Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Sontarans written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS arrives on a moon-sized asteroid orbiting two gas giants. With an amazing view, it’s a chance for the Doctor, Steven and Sara to unwind after their recent adventures. But they quickly find themselves in the midst of battle - on one side: a familiar group of space-suited soldiers - members of the Space Security Service. On the other: strange, squat aliens in body armour. Surviving the initial hostilities, the Doctor and his friends discover that the SSS squad is on a terrifying mission. With many lives at stake, they have to venture deep inside the asteroid in search of a hideous weapon. But who can they trust in the battle against these Sontarans?

Hmm: It’s been so long since I had last heard Purves’ cheeky first Doctor that I had forgotten how much I enjoy it. Unlike David Bradley, he remembers the twinkle in his eye, his insatiable curiosity, good humour and sense of wonder that really sells his more acerbic and authoritative moments. Bradley absolutely looks the part and sounds much more like Hartnell, but Purves gets the emphasis just right and for me that conjures up the spirit of the character that Hartnell played much more compellingly. I really enjoy his take on the character. The Doctor talks of making notes to figure out where they are, a wonderfully simpler time when he just roamed the universe as a scientific experiment, righting wrongs when he stumbled across them but essentially there to feed his curiosity. The Doctor has never met the Sontarans before and it’s great to finally catalogue his first impression of the race. He takes exception to the idea that all aliens are bad, some are quite civilised. The Doctor will say anything to prevent the TARDIS being taken from him, attempting to convince the Earth forces that it contains sensitive military equipment that the Sontarans could utilise. ‘It’s a long time since I fought in a war’ says the Doctor mysteriously. Wasn’t it wonderful before the Doctor’s origins were laid out that he could make cryptic comments like that that opened out a whole universe of speculation. It’s the sort of thing the new series did so spectacularly when it returned with regards to the Time War before Moffat and Big Finish began to chart out the entire narrative of the unknowable conflict. The Doctor is far shrewder than he likes to let on at times, keeping his eye on Gage when he doesn’t seem to be behaving like everybody else. The Sontarans see the Doctor and his friends running away from the Daleks as an act of cowardice, of deserting their cause. How refreshing to have the Doctor’s companions more in the loop about events than the main man. That he is learning about their opponents through their experience and knowledge. He’s willing to open the TARDIS for the Sontarans because he’s not willing to lose Steven and Sara, he’s lost too much already.

Aggressive Astronaut: Doesn’t Steven suffer enough misery in season three as it is? Torturing him seems to be as popular as torturing Chief O’Brien in DS9 and for similar reasons, because it reveals interesting shades of his character and because the actor portraying him does his best work under pressure. Peter Purves is one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who as far as I’m concerned. I thought that on the strength of his TV performances alone but when you add in his stunning work on the Companion Chronicles and the Early Adventures and you have a companion performer who has simply never dropped the ball, attacked challenging material with gusto and given me feels in some complex and emotional ways. Steven suffers, and we suffer too because he is just so real. He’s a civilian who left the war a long time ago. Steven couldn’t let the Sontarans conceive of a weapon as damaging as the time destructor but that simply registered as him trying to conceal something from them and made them push even harder for the information. Steven is tortured horribly for an extended period and you can hear his screams echoing about the corridors for an entire dialogue scene. This would have been far too strong for sixties Who but it shows the callousness of the Sontarans and their interrogatory methods.

Security Agent: The Doctor notes it is extraordinary what has happened to Sara, developing because she is free. Sara knows of the Sontarans of old and understands just how powerful they are. If they descend into lava it wont polish them of, their space suits are designed to withstand radiation in space. She understands the probic vent weakness and has no qualms about shooting a man in the back. The Doctor doesn’t really give orders but Sara would follow them if he did. She thinks it is worth sacrificing yourself for a cause worth dying for. She’s a good officer, even the officers around her can see that but she has gone rogue and is concerned for the wellbeing of her friends, a weakness that she cannot really afford as a Space Security officer. She admits she would never go back to the world she knew, the life she knew.

Standout Performance: Jean Marsh’s voice has clearly aged, but I think it’s wonderful despite ill health that she is still giving these audios all she has got. There’s only a few moments in episode four when she is struggling, otherwise she’s giving a serious, measured performance.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘As the Sontarans emerged, lava dripping from their armour and guns…’ – it’s not often that narration gets me this excited.
‘You can’t have a war if one side wont fight back!’
‘You’ve declared war on the Sontarans. Honour demands they retaliate. They wont show mercy!’

Great Ideas: An alien landscape, every inch of it covered in flowers…Simon Guerrier knows how to get my attention with an arresting opening. Are the flowers converting starlight into oxygen or do they grow because the air in the asteroid field is artificial? An asteroid belt in a figure of eight looped round two vast planets of gas. There’s no collision point because one path of the asteroid passes a lot higher than the others…but seen from above it is a perfect figure of eight. How do I feel about Doctors encountering monsters long before they appeared in the television? If it’s a chance to give a new spin on the monster, to show how they might have represented in a completely different era and if it doesn’t entirely contradict continuity…why not? It’s clear the Doctor has met the Sontarans before The Time Warrior. They plague the Outer Worlds, attack in their thousands, destroy every last trace of the colonies they attack. The Earth Empire has learnt to just run from them. I like the idea that the Doctor and company have been walking around in a war zone advertising themselves because of their heat signatures. A team of Sontarans lift the TARDIS away, a startling image. They are evacuating the system before the Sontarans swarm and take over. A whole platoon of Sontarans falling from the sky and plunging into a sea of lava. It makes absolute sense that the Sontarans would capture a human specimen to try and understand their military and biological weaknesses.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s a problem with the nature of Doctor Who as a whole. Whilst it is easy to suggest that a race of cloned aliens are an aggressive military force, it does rather damage the family feeling of the show to show the Sontarans behaving in a brutal and homicidal manner. In their one appearance I would say that the Rutans are portrayed more chillingly than the Sontarans ever have been. The Time Warrior introduced the most interesting Sontaran, a full formed character in Linx but he was mostly used to contrast entertainingly against the historical characters he was lumbered with. Styre was a nasty brute, but there was still no sense of the strength of numbers or military might of the species. He’s merely a sadist, performing experiments in the name of statistical data. The hired heavies of The Invasion of Time make an immediate impact when they show up in a twist cliff-hanger, but soon devolve into clownish bullies in the final two episodes. The Two Doctors features two Sontarans that are trying to exploit science to win strategic systems in their war but instead of seeing anything of the conflict we head on holiday to Seville with them. Whilst it is played for wonderful comic effect, the many maimings and eventual death of Group Marshall Stike reduce the threat of the Sontarans as something to laugh at in a very black way. His blown of leg being used for the blackest of gags polishes off any threat they might have had. Whilst it is sanitised conflict (lots of lasers, no blood), The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky probably showcases the Sontaran army at their most hostile and destructive. They take out some likable characters and prove to be very operative in great numbers, and I love the lust for fighting they display here. Even in the story where they are allowed to show military might there are gags about their height and baked potatoes. Since then, the extended use of Strax as a member of the Paternoster Gang has seen off any sense of danger these creatures might pose. Dan Starkey has created a fun character, but he’s a comedy buffoon essentially and occasionally too stupid to be entirely believable. There’s certainly no sense that this is a military species of some repute. Simon Guerrier could have looked at this abuse of a potentially terrifying species and thought that the chance to portray them in a serious and martial light is perhaps the most surprising thing you could do with them. Does the fact that the final episode gives this story a definitive placing in The Daleks’ Masterplan mean that this is last we’ll hear of Steven and Sara?

Standout Scene: The Doctor has figured enough out about the Sontarans to appeal to their sense of honour in the last, very tense, set piece as the human ships put themselves in the path of the space cannon. He’s a wily old fox, using psychology to save as many lives as possible. Also, I would have loved to have seen William Hartnell’s Doctor taking Sonatarans into the TARDIS only to have them shot in the back.

Result: You’ve never experienced the Sontarans quite like this before and it is about time that somebody portrayed them as an unstoppable, maliciously aggressive force. In the wake of Strax the comedy Sontaran, that is perhaps the ultimate refresher for the species. It turns out it isn’t just how you portray them, but how you portray the characters reacting to them. If your regulars are genuinely terrified at their military advance half your battle is done for you. If you squinted you could just about see how they could have brought this to life in the sixties, with a handful of sets, an asteroid landscape and some monster costumes. The sea of lava might be tricky to realise, but after The Web Planet I would have put nothing past the producers of Doctor Who in the mid sixties. However, the tone of the piece is quite fatalistic and much more geared towards the Battlestar Galactica school of conflict and this might not be for you if you like your Doctor Who laced with humour and colour. I rather love this extended season Big Finish have going on within The Daleks’ Masterplan. At 12 episodes long and with so many destinations, it is relatively easy to re-imagine the story as an extended period of time where the Doctor, Steven and Sara had adventures with the impending threat of the Daleks in the background. It gives all the stories told during the epic chase about for the terranium core have a distinctive voice and identity of their own because there is always that narrative thread to get back to when the adventure is over. The Sontarans is something very different from Simon Guerrier, essentially a four-part action story with a group of characters under constant threat in a dangerous location (asteroid under siege?). It’s incredibly pacy, lacking Guerrier’s usual depth of concept and characterisation but it’s made up for by its dirtiness, it’s exciting set pieces and it’s almost real-time directness. It’s not all furious action, mind. There are prolonged torture and interrogation scenes between Steven and a Sontaran in the second half of the story that really command the attention. Props to Ken Bentley for bringing to life such a challenging audio script, even though there is plenty of narration to help the listener the sheer amount of action means that there has to be plenty of aural clarity within the story itself. For how it portrays the Sontarans as a relentless, offensive, intelligent force, I was captivated: 8/10

Saturday, 24 February 2018

World Apart written by Scott Handcock and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: If you’re reading this, it’s too late. There’s no way off this planet. You will never escape Nirvana.

The Real McCoy: I’m trying to think where I fall with the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex combination, which was a popular one for some time thanks to some very solid stories during the mid-range of their run (which co-coincided with the introduction of Ken Bentley to the company with some remarkably polished productions). The Magic Mousetrap-A Death in the Family is a terrific run (with Protect and Survive another zinger) and for a while there was a feeling that this team could just run and run. However, Big Finish got a little greedy, enjoyed working with Philip Olivier a little too much (and why not, he’s clearly very charming) and the character was kept on longer than was strictly necessary. And the less said about the whole Hector debacle the better. As a team they can be extremely complimentary; the Doctor at his most manipulative and his companions reacted against that, Hex being a little green and Ace rising to the challenge and mentoring him and she in return getting the useful lesson of learning that people really do suffer during their adventures. My biggest problem is, as ever, the performances. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred can both rely on hysterics rather than underplaying a moment and at times seem to egg each other on and alas Olivier, the subtlest of the three, gets dragged into all the shouting too (Project: Destiny was a nightmare for this). With this three it can become a horrible angst-ridden screaming match and that’s just the kind of drama that I’m interested in. I’ll go an watch EastEnders if I feel the need. So yes, a complimentary team on paper, with each of them bringing something very different to the table that can fairly often be sabotaged by some amateurish performances that stress the melodrama rather than the drama. I’d say it’s definitely been enough time to bring back Olivier for a one-off special and that delving into old teams like this shakes up the format quite nicely.

I love the idea of the Doctor being so in the dark as everybody else (apparently) and his giddiness at the idea of exploring. Taking samples back to the TARDIS is legitimate research, not nicking stuff. Ace admits that the Doctor always finds a way, practically endorsing his unorthodox methods that she is usually complaining about. Had the Doctor landed the TARDIS on Nirvana he would have put the planet in jeopardy. It’s a unique event in space-time and he refused to murder it simply to get his friends back. He had to find another way, which meant leaving his friends stranded and taking his time to find a better way.

Oh Wicked: Ace, the action woman, wishes she had brought her climbing gear with her. At the first opportunity she is scaling the candy floss cliffs and throwing herself into danger. Interestingly, Ace lies to Hex about the warnings of the other people that have been lost on Nirvana. Even more interestingly she lies next to him to share body warmth, an intimacy that they haven’t shared before. Both Ace and Hex bring something useful to a situation where survival is key; she’s willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to obtain supplies (robbing the dead) and he has the medical knowledge to keep them safe if they get hurt. It seems very right that Ace should be used to the Doctor’s coldness by now and his morally questionable justifications but that she is upset for what he is putting Hex through.

Sexy Scouse: Hex hasn’t been at this lark for so long that he isn’t awed by the tundra of an alien landscape. He’s always liked being by the seaside, it reminds him of Blackpool. Depending on who is writing for Hex there has been a thread of him fancying Ace throughout their run but this was never truly capitalised on. Handcock grabs this thread by the horns and reveals a nervous Hex rehearsing how he can propose a date to her and it is very endearing. I’d say she isn’t worth the bother mate. Too high maintenance. I enjoyed the mention of Damo, a nice touch that links back to Hex’s first adventure. Hex sounds decidedly chipper at the thought of being trapped on a planet with just Ace for all eternity. I’m guessing that’s what marriage feels like for some people. Hex is extremely upset with the Doctor for putting him through hell to save the life of the planet that was attempting to kill him. This is another step on the path to A Death in the Family, where he has finally had enough of the Time Lord and how he fucks about with his friends lives.

Standout Performance: It was all going so well until the nature of the planet revealed itself and then Aldred starts screaming her head off in her usual alarming fashion. She makes up for it tenfold in episode two, especially in the scene after her dream where she insists that the Doctor never lets her down. This story really does reveal her strengths and her weaknesses as a performer on audio.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘At least whatever happens, we’re not alone.’

Great Ideas: This is the only pair of stories of the three releases where the first story leads directly into the second. I really like that, trying something completely different with each pair. A planet that shouldn’t be in this sector of space that the TARDIS cannot identify. A planet that ambushed the TARDIS? That’s a novel idea (The Pirate Planet aside). In some civilisations, waving back is considered a proposal of marriage. Bodies of people from different time zones, spanning a couple of thousand years between them. The most modern materials are the most decayed, proving there is some kind of temporal discrepancy. The walls covered in messages from so many languages warning the unwary traveller to leave this place – that’s a really chilling notion. There are legends back on Gallifrey about Nirvana, the story of a world at odds with the rest of the universe. Nirvana doesn’t exist in normal space, it only appears in reality once every thousand years and it doesn’t remain there long. If you’re trapped on Nirvana and it pops out of normal space, you’re doomed. The planet doesn’t adhere to the conventional law of physics, time passes differently which makes it that much harder to communicate. The voices on the wind in episode one was the Doctor, talking to the past. A voice travelling across time. The planet is alive and trapping people is part of an elaborate feeding cycle. If the Doctor had materialised the TARDIS on Nirvana again it would have ben stranded in one time and place. Stuck in normal time, unable to travel.

Standout Scene: It’s a massive compliment to say that I found the conversation between the Doctor and Ace when he communicates across time to have a similar frisson as the one between the Doctor and Rose at the end of Doomsday. In both situations you have the companions trapped in a place where the Doctor cannot reach them and he is going to great lengths to speak to them. I felt the connection between McCoy and Aldred better than practically any story has managed for the first time in ages. I had goosebumps.

Result: A clever character tale, this is almost two one-part stories where the first episode twists into something very different in the second. Handcock really understands these characters, their dynamic and history and how to bring the best out in the performers. It means that episode one passes really amiably, with the mystery of the planet that shouldn’t be there being explored a pace that allows us to simply enjoy some time with them. And to get me to enjoy some time hanging with the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex without any other distractions is quite an achievement. It helps that the planet they are investigating is eerie and atmospheric, and the answers about why are so electrifying. It’s Brigadoon, but in race against time horror. The second episode is something quite different for Doctor Who, two characters facing a life alone in a screaming wilderness and slowly losing hope. I was really drawn into the intimacy of their situation, and their slow burn realisation that there is no way out. It’s a fantastic episode for McCoy’s Doctor, despite the fact that he barely appears. Always morally ambiguous, his manipulative and callous streak is given a fresh lick of paint when we get to see how his actions truly affect his friends through Hex’s eyes. For the record I’ve scored the two-part stories 4, 10, 9, 8, 7, 9 which is a much better average than the main range has received from me of late. It’s been a terrific success, shaking up the format like this and I hope to see something similar happen again soon. I think an hour is a good length for a Doctor Who story on audio (it’s why the companion chronicles never outstayed their welcome and why the eighth Doctor stories have such pace and urgency) and it’s nice to see Doctors five, six and seven get in on the action. Each two-part set has a superior story and World Apart is the feature adventure for the seventh Doctor. He’s busy with other projects, but I’m pleased to see that Scott Handcock is listed in the schedules as providing a main range story this year. If his work on Dorian Gray, Torchwood and Gallifrey has taught me anything, it’s that Handcock understands how to get the best out of audio; in terms of storytelling, atmosphere and characterisation. More from him please: 9/10

Friday, 23 February 2018

Dalek Soul written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: On the Dalek-occupied world of Mojox, a group of rebels is engaged in a futile fightback against the invaders – but at last they’ve found an ally, in the form of the mysterious Doctor. Elsewhere, however, the Daleks’ Chief Virologist is seeking to perfect a biological weapon to wipe out the Mojoxalli, once and for all. Her name… is Nyssa.

An English Gentleman: What a wonderful utter bastard the duplicate of the Doctor is. Stripped of anything that makes him remotely approachable, he has all of the Doctor’s guile and cunning and none of his honesty and virtuousness. A formidable foe, to be sure and Davison plays him to the hilt. It must be the ultimate refreshment to play the Doctor as a complete asshole for a change, rather than the beige wallpaper of old. He’s a slave with a good deal of autonomy because he gets things done. Indeed, it baffles me that the Daleks don’t start sending out fake Doctors to join up with all their enemies and help to bring them down. A mole within those pockets of resistance could help turn them into dust. Nyssa calling the Doctor a friend is over stating their acquaintance. When he comes face to face with the fact that he is a duplicate, the Doctor angrily refuses to admit he is anything other than the real thing.

Alien Orphan: To hear Nyssa saying the Daleks are her friends and that she serves them gladly is extremely discordant. Either she’s being overheard, she’s lying for some good reason, she’s a duplicate or she genuinely has come under their influence. It’s weird to think that Nyssa never met the Daleks on screen but thanks to power of audio she’s chalked up a handful of stories with them. Sarah Sutton is genuinely marvellous in her early scenes, unleashing an anger we haven’t seen in Nyssa for quite some time. She knows its futile to fight the Daleks, she thinks the rebels are fighting a lost cause and she is willing to experiment on two of them in order to buy them some time when they were going to die anyway. She’s tired and hasn’t been sleeping well but that doesn’t explain just how callous she has become. Once it is revealed that this is a duplicate, Nyssa’s character becomes even more interesting because while she is carrying out diabolical work on behalf of her Dalek masters, she still retains a certain humanity (Trakenity?) and decency. Perhaps they considered that a necessary component of her work, her willingness to go the extra mile to help people. When you are listening to a story of an evil duplicate with a soul, you’re treading on new territory and I love it when Doctor Who does that. Nyssa thinks once the rebels are wiped out they can all get back to having a peaceful life. It feels very right that the Daleks should be brought down by one of their own operatives, one they considered unimportant. One they left with humanity to become a more efficient killer.

Standout Performance: Sutton and Davison, rarely better. And that’s very good indeed.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If that doesn’t work you could always exterminate her lab assistant. That ought to give her a bit of motivation.’
‘The Doctor was hero. You’re just an empty shell filled with all the hatred of a Dalek.’

Great Ideas: I like it when Doctor Who stories kick start with the Doctor and his companion(s) already embroiled in the adventure and you have to spend a little time trying to catch up. The situation on Mojox is immediately arresting because Nyssa is forced into the uncomfortable position of working for the Daleks and the Doctor is on the conflicting side working with the opposition. Whilst there is an argument to be made that Alien Heart set up the events in Dalek Soul (and it is nice that there is a link between the two stories otherwise it is just two two-part adventures shoved together for no rhyme or reason like in the next release), this doesn’t pick up where the cliff-hanger left off so there is still some working of things out to be done before we can dive into this story.

Musical Cues: I need some kind of rhyme…’If you want a Big Finish Production to sing like Kylie and Jason…you can always rely on Fox and Yason!’ Okay okay, I’m not a poet or a marketer or even a particularly skilled wordsmith. Fox and Yason, extremely reliable contributors of the excellent Companion Chronicles range, never failed to chime with me. Their sound design is out of this world and I think theirs are my favourite scores in the entirety of Big Finish. Subtle, understated but hugely imaginative and emotional, I will listen to certain stories back just to be entranced by their music. It’s a thing of beauty here, ramping up the pace and excitement levels. They provided the music for The Magic Mousetrap, A Thousand Tiny Wings and A Death in the Family. What more can I say?

Standout Scene: For the sheer delight of having the floor vanish completely beneath me, the twist that the Doctor isn’t quite who he seems to be filled me with terror and pleasure. It’s a fantastic moment, one of many twists and it comes from nowhere making it all the more palatable. And listening to Davison go from his usual cheery soul to a malevolent traitor really exposes his acting talent. The cliff-hanger is one of the best in the shows entire run, the Doctor literally handing his companion over to the Daleks to be killed. What could be more exciting than that?

Result: Brilliant, a genuinely novel Dalek story and a writer who dares to take a potentially ropey concept (does anyone remember Leela turning evil in The Evil One?) and run with it in exciting and unpredictable directions. To have Sarah Sutton back solo is a breath of fresh air after featuring in so many stories top heavy with companions, but to give her such a meaty, innovative role in a story that probes Nyssa in brand new ways is simply magic. If you ever thought the fifth Doctor/Nyssa pairing was a boring one then this might be the story to change your mind. Peter Davison relishes the chance to do something completely different too, proving quite a realistic nasty. It reminds of the sort of work that David Whitaker tried to do with the Daleks, looking at the creatures in a psychological (let’s say humanistic) manner rather than simply using them for brute force. Guy Adams has taken a throwaway idea from an Eric Saward script and run with it, revealing just what it would be like to be the Doctor and his companion but infected with Dalek souls. The answers are surprising, the twisted characterisation never letting you relax and the volatile plot being shaken up with one bluff after another. The first half sprints ahead leaving the listener to catch up but the second half reveals the whole counterfeit situation in all its dramatic glory. Props to Fox and Yason for providing such an insistent and complimentary score. This is like Love & Monsters, Blink and Turn Left; something completely unique unto itself and all the more special for it. I was gripped throughout: 10/10

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Outliers written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: The TARDIS takes the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie to a flooded underground town on an alien world. The streets are empty. The houses are bare. Not a trace of life. The miners working here are vanishing. And it isn’t long before the time-travellers are suspected of being responsible for the disappearances. But even the authorities haven’t fully realised the scale of the problem. There’s something else on this world. Something dragging people away. And it won’t stop until it’s taken them all.

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor is becoming adroit at waiting for whoever is holding the guns to drop who they were expecting and then take on that persona. Plus, he still has that shiny ‘examiner’ badge from Power of the Daleks on him. It’s nice that for once the second Doctor cannot simply bluff his way through the authorities, this time if he pokes his nose where it isn’t wanted it will be shot off. The Doctor doesn’t find it in the slightest bit ridiculous to talk to the sea. He doesn’t have a tiny, insular human mind and can imagine all forms of life existing. Frazer Hines plays that scene beautifully, the Doctor almost childlike and apologetic as he reaches out to a new alien life. When everyone is treated to seeing the very thing they want more in the whole wide world, the Doctor sees people he misses, people that he will never get the chance to see again. Many people have fallen into the tentacles with the creature but the Doctor is only one who has managed to successfully communicate with it.

Lovely Lashes: Polly angrily takes on the system and refuses to have her opinion silenced; the people that worked here all had shares in the mining and knew that people were disappearing and they were willing to cover it up to protect their assets. She’s indignant in her criticism, morally outraged. In the future women are treated equally much to Polly’s amusement when Jamie tries to be chivalrous.

Able Seaman: Ben gets the chance to stand at the prow of a ship once more and it exhilarates him. This is an ideal world for Ben to visit, one where he can command water vehicles and adeptly navigate the many waterways. He's an action hero through and through; protective of Polly, quick to arm himself and fully of energy and ability.

Standout Performance: Anneke Wills has been chosen as the narrator for this series of Early Adventures and it is easy to see why. She paces are narration brilliantly, relaxing during moments of scene setting and speeding up when things get dicey. Wills has a lovely voice to listen to; clipped and British, very clear and never uninteresting. And her narration very different to how she plays Polly, with a higher register and imbued with warmth and emotion.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If it’s connected to the tides…it must be in the water.’

Great Ideas: You can’t ask for a more arresting opening to a story than a body floating down the river in the middle of a dead town. It’s exactly the sort of macabre image that Terry Nation deployed in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Android Invasion. An underground town, devoid of life. Simon Guerrier has a knack of getting your attention immediately. Never lived in…or long abandoned? It’s an impressive mining operation done on a huge scale, leaving them with huge tunnels that they fill with houses for people to live in. There is a great demand for homes and this hollowed out city is one option they have considered viable, a side product of the mining. One person every two hours has gone missing, for a decade. They are mining Arconite, a mineral compound the delivers a spectrum of consumer needs. It’s the active ingredient in robust planetary cleansing, a weapon that obliterates entire worlds. The creatures seems to communicate through emotional rapport and clairvoyance. Ben dreamt that he was in the Tropics, Polly at London Airport and Jamie back at the Highlands of Scotland, everyone seeing things that they wanted. That’s how these creatures communicate, by trying to figure out what makes people tick. Much like Creature from the Pit, I just love the idea of an unknowable, humungous monster that can be perceived as threat but is just so fundamentally different to what we consider life that we can only distinguish it that way. It’s a sea creature that is desperately trying to understand humanoids in the only way it knows how, prying into their dreams and ambitions, and pulling them apart to see how they work. The creatures have a form of reverse biology, starting life as sentient sea creatures and transforming into the barnacles on the rock to make way for the young to be born in the sea. The barnacles serve as a warning system, not so much seeing what is going on but reading the emotions of the people that are digging out the rock and sending warnings down to their young to protect themselves. They can see into the future but they have foreseen a terrible catastrophe involving the Arconite, or at least a potential one. Guerrier describes the lake full of creatures dying from Arconite poisoning with real beauty, it’s the sort of visual that fires the imagination and you can see vividly in your minds eye. In a moment of horrific subtlety, the Doctor, Polly and Ben come across the vivisected corpses of the miners that the creatures have pulled apart to try and understand them. They escaped the same fate because they talk with time and they travel through it.

Audio Landscape: The ever-present burbling of water reminds us constantly that we are in this underground world and when the horror seems to be coming from the water makes it even more omnipresent. Experience the claustrophobia of being dragged beneath the water with Ben (why is it always Ben that ends up wet…sorry is that just in my head?).

Standout Scene: The whole set piece of the advancing sea creature is beautifully done. First with Jamie heading under the water and being whisked away, then the advancing movement on the scanner and finally the appearance of the beastie itself. ‘It’s here!’ Lisa Bowerman deserves a great deal of kudos for pacing the tension so effectively, gathering fantastic momentum and dragging me into the dangerous situation with the companions.

Result: Simon Guerrier, in contrast to Justin Richards who provided the recent The Morton Legacy, I have come to expect great things of. The shining star of the Companion Chronicles, firing off one memorable novel before they were cancelled and taking over the Bernice Summerfield range when it was flailing and beating it into shape, Guerrier’s name is one I have found synonymous with thoughtful characterisation, memorable settings and original, dramatic ideas. He writes a more significant episode one than Richards manages in the entirety of the following story. Very often in Doctor Who stories things are not quite what they appear and the Doctor wades in and throws off the narrative dust sheet to reveal whatever malevolent scheme is in action. I like Simon Guerrier’s approach here, letting the audience know early on that something is afoot with the mining operation and waiting for the Doctor and company to catch up. It adds an extra layer of suspense and gets your imagination pumping. I like how the story takes it’s time to unfold too, not throwing everything at you in episode one but letting the situation deepen gradually and continually. We don’t always have to get to the dramatic meat at the end of part one because sometimes that doesn’t leave you with anywhere to go after that. It’s a four-episode story with four episodes worth of material, which is more of a rarity than you might think and the pacing of the revelations means that you have to be patient and see the story through to get the full picture. I was very impressed with how the companions were handled here; Guerrier isn’t interested in lifting stereotypes from season four (the dolly bird, the aggressive sailor, the out of his depth Scot) but instead puts Polly, Ben and Jamie to work on the mystery of the disappearances, treating them all intelligently and barely allowing them to digress from the plot for character asides. The Doctorless episode three might have been a problem if there wasn’t three engaging companions to continue the investigation, and Wills, Hines and Chapman really pick up the slack effortlessly. It’s a great companion line up. I like that both sides of this conflict are painted in shades of grey; the humans ignoring the death count because of corporate greed and the creatures choosing a truly horrific method of trying to understand the people that are threatening them. In fact, I’m not even sure if it is a conflict, just two sides doing what comes naturally to them (the human race acquiring, the creatures protecting themselves) which don’t fit comfortably in the same location. That’s Simon Guerrier, offering a refreshing new slant on a Doctor Who story, making the audience question and debate. The Outliers is a superior Early Adventure, and the sort of story that endorses the range: 8/10

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Morton Legacy written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: When the TARDIS lands in London, Ben and Polly are initially delighted to be back home… until they realise that they’re a hundred years too early. But this is nothing next to how the Doctor and Jamie feel when the TARDIS itself vanishes! Their attempts to locate their ship lead them to an antiquarian, Josiah Morton, possessed of a most unusual collection that is currently subjected to a legal dispute. But they’re not the only people interested in him. Dangerous criminals watch from the shadows, waiting for a moment to strike. And the police are calling too - accusing him of murder. An unusual series of deaths have been occurring across the capital, and all signs point to Morton as the culprit. But is he really a killer? Or is there something else at large in the city? Something… alien?

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor talks about recalibrating the ‘yearometer.’ I love the simplistic sixties name for technology. There’s no attempt to make it sound slightly sophisticated, just functional. He’s an expert in just about everything. The Doctor proves to be quite the slippery customer when it comes to outthinking the police and providing some respite for Josiah. I would expect nothing else from the most anarchic of Doctors. The Doctor is the only person to hold Blazzard to account at the climax, which feels like it wants to have the same impact as Tom Baker’s ‘go away’ at the end of Nightmare of Eden but because everybody else is feeling for the man who has just died it loses all of its impact. Is Doctor Who endorsing murder now?

Lovely Lashes: There’s the question that whatever Polly and Ben have been through with the Doctor, the TARDIS is never their home but their conveyance in order to get back there. Polly is excited to be the 1860s because it is a chance to explore a living history in her own town. Leaving the Doctor will hardly be a decision that they can make over time, it’s going to be a case that they will land in the place and time closest to their own and they will have to get off because there won’t be a better time. An accidental departure rather than a deliberate one. There always was a lovely chemistry between Patrick Troughton and Anneke Wills and this story captures their rapport well, giving them extended scenes together to investigate, almost mischievously.

Able Seaman: I’m so pleased that Big Finish have found Chapman and that he has slipped so effortlessly into Ben Jackson’s shoes. It’s really enjoyable to hear him interacting with the other regulars, particularly Polly and he has a similarly flirty and fun chemistry with her that Michael Craze did. Perhaps Ben would have been a little more aggressive towards the Doctor when he realised that the TARDIS has bought them to the right place but the wrong time. Cockneys always help each other out, that’s a rule he has always been taught and certainly helps them out here. Whilst sounding a lot like Craze and capturing the spirit of his performance well, he doesn’t attack people verbally in the same way that Craze does, which makes his interpretation the gentler and more reasonable one. During their television stories if Craze’s Ben suspects that anything has happened to Polly he talks to everybody, especially the Doctor, as though he is so irritated by the thought of her being hurt that he could tear their faces off at any minute. Chapman on the other hand is a lot gentler in his approach, while still frantic and concerned. It is a far more measured performance. Craze’s mania is far more of what the shippers like to see, I’m sure, but I prefer a milder method.

Who’s the Yahoos: I like the instant rivalry between Ben and Jamie that is apparent as soon as a beautiful lady enters the scene. Funny how it doesn’t seem to be a problem with Polly, but then she always will be Ben’s lass.

Isn’t it Odd: The story is loosely centred around the Doctor and company attempting to get the TARDIS back and becoming embroiled in the Morton legacy in order to do so. It’s such a common theme in 60s Who (losing the TARDIS, I mean) that I couldn’t help but think a more interesting motive for hanging around could have been deployed. When there is no personal stake in the story, just one of functionality, it’s very hard to get involved with what is happening. I’m in two minds about stories that appear to be historical in nature and then take on a science fiction element to keep the interest levels up. I question whether the setting or the characters are arresting enough in the first place. Pseudo-historicals are completely different beasts because they mix the historical with the extra-terrestrial immediately and normally base the story around the contrast. But when someone deliberately sets out to tell a down to Earth story and then adds science fiction elements to prop up an unexciting set up, I take issue. Morton is such an honest, decent four-square sort of fellow that it is quite hard to find any shades of grey to examine. He’s perfectly lovely and well played, but not particularly captivating. I don’t understand the distance between the regulars and where the drama is – the murders. To have them bandy up with Josiah and only hear about the deaths when the policemen visit is a pretty bland way to go about telling the story. The inclusion of the robbers that are after Josiah’s worldly goods is an unnecessary complication to the plot simply to pad out the time a little. Richards goes for a double bluff climax but it feels like the story hasn’t really earned it. First off there is the inclusion of the necklace that offers Richards an ‘it’s a psychic field’ that made everything happen resolution that means that none of the characters are truly responsible for their actions, only inadvertently. Then that is proven to be false and the butler creeps from the wainscoting to reveal he did it all. The clues are well pointed out, but this is no Agatha Christie style wrap up where the whole piece is revealed to be a masterfully plotted exercise. It’s one character waving a magic wand at the end and taking the wrap for everything.

Standout Scene: The end of episode three is simply inexplicable! After a couple of episodes of introducing the thieves and the device from another world the most obvious thing that could be done is for one to steal the other. That happens with irritating expectedness, but without actually telling us what the item is, just the Doctor’s exclamation that it is the most powerful object on the entire planet! Predictably plotted and with a lack of detail, this is a truly diabolical cliff-hanger.

Result: Justin Richards baffles me. I know he is capable of truly pushing the envelope and devising plots that are devilishly complicated, epic and satisfying. His original novels were often the highlight of their respective ranges (Time Zero is deliciously baffling and dramatic and Sometime Never… has one of the most sophisticated plots I have ever experienced within the Doctor Who universe) but for some reason on audio he has become the Mark Gatiss of the medium; safe, traditional, comforting, nostalgic. I never go into one of his stories expecting anything unique or meaningful, just a series of Doctor Who clichĂ©s knitted together with predictable amiability. The Morton Legacy might have worked a lot better as a Companion Chronicle, with some of the wordier dialogue scenes skipped over in scant narration and getting to the heart of the story a lot more briskly. It’s fortunate that the winning team of Hines/Wills/Chapman are championing this adventure because Polly, Ben and Jamie regularly prove to be worth listening to even when there isn’t much going on. The Morton Legacy is a gentle drawing room drama, the sort that could play out on the stage (if the dialogue was a little fruitier). The complications in the plot are gentle and harmless for the most part and the story is content to coast along on its atmosphere and cast interactions. It’s a bizarre form of storytelling where, aside from the kidnap of Polly, much of the story is told through a series of discussions rather than anybody experiencing anything. The legal entanglement over the Morton legacy, the murders, the supernatural item found overseas…all of this is in place and ready for discussion before the time travellers arrive. Even the double bluff conclusion is just the Doctor explaining that the device has been responsible for the flow of events, like an extra-terrestrial get out clause before a character emerges from the shadows and claims responsibility for everything. The time travellers turn up simply to join the dots and witness all this play out. I guess the biggest question you can ask of any Doctor Who story is ‘would it make a difference if this story was never made?’ and with The Morton Legacy the answer is a resounding no: 4/10

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Wreck of the World written by Timothy X Atack and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What’s it about: Undergoing repairs in deep space, the TARDIS is caught in a collision with the huge, decaying wreck of a starship. Zoe, spacewalking, is separated from her companions in the crash, and the Doctor and Jamie wake to find the TARDIS fused to the side of the ship. Venturing inside to rescue their friend, they discover that they are on board The World, the very first colony ship to leave Earth, lost mid-voyage under unknown circumstances. And they are not alone. A terrible suspension chamber is filled with dead, withered human bodies, and a team of gun-toting astronauts are stalking the corridors. But a far greater threat lurks deep inside. The terrifying force responsible for the scuttling of the ship is active once more - and if it can’t be stopped, it won’t just be the end of this World. It’ll be the end of all of them.

Oh My Giddy Aunt:
The Doctor is treated as an intelligent figure who is piecing together the mystery of the World, rather than a figure of fun that he could often be in his final season. You might say he dabbles in most things as often as possible. The Professor thinks the Doctor is far more calculating than his scatty exterior lets on, which is an observation I have heard thrown at the second Doctor by people who have studied his era for many years. He displays comic excesses, silent threat and masterful aptitude. His extremely chameleonic how he can segue from one to the other so fluidly. Professor Blavatsky and the Doctor form a relationship that is well worth following; distrustful and respectful of each other’s abilities. I love the scene where she asks him to tell her about the ultimate fate of humanity and how he apologetically refuses.

Who’s the Yahoos:
Jamie is a ridiculously, perhaps suicidally brave and protective young man, especially of the young girls that travel in the TARDIS with him. If there is danger to be had, he feels he is the one who should venture into it, not them. He’s ready for combat, showing that he’s learnt much from their previous adventures. Aggression seems to be his watchword in this adventure, like he has gotten out of the wrong side of bed. I suppose he always was ready to bunch his fists when the situation called for it (The Krotons, The War Games). Both Zoe and the Doctor mention how decent Jamie’s coffee is, proving that sexism is not always directed at women. It’s great for Jamie to have another warrior to interact with. At first he and Porthintus try and assert their strength over one another but ultimately they come to empathise and appreciate each other.

Brainy Beauty:
Listening to Zoe battle it out with a robot is great fun because despite the fact that she stated in The Invasion that she would not be bullied by automatons, this is precisely what she was when she first met the Doctor and Jamie, coldly logical and always in the right. It does go to show how much she has changed. She always thought the human race was at home amongst the stars and is shocked to discover that it wasn’t always the case. Zoe admits that she had to teach herself to cry, perhaps to fit in, or perhaps to feel. She should have waited until she stepped into the TARDIS, as that has given her plenty of reasons to well up. I love how capable Zoe is throughout, never once behaving like a companion of the Doctor’s but a fully accomplished scientist in her own right. There’s mention of the programming that Zoe suffered when she was attached to the Wheel, a firm reminder that in the 21st Century human beings are slaved to logic and effectiveness.

Standout Performance: I’ve always been impressed with Frazer Hines’ take on Troughton’s Doctor, and because they worked together so closely I have always found it a much more intimate portrayal than it would be had they dragged in a completely fresh actor to bring the part to life (Trelor’s third Doctor is delightful, but it lacks that sentimental touch that really sells it to me on a nostalgic level). However, I could understand in the early stories if Hines’ critics were banging on about how he simply lowered the register of his own voice and captures only one aspect of Troughton’s delivery, that ominous, gravelly delivery of bad news and moments of quiet tension. Well he’s clearly been studying Troughton’s performance because it is much livelier and nuanced these days. At points I could shut my eyes and imagine it was Troughton saying the words and that is a huge compliment for Hines to take on board.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Voice control, how adorable.’
‘Something oily suits it better. Something dripping in industry.’

Great Ideas: You might think that opening a mock-sixties Doctor Who story with Zoe space suited up and floating in space outside the TARDIS is erroneous and the sort of effects laden storytelling we are used to with the new series (think The Beast Below, which opens with similar imagery). However, the sixties and seventies was a period of massive ambition for the series, where the ideas that the writers had often outstripped the time there was to make the series and budget to realise it. And besides, The Space Pirates sported some very tasty spacewalking sequences so I believe it is a perfectly plausible and spectacular opening gambit for The Wreck of the World. A robot trundling about the wreck of the World is a direct call back to the Servo robot in Zoe’s debut adventure. A subatomic cruncher scoops particles from space and transmuting them into pure energy. Ore of this kind can be stored almost indefinitely. The World was the first and the largest colony ship to leave the Earth when the planet was about to die but it never reached its destination. The World was thought lost forever. There was an emphasis on humanoid casts in season six (for budgetary reasons more than anything) and so it’s nice to see the audios diversify and deliver the regulars a guest cast of varied origins; robotic, amphibian, crystalline and human. The computer systems on the World have been dormant for 900,000 years. Generations lived and died on the ship. For once the exterior of the TARDIS is beneficial, because it appears so small it appears that the Doctor and company cannot be on board the World to loot and thus their lives are spared. The Earth was in a terrible state; so many diseases, so many people and so few resources that there was no alternative for humanity but to spread their wings and escape. Human bodies that have been affected by something and turned into unfortunate creatures of death. One legend of the World is that it crashed on another world and was the basis of a brand-new empire, another species. Other legends speak of the ship being abandoned or destroyed. That’s the trouble with a mystery, it stimulates the imagination and is open to so much conjecture. There are 40 suspension chambers on the World, each with approximately 60,000 individuals. Corvis is a scavenging entity, a telepathic field. It seeks out worlds in a state of disrepair, worlds that are bloated and dying and deepens that downward spiral. It gets into the head and heart of a species and makes it eat more, waste more and then moves onto the next planet. It’s intensely powerful, capable of suggestion, hypnosis and it can animate dead matter. The imagery in the last episode is powerful and terrifying; thousands of sleepers coming to life, animated human cadavers twitching and jerking to the purpose of the Corvis. Imagine the devastation the Corvis could achieve if it had access to the Doctor’s TARDIS? Death is necessary for life to play its part, and the Corvis is merely playing its part. I really like that the Doctor doesn’t see this field as a destructive force for its own sake but a part of life’s grand design.

Audio Landscape: There’s a beautiful reason given for the Doctor being armed with his recorder beyond fancying a tootle on it when things get tense – and it makes for a memorable moment of sound design. At first I thought it was an alarm, but my understanding of the second Doctor made the reality click immediately. Zoe is exposed to the starkness of space and it screams back at her, Wreck brings to life the stifling danger of space travel in dramatic style. Wait for the scene where Jamie is knocked the entire length of a corridor. The sound of the army ‘cresting a hill’ is memorable, you might just find yourself looking around to see if you see them approaching.

Musical Cues: There’s an eerie, minimalist score to the early scenes that really helped to capture the vastness of space and the terror of space travel. The mock-sixties music as the history of the Earth is released and the relics are uncovered was wonderfully evocative of the time.

Standout Scene:
By the end of episode two we’ve left the claustrophobic puzzle of episode one for more exciting fare with the TARDIS spat out into space and beyond the Doctor’s reach and the animated corpses of the colonists coming to life and attacking. This would have been made around the same time as Oxygen and it shares a similarly tense and oppressive atmosphere.

Result: The first episode couldn’t be more authentic in it’s season six-ness; just the three regulars in appearance, a focus on space travel and its dangers and a rogue robot proving both menacing and cute. I love how guarded the pacing is, introducing us to the setting in a thorough, atmospheric fashion. We’d be straight in with the crew of the World within the pre-titles sequence these days and lose so much of that unnerving atmosphere that classic Who could brew up in it’s opening nights. It’s pretty much the perfect episode one; capturing its regulars intelligently, brewing up a thick atmosphere (the sort of disquiet that Lisa Bowerman excels at bringing to audio), a vivid setting, danger and a terrific mystery to unravel. What fate could possibly have befalled the World, the first and largest colony ship to leave the Earth? It’s a much more interesting than usual guest cast that joins them in pulling apart the conundrum; Timothy X Atack has written in some really imaginative and unique characters that stand out from the usual bunch of humanoids that assist/hinder the Doctor in a base under siege adventure. You have a script that thinks through its setting and allows us to explore it in detail, so by the climax you have a good idea of the scale and technology of the World, even it’s decayed state 900,000 years past its best. There are lots of elements here that you have seen in other Doctor Who stories before; you could cobble together it’s ingredients from The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Wheel in Space, The Mind Robber, The Space Pirates, The Ark in Space and Oxygen. But it’s how those ingredients are put together that is so impressive, making up a terrific Doctor Who story that refines all the elements that makes the series fire on all cylinders (big ideas, claustrophobia, exciting set pieces, colourful characterisation, scary monsters and a marvellous villain). The Wreck of the World deserves extra kudos for taking it’s time with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, all three of which are characterised brilliantly and a massive thumbs up to Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury who both perform a double role and capture the spirit of this memorable and popular team so well. Because I objected to the Companion Chronicles being knocked out of a monthly release it really took me a while to come around to the idea of the Early Adventures. The extended length hasn’t always worked in their favour but the better examples have really used that extra time well to add layers of depth to the characters and formulate a more complicated narrative. This is one such example. The Wreck of the World is both an authentic nod to season six and a fantastic audio story in its own right. Spot on sound design too, I was very impressed: 9/10

Eighth Doctor Box Sets

Dark Eyes: The Great War: A confident, atmospheric start to the box set with a stop off at an often neglected period of history that is well suited to audio. The TARDIS materialises in a location that is packed with evocative sounds from gunfire and explosions to screaming steam trains and ghostly fog attacks. If there is one thing that is going to knock the Doctor out of the doldrums it is a supernatural mystery during a pivotal moment in human history. Paul McGann’s lust for the material is evident in his energetic performance and we manage to go on a fair bit of the Doctor’s journey (from near suicide to lust for saving lives in the space of an hour) in this first installment alone. What I really enjoyed about The Great War was how Molly’s introduction was a slowly achieved with the audience having very little clue that she is the Doctor’s latest assistant until the last few moments. Until then she is simply a bolshie, vivid historical character who aids him during his investigations and one who makes quite an impression by holding her own with him whilst still respecting his abilities. My initial reaction to the Daleks being wheeled out again by Big Finish was one of despondence so imagine my surprise when they barely featured and when they did turn up it was precisely when the story needed them. This is all set up so its hard to review as an individual piece but I was still very impressed by all of the individual elements that went into making The Great War work. Paul McGann re-energised, a strong new companion, an atmospheric mystery and plenty of vivid historical detail. Listening to this you can almost understand why Big Finish’s website went into meltdown when it was released: 8/10

Full Review Here:

Dark Eyes: Fugitives: This is still rather engaging but I do have some issues with the plotting of the piece. If you are going to go on the run from the Daleks in a Hartnell era style chase then you better make damn sure that your landscapes are as varied and as gripping as possible. Fortunately Any Hardwick is more than up to the task and each location is brought to life with absolute conviction and striking sound effects. If you wanted to expose the ability of Doctor Who’s format than Fugitives would be a great place to start as we hop from France in the First World War to the same point during the Second World War to England in the 1970s and finally on to an alien planet. The Doctor and Molly step from one dangerous situation to another which means the story is remarkably fast paced (it was over before I knew it) but also a little scatterbrained. It feels frustratingly like we are only seeing glimpses of much larger, more absorbing stories. I first listened to Fugitives whilst giving the garden a long overdue tidy and thanks to its brevity of fast moving sketches and its stunningly interactive soundscapes (I ducked at one point when a Dalek squad zoomed overhead) the work flew by like charm. Gripping vignettes for sure but the story feels all over the place with things being set up that have no relevance yet (Straxus’ suicide, the time machine at Baker St, the Daleks failing to kill the Doctor and Molly when they have the opportunity), many questions unanswered (especially surrounding Molly and the TARDIS) and there is no sign of the main villain of the piece doing anything relevant. Molly continues to impress, adjusting to the Doctor’s insane lifestyle with remarkable swiftness and frankness of character. Fugitives is part of a jigsaw and is in no part a cohesive piece of storytelling but with enough action and strong ideas thrown in the mix, it’s building a fairly appealing schizophrenic narrative. An awful lot of questions have been posed so I hope the answers are due: 7/10

Full Review Here:

Dark Eyes: A Tangled Web: ‘A war with the Daleks that wiped out the Time Lord? That is just about the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard!’ The first fifteen minutes of A Tangled Web gets down to the nitty gritty of explaining the story at the core of the Dark Eyes box set with Kotris stepping out of the shadows and the Doctor discussing the rawness of hope and how it has seen him through the worst of times. The former feels roughly thrown into the middle of the story to allow the conclusion to make sense whereas the latter proves to be an extremely thoughtful moment of self reflection. How Dark Eyes fluctuates like this between the handicapped and the genius baffles me. Unlike The Key to Time season but very like the Hartnell epics that skip from place to place, the actual settings that they are visiting are completely irrelevant. It’s the journey that is important. Those of you who are expecting each of the locations that the Doctor and Molly visit to have some part in the overall plot are going to be very disappointed – it’s the fact that they are travelling together that is the key. With that in mind it is the detail in these locations that counts and the trip to the city of affable Daleks is an absolute joy. Can you imagine anything more inharmonious than listening to the metal meanies giggling like mad and playing with children? Its during these scenes that A Tangled Web really comes alive, Briggs stretching his imagination and appearing to dare to reveal the fate of the Daleks long after the Time War. That it all turns out to be a massive con is disappointing and so is the some of the really ugly, clunking set up that is becoming continually more intrusive as the story progresses. Its frustrating because there is so much that is good in Dark Eyes and yet it is failing to cohere into a successful whole. For the twenty odd minutes with the gleeful Daleks however I could almost forgive anything and during this segment Paul McGann has never been better: 7/10

Full Review Here:

Dark Eyes: X and the Daleks: Trying to condense an entire series into a box set is an ambitious idea and one that should be applauded but falls down on two contradictory fronts; there isn’t the time to tell individual stories in enough depth so they wind up being unsatisfying vignettes and simultaneously the running time is far too long to tell one interweaving arc story because you are waiting too long for the answers and are disappointed by them because of it. Being practically the same format as Trial of a Time Lord it would appear that Briggs learnt nothing from its mistakes. Had the Molly O’Sullivan/Dark Eyes plot been one individual hour long story and not spread do thinly through so many other adventures it would have made for a gripping listen. And had some of the mini adventures been stretched to fill an entire CD (especially the 1970s and Dalek City stories) they would have made far more satisfying adventures. Trying to have his cake (to enjoy all the elements of a 13 part Doctor Who series in one four part box set) and eat it (trying to tell one epic adventure whilst conjuring lots of diverse adventures as well) is Briggs’ downfall here. The Daleks’ Masterplan might be sprawling portmanteau of ideas and adventures in the same vein as this but it has a dramatic drive and a taste for telling something truly legendary that is missing from Dark Eyes. There’s also the feeling that Briggs may have reached a dramatic peak with Lucie Miller/To the Death that comes with four years worth of build up and so this set, for all its agreeable elements, could never quite match up to it. I don’t want to step all over what has been achieved here because there is a great deal to like about this saga – Paul McGann brings the material to life with a rarely seen zeal, Molly O’Sullivan is more than a match for his Doctor and I will be campaigning for more adventures with this delightful companion, Andy Hardwick’s sound design is a work of beauty taking the audience on a trip around some startling audio landscapes and Nicholas Briggs proves that he isn’t short of ideas even at this stage in his Big Finish career with frozen waves, giggling Daleks, evil smog and the distant hammering of the Time War in the near distance all providing great moments. It has all the ingredients to make a delicious soufflĂ© but given the conspicuous plotting and underwhelming climax it never quite rises as high as it should. X and the Daleks runs around for the first half an hour, killing time doing nothing in particular and when the climax arrives despite there being some good concepts in evidence there is the feeling that the revelations are a little inconsequential for such momentous build up. Dark Eyes ends with four people in a room arguing about a plan that has been foiled before the Doctor even got involved. The Daleks’ Masterplan ended with a planet being aged to death and reborn with a companion being slaughtered in its wake. Perfectly diverting on its own strengths but not quite reaching my expectations, Dark Eyes needed another revision before reaching the studio. If nothing else this set introduced us to Molly and it is more than worth the expense of the set just to enjoy a spin around the universe with her: 6/10

Full Review Here:

Dark Eyes II: The Traitor: 'The Daleks think they can use her compassion as a way of increasing the efficiency of their workforce. They've done it before...' The first half of The Traitor is a very unusual experience insofar as I felt I was re-acquainting myself with the Dalek Empire series. A subjugated world controlled by the Daleks who are trying make conditions as pleasant as possible to ensure maximum efficiency with the aid of a human slave who everybody else considers a traitor because she is working with them rather than against them. And breathe. That is the basic set up for the first series of Dalek Empire. The second half of The Traitors reveals a plan to create a Dalek super weapon in their quest for supreme power. Just like in Lucie Miller/To The Death. We are reaching Terrance Dicks levels of self plagiarism here. Not only that but the first half has very little of what you could grab hold of and call a narrative, it is a series of events that is setting the scene but not a lot actually seems to happen until we are racing towards the conclusion. Fortunately Nick Briggs' has afforded himself plenty of opportunity to show off in the directors chair and a lot of this material is enjoyable anyway simply because it is so immersive. Shut your eyes and sit back and you really wont have any trouble imagining what is happening. It is extremely well realised. However, I do not listen to Doctor Who audios to be swept away by a bombardment of ambient sounds, I enjoy them because the better examples are fantastic stories that stretch my imagination and take me somewhere exciting and thought-provoking for a time. The Traitor is rehash of Briggs' old work and not an especially inspiring one, adding little to the mix to differentiate itself and following a predictable pattern of events. I'm not sure if something this traditional was ideal to open this box set but now that box has been ticked we can move on to something more novel. Condensing Dalek Empire series one into a single release might have felt like a good idea in theory but in practice it loses much of Briggs' signature ranges nuance and dramatic power. I wasn't bored because there is a momentum to the events (and the acting is superb) but I wasn't engaged either: 5/10

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Dark Eyes II: The White Room: A jigsaw of a story and one which has some lovely constituent elements but fails to cohere into a complete picture. Quite a lot has to be known going into this story for it to even begin to make sense; especially about Molly, where she comes from and the whole situation with her dark eyes. That's before we even get to the actual plot of this beast of a tale which juggles an alien race known to regular followers of Big Finish, a mad scientist dabbling with viruses, an alien bacteria that plays havoc with time and a great big time bomb that threatens to wipe everybody away. It's messily plotted for sure because the opening 20 minutes seems to keep stacking more and more unwieldy elements on top of each other and it isn't until a lengthy wrap up close to the conclusion that it all ties together and begins to make any kind of sense. Once the explanations are in place it is quite an enjoyably conceived tale but you should never have to work to the point that it is a chore for something to start to cohere. It seems to come from a completely different box set to The Traitor and you could be forgiven for thinking that you have put in a disc from a completely different release. How all these tales will come together is a mystery. Complaints over, what about what works in The White Room? Molly O'Brien. She's been refined slightly (she's less bossy and more quick to observe and theorise) and it is such a pleasure to have her back. I hope she sticks around this time. The Viyrans always were a terrific audio presence and they work just as well in the early days of the 20th Century as they did in the far future. When these two elements come together, this story sings. There's also some temporal jiggery pokery which raised an eyebrow of interest and a dramatic resolution that sees the Doctor inadvertently puts the Earth in danger of being destroyed by a Viyran incendiary device. This is one script that feels like it needs to go through one more re-write to make the first half a little less scattershot and unwieldy. Because if it had been simplified this would have been a tasty instalment of the Dark Eyes trilogy (if one that is based a little too much on co-incidence) that re-introduces the magnificent Ruth Bradley back to the party: 6/10

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Dark Eyes II: Time's Horizon: Hurrah! Opens like a regular Doctor Who story with the Doctor and his assistant drawn to a mystery in an intriguing setting packed with well drawn characters. If that sounds crushingly dull then I am doing Time's Horizon a disservice because the fact that it plays out like a traditional Doctor Who story (and a good one at that) is one it's biggest strengths. Continuing the Trial of a Time Lord theme, it is the third story in sequence which works best as a standalone adventure despite having threads that will continue on into the rest of the set. Fitton remembers to give this adventure a self contained narrative outside of its arc elements. With them appearing in three different eras now (Doctors four, six and eight), the Eminence are starting to make something of an impression and are exactly what I have been asking for quite some original race of monsters that make the same impact as all the returning baddies that Big Finish (probably for marketing and sales purposes) are obsessed with reusing. They are far nastier here than they were in The Seeds of War with the focus on extreme body horror and injecting them into a claustrophobic setting that adds a great deal of tension to events. The combination of the Doctor, Molly and Liv works very well and hope they both stick around for the next Dark Eyes set. Ruth Bradley and Nicola Walker have extremely good, brassy chemistry and it would be a shame not to exploit that further. I don't want you to think that this is some kind of Doctor Who masterpiece, it is ultimately a strong spaceship under siege story but has no ambitions beyond that. However on those terms it is (once again) vividly directed by Nicholas Briggs and dramatised by a man who has frequently ticked all my boxes of late. Matt Fitton understands that we need to get to know the characters if we are to care about them and that the threat has to be invasive rather than just conceptual. He also seems to have a firm grasp on the Eminence and gets the opportunity to scribble in some of their back story in Time's Horizon. He even has a couple of surprises up his sleeve in the last third. I really enjoyed this instalment, I just wish this was how the Dark Eyes II box set had begun: 8/10

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Dark Eyes II: Eyes of the Master: Eyes of the Master manages to be both electrifying (drawing together lots of plot elements from previous stories in a very dynamic way) and anti-climactic. It is clear from the conclusion of Dark Eyes II that this is going to be one enormous narrative that continues until the range comes to an end because there is no climax to be found in here, just a pause in the action before the next set picks up the story again. Saying that, this seventies pot-boiler is really rather tasty; successfully continuing the Dark Eyes story and bringing together all the characters from this set in an entertaining way, hinting at the Time War to come and dragging plot points in from all of the Eminence stories to help make this as ambitious a story as possible. The best parts of Eyes of the Master feature Paul McGann and Alex McQueen coming together and delivering huge gulps of exposition in a way that only two seasoned pros who are very comfortable with their characters can. The self-contained narrative isn't exactly life changing, merely window dressing for the more epic elements of the Dark Eyes story to be hung on but a lot of the ideas that are presented (why the Master has been resurrected, the Eminence gaining dominance because the event of the first Dark Eyes set, the significance of Molly) are exciting. I can imagine that the overall Dark Eyes storyline will be a marvel to listen to in order and perhaps the ultimate experience in serial storytelling for Doctor Who. Dark Eyes II has gone to some lengths to correct some of the problems I had with the initial set (the stories can be listened to in their own right to a certain extent, Molly's character has been softened, plot elements such as the Ides Institute that seemed to be superfluous in the first box set have been adequately explained) and despite my problems with the first two stories this has proven to be a more enjoyable experience overall. Nick Briggs has delivered typically sterling direction and I must compliment Wilfred Acosta's on his stunning sound effects and music which have kept my interest ticking over even when the stories have (at times) been lacking. Let's say I am cautiously optimistic heading into the third Dark Eyes set. I hope Briggs can deliver something a little more original and Barnes irons out his crazy plotting but one thing has become abundantly clear going forward - Matt Fitton's contribution should be a given after producing the most impressive pair of adventures here. All three seem to have a good idea of where the story is heading and there are lots of little hooks that are tempting me on (not least the impressive cast they have assembled). I hope it can live up to its promise: 8/10

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Dark Eyes 3: The Death of Hope: Part One of The Master Adventures. No wonder Paul McGann can't quite keep the irritation out of his voice. It's a clever, backdoor way of showing what a Master series might be like and with Alex McQueen playing the leading role it looks like it would be a delight to listen to. Regardless of the fact that they are in a set and all written by the same person I will be reviewing these pieces independently as they all have their own titles. The Death of Hope is all set up and prompts about the events of the first two series with hints of what is to come. As a story it certainly has more meat on its bones than The Traitor, which opened the previous set, mostly because of the Master's involvement and how Fitton waits until the last possible moment to reveal his true plan, stringing out the tension. There's not a great deal to discuss because so much of the impact of this story will depend on how it is followed up. Heron's world is nicely sketched in, it's populace represented by a handful of nicely drawn characters but I can't say I was overly concerned about their fate. Had this been a world that I was intimately acquainted with it might have made more of a difference. It's the Master that rises out of this story triumphant. He has achieved his aim but we still don't know how he plans to apply his newfound ability. I can't wait to find out: 7/10

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Dark Eyes 3: The Reviled: I asked for a more robust story for part two of this saga and I was not disappointed. Matt Fitton is one of those rare Big Finish writers that comes along that ticks every box to make a story work - he has ear for memorable dialogue, he never forgets about his characters, his stories are complicated enough to engage but not too ungainly to be able to follow, he adds little details to a setting that make them more memorable than they would have been and he has a way of stirring up drama without cheating the audience. The only time I think he has failed to achieve one of these essential ingredients is when exhausted or failing story elements are forced upon him (Signs and Wonders). When he is left to get on with something original, he always delivers the goods (The Wrong Doctors, Return of the Rocket Men). For Dark Eyes he has been handed a great shopping list of ingredients and none of them are his own creations (The Master, The Eminence, Narvin, Liv, Molly) and yet he rises to the challenge of bringing all these elements together in a way that feels fresh and invigorating, for each of the individual elements and for the Dark Eyes story. There's a dramatic focus to the saga in this set that comes from one writer taking responsibility for all the stories and having a clear direction of where it is going. With The Reviled, Fitton gets to explore the conflict that is taking place and the effect it is having on the 'little people', how so many powers are trying to influence this war that those in the trenches are the ones that are suffering. The Doctor emerges as something unique because he is the only person that isn't trying to exploit the colonies, he's the only one that is trying to help them. It seems that no matter what he does to try and warn them, to protect them or even to intervene with their kidnap the victims of the humanity/Eminence war will always end up under somebody's thrall. It certainly makes for an exciting final fifteen minutes when the Master pulls off a deceptive coup. It's quite bold to snatch victory from the Doctor like this when he is already feeling vulnerable and it brings out an intensity from Paul McGann that quite took my breath away. It's time the rival Time Lords finally ran into each other, I think there will be a few choice words to say: 8/10

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Dark Eyes 3: Rule of the Eminence: A bizarre story and a disappointing climax to what has generally been the strongest Dark Eyes box set. After listening to this I get the same feeling that I used to when Russell T. Davies was racing towards the culmination of one of the four and a half seasons he plotted. Seasons dropping intriguing hints and building in elements that cohere wonderfully in the penultimate episodes (The Sound of Drums and The Stolen Earth are possibly my favourite episodes of their respective years) and promising one hell of a dramatic conclusion. And then nothing. Or nothing as impressive as I was expecting. Dark Eyes 3 feels like that. Like it had real confidence in its various plot elements (the Master, the Eminence, the war) and explored them all in dramatic circumstances whilst pulling them all in the direction of The Rule of the Eminence where they should have dovetailed beautifully and brought the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. But it kind of feels as though all the juicy stuff has been dealt with (the Doctor/Master therapy session was the highlight of the set) and this is merely a box ticking exercise to get the story where it needs to be for Dark Eyes 4. It doesn't help that the titular focus of the range has been sidelined so spectacularly throughout these four instalments and so giving Molly such focus now seems like a distraction. More of an administrative exercise than a piece of drama; the Master's plan is revealed and he's not up to anything original, he's defeated and the war is brought to an end. But all of this is done in a perfunctory way without much in the way of drama, sacrifice or desperation. The technobabble catalyst at the conclusion was the biggest shocker and perhaps the greatest indication that this arc has lost its heart at the last hurdle. Perhaps hanging a 16 story arc on retrogenitor particles was a mistake: 4/10

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Dark Eyes 4: A Life in the Day: What's this? Gentle character drama and jokes? Have I wandered in on the wrong Dark Eyes? Liv Chenka exhibiting a little personality and good humour and the Doctor enjoying his adventures once again? Please don't mistake my general good mood after listening to this for a statement that this is the pinnacle that this serial can achieve because when all is said and done the plot for A Life in the Day is little more than a run-around with some time spillage thrown in for good measure. It is the tone of the piece that excites. Gone is the suicidal atmosphere of the third box set and in steps a general joi de vivre that is like a soothing massage after a really hard day in the office. They needed to give the Doctor a reason to live after the events of To the Death but the previous Dark Eyes sets took him on a path of self destruction that dragged some of least impressive performances out of Paul McGann. He's a funny sort of actor because it seems he can make or break a production depending on his mood. If he's disinterested then there is a good chance that you might be too at the end of the story (The Creed of the Kromon, The Last) but if he is enjoying himself you will be dragged helplessly into the world of the eighth Doctor in fugue of excitement (Grand Theft Cosmos, The Chimes of Midnight). This definitely a case of the latter so whilst the script isn't anything particularly challenging I still grabbed ahold of the Doctor's coattails and enjoyed my waltz around wartime London. Minus points? The repetitive nature of Beth Chalmers voice, the unpersuasive romance subplot and obvious culprits behind this madness. Don't go in expecting an intellectual piece but dive in headfirst if you are looking for some much needed fun in this extended serial: 7/10

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Dark Eyes 4: The Monster of Montmartre: Delightfully atmospheric, seductive and quite bonkers, this might be my favourite instalment of Dark Eyes to date. Gone is all the severity and pretension and the fun strikes like an arrow to the heart. Had the series been whipped up into this kind of spirit of adventure from the off I would have been chomping at the bit for more box sets. Did the writers of the previous sets look at what they had previously produced and decided to jazz things up exponentially or is this the John Dorney influence again, turning something that is only party working into gold. Dark Eyes I was a bizarre portmanteau of ideas that was perfectly entertaining but didn't really hold together as a whole, the second box set started out in the doldrums but improved in its second half and the third set took a razor to its wrist in taking the Doctor to some dark places with the Master but falling to pieces at its conclusion. The emphasis in the fourth set is to return to the jolly spirit of old whilst still keeping ahold of the elements of previous sets and it is by far the most effective approach yet. This is one of Matt Fitton's most accomplished scripts to date, up there with The Wrong Doctors and Masterplan. He's taken what is essentially another run-around and packed it full of character and life, opportunities for great sound design and some truly macarcbre imagery. One of the delights of Doctor Who is that it indulges in the perverse art of juxtaposing elements that would never come together in any other show. Navarinos in Butlins. Schoolteachers and giant ants. 'Only in Doctor Who...' has become a phrase not to bury the show but to praise it. I can't think of many audio tales that delight as much as this one in lashing up such disparate elements but the net result is something quite enchanting, if utterly bonkers. I thoroughly enjoyed it: 9/10

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Dark Eyes 4: Master of the Daleks: '...the plan can enter its final stage!' Effectively a dance between the Master and the Daleks, the third instalment of Dark Eyes 4 is complete fan fiction but sparkling with wit, intelligence and smart ideas. It's plot heavy and unwieldy with elements from the previous sets elements but John Dorney throws in so many wonderful scenes of character interaction and some genuinely giddy ideas that I just went with it and enjoyed myself immensely. The chemistry between the Master and Liv was so entertaining that I found myself wanting to advocate a box set where they travel as companions. I don't know how sustainable it would be but if it was scripted this sharply it would certainly be worth a listen. This nightmarish vision of the future concocted by the Master and the Dalek Time Controller is worth a round of applause too, quite different from anything that we have ever seen of this kind before. If only the Doctor was on as sparkling form as everybody else instead of behaving like a drunken reveller for the most part this might have rated even higher but after two stories where he seems to have found his joi de vivre Paul McGann is lost at sea again in a story that doesn't seem to know quite what to do with him. It almost feels as though the story needs to pause for an hour and so the Doctor is surplus to requirements but as soon as it is ready to progress again he snaps out of this intoxicated fugue and prepares himself for the final confrontation. For scheming machinations of the Master (McQueen is simply exquisite in this) and the Daleks, this is a strikingly different type of story (although it is more of a bridge between tales with too many bright moments to mention than a story) that favours the villains over the heroes: 8/10

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Dark Eyes 4: Eye of Darkness: 'History is being forged around us!' And so Dark Eyes comes to an end not with a culmination of 16 stories worth of material but a manipulative and technobabble laden piece. The first half of this story feels like you have stepped in to the second half of a narrative without first hearing the first half, it rather takes a lot for granted without explaining a great deal. It feels like it wants to bring the saga to a conclusion just because rather than because this is where it has been leading. The Eye of Darkness is a bizarre experience, not the sort of epic madness that Big Finish usually attempts when bringing a long running story to a close but more of a box ticking exercise with lots of things slotting into place quite neatly. Frankly I think the former approach might have been more appropriate given the insane portmanteau of stories that has come before this. This set should be aiming for a To The Death style climax, something shocking and unforgettable but instead it drowns in technobabble (since when has Doctor Who ever relied on scientific jargon over narrative satisfaction?) and absurd (rather than shocking) twists. Is this really what the Dalek Time Controller has been attempting to attain the whole time? To become the consciousness of the Eminence? Did it really have to go to such long winded efforts to achieve what is essentially a very simple task? I was expecting something more somehow. So what to make of this Dark Eyes experience? Has it been the best that Big Finish has to offer? No, it has been far too bloated, unfocussed and disjointed for that. But has it been a unique experiment taking in a myriad of locations, characters, big, bold ideas and a chance to show how immersive the audio experience can be with Big Finish Productions? Absolutely. I would recommend a listen because it gave Paul McGann some unique opportunities, it introduced us to Molly O'Sullivan and Liv Chenka (who after some ironing out turned out to both be fine companions), it revelled in the use of the delightful Alex McQueen Master and because it gave the Daleks a brand new barking mad figurehead in the Dalek Time Controller. No matter how scattershot and crazy the plotting might have been, these characters kept the whole thing bubbling along a enjoyable to listen to. However it has fallen at the last hurdle during the last two sets leaving a bad taste in the mouth, a damp squib of an ending where a rousing finale was required: 4/10

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Doom Coalition 1: The Eleven: Gallifrey and I have had an on/off relationship over the years. When introduced in The War Games I thought it was the most terrifying place that the Doctor could possibly visit and The Deadly Assassin re-invented the world as a gripping, political nightmare. But stories such as The Three Doctors and Arc of Infinity revealed how badly the Doctor's home planet could be represented if the writers imaginations and the budget failed to rouse to the occasion. The Gallifrey audio series yo-yoed between offering stunning political drama and tedious parallel world tedium and the novels took it upon themselves to blow it up long before the television series. It's been a chequered history. Matt Fitton proves without doubt that there is definitely room for fascinating stories still to be told on this world as long as the ideas have weight and the characterisation grips you from the outset. The Eleven is a superb Gallifrey based tale that completely restores my faith in setting further adventures here, which surely is a must given the appetite whetting upcoming War Doctor series and given the eighth Doctor's adventures are going to segue into the Time War. What we have here is Paul McGann fired up at the beginning of a brand new epic, paired with a companion that brings out the best in him and butting heads with a villain who dazzles with interest and is brought to life by an actor who imbues the part with serious menace. The Eleven is a man who is literally tearing himself apart from inside, whose hate and rage comes from an insane psychological instability of eleven voices talking all at once. He's an astonishing character and manages to wreck havoc on Gallifrey in a relatively small time. Let loose in the universe, the Doctor is on his tail and now the chase is on with have our ongoing narrative for all four stories. I guess that is the only complaint I can make about The Eleven, is that by it's very nature of being a 16-part story this instalment is all set up with no hint of a satisfying conclusion in sight. The story just sort of ends. It's a piece of the puzzle but a what a stellar piece it is, gripping throughout and featuring extremely vivid performances: 9/10

Doom Coalition 1: The Red Lady: 'She's here...' Coloured me impressed. Remember I said that Paul McGann seemed revved up at the beginning of a brand new epic in my review of the first instalment of Doom Coalition, well wait until you hear how engaged he is with the second piece of the puzzle. I can only think of two times when he has blazed quite this brightly before, in the height of the Charley Pollard days (throughout most of season two) and when the Lucie Miller stories kicked into high gear (series four). There was no part of Dark Eyes where I felt he was this impressed with the material he was presenting. The build up of suspense surrounding The Red Lady is so expertly handled and John Dorney delivers a humdinger of a climax, one of his finest. And anybody with even a passing interest in his work will be able to quantify that statement. The titular piece of art is a dangerously compelling image, one that will lure you in and seduce you to your last breath. It's an marvellously creepy notion that provides some moments of cold sweat of the kind Big Finish hasn't knocked out in a while. I'm not sure how it ties into the overall narrative but as a standalone story to introduce Helen Sinclair you really couldn't ask for more. Hattie Morahan makes a fantastic impression as Helen, initially skeptical but smart enough to know when the Doctor is right and then able to step in and help to save him and Liv at the conclusion. Doom Coalition has completely revolutionised the eighth Doctor range. The first two instalments have been near perfect in themselves. providing some thrilling material and a terrific new team of regulars. But what has impressed me the most has been the confidence, the life that has been injected back into the range. Dark Eyes was sporadically brilliant but it rarely had this kind of assurance. I'm eager to hear where this story is going and for more adventures with the Doctor, Liv and Helen. That's a great feeling: 9/10

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Doom Coalition 1: The Galileo Trap: Sometimes a writer and a story fit like a glove. If you were to lay out the names of the most prolific Big Finish writers (and there are nine or ten of those) and told me to identity the writer most suited to writing a story about Galileo I would have immediately chosen Marc Platt. His Doctor Who is always more intellectual and less about putting across an action movie on audio. It makes a nice change to listen to something with a little more substance than usual and this is a massive departure from the more typical Doctor Who run-around (which despite being very good examples of the first two stories of this set were). I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this piece, walking around in history and soaking up the sounds of Renaissance Italy which were expertly handled by Wilfredo Acosta. Shut your eyes and imagine you are there. The pacing is deliberately sluggish so you can savour the atmosphere and sample the delicious dialogue and the gentle character work done with Helen and Liv is lovely. It starts much better than it ends because the latter half drops the sightseeing in favour of the plot, which isn't going to set your world on fire but it does have a few tense moments. If you didn't like Point of Entry or Paper Cuts also by Platt then this might not be for you. It has the same sedate pace, attention to detail and rich character work as those stories. I loved them both so this was precisely my poison and after an exhilarating dash on Gallifrey and a creepy horror it pushes the Doom Coalition series into another direction that really shows its diversity. It's not perfect by any means but it is another winner in what is turning out to be a consistently strong series: 7/10

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Doom Coalition 1: The Satanic Mill: 'Witness the rise of chaos and the rise of the new universal order!' Yes, I'm afraid that's how tedious this set ultimately turns out to get. Astonishingly poor, the first half of The Satanic Mill is confused, rambling and probably some of the least engaging material I have heard in some time. It reminded me of Excelis Decays, a tedious location, lots of electronic warbling and not a great deal of explanation or character. Given where the Doom Coalition box set started that is quite a nose dive in quality. The Eleven has gone from being an astonishing concept to a ranting villain who chews the scenery at every opportunity. It appears that his psychotic persona gets most of the air time and dishes out empty threats as a matter of course. There is a great deal of work to be done to salvage this character in the second box set. Even with the weaker scripts that he is handed Ken Bentley's direction is usually enough to provide some level of entertainment but it feels as though he has done as little as possible to The Satanic Mill to make it an enjoyable experience. The sound design is uncomfortable to listen to, there isn't much of a score and it sounds like he has left the actors in the booth to get on with it whilst he works on another, more important, story. This is the last story of the first box set, the culmination of where this has been head and the stepping stone to the second. It's possibly even more important than the introductory tale and yet it feels as if everybody has had enough at this point. Even the regulars sound less enthused. Edward Collier really couldn't make a dazzling idea for a location sounds more boring. The economic synopsis promised much but the story itself delivers so little. The Eleven's plan is ultimately very boring, reliant on tedious Time Lord technobabble to bring a grandiose scheme to fruition. He's just a poor substitution for the Master after all. I fail to understand how this sort of thing can transpire, where a dazzling new eighth Doctor box set can kick start with such a leap in the air and then fizzle away to a limp stumble at the conclusion. Surely the script editor could have coaxed something more engaging out of Edward Collier than this? I'm always moaning about the lack of new writers at Big Finish and to their credit they have taken a punt. Perhaps I should have shut my mouth: 2/10

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Doom Coalition 2: Beachhead: Short, sweet and comfy. When was the last time we enjoyed a nice traditional Doctor Who adventure with the eighth Doctor? No, I can't remember either. Beachhead might be part of a large whole but it stands alone as a nice reminder of the types of stories that the Doctor universe excels at, an Earthbound location, a few reasonably well drawn characters and an alien plot. You're not going to find your world turning upside down when you listen but in a range that has favoured big, complicated arc storytelling over smaller, more intimate tales this is a quite a refreshment. A breather, let's say. and who do you turn to when you are looking for a good, old fashioned Doctor Who romp? Briggs is perfectly suited to this kind of story and delivers a really nice script with lots of opportunities for atmospherics. I always think he sees a story through a directors eye, even if this is one of the rare times when he is not taking on that job himself. Ken Bentley is the in-house director these days and he does a confident job with this. The plot is slight (so much so that the villains of the piece barely appear) and so the atmosphere and performances carry us through. Sometimes it is nice to just kick back and let Doctor Who give you a glorious massage without having to tax your brain too much...Beachhead is like your first round of therapy in a spa. I felt very comfortable listening to it. For once the fact that this is easy and unchallenging is a Godsend. Enjoy it while it lasts: 7/10

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Doom Coalition 2: Scenes from Her Life: There is a frisson about this story, a feeling of excitement. It feels different. John Dorney sites Gormanghast as one of his inspirations despite never having read it before. He was aiming for the tone of the piece, that surreal, gothic, disquieting atmosphere. I got more of a sense of The Doctor's Wife from the early scenes, disturbed characters abusing other characters, a fantastic setting and a sense that something is very amiss. Given how The Doctor's Wife is basically TARDIS porn, this was quite an apt comparison. There is also a feeling of Paradise Towers about the story, of a complex infrastructure that has been perverted and left to rot and the inhabitants coping as best as they can with the mess. I like how the focus is much more on the situation playing out rather than seeing the story all from the point of view of the Doctor and his companions. It makes the central narrative feel more important than usual, more attention grabbing. Sometimes when a story plays out and it feels as though the Doctor isn't needed (Planet of the Ood for example) it is simply the writer failing to give him a central role. This isn't the case at all here, the Doctor is a vital component. He's just not the only vital component. These Doom Coalition tales seem very suited to their hour long format too, you can feel these puzzle pieces starting to come together to form a larger picture but each segment is proving delightful in it's own right. As a full length main range adventure the punchiness of this story would be stretched out and it would lose it's strength to knock you for six. At a pacy 60 minutes, Scenes From Her Life delivers a heady mix of high concept and strong character work. Never running out of steam, effortlessly slipping the Eleven back into the mix and reminding us again of what a strong TARDIS team this is, I wanted to applaud before the end. The last ten minutes are especially dramatic: 9/10

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Doom Coalition 2: The Gift: One of the delightful things about Doom Coalition as a whole is its diversity, its willingness to play about with different styles and genres. Every story feels very different to its neighbour and that contrast provides a healthy reminder of one of the main joys of Doctor Who - it's willingness to tell any kind of story. Dark Eyes might have been ambitious but each set did have a certain uniformity about it that meant if you didn't like the tone of the piece, you were kind of stuck with it for four hours. The Gift plays out like a disaster movie of sorts, with the Doctor in the unfortunate quandary of having to save the day otherwise the location where he will regenerate in 93 years time wont ever have existed. I hear that can put a serious crimp in your life. It's one of the most crisp and clear Marc Platt scripts for quite some time, clearly he has been given some notes of details to include but he manages to weave them into a gripping tale of a curse that has blighted San Francisco and has been gathering momentum for some time. All roads lead to the earthquake and when it comes it is a truly remarkable audio experience with some serious consequences for the characters. Amongst all the drama, Paul McGann is a mesmeric presence, his Doctor not being this captivating since his earliest audio adventures. How these stories are blending into each other is seamless, one plot point taking us from one independent story to another. I have a feeling David Richardson and Ken Bentley know exactly where they are taking us with Doom Coalition and that is an exciting feeling because with each story the arc is gathering real momentum. Often the journey is more exhilarating than the destination but just this once I have real confidence that this is heading somewhere spectacular. The Gift was thoroughly enjoyable and with it Doom Coalition is become the highest scorer in any Doctor Who line in some time: 8/10

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Doom Coalition 2: The Sonomancer: 'The universe needs your silence!' Matt Fitton commits to an exotic alien world, not always a successful enterprise in Doctor Who but with Ken Bentley to back him up Syra comes to life like a fully established setting that will continue to thrive long after the events of this story are forgotten. To have two stories set on Earth and two set on out there locations has given this set a really miscellaneous flair, much more successfully than the first set (mostly because of the realisation). Atmospherically, I almost had a bit of a Star Wars: A New Hope vibe about the story, which was exciting for Doctor Who. River makes a decent first impression in a Doctor Who audio drama, driving the story for a certain amount of time and certainly less abrasive and self-righteous than she can be in the hands of her creator. Alex Kingston has a natural audio presence and it certainly bodes well for more appearances with other classic Doctors. It's also a firm encouragement for me to explore her box set that is sitting on my shelf. Something I have been resisting for some time. So, a decent setting and decent characters...what about the plot? Meh. Probably the weakest the set if I'm honest. The ideas are good but the journey to explore them seems a little confused and cluttered. After the very engaging second and third episodes this was a bit of a letdown in the entertainment stakes. Let me be clear, it doesn't drop the ball in the same way that the first set did but I am starting to get the unfortunate impression that as whenever the Eleven makes a reappearance in the flesh (he only appeared in flashbacks in the last story) the quality of the material takes a bit of a nose dive. The Eleven has failed to live up to his potential as a truly arresting villain with a psychological angle. Fitton set up his character so well in his introductory story, I've been waiting for another writer to truly get under his skin and see what makes him tick. But he has either been ignored entirely or treated as another raving villain, albeit one that has a number of silly voices at his disposal. Technically he could be the most chilling bad guy we have ever heard. To me though he just seems to be the villain of diminishing returns. It's not a terrible story because it has a lot of fun elements that make it worth listening to (Helen is a bit unmemorable but it is a fantastic story for Liv) but it is just a little underwhelming as a climax to this set. Caleera is dealt with and the Eleven achieves his aim but it feels more like a box ticking exercise rather than a natural extension of the stories that came before it: 6/10

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Doom Coalition 3: Absent Friends: Unnerving, emotional and effective, this is a perfect character tale that enhances Helen Sinclair and Liv Chenka exponentially. I have one major problem with Absent Friends and that it is that it has very little to do with the Doom Coalition arc that it takes place alongside. Since this is one of the best stories yet, that is a bit of a problem with the overarching narrative but it is not a problem for Absent Friends, which stands proud and alone. The first two thirds are almost overly simplistic in plot terms and we actually don’t learn an incredible amount more than is revealed in the pre-titles sequence. But it is packed to the gills with useful character development for Helen and re-affirmation at just how effective the Doctor/Liv partnership is. The last 20 minutes is where all the gold lies though, a triple whammy of emotional scenes for each of the regulars. Helen facing her brothers anger is the most obvious but still the rawest scene, Liv’s phone call comes right out of the blue and winded me and the Doctor facing up to his voice from the past is kept agonisingly secret until the very last second of the story. In the plot dense period of Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, character development can be pushed to the side-lines but Absent Friends makes up for that in spades and shows just how rounded these regulars are. More than that it is an audio that doesn’t use any cheap tricks to get you close to its characters and impresses due to its delicacy. Appropriately, Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan give their most effective performances to date too. Absent Friends wont present you with dazzling science fiction but it will creep inside you and make you feel. Who ever knew that a ringing phone could be so terrifying: 10/10

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Doom Coalition 3: The Eighth Piece: ‘Bumbling around time as though it’s a bric-a-brac shop!’ Diversity seems to be the keyword in the Doom Coalition set as an intimate, intense character drama is followed by a chaotic, sprawling time puzzle of a story. The Eighth Piece sets up an intriguing premise; hunting the pieces of an ominous time device through the earth’s timeline. But the emphasis is definitely on set up, with no resolutions and the debate rages on whether this should be considered a story in its own right or the first half of the story that concludes in The Doomsday Chronometer. Absent Friends essentially honed on the three regulars and studied them penetratingly, The Eighth Piece jettisons any hope of studying them in favour of dropping them off in separate time periods and swallowing them up in plot. I know which approach I prefer. I don’t mind plot heavy Doctor Who, but my method of surviving the rapids of the complex narrative is to grab the hand of the characters and experience it through their eyes. If the plot is simply a tidal wave that crashes into the regulars, I can’t keep hold of them and we’re both lost in its wake. The narrative is nowhere near as coherent as it needs to be, and it is still unclear how it fits into the overall Doom Coalition narrative. It’s starting to feel like The X-Files mythology, god knows what the overarching story is, but the individual elements are quite fun. Raving madmen, River Song nunning it up, living puzzle boxes, horsing about, a huge time piece collection, knowledge of the end of the world… Imagine each of these elements like rocks, constantly being added, but with nothing to carry them in. I was overwhelmed by ideas, incident and revelations, with no reason to care about them. Where is the Eleven? Why is River included if she has to be written out with magic wand technobabble? Who are the Doom Coalition? The narrative of the doomsday chronometer (the device, not this instalment) is assembled with great care, each piece given a story of its own. When a plot device is given such luxurious priority over any one of the characters that are trying to figure out it’s construction, I think the story needs a rethink: 4/10

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Doom Coalition 3: The Doomsday Chronometer: Much more satisfying, but with the trade off once again being a weight of plot elements obscuring any chance of character development. The answers come thick and fast throughout and it’s possible to think of all this as entertaining exposition but given the denseness of the Doom Coalition arc it is a relief to see it starting to streamline and make sense. I really enjoyed how early instalments of the Doom Coalition series are brought up and have impact on the story. It feels less of a bunch of incoherent pieces but more like a slowly forming narrative. What The Doomsday Chronometer also has in spades is a snappy pace and a great sense of fun, I bounced from scene to scene enjoying the journey very much. You’ve got a likable cast of regulars bringing this story to life and whilst they aren’t being stretched in a great direction, they make the revelations that this story throws up an exciting experience. It’s huge ideas all the way from secret Time Lord groups up to nefarious activities to ashes of dead worlds being used to create a doomsday device; grandiose, exciting, and hugely over the top. Doctor Who melodrama at it’s most epic. The last fifteen minutes are desperately exciting as the clock is finally allowed to count down towards doomsday and everything leads towards an unforgettable cliff-hanger. I’m still very positive about this sixteen-part narrative, despite a few stumbles along the way. The batting average has been well above average and in parts, truly sublime. This instalment has the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the character development of a stone but it’s hugely engaging despite that and promises big things for the future. This energetic adventure more than makes up for the previous hiccup: 8/10

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Doom Coalition 3: The Crucible of Souls: ‘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

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Doom Coalition 4: Ship in a Bottle: 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

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