARDIS crew separated and in terrible trouble, will today be the day the bad guys win?

Physician, Heal Thyself:
Wonderfully the Doctor suggests that flying the TARDIS isn’t easy and River steps in and mentions that the way he does it makes it so. I love this little strain of doubt that his been planted into our minds ever since River so perfectly piloted the ship in The Time of Angels. That the Doctor has been winging it all these years and operating the ship with scant knowledge and ability. It confirms his position as the dilettante of the universe, with hints already from a beautifully pompous Romana in The Pirate Planet (‘What about the multiloop stabiliser?’) and the brilliant (if hilarious over the top) organisation of an entire crew of regulars in The Stolen Earth where each side of the console had a pilot, as it should. Wonderfully the Doctor has dresses in his wardrobe already, which is probably an indication that he is sharing it with his female companions or it could mean he has been a woman in a previous guise (as he would be in a future one) or that he enjoys a little cross dressing on the side (ala The Green Death). The Doctor gets to talk about himself in the third person; a remarkably clever man, a force to be reckoned with and handsome too. River chips in he’s sometimes very irritating. The Doctor wonders if the other Doctor is one of his future selves heading back to meddle in his own past. Like that has never happened before.

Liv Chenka: Liv has experience of the Doctor being in different guises and Helen cleverly alludes it to a snake shredding its skin. It’s funny how different regeneration feels depending on which companions are experiencing. Here you get the benefit of experience giving the concept credence, with some wide-eyed naivete ensuring that the presentation still has an emotional impact. Even if it is a fake. When you travel with the Doctor you call people shooting at you Tuesday. It’s a massive compliment that a Time Lord should tell Liv that the Doctor’s companions are too clever for their own good.

Helen Sinclair: She decides, after he snubs Liv’s death, behaves abusively towards her and dismisses her wish to leave, that it is time to leave the Doctor. Which is why it’s a good job that this isn’t the Doctor.

The Only Water in the Forest is the River: River asking for the less smug answers is like salt asking vinegar why he hurts in a wound. There is something extremely satisfying about the Doctor and River uncovering a gripping mystery together that doesn’t involve them threatening to get jiggy with each other or her pulling out a gun and acting like GI Jane every five minutes. They compliment each other very well because they are both reacting to the situation with appropriate seriousness. Is that all it took to make this character work this well? Head back to the Silence in the Library before all the River clever cleverness began, she’s treated as a strong protagonist who is caught up in events rather than being the event itself and she behaves as a normal person would. Hurrah for John Dorney for remembering that. It’s one of the best ever River stories.

Standout Performance: I’d seen a little of John Heffernan in Luther and The Crown, certainly enough to know that should he be asked to play the Doctor for a one-off that he would attack it with some gusto. And he has that with bags to spare. This is a Doctor played with huge theatrical humour, and he leaps from the story vividly. The alternative Doctor (who isn’t the Doctor) can pass of any gaps in his knowledge with post-regeneration amnesia. It’s the same sort of narrative sleight of hand that allows River to interact with the Doctor. There’s one moment where it appears Liv has been shot in the head and the Doctor’s completely dismissive ‘was she immortal? You think she would have mentioned that!’ made me laugh out loud. He’s a bit of an asshole but played with a knowing wink, it’s all rather fun. It’s nice to be able to go town with the idea of an evil Doctor with the foreknowledge of it all being a con because Dorney can take it to an extreme. He’s quite nasty in parts, but I’d say that Colin Baker still relished sheer abusiveness more in The Twin Dilemma. Which kind of shows (again) why that wasn’t such a good idea.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So you’re good with your hands?’ ‘Spoilers…’ Surely that’s the best one yet?
‘You’ve a face like a constipated Sontaran.’
‘He’s too boring to be evil!’ The Doctor is appalled that somebody he went to Academy and who is a straight down the line Gallifreyan could turn out to be in league with the Eleven. I’m not sure why, practically everyone he went to the Academy has turned out to have turned to the dark side in one way or another. He’s the aberration in that respect, and even he has his moments.

Great Ideas: There’s been a major temporal cataclysm, the future has gone, which is why the TARDIS didn’t want to travel in that direction…it simply wasn’t there anymore. Temporal refugees, the crew of a time ship who knew of the cataclysm that was coming and had the ability to warn others. The Coalition knew these temporally active ships could warn people in the past of their plan and so they stopped them with destructive intent. Mopping up their own mess and ensuring nobody can get in their way. A graveyard of a 100 ships, a haunting moment that truly suggests the ability of the force the Doctor is up against. The darkest vaults of the Time Lord archive, the place where you find their nastiest little secrets. Only the highest ranks even know it exists. The allusions to the book in Shada and the Doomsday Weapon in Colony in Space are lovely touches. That’s how to unobtrusively make continuity references. An evil Time Lord Cabal, lead by the Eleven. When the Coalition’s plan is put into action and the future is destroyed, all the waste life energy in the universe will be absorbed and converted into regeneration energies by the crucible. The Time lords need never die. The Eleven might selfishly take the lives of everyone in the universe, take their energies into himself. Or something. It all sounds very end of the universe though, doesn’t it? I’m so pleased the story took a second to give Padrac a motive for his defection, even if it is the most extreme conclusion he could have reached. Essentially the only projection of a future where Gallifrey survives is one where the rest of the universe is destroyed, so nothing could possibly harm them. And he wanted to ensure their survival by helping to put a plan in place that would see off the universe. To be fair to him, the Time War couldn’t take place if his plan was brought to fruition. So, in some respects, he’s right. He feels as though he is merely filling his role in Time Lord destiny. The Doctor, Liv and Helen are trapped inside a shuttle that is shielded to protect against the energies of non-time. They have been projected into the future that no longer exists and are trapped forever. I laughed my head off at this…it’s such a creative way of trapping the Doctor but all the threads it has to put in place to ensure we reach this point (Padrac, the destruction of the future, Time Lord tech) is boggling. Was this set always leading here? To the Doctor and his friends being removed from the action completely? I never saw that coming!

Isn’t it Odd: I have a comment to make about the length of the Doom Coalition set, which is 16 hours in length making it one of the longest Doctor Who stories of all time. Somebody, eventually had to start weaving together all the threads that have been left dangling in the previous sets and Dorney does a bravura job here of attempting that. The problem is he is talking about plot elements that were set up anything up to 12 hours previously, long forgotten because there have been many diversions along the way. People criticise the Trial of a Time Lord for the same reason, the Ravalox segments being paid off two months after the mysteries were posed. Unless fans of this series constantly play the old box sets before the new ones come out (in which case they have way more time than me on their hands…just keeping up with the new releases is a struggle, not to mention, you know, life stuff), Doom Coalition is released almost a year after the original box set which features stories that this instalment refers to. A year! If you consider that certain stories were hardly essential to the central narrative (Beachhead, Absent Friends) and that whole adventures have been played out simply to add tiny pieces of the puzzle (The Red Lady, The Galileo Trap Scenes from her Life) you have a narrative that has been elongated, The Dalek’s Masterplan style, far longer than it has any right to be for the overall story it is trying to tell. I’m just talking about bare bones of the overarching narrative here, and I’m almost willing to bet that once I have listened to the final box set that all the essential ingredients of the Doom Coalition adventure could have been condensed down into two sets that were released a few months apart. But…and it’s a massive but, the stories I have mentioned above (especially the John Dorney ones) have been the highlight of the series (despite being inessential) and generally speaking the material has played out in such an entertaining fashion (in the way only Doctor Who can….apocalyptic melodrama) that the overall piece has been extremely enjoyable to demolish, despite the narrative It is like eating a cake with far too many ingredients and that has been in the oven too long but somehow comes out of the oven in fine form, and absolutely moreish to consume. Somehow the tone, the regulars, the ideas, the energy and the performances all merge to skip over the sheer storytelling bloatedness of Doom Coalition and it emerges as the most engaging Paul McGann story in yonks.

One thing I will complain about is the overreliance on the Time Lords. Why shouldn’t a series lean heavily on one its own continuity elements? Because it’s a little obvious and it has been done before. Many, many times. A Time Lord with regeneration schizophrenia being the pawn of another gaga Time Lord who is trying to ensure the survival of Gallifrey with the use of a great Time Lord superweapon. You can make this sound as calamitous as you like…we’ve been here before. And it was the end of civilisation then too. Prove me wrong, Dorney and Fitton, and don’t have some kind of Time Lord intervention in the climactic set.

Standout Scene: The moment the Doctor tries to look in to the future and finds that it isn’t there anymore. All of time, all of eternity has gone. Everything past the point indicated by the Chronometer. Paul McGann sells the moment brilliantly and the music is appropriately apocalyptic.

Result: ‘How can someone destroy the whole of the future?’ Do you ever wonder if Matt Fitton and John Dorney write each other into a corner just for the fun of it? I’m sure they sit down together and plot out these box sets meticulously but instead I prefer to think of them writing their own scripts and passing them to each other with a maniacal glint in their eyes and saying ‘get out of that, then!’ Dorney has quite a shopping list of ingredients that he has to pay off satisfactorily in The Crucible of Souls (an ostentatious title if ever I heard one); with the Doctor and River having to save the universe from extinction which has been set in motion by the Doomsday Chronometer and Liv and Helen dealing with what they think to be the next incarnation of the Doctor, who is up to something perverse on Gallifrey. Couple with that the return of the Eleven, a bunch of Time Lord scallywags and access to all of the dirtiest Time Lord secrets and Dorney has an awful lot to juggle. A massive strength of John Dorney’s work is these people sound like characters again, and not plot functions so even when there is plenty going on, I felt as if I was learning things about Liv, Helen and almost impossibly given her previous exposure, River. Telling the story through the characters means that suddenly this is personal again. Padrac gets a much bigger role here and his character surprises by taking the weight of a number of heavy plot points from stories past and assembling them into some kind of order and cohesion for us. Thanks Padrac. But for the end of the universe as we know it, you’re a bit of a bastard. I’ve said a lot above about the Doom Coalition arc as a whole so I won’t repeat it here, just to say that whilst we are enjoying something of a renaissance for the eighth Doctor after the stickiness of the Dark Eyes sets that ultimately came to nothing, I am missing the simplicity and the individuality of the standalones. It’s why stories like The Red lady, Scenes from Her Life and Absent Friends were so enjoyable, with a little tweaking they could exist as stories in their own right rather than being dragged along in a tidal wave of epic storytelling. The last twenty minutes of The Crucible of Souls are desperately exciting as big superweapons are deployed, characters are appalled by the scale of devastation that is to come and a villain boasts that his super plan has finally come to fruition. I’m not even sure that the details are even important (because when you focus on them it is little more than exaggerated technobabble and over plotted madness), just that we’re told that things are badder than bad and a wave of emotion is created to drag us into the final set. The end is nigh again but this time we really mean it and there is no way to stop it. Oho! But we have the Doctor to save the day! I would have believed that until the final twist which ups the ante even further and ensures that that is not the case. A brilliant last-minute coup: 8/10